Happy meal

An Unteroffizier looks happy, carrying lunch in the form of a plate with meats and some fresh white bread in his helmet. The photo appears to have been taken in France in 1940. The young NCO is equipped with a pair of Zeiss 6×30 binoculars and a map case. An M24 Stielgrenade can be seen in his left boot – it was rather common to carry the “potato masher” that way, even if this is the only photo I own showing this practice. He could be a combat engineer, but it’s hard to make out any details on his shoulderboards. Anyway, the food he might have procured from the farm in the background was a welcome break from the standard Army fare.

Advertisements

Life’s a beach

France 1940. Some German soldiers enjoy the nice summer weather, getting a tan on the beach. In the pile closest to the camera can be seen an officer’s cap and a map case. The location is unknown, but it could be somewhere north of the mouth of the Seine. While peaceful after the Germans occupied half of France, the beach would be fortified with bunkers, gun emplacements, pillboxes, barbed wire, minefields… The troops tasked with guarding the coastline where second line units with almost no motorization, and the soldiers usually a bit older or with health issues that made them unfit for service on the harsh Eastern Front.

For four years, occupation duty wasn’t too bad. Unless pestered by la Résistance, access to the black market and those French women who had an eye for German soldiers made service in France way more preferable than on other fronts. That changed in June 1944. Those troops that weren’t killed or captured joined the hasty retreat to the relative safety across the Seine.

Such bleak prospects weren’t on the minds of the men in the photo. For all they knew, the war would probably be over in a few months when the British would see reason and accept a ceasefire. That things were to become more complicated was hinted at when they got their orders to deploy east to the German-Soviet border in the spring of 1941. The summer of 1941 probably saw the soldiers in the photo far from any coast, marching across the western parts of the USSR. Life’s a bitch…

A chip off the old Bloch

“Wir fliegen gegen Engelland mit einem abgeschossenen Franzose.” “We fly to England with a downed Frenchie.” German soldiers have fun with a grounded Bloch MB.210 bomber, summer of 1940. The prototype of the boxy and unappealing MB.210 first flew in 1934, and the first production aircraft in 1936. It was underpowered, the engines prone to overheating, and had to have the engines exchanged. Less than 300 were built, ten of them sold to Romania. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, the twelve bomber squadrons equipped with the MB.210 were in the middle of reorganization, where outdated aircraft were to be retired. The slow aircraft saw some action, primarily as a night bomber, but by the armistice there were only 119 flyable aircraft left. The Romanian air force used it on the Eastern Front, but appears to have retired the surviving aircraft in 1942. The Bloch MB.210 is a testament to the rapid development of aircraft in the 1930s. Planes that were state of the art in the beginning of the decade were obsolete by the end of it, and when the war broke out, the development was sped up even more. World War 2 was a period of rapid technological advances.

“Now you see me, now you don’t”

German officers are sight-seeing along the Maginot Line, summer of 1940. The strange-looking fortification is a pop-up turret housing a 75 mm cannon. The idea was to provide as small a target as possible, raising the turret when the gun was ready to fire. It was part of the massive line of fortifications and bunkers along the Franco-German border, intimidating enough to deter any German frontal assault. It is said that generals fight the last war, but it is more a question of what conclusions they draw from it. The French didn’t want a repeat of the grueling trench war of 1914-18, so they aimed at stopping the Germans on the border by building static defenses. The Germans didn’t want a repeat either, but their solution was to become more mobile. With hindsight, it was obvious: if there’s an obstacle, you take an alternate route. The French military planners counted on Belgium and the hilly, heavily forested Ardennes to protect their northern flank, and that the large army would be mobilized in time and ready to fend off the smaller German army. Unfortunately for France, the Germans didn’t want to play by their rules…

We know the result. The Maginot Line was bypassed and only saw some action when the fate of France was already sealed. It was used by the Germans, and after WW2 some of the fortifications became command centers. It was finally abandoned in the mid-1960’s. By then, nuclear weapons had become the new deterrent.

Manoeuvre_tourelle

How the pop-up gun turret worked. Source: Wikipedia.

No room for the rubber duck

Taking a bath in the field can be a challenge. Anyone who has been in the army, or even just gone hiking, can attest to that. Rinsing off the sweat, dirt and dust after a long march is one of the great feelings one can experience as a soldier. This German soldier, a guy named Albert Schneider, must have a talent for contortionism, as he has managed to fit into a small tub in order to freshen up. It’s a miracle there’s room for the water… The location of the tub is near Dunkirk in northern France, the time late May or early June, 1940. Perhaps he’s singing “In my Bathtub I’m the Captain”, a popular song from 1937, while making his ablutions. I know I would.

 

The battle is over, but there is no peace save for the dead.

Jean Lallé. Joseph Perrot. Pierre Chassin. For them and eight more French soldiers, not only the Battle of France is over, but also their lives. On 25 June 1940, France capitulated after 46 days of war. 85,000 soldiers had been killed, an average of over 1,800 per day.

I found some personal details on one of the soldiers, Joseph Perrot, buried in the third grave from the left. He was born on 30 June 1912 in Doubs, Franche-Comté (in south-eastern France). Joseph was the sixth of seven siblings, the third son of Jules and Emma Perrot. An older sister born in 1910 died the same year he was born, but the other children survived into adulthood. His father was a livestock trader. After completing school and his military service, he most likely found a job, perhaps in his father’s business, and could marry Valentine Estelle Roux in 1935. The young couple appears to have had no children. Joseph’s regiment, the 60th Infantry Regiment, was mobilized when Germany attacked on 10 May 1940. It was sent north to the front with the rest of the 13th Infantry Division, but despite their best efforts, Joseph and his army friends in the 2nd Company were killed in a battle near the village of Bergicourt in Picardie, south-west of Amiens. Their division had contributed to the success of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, by slowing down the German advance. Joseph Perrot died just 23 days before his 28th birthday. He is commemorated on a monument to the war dead in La Chenalotte.

People with little knowledge of WW2 in general and the Battle of France in particular make fun of the French effort. “Their tanks had one forward gear and four reverse gears.” “What is the first thing the French Army teaches at basic training? How to surrender in at least 10 languages.” And so on, ad nauseam. Ha bloody ha. The failure of France to withstand the German invasion was mainly due to a command and communications structure that couldn’t cope with the more flexible German approach, plus the overreliance on the Maginot Line, the line of fortifications the Germans circumvented by attacking through Belgium. The British should be the last people to poke fun at the French, as French soldiers bought time with their lives while the Brits slunk away across the Channel. “The Miracle at Dunkirk” hadn’t been possible unless French units had slowed down the Germans, and they were enough of a threat to the German flank to make Hitler issue the order to stop the advance.

Less than 22 years after WW1, which cost France over a million dead, there was another national trauma. Think of soldiers like Joseph Perrot, and honor them by not telling stupid jokes about their perceived lack of bravery.

Lost in the mists of time

A 21-cm-Mörser 18 fires a 113 kilogram grenade during the Battle of France, 1940. The back of the photo has a note saying “In Frankreich 1940 1./736“. This give a clue as to the identity of the artillery unit, which appears to be the first battery of the schwere Artillerie-Abteilung 736 (mot). The motorized heavy artillery battalion was an independent unit, as were the other 140 heavy artillery battalions in the German army. While “Mörser” translates as “mortar”, the gun is actually a howitzer; Mörser was the designation used by the Germans for howitzers of 20 cm caliber and greater.

The 736th is an obscure unit. It was raised on 10 December 1939, and originally equipped with captured Czech howitzers, but just a couple of days later it got the 21-cm-Mörser 18 instead. As evident, it took part in the Battle of France in 1940, then in 1941 it fought in the USSR as part of Army Group Center. It probably surrendered to the Red Army in 1945. That there’s little known about many units isn’t unusual. Records, war diaries and other documents were lost during or after the war. Some were destroyed before a unit surrendered, while those that fell in enemy hands could end up in some archive, were they became promptly forgotten. This poses a challenge to historians, to say the least.

In my search for information, I came across just one individual associated with the unit. A Hauptmann (Captain) Walter Wreth was awarded the German Cross in Gold, a medal ranking between the Iron Cross 1st class and the Knight’s Cross, on 14 July 1944. It’s possible that he’s identical to a Walter Wreth born in 1915, and who passed away in 1982 in Bremen. While three other soldiers with that name died during the war or in captivity just after the war, none of them were of the correct rank.

So, this is probably the only photo online featuring the schwere Artillerie-Abteilung 736. That says something about how frail the historical record can be.