Bottom of the barrel

A 10,5 cm schwere Kanone 18 has suffered an internal explosion, completely destroying the field gun. “But isn’t a gun supposed to be able to take an explosion? After all, the charge firing the grenade is pretty strong”, people might object. Yes, but there can be several reasons for a barrel getting destroyed like that. One is intentional destruction, “spiking the gun” in order to deny it to the enemy in case you have to abandon your position, but haven’t got the time or means to take the gun with you. There were even special charges for that (Sprengpatrone Z), made for different calibers. Another reason could be a worn barrel, but there were shot counters that were used to keep track on how many rounds had been fired so the barrel could be replaced in time. Still, a production flaw, like a miniscule crack or small impurity, could lead to a catastrophic failure. A third reason could be the grenade going off or getting stuck right after the charge has been ignited. While the gun breech can take the force of a blast, the barrel itself isn’t thick enough to withstand the force of an explosion. It could be really messy for the gun crew; if they were lucky, they got away with just the shock, but the blast and shrapnel could just as well maim or kill them. There’s no hint of the fate of the crew manning the gun in the photo. For their sake, I hope they survived to tell the tale in their letters home.


“Verdammt! Was nun?”

A narrow dirt road, a soft road shoulder, a 10,5-cm leichte Feldhaubitze 18 weighing some two tons ends up in the ditch. No way the 17 soldiers will get the howitzer back on its wheels and hitched to the limber again. They’ll have to wait for a half-tracked tractor to pull it right. The body language of the artillerymen tells that they realise that there isn’t much they can do. Or is it? We will never know how they got the gun back on the road. One or two of the men in the photo might still be alive. They’ve seen things ordinary people wouldn’t believe. Tanks on fire in the fields near Kursk. They’ve watched tracers glitter in the dark in the Korsun Pocket. All those moments will be lost in time, like snow in the spring. Too few are still alive.

Howitzer on ice

A serene scene, a column of 9.7 ton Sd.Kfz. 7 artillery tractors towing 15-cm schwere Feldhaubitze sFH 18 howitzers through a fir forest, the boughs laden with snow. One can almost hear the idling engines, muffled by the trees. But there’s a hidden danger… The sign warns of Glatteis – black ice – which the tracked vehicles don’t have any greater problem negotiating, but which the towed guns might have. Without snow chains, the hard rubber tires might skid if there’s a sharp turn, and 5.3 tons of hardware could end up in a ditch… What would that look like? See tomorrow’s post.

Target acquisition

Two second lieutenants practicing with a Maschinengewehr 34 light machine gun, the two junior officers having the dubious pleasure of lying down in the snow. The weapon isn’t loaded yet; the loader rests his arms on two ammo drum carriers, each holding a pair of drums with a 75-round belt each. The drums were used while assaulting, whereas an ammo can with 250 belted rounds was used for more sustained fire. The loader holds a pair of Zeiss 6×30 binoculars for observation of the target.

The development of the MG 34 began in 1930, as there was a need for a machine gun that was lighter than e.g. the MG 08/15. While named “MG 34”, the weapon wasn’t adopted by the Wehrmacht until January 1939. It was a multi-purpose MG, which could be used with the integral bipod in the light mode, or with a sturdy tripod in the heavy mode. There was also a tripod for anti-aircraft use, and it was the standard machine gun for the majority of the armored vehicles

The MG 34 weighed 12.1 kg with its bipod, with a fire rate of 900 rounds per minute, using the standard 7.92 x 57 mm rifle round. The practical rate of fire was 300-400 rounds per minute, as the barrel would get too hot otherwise. The barrel could be changed in seconds, though. The effective range of the weapon was 2,000 m, but in theory it could be used for indirect fire at up to 3,500 meters. Germany entered the war in 1939 with 84,078 MG 34, and it remained the principal MG until 1943.

The problem with the MG 34 was that it was too well made. In the harsh winters on the Eastern Front, the finely machined parts were susceptible to jamming if the temperature got too low. Dirt and mud were other causes of jamming. The production of the weapon used a lot of raw materials (49 kg), and it took 150 hours to make. The Army saw the need for an MG that was cheaper and easier to produce (using stamped metal parts), and with tolerances that allowed for greater reliability in battlefield conditions. The answer was the iconic MG 42, which used 27.5 kilos of raw materials and took 75 hours to produce. This increased the output from 3,000 MGs per month in the fall of 1941 to 24,000 MGs in early 1944.

The MG 42 is still used in many armies of the world, only marginally updated, while the MG 34 is found in museums. Well, perhaps not just museums… Next time you watch a Star Wars movie, you can see that the DLT-19 heavy blaster rifles used by the Imperial stormtroopers are modified MG 34s.

No lack of targets

The crew of a 10,5-cm leichte Feldhaubitze 18 (10.5 cm light field howitzer), Eastern Front, probably late winter, 1942. As I wrote in a previous post, the gun was primarily a howitzer, but it was also used as a stop-gap solution to the lack of anti-tank guns powerful enough to take on Soviet armor. The 7.5 cm PaK 40 AT gun was introduced later in 1942, and until then, the leFH 18 filled the role as best as it could.

On this day in 1941, the temperature on the Moscow front fell to −37° C (−31° F), further inhibiting the German advance. Weapons and vehicles didn’t work, supplies couldn’t be brought forward, and soldiers froze to death in their summer uniforms. In their arrogance, the planners of Operation Barbarossa thought that the campaign would be over before the advent of winter. They had underestimated the number of Red Army divisions, were unaware of the new, superior Soviet tanks, and calculated that the supply situation would be solved through living off the land. The latter meant that there were no food set aside for prisoners of war, and that soldiers had to plunder food from Soviet peasants, resulting in the starvation and death of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens. When the gamble didn’t pay off, the Germans were stuck with a war they couldn’t win.

Artillery in high places

A group of Gebirgsjäger looking at a 7,5-cm-Gebirgsgeschütz 36 L/19,3. The elite mountain rangers were rated as light infantry, as they couldn’t bring heavy vehicles or weapons with them in the mountains. What couldn’t be carried by the men had to be carried by mules, and that meant that heavier weapons must be able to be broken down in smaller loads. The 7.5-cm mountain gun 36 L/19.3 was developed between 1935 and 1938 by the arms manufacturer Rheinmetall, and introduced in 1940/41. It was a welcome addition to the arsenal of the Gebirgsjäger units, as it provided firepower in places where every advantage was needed and regular artillery couldn’t reach.

The 7,5-cm-Gebirgsgeschütz 36 soon became the standard weapon of the mountain artillery due to its good ballistic properties in both low and high trajectories, and was used by light mountain batteries until the end of the war. The 750 kg gun could be pulled by a couple of mules, or broken up in eight loads weighing 80-116 kilograms to be carried by mules with special pack saddles. It was served by a crew of five, and could fire six to eight 6 kg shells a minute up to 9.250 meters. The guns were used in batteries of four guns each.

Big game hunters

German troops trudging through driving snow, protected by Zeltbahn shelter halves worn as ponchos. The soldier in the middle is carrying a Panzerbüchse 39 (PzB 39), an anti-tank rifle used to knock out armored vehicles. Several countries used AT rifles, but as their principal targets became increasingly heavier armored, they were of limited use. The concept of AT rifles originated during World War 1, and as long as tanks and other armored vehicles sported thin armor, the idea was valid. A 1939 German rifle company was equipped with three PzB 39, at least in theory; shortages in production meant that only 568 PzB 39 were used by the German army in the invasion of Poland.

Two years later, at the beginning of the war against the USSR, 25,298 PzB 39 were in use by German troops. They could take on light tanks like T-26s and BT-7s, but KV-85s and T-34s (which the Germans didn’t know existed) were tougher nuts to crack… Total production from March 1940 to the cessation of production in November 1941 was 39,232 rifles.

The overall length was 162 cm, and the weight was 12.6 kg. It fired a 7.92 mm armor-piercing round. 25mm armor penetration was effective out to 300 meters. To increase the practical rate of fire, two cases containing 10 rounds each could be attached to the sides of the weapon, closer to hand for the gunner. A fold-out bipod steadied the weapon. The PzB 39 remained in use until 1944, by which time it had become hopelessly inadequate against all but the lightest armored vehicles.