Killing field

At first glance, it seems like this PzKpfw IV Ausf D has just taken up positions at the edge of the field outside Monceaux in Aisne, France, May 1940. It might belong to the 6. Panzer-Division. Then one can spot the tell-tale signs of a tank that has been knocked out. The rubber on the road wheels has been completely burned off, there’s debris on the engine covers, and the wooden cleaning rods for the gun barrel have burned, too. The gunner’s hatch on the left side of the turret is open, which might indicate that he escaped, but the other hatches are closed, which could mean that at least four of the crew were killed. The tank probably fell victim to an anti-tank gun or another tank. This is one of the 97 PzKpfw IVs lost in the Campaign. It was probably salvaged and repaired, seeing action in the Soviet Union a year later, manned by a new crew.

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Maas Effect

May, 1940: motorcycles, probably of a Kradschützen-Bataillon (“motorcycle rifle battalion”) belonging to a Panzer-Division, cross the Maas river on ferries built by the divisional combat engineer battalion. The Kradschützen were used for reconnaisance, able to range fast and far on their sidecar motorcycles. Later in the war, they were upgraded with armored cars.

Maas (or as it is also known by in French: Meuse) is a river that runs through France, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was a major hurdle for the German armies attacking on 10 May, 1940. Where they didn’t manage to capture bridges intact – in some cases through coup de mains by Brandenburg commandos – they had to assault across the river in rubber dinghies, sometimes under heavy fire.

Fast forward 4½ years. The Germans launch another offensive – the last major one – in the Ardennes. Crossing the Maas/Meuse was the first step towards the port city of Antwerpen and the objective to cut the Allied front in half. A German unit managed to come within sight of the river, but that was the furthest they got during the Battle of the Bulge. The Wehrmacht of 1944 – bled white after five years of war – couldn’t achieve what it did in 1940. Hitler’s Reich was done for.

Beached

The wreck of the French destroyer L’Adroit lies beached just outside Dunkirk, summer of 1940. L’Adroit (“the skilful one”) was built at A C de France shipyards at Dunkirk. She was laid down on 26 May 1925, launched on 1 April 1927 and completed 1 July 1929. She was in action during the first months of WW2, and was involved with the evacuation of the British and French forces from Dunkirk. On 21 May 1940 she was critically damaged in an attack by German Heinkel He 111 bombers. Captain Henri Dupin de Saint-Cyr beached the ship near the commune Malo-Les-Bains (part of Dunkirk and just a few kilometers from where she had been built).

Her magazines were crammed with ammunition. The French sailors, braving the danger, tried to offload the munitions before the fires which had broken out on board ignited them. Eventually, they were forced to abandon ship. When the fires reached the magazine, the resulting explosion severed the bow forward of the bridge. Miraculously, all of her crew were saved and they were used to man the shore batteries protecting Dunkirk until the surrender. All crewmembers survived.

Edited to add: The wreck of the L’Adroit is so iconic that it was used in the background of the movie poster for “Dunkirk” (2017).

The wreck of L’Adroit can be seen for a few seconds at 47:27 in this documentary.

One of millions

German soldiers are sight-seeing in Paris in the summer of 1940 after the victory over France. They have gathered around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is situated beneath the Arc de Triomphe. The remains of an unknown French soldier, chosen from eight “candidates”, was moved to the Arc on Armistice Day 1920, and interred in its final resting place on 28 January 1921. It has the first eternal flame lit in Europe since the fourth century. It burns in memory of the war dead who were never identified.

A ceremony is held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every 11 November on the anniversary of the armistice signed by the Entente Powers and Germany in 1918. The slab on top bears the inscription ICI REPOSE UN SOLDAT FRANÇAIS MORT POUR LA PATRIE 1914–1918 (“Here lies a French soldier who died for the fatherland 1914–1918”). After the interment of the Unknown Soldier, all military parades have avoided marching through the actual arch. The route taken is up to the arch and then around its side, out of respect for the tomb. Both Hitler in 1940 and de Gaulle in 1944 observed this custom.

Did they think of fathers and older brothers, who had fought the unknown French soldier? Did they reflect over their own mortality? Did any of the soldiers in the photo end up in war graves, or go missing in combat? The dead aren’t bothered by such thoughts; it’s the living who are worried about dying without fulfilling their lives.

Wehrmacht European Tour 1940

“Saarbrücken”, “Boulogne”, “Calais”, “Langemark”, “Dünkirchen” (Dunkirk), “Ipern” (Ypres), “Zeeland”… The names painted on the 9.7 ton Sd.Kfz. 7 towing a 15-cm schwere Feldhaubitze sFH 18 tells of the campaign in the West. I haven’t been able to identify the artillery battalion or regiment the howitzer and its crew belonged to. Artillery units are usually only mentioned in passing, and remain largely anonymous despite their importance on the battlefield.

The 15 cm caliber heavy field howitzer could lob a 43.5 kilo grenade 13 kilometers, making it useful for softening up enemy positions prior to assaults. Soviet artillery could fire at greater ranges, which put the sFH 18 at a definite disadvantage in case of counter-battery fire. At 5.5 tons, an artillery tractor like the Sd.Kfz. 7 was useful in moving it, but it could also be pulled by a team of horses. The gun crew rode in relative comfort, the halftrack being spacious enough to hold their personal kit, as well as the ammunition for the howitzer. In case of rain or snow, a canvas roof could be erected.

The gun crew in the photo probably travelled eastwards in 1941, attached to or part of a motorized division. Did they end up in the Courland Pocket, in the destruction of Army Group Center, or were their unit wiped out in Stalingrad? It’s impossible to know, but one thing is pretty sure: that road trip in the summer of 1940 was probably a fond memory once the harshness of the Eastern Front became evident.

“Would you like to come for a ride in my little tank?”

A German Kradmelder (motorcycle dispatch rider) sits on a captured French Renault UE chenillette (“small tracked vehicle”), a freshly painted German Balkenkreuz slapped on it to show who the new owners are. The chenillette was a light tracked armoured carrier and prime mover produced by France between 1932 and 1940. Its development was decided in 1930, as there was a need for a light armoured vehicle able to tow and supply light guns and mortars. In 1931 the Renault company was given the contract, and eventually over five thousand were built, becoming part of the standard equipment of all French infantry divisions. Most Renault UE vehicles in French service were unarmed, only the last version being armed with a machinegun, making it a “tankette”.

It was a very small vehicle, just 280 centimetres long, 174 cm wide and with its highest point at 125 cm. Its cargo carrying capacity was rather limited at about 350 kg. The Renault 85 38 horsepower engine provided it with a road speed of 30 kph. As it was such a low vehicle, the heads of the two-man crew were protected by two armored hoods. Those had vision slits, but the field of vision was rather limited. In the tradition of sometimes idiosyncratic French engineering, the two crewmen, separated by the engine between them, couldn’t communicate directly when the armored hoods were down. There was no internal radio set or even speaking tube fitted; instead, a system of white, blue, green and red lights was used by the commander to direct the driver.

The chenillette was mainly allocated to the regular infantry regiments. Their primary function was to provide frontline positions with ammunition and other necessities, especially if those were under artillery fire. The light armour was sufficient to stop shrapnel and rifle rounds. The Renault UE could carry or tow about 1000 kg of supplies – 350 kg in the cargo bin and 600 kg in a trailer. For longer distance moves, the chenillette would be normally loaded on a truck. Each infantry regiment had nine Renault UEs, and the divisional antitank company had three, making for a total of thirty vehicles in an infantry division.

The Germans had captured about 3000 chenillettes in the Battle of France. Most were employed unmodified as the Infanterie UE-Schlepper 630(f) for the 3.7 cm, 5 cm, 7.5 cm and 7.62 cm anti-tank guns, as well as a tractor for light and even heavier infantry guns. They were also used in their original role as munition carriers, and some were converted to self-propelled guns, with a German 3.7 cm Pak anti-tank gun fitted on top of it. A late modification from 1943 was the UE fitted with four Wurfrahmen 40 launchers for 28 or 32 cm rockets.

The little tractor saw some use in the post-war French army, but it was eventually replaced by more modern vehicles.

Living in style

The boys in Propaganda Company 612 sure knew how to live in style when not driving around in the French countryside, writing stories about the victorious campaign for German newspapers and magazines. This chateau somewhere outside the small seaside town of Yport on the Channel coast became their billet in the summer of 1940. The owners were probably living in a few rooms in one of the wings, while the rest of the castle was occupied by the Germans. A year later, they were part of the 9th Army during Operation Barbarossa, writing new stories about the successes against the Red Army. I imagine that as the war progressed and the tide of war turned against the Germans, it became increasingly harder to put a positive spin on their stories.

The occupation was experienced in different ways depending on where you lived and your social class. The cities and bigger towns saw a lot Germans compared to the countryside. In 1942-43, the occupying force was about 100,000 soldiers, many of them older reservists as a lot of manpower was needed on the Eastern Front. Of those, some 40,000 were stationed in Paris. France was also a place where worn-down units were sent to rest and refit, training new recruits and preparing to return to the inferno back east. For Frenchmen in the cities, the German presence was more apparent, and rationing made life hard. People in the countryside, on the other hand, could go for weeks without seeing a single German, and being close to sources of food production (and the thriving black market) made it easier to deal with the food rationing.

A small percentage was active in the resistance, and fully-blown collaborators weren’t that common, either. Most people tried to get by without having to deal with the Germans, but it was inevitable that some contact took place. Those who had to house German soldiers probably felt resentment, but seeing the same people every day led to familiarity, at least. It was more common for working-class women to strike up relationships with German soldiers, some driven by need (many French men were prioners of war in Germany), others by opportunism, and some by genuine love. When the Germans were forced out of France in 1944, many of those women became the target of self-righteous wrath, and not seldom abused by people who themselves had kept a low profile for four years, or even profited from the occupation.