Mortar Combat

Three Gefreiter (lance corporals) using a light mortar, the 5 cm leichter Granatwerfer 36 (5 cm leGrW 36). It could lob a 0.9 kg grenade up to 520 meters, and provided fire support at platoon and company level. It was easy to transport, but over-engineered, with not enough of a range and too light a round. Still, it was useful in the early years of the war. Production was discontinued in 1941, and the weapon phased out as mortars were lost and ammunition stocks dwindled.

The soldiers wear greatcoats, the second guy from the right clad in the all-grey version introduced in 1940. His comrades wear the M1939, which has a dark green, more narrow collar. They all wear double decal helmets; the black-white-red national colors shield was eliminated in 1940, and the eagle decal in 1943. Still, helmets could still be seen sporting decals by the end of the war.

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“Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

A Zündapp KS750 motorcycle and sidecar combination makes its way through the slush and mud of a dismal Russian road, probably in late winter/early spring of 1943. The motorbike rider is interestingly enough wearing a Soviet tanker’s padded crash helmet, instead of the regular steel helmet. It provides better protection and more warmth than the helmet and “Oma”, the tube-shaped, knitted head covering issued with the winter uniform.

The road is marked with poles, which helped vehicles to stay on course in the deep snows and blizzards of winter. The horses and infantry further up the road probably enjoyed the road even less than the MC rider. The German way of warfare relied on good roads and short distances, which made the campaigns in Europe a success. In the USSR, the poor roads and great distances, combined with the harsh winters and mud seasons, made the German Army lose momentum.

It’s grim up north

A squad from III. Abteilung, Armee-Nachrichten-Regiment 501 in positions in a Russian village during the winter of 1942-43. Part of the 16th Army, Army Group North, it spent most of the war on the northern part of the Eastern Front. The Soldiers are armed with an MP 38 submachinegun, an MG 34 machinegun, and Kar 98k carbines. Wearing reversible snow suits, they are better equipped for the winter than a year ago. The Germans used black and red armbands buttoned to the upper half of the sleeves for recognition purposes. The combination of colors and which sleeve they were worn on changed from day to day, just like code words, as a way of minimizing the risk of Red Army infiltrators.

North by Northeast

Gebirgsjäger (mountain ranger) posing together with a couple of young Sami women (in traditional clothing), Finnish Lapland, probably the winter of 1941-42. The truck to the left and the trailer carry the Edelweiss flower emblem of the 6. Gebirgs-Division. The other truck has the tactical sign of a mountain ranger motorized signals company vehicle. The firewood on the trailer and in the sack will be welcome in the sub-Arctic cold.

It might appear strange that at least four mountain ranger divisions were sent to the Finnish Lapland front, as the tallest mountain in that part of Finland is Korvatunturi (486 meters/1594 feet over the sea), which to people raised in the Alps is nothing more than a speed bump. The reason was that they were considered experts in winter warfare, but as their Finnish brothers-in-arms were under diplomatic pressure to not launch any major offensive on the port city of Murmansk or the railroad carrying supplies to the south, the front was relatively quiet for long periods of time.

A little-known fact is that Sweden allowed the Germans to use a couple of large warehouses outside the port of Luleå for storing supplies (mostly foodstuff) for the troops in Norway and Finland. They were destroyed in a fire in 2016.

Aftermath

The bodies of Soviet soldiers dot the battle-stained snow after a failed assault. One of the tires of a 3.7 cm Pak 36 (Panzerabwehrkanone 36) has caught fire, as the German position was almost overrun and the house on the right started burning. According to the notes on the back of the photo, more than 100 Red Army soldiers were killed. Attacking across an open field, especially when the opponent is armed with machineguns, is a surefire way of getting your soldiers slaughtered.

While we don’t know the specifics of this particular battle and the units involved, the Red Army was poorly led after the great purges of 1936-38, and another round of purges in 1941. Professional officers were executed, in the absolute majority of cases after summary court hearings based on false accusations. Instead, inexperienced but politically reliable officers filled the gaps. substandard leadership was one of the reasons why the Red Army fared so poorly against the Finns in the Winter War 1939-40. Ironically, the weak performance in Finland convinced Hitler that the USSR would be easy to defeat. When weather and the vastness of the Soviet Union slowed down the German advance, the Red Army could begin to slowly rebuild the competence lost.

In foreign soil

Here, outside the small Russian town of Pillovo, are the graves of some of the men of the 2. BataillonInfanterie-Regiment 220 of the 58. Infanterie-DivisionGefreiter Wilhelm Masa was 22 years old when he was killed in 1941, Schütze Henry Gramkow from Hamburg was 31 years old when he fell, Schütze Heinrich “Heino” Schneider had just turned 21 three weeks earlier, and Gefreiter Heinrich Viet was 22 years old. They were all killed in fighting on 25-26 August, 1941, a week after the division had taken Narwa.

The war went on without them. Their division took part in the long and cruel Siege of Leningrad (modern-day Saint Petersburg). Eventually, the Red Army broke the siege, and the division and most of the other units in Army Group North were encircled in the Courland pocket. Three years after taking Narwa, the division was back in the city, this time as defenders. It then retreated towards Königsberg (Kaliningrad). Small elements of the division were evacuated by ship, but most of its men went into Soviet captivity.

Winter roads

Panzerkampfwagen IV with the short-barreled 7.5 cm gun driving along a wintry road, somewhere in the USSR during the winter of 1941-42. Inadequate against other tanks (it was mainly an infantry support tank), the Pz.Kpfw IV didn’t come into its fore until armed with the longer KwK 40 L/43 gun. It went on to become the most common German tank, and the workhorse of the Panzerwaffe.