Near the Desna River in eastern Ukraine, July 1941, a couple of soldiers belonging to Army Group Center take a look at a ditched Soviet 152 mm howitzer-gun M1937 (ML-20). The ML-20 was one of the most successful Soviet artillery pieces of WW2. Its characteristics positioned it between classical short-range howitzers and special long-range guns. Like so many other Red Army guns left behind, this one will probably be pressed into German service, designated as 15,2-cm Kanonenhaubitze 433/1(r).
The photo is interesting as it makes me wonder who the guy who took it was. On the back of it is pencilled: “Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum” (“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”), a line from psalm 133. The combination of education and irony appeals to me. Did his erudition and wit see him through the war, or did he end up beneath a birch cross somewhere in the depths of Russia? If so, which psalm was sung over him in the church back in his home town? Or did he return after the war to pick up his civilian career? So many questions, so little answers…
Some photos can be puzzling. I looked at it and thought “What the hell is that?” Well, for starters, it isn’t a blunderbuss, but a Canon d’Infanterie de 37 modèle 1916 TRP. The flared muzzle is a flash suppressor on the rapid-firing 37 mm infantry support gun. Originally a French weapon, it was used by the US Army in World War 1 as well as some other nations, and saw use by both the French and the Germans during WW2. At a weight of 108 kilos, it wasn’t that mobile. It was crewed by two soldiers, gunner and loader. When loaded on a limber, it could be pulled by a horse. Anyway, one of the more obscure weapons, which was identified by the knowledgeable Mr Yan Taylor on Axis History Forum.
When the Panzerabwehrkanone 40 was introduced in 1942, the 7.5 cm caliber anti-tank gun provided much-needed firepower against enemy tanks. A trained crew of eight could fire 14 rounds per minute. It’s quite possible that it’s the gun crew sitting on that barrel. The soldier on left wears the elite Infanterie-Division Groβdeutschland cuff title on his sleeve and the “GD” cypher on his shoulderboards.
During the Battle of Narva, 3 March 1944, the Flemish Waffen-SS volunteer Remi Schrijnen was a member of a Pak 40 crew. When his comrades were killed or knocked out by enemy fire, he single-handedly took out eleven Soviet tanks. He was found wounded and unconscious the next day, but recovered and was awarded with the Knight’s Cross. Remi Schrijnen survived the war.
Below is a short video clip of a Pak 40 being fired. As evident, the blast is quite powerful.
A Luftwaffe anti-aircraft crew is manning a Flak 30 2 cm caliber automatic AA gun. “Flak” is an abbreviation of Flugabwehrkanone, anti-aircraft cannon, which became a word for intense criticism after US Airforce personnel had to endure the harrowing experience of getting shot at during the bombing raids on Germany. It also lives on in “flak jacket”, a vest designed to protect against fine caliber fire and shrapnel.
A few years ago, I met an old man, Hans, here in my home town, who had crewed one of those guns. The son of a German father and Swedish mother, he grew up in Hamburg. The city was the target of several air raids, the most severe claiming the lives of 42,600 people in a firestorm that reduced humans to shrivelled puppets. He was transferred from the Flak 30 battery to a battery equipped with the (in)famous “88”. They were later deployed outside a city in occupied Poland known as Auschwitz. Their task was to protect an industrial area, but he told me that they were close enough to the extermination camp to see people moving around inside the barbed wire fences. Hans has hated war ever since, and has talked in schools about his experience.
Whether the three men in the photo survived the war is unknown, but their chances were better than if they had been in the direct frontline. Did they talk about the war after it ended, or did they do like so many veterans and kept silent about it?