About to head out

A group of lieutenants going through orders. Platoon commanders in what appears to be a mounted unit – reconaissance, most likely – (riding breeches, boots and spurs hint at that), there’s little that gives any hint about time or location, The lack of medals makes me think it’s during the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa, though. The second guy from the right carries a captured Soviet PPD-40 submachine gun.

The PPD (Pistolet-Pulemyot Degtyarova) was developed in 1934. It was adopted by the Red Army in 1935 and entered production as the PPD-34. Made in small numbers, it was mostly issued to the NKVD, foremost to border guards. Slightly modified in 1938, it was re-designed after the Winter War with Finland (1939-40), adopting a copy of the Finnish 70-round drum magazine (71 rounds in the Soviet version), thus becoming the PPD-40. After the German invasion in 1941, it was soon discovered that the PPD-40 was less than ideal for wartime production, so it was quickly replaced by the more inexpensive and easier to produce PPSh-41, the iconic SMG of the Red Army. The PPD-40 was a first generation submachine gun, and an indifferent weapon useful mainly for the large magazine capacity.

It was rather common among troops to use captured enemy weapons, as long as there was access to captured ammunition stocks. The officer to right in the photo carries the MP-40 (or MP-38) he was issued. One advantage of using a captured weapon is that it doesn’t give away the shooter as an enemy due to the sound, which might give an element of surprise. On the other hand, it might also confuse friendly troops…

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This is my rifle, this is my gun…

Recruits cleaning their Mauser Karabiner 98 kurz rifles, probably before 1939 as the rifles have neither the sight hoods, nor the cupped butt-plates adopted in 1939 and 1940, respectively. The Kar98k was the standard rifle of the Wehrmacht, with a staggering 14.6 million made between 1935 and 1945. It was a is a bolt-action rifle chambered for the 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridge, and was adopted in 1935 as the standard service rifle by the Wehrmacht. It was one of the final developments in the long line of Mauser military rifles, and is regarded as one of the best bolt-action rifles of all time. Although supplemented by semi- and fully automatic rifles during WW2, it remained the primary service rifle until the end of the war.

It was in February 1934 that the Heereswaffenamt (Army Weapons Agency) ordered the adoption of a new military rifle. The Karabiner 98k was derived from earlier rifles, namely the Mauser Kar98b, which in turn had been developed from the Gewehr 98, the standard German rifle in WW1. Just like its predecessors, the rifle was noted for its reliability, great accuracy and an effective range of up to 500 metres with iron sights. Its internal magazine could be loaded with five 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridges from a stripper clip or one-by-one. The straight bolt handle found on the Gewehr 98 bolt was replaced by a turned-down bolt handle. This change made it easier to rapidly operate the bolt, and reduced the amount the handle projected beyond the receiver.

While the Americans had standardized the semi-automatic M1 Garand in 1936, the Germans kept to the bolt-action Kar98k due to their tactical doctrine of basing a squad’s firepower on the machine gun. The role of the rifleman was largely to carry ammunition and provide covering fire for the machine gunners. All German soldiers trained on the Kar98k in basic training, and while they didn’t stress markmanship like the British, or rate of fire like the Americans, the Kar98k served them well throughout the war. While they introduced their own semi-automatic rifle (the Gewehr 43) and the world’s first successful assault rifle (the Sturmgewehr 44), those were produced in less than 900,000 units total, the Kar98k was the mainstay of the German Army.

Sweden adopted the Mauser system in 1896, and the “Swedish Mausers” are held in high regard for their high standard of manufacture and precision. Using a 6.5 mm caliber round, it differs in some minor ways from the German Mausers, but it is a prominent member of the Mauser legacy.

A ditched gun and a puzzle

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 few answers…

Bad-ass blunderbuss

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.

Leader of the Pak

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.

In plane sight

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?