Big badaboom

It looks harmless enough on the ground, but the SC 1000 (Sprengbombe Cylindrisch 1000 – cylindrical high explosive bomb) was the heaviest of the common bombs in use with the Luftwaffe (there were heavier bombs). Weighing in at just a little over 1000 kilos, the bomb was filled with a mixture of 530-620 kilos of amatol and TNT, depending on sub-type. Another version, used against merchant shipping, contained a different mix of explosives intended to cause fires on top of the blast damage. There was a variety of fuses, from impact fuses to delay fuses and time fuses.

The SC 1000 was delivered by Heinkel He 111s, Dornier Do 217s, and Heinkel He 177s. Undetonated bombs are occasionally found more than 70 years after they were dropped, requiring defusing and controlled destruction.

Defusing bombs is a delicate task, and takes skill and nerves as demonstrated in the clip below.

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Under new management

An airfield somewhere on the Eastern Front during Operation Barbarossa, summer of 1941. Some Junkers Ju 88s are parked on the edge of the field, most likely getting prepared for the next mission. There’s a placename scrawled on the back of the photo, but it was hard to see what it said. Luckily, some of the members of the Axis History Forum (nichte, history1, and GregSingh) could help me, and it appears like the airfield is one of the nine outside Minsk in Belarus which were used by the Germans. The previous owners have been evicted, leaving just the mangled wrecks of biplanes, probably destroyed on the ground on the first day of the offensive. The Soviets lost about 2,000 planes on that first day, a devastating blow to the USSR’s airforce.

The Germans captured Minsk four days later, so it’s possible the photo is from the end of June 1941. Both Soviets and Germans usually operated from grass airfields, bases with concrete runways being somewhat of a luxury. A Ju 88 needed at least 530 meters for take off, so the field above appears to be sufficient. The periods of mud in autumn and spring presented a problem, though, making it harder for take off and landing. Many planes were lost because of the mud, adding yet another danger for the aircrews on the Eastern Front.

Looking for Private Ryan?

This photo is a recent acquisition, part of a small lot of photos from Norway. I took one look at it and thought: “That looks like France” – the countryside is decidedly not Norwegian. The thing that really tipped me off was the helmet carried by the guy on the right, which sports the camouflage paintjob seen on helmets worn by troops stationed in Normandy. Then I flipped the photo, and saw a scrawled note on the back with “Caen” in it. Bingo! Further analysis of the photo makes me pretty sure that the soldiers belong to a Luftwaffe Field Division, things like the cap worn by the soldier on the right, and the belt buckle on his comrade on the left. That, and the location, tells us that only one unit can come into question: The 16. Feld-Division (L).

The 16. Luftwaffen-Feld-Division was formed in December 1942 by the XIII. Fliegerkorps. It was transferred to the Heer (Army) in November 1943 and redesignated 16. Feld-Division (L). It was deployed in the Hague-Haarlem area of the Netherlands as an occupation force. In June 1944, the division was sent to Normandy under the control of Heeresgruppe B and deployed in the front lines on 2 July. The British launched an offensive the day after the division arrived and by late July, it had been effectively destroyed in the defense of Caen. The division was formally dissolved on 4 August 1944, its remaining infantry allocated to the 21. Panzer-Division, while other elements were used to resurrect the 16. Infanterie-Division. (More on the Luftwaffe Feld-Divisionen here.)

Some more observations on the guys in the photo: the one on the left has a leather map case, binoculars (probably 7×50), a magazine pouch with three magazines for his MP 40 (not visible), and a helmet possibly painted with a mix of dark yellow paint and sawdust (to reduce glare). His colleague wears a Zeltbahn as camouflage, 6×30 binoculars, and probably an MP 40. Both are NCOs, as there are no rank insignia on the sleeves.

Speaking of Normandy and the Allied landings there, this year marks 20 years since the premiere of Saving Private Ryan, the epic war movie directed by Steven Spielberg. Regarded as one of the great war movies, I’m not quite as impressed by it. While there are some powerful scenes in it, like the brilliantly staged beach landing, the movie has several weak spots. I’m not going to nit-pick on trivia like the fact that there were no Tiger tanks in the American area of Normandy by the time the action takes place, but I’ll address problems with the plot.

The basic premise of the movie is that it is discovered that all brothers Ryan are killed or missing in action around the same time. Mommy Ryan receives all the telegrams just a few days after the D-Day landings. By that time, most of the airborne units were still struggling to organize themselves after being scattered over a large area. In real life, it would’ve taken many days, if not weeks, before it would’ve been apparent that Private Ryan was indeed MIA. In the movie, the rescue operation is launched just a few days after D-Day.

One pivotal scene is when Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) decides that it’s important to knock out the German defenders of a damaged radar installation. The squad charging uphill against a machine gun position, the medic, Wade, is mortally wounded. Miller had a crack sniper, Jackson, in his squad – why not take out the MG crew at a distance? Or just bypass the Germans, as they weren’t a threat? The whole scene is just a way of introducing the surviving German soldier, “Steamboat Willie”, and setting the stage for the final scenes.

After finding the right Ryan, the surviving members of the squad (plus some airborne troops) are pitted against crack Waffen-SS troops in the fight for the fictious town of Ramelle. The Germans make just about every tactical mistake they could make; even considering the state of German troops by that time of the war, they wouldn’t have assaulted a town like that. Anyway, in the fighting, most of the squad meets a sticky end, including Captain Miller, who is shot by “Steamboat Willie”. “Willie”, who was let go by Miller earlier, and who has been picked up by the SS unit, clearly doesn’t know who he’s firing at. The interpreter, Upham, kills “Willie”. This is one of the morally ambigious problems with the story. Was Miller wrong to let “Willie” live? Should they’ve killed him straight away, the only good German being a dead German? Spielberg didn’t think this through, obviously.

Upham and Ryan are the only survivors, and the final scene has an aged and tearful Ryan by the graves of Miller and the others, surrounded by his family. Seven men died so he could live. Was it worth it? Mommy Ryan got one son back, and he apparently raised a fine family, but seven other mothers lost their sons, men who never got to form families and raise their kids. The movie leaves that question open, but I for one find that it’s debatable whether it was worth the sacrifice. The whole plot feels contrived, but at least Spielberg and Hanks got the inspiration to make “Band of Brothers”, that most excellent mini-series.

Christmastime watch

A Luftwaffe private stands guard in a serene winter setting. It can’t be too close to the frontline, or he would court death in the form of a Red Army sniper. He’s wearing a greatcoat, but no special winter clothing, like the heavy fur coats or padded winter uniforms issued in time for the winter of 1942-43. It appears to be a bright day, and it doesn’t seem too cold. Days like those could be enjoyable, which were something of a rarity on the Eastern Front.

Hermann Göring’s Workout Book

An NCO puts four Luftwaffe soldiers (one is obscured by him) through some physical training. The second guy from the right, a Gefreiter, holds an MP 40 submachine gun, the rest Kar 98k rifles. The photo appears to have been taken in the Netherlands in 1940, but with no note on the back or any real telltale signs, it’s impossible to really know. Still, it’s a fun photo.

Rolling forward

Vehicles of the leichte Flak-Abteilung 74 (mot) (74th light motorised anti-aircraft battalion) roll forward in the central sector of the Eastern Front in the dust and heat of the summer of 1941. The unit is equipped with Flak 30 2 cm caliber automatic AA guns. The unit symbol, an oakleaf and two acorns within a rectangle, can be seen on the right fender of the nearest gun.

The leichte Flak-Abteilung 74 (mot) was raised on 15 November 1938 in Essen-Kupferdreh from the II/Flak-Regiment 44. During the campaign in France, the battalion was suborned to the staff of Flak-Regiment 202. When the campaign in France was over, the battalion was deployed in the Dunkirk area. It was assigned to Panzer-Gruppe 1 in April 1941 and deployed in the Balkans. From June 1941, it fought in the USSR as part of Panzer-Gruppe 4, attached to the 20. Panzer-Division, and saw heavy action during the series of advances on Minsk and Smolensk, and took part in Operation Typhoon, the failed attack on Moscow. In 1942/43 the battalion was assigned to the staff of the 18. Flak-Division and from February 1944 to the staff of the Flak-Regiment 134. In November 1944, the battalion was deployed was in the Eifel mountains on the western border of Germany. There’s no information on the final fate of the unit, but it probably surrendered to Allied forces in the spring of 1945.