Unstoppable advance

A mittlere geländegängige Personenkraftwagen Kfz. 12 (medium cross-country passenger car) makes its way across a temporary bridge. A dispatch rider on a BMW R12 is following. It’s the summer of 1941, Operation Barbarossa is in full swing, and the retreating Red Army has blown the road bridge in the hope of slowing the German advance. A bridging unit from a pioneer battalion has thrown a temporary bridge across the shallow river, a task that probably took about half an hour. As the river appears to be rather narrow, no pontoons are needed, something that speeds up the bridge-building. The car has a swastika flag across the hood as a means of making identification from the air easier, lessening the risk of attacks by own aircraft. “Friendly fire isn’t”, as someone put it.

The first, heady weeks of Operation Barbarossa saw German units drive deep into Soviet territory. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners were taken, and nothing appeared to be able to stop millions of German soldiers that had crossed the border on 22 June. A few months later the Wehrmacht experienced a severe reality check…

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Slooow…

Attentive readers might’ve noticed that I don’t post every day, like I did in December. That’s for three reasons: 1) I made a point of making a post for each day in December, counting down to Christmas and New Year’s, 2) I’ve been fairly busy this month, and 3)I’m thinking about making an experiment. As this blog has only a dozen followers, and attract less than ten vistors per day, I’ll start a Facebook page where the posts will appear, and hopefully generate both discussions and traffic to this blog. Some might think that I’m an attention seeker, and that’s actually pretty true – after all, I want to share my photos and receive feedback. The Facebook page is already created, but it hasn’t gone public yet. Watch this space for more news.

StuG in traffic

Forward to the front! What is holding us up? Oh, another traffic jam…

A Sturmgeschütz III Ausf. B is idling while someone hopefully speeds up the vehicle column. That it’s an early version of the StuG III assault guns is apparent from the short-barreled, low-velocity 7.5 cm StuK 37 L/24 gun and the gunner’s view port (to the right, above the driver’s position). The latter was omitted from Ausf. C onwards, as it had proved to be a shot trap. The StuG family was considered self-propelled artillery, used for support in infantry assaults. It fired high explosive shells, which were effective against soft-skinned vehicles and fortifications, but not armored vehicles. Later versions were fitted with longer, more powerful guns, capable of taking on enemy armor.

Assault guns were easier and cheaper to produce, and it became common to replace lost tanks with assault guns later in the war. The low profile made them eminently suitable for ambushes and defensive fighting. More than 10,000 (all versions) were produced, making it the most common German armored fighting vehicle. 300 StuG III Ausf. B were produced between June 1940 and May 1941.

An original StuG III Ausf. G can be seen in the video below. It is recognized by the longer gun and the Saukopf gun mantlet. Zimmerit anti-magnetic mine paste covers the hull, and Schürzen armor side-skirts provide some protection against shaped-charge projectiles. This was the final and most numerous version; 8423 were built until the last weeks of the war.

 

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.

Between the battles

A Mercedes-Benz Typ L1500 A Mannschaftwagen (L301) outside a burned-out apartment building, probably in the Rzhev area during the winter of 1942-43. The all-terrain vehicle is very easy to confuse with the mittlere geländegängige Personenkraftwagen (medium cross country passenger car), type Kfz. 12, which was built by Steyr, Wanderer and Opel. It had a similar function, though, and 4,900 cars were made between 1941 and 1943.

The cross on the side of the vehicle (and faintly seen on the back) is most likely a divisional sign, and not the Balkencreuz painted on German vehicles in almost every war movie. Contrary to popular belief, soft-skinned vehicles (trucks, cars) rarely carried the cross seen on armored vehicles. Anyway, a yellow cross was used by the 72. Infanterie-Division, and I think that it’s the likeliest candidate for the unit having its car park outside those ruins.

The 72. Infanterie-Division was raised in 1939 in Trier, and took part in the campaigns in France 1940, the Balkans in 1941, and then the Soviet Union a couple months later. It saw heavy action on the Eastern Front, and suffered severe losses when breaking out of the Korsun Pocket in February 1944. The division was rebuilt and sent back into the fray. In January 1945, the division was mauled at the Baranow bridgehead on the Vistula, and after a retreat the division surrendered to the Red Army in May 1945 in the Erzgebirge region of Czechoslovakia.

When reading about this or that division taking heavy losses, it’s easy to forget that a division is more than 10,000 men suffering hardships, many of them never returning home. While the strategic and operational narratives are important in order to understand the flow of the war, it is the reading of personal accounts that puts a human aspect on the events. The rest of my posts for this month will (with a couple of exceptions) be more about the people fighting and enduring the war, and the times they could enjoy a temporary escape from the hardships.

Rush hour

An officer and his driver standing in front of a Mercedes-Benz 170 V, somewhere on the Eastern Front in the winter of 1941-42. They look comfortable in their 1940 pattern greatcoats, recognizable by their field-grey collars (as opposed to the dark green collars of the previous pattern). The car’s engine hood is covered with rush mats in an attempt to reduce the risk of the water-cooled M136 engine freezing. The driver has a standard Army “Daimon” flashlight buttoned to the left side of his greatcoat.

The Mercedes-Benz W136 was Mercedes-Benz’s line of inline-four cylinder cars from the mid-1930s into the 1950s. The model 170 V made its public debut in February 1936. Between 1936 and 1939 it was Mercedes’ top selling model, and between 1936 and 1942 over 75,000 were built, making it by far the most popular Mercedes-Benz model up till that point. Thousands of that model were used by the Wehrmacht on almost all fronts.

 

An original Mercedes-Benz 170 V decked out as a Wehrmacht vehicle. Maybe a little overdone, but an interesting display nonetheless.

Thanks to Axis History Forum member Bill Murray for ID’ing the car.