The third wheel

The speed of Blitzkrieg warfare required that motorcycle units had to be able to change wheels while moving.

Naah. The riders of that BMW R75 sidecar combination show off a trick that appears to have been rather popular, as I’ve seen a couple other photos featuring the same stunt. Motorcycles were used for reconnaissance and communications (dispatch riders), but there were also motorcycle battalions, a more modern form of cavalry. They were introduced as a cheap way to mechanize units when the Army expanded rapidly in the years before the outbreak of the war. The sidecar could have an MG 34 machine gun as armament. Motorcycle battalions were fast but lightly armed, and part of the Panzer divisions. From 1942, the MC battalions were equipped with armored vehicles instead. About 17,000 BMW R75 motorcycles were built before the war ended. It was rugged and popular, and copied by both Americans and Soviets.


Open country

A column of vehicles from the 3. Panzer-Division has made a brief halt during the advance into the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. There’s apparently little fear of Soviet air attacks, as the vehicles are bunched up in small groups. If there’s a threat of enemy attack planes, there should be at least 50 meters between the vehicles in order to lessen the effects of an attack. The car closest to the camera is a Volkswagen Typ 82, or as it became more known as: Kübelwagen. Aside from the sign for the 3. Panzer-Division (the inverted Y and two short bars, visible in the lower right-hand corner), it is marked with the tactical sign of the regimental headquarters of a towed artillery (howitzer) unit. The divisional symbol of the 3. Panzer-Division changed after the Battle of France ended and before Operation Barbarossa was launched. That happened to other units, too, which can be helpful in putting a date on photos, or at least a credible timeframe.

The Kübelwagen was a better design than other similar cars used by the Wehrmacht, but still not as rugged as the American Jeep. It was based on the same chassis as the classic Volkswagen Beetle. The air-cooled engine made it less vulnerable in extreme temperatures, and is saw action from the icy steppes of Russia to the deserts of North Africa. It was popular with the troops, and an amphibian version, the Schwimmwagen, was used for reconnaissance.


Thanks to Alanmccoubrey on Axis History Forum for help with the signs.

Ready to march

The better part of an infantry battalion is visible in this photo, which gives us an idea of the number of men, horses and wagons in such a unit. I believe the machine gun (heavy weapons) company isn’t in view, which would add another 200 men or so. A German infantry battalion had one commander, usually a lieutenant colonel or major, but later in the war often a captain, 13 officers, 1 official, and 846 non-commissioned officers and enlisted men, plus 131 horses. There was the battalion staff unit, a signals unit, an engineer platoon, three rifle companies, a machine gun/heavy weapons company, combat supply troop, and a pack train.


The table above is from a 1944 US manual on the German infantry battalion, found on the excellent Lone Sentry online collection of WW2-era information and documents.

The table of organization was one thing, reality another. Combat meant losses, and it wasn’t unusual for battalions to shrink to company size. That was true for most armies, where units in the front line often suffered many casualties. When a battalion was too weak to function as a unit, it was usually pulled from the front line and sent for rest and refit in the rear. Reinforcements from the regiment’s replacement battalion brought the battalion back up to strength, and it was sent into the fray again. I’ve read memoirs by soldiers from both the German and the Allied side, and it was apparently common for some battalions to have just a handful of its original soldiers left after a year of combat. There are many accounts where the veterans don’t bother with learning the names of the new guys until they have survived the first fight or two. Life in the frontline was hard and unforgiving.

Sun and dust

Weary soldiers rest in the shade of a Stahlfeldwagen (Hf. 7). It’s probably in the summer of 1941 (or 1942), somewhere in the Soviet Union. The relentless sun, beating down on an open landscape where there was little refuge from the heat and dust, tans the faces and hands of the soldiers. Their woolen uniforms, caked with dust and stained with salt from dried sweat, look more khaki than field grey. The rifles will need a cleaning, removing dust that can cause the weapon to jam, as will the MP 40 submachine gun carried by the Unteroffizier. The dusty roads drained the energy of the troopers, but it was probably worse for the horses pulling the steel wagons. Usually pulled by a team of two horses, the heavy Hf. 7 was nicknamed “the horse murderer”.

Still, the soldiers and their horses were expected to cover 40-50 km in a day. Marching across the featureless landscape caused a sense of disorientation in many soldiers. They were used good roads and a landscape with hills, forests, villages and towns. Trudging on for day after day and never really arriving to a final destination made some soldiers question the wisdom of invading the Soviet Union. They were more right than they knew. But bad as it was, the rains in the fall and snow in the winter would make them long for summer again.

Operation Zitadelle

Sturmgeschütz III self-propelled gun rumbles past an Sd.Kfz. 252 halftrack ammunition resupply vehicle, most likely in the summer of 1943, prior to the Battle of Kursk. The StuG is probably belonging to an independent self-propelled artillery battalion, while the half-track tows an ammunition trailer with the sign of the 19. Panzer-Division (two vertical bars, introduced in 1943).

The 19. Panzer-Division was formed from the 19. Infanterie-Division in November 1940. It saw action on the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1945. It took part in the battles of Moscow in 1941 and Kursk in 1943, and in the crushing of the Warsaw uprising in 1944. When the Red Army launched Operation Bagration in the summer of 1944, the 19. Panzer-Division was in the Netherlands for rest and refit, thus escaping potential annihilation in the destruction of Army Group Center. It was engaged in defensive battles until its surrender to Soviet forces in Czechoslovakia in May 1945.

Codenamed “Operation Zitadelle” by the Germans, the Battle of Kursk is considered the biggest tank battles ever. A total of some 8,000 tanks and 1.7 million men clashed, beginning on 5 July, 1943. The Soviets had the advantage, both in numbers and defensive positions; the German build-up had been rather slow, and the Red Army had had ample time to shift troops and build defensive positions prior to the attack. The Germans had hoped to encircle Soviet troops in the Kursk salient and thus weakening the Red Army, but success failed to materialize. Instead, the initiative passed to the Soviets, and from then on the Wehrmacht was unable to regain it.

Shaft of the spear

While the tip of the spear – the tanks – is pushing ahead, the rest of a Panzer-Division is following. Medical and supply trucks are almost bumper to bumper, while a couple of PaK 36 anti-tank guns are on the side of the road, an Sd.Kfz 10 halftrack next to them ready to tow one of the guns. To the right is a Kfz. 12 all terrain car, hastily camouflaged with branches, and in the background can be seen a Pz.Kpfw III. Those are just three of the circa 2,300 tanks, armored vehicles, cars and trucks in a Panzer division (motor cycles not counted). The photo is probably from the summer of 1941, when the German Army was pushing forward along the Eastern Front. Battle losses and mechanical breakdowns reduced the number of available vehicles, but it was still a force to be reckoned with due to its mobility. That changed when the autumn rains began, and the dirt roads turned into endless stretches of deep mud…

Grand Theft Bicycle

Troops biking through the ruins of a French town, 1940. The bicycles are a mixed lot, which make me suspect that they were “liberated” by regular infantry in order to improve mobility. While it might look a bit funny too modern eyes, bicycle-mounted units were a part of many armies back in WW2, and they were still a mode of transport when I did my military service in 1986-87. Bicycles increase the range; a cyclist can go up to five times further than a walking person, expending the same amount of energy. Back in the 1930s and 40s, bicycles were important vehicles for many people as a means of getting to and from work, etc, especially during the war when fuel was rationed. Even today, it is a common means of transport in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands.

The Wehrmacht used several millions of bicycles, many of them standard issue Army bikes (we used to call the Swedish Army bikes “heavy all-terrain attack bikes”). There was still great demand for more bikes, and the German Army confiscated millions of bikes from the civilian population in the occupied countries during the war. On 6 October, 1944, there was a general order to seize all bikes in the Netherlands, Denmark, and those parts of Italy still controlled by the Germans. This caused resentment, and some Dutch still refer to Germans as “bike-thieves”. The Wehrmacht, short on motor vehicles and fuel, needed the bikes, but many of them were a bit worse for wear after several years of war, rationing, and rubber shortages; when tires and tubes were worn out, strips of cloth and even wood was used to make “tires”.

Late in the war, German troops could be seen biking to the front, carrying a couple of Panzerfaust single-use light anti-tank weapons clipped to the front fork. While they had an effective anti-tank weapon, the bikes were a sad reminder that the Third Reich had been vastly out-produced when it came to trucks and tanks.