Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Clearing "Hill" 5

Imperial War Museum
"So this is what it's like to have a real, professional driver." Billy O'Shea tried, and failed, to keep the laughter out of his voice as he spoke over the intercom.

Truth be told, even Fitzhugh would admit it, the new man, Caddick, was indeed a superb driver. But still, Fitzhugh reached over the breech of the 2-pounder gun and slapped O'Shea in the back of the head.

"Hey, just speaking the ..."

"Knock it off, stay off the intercom." Sergeant O'Connell was a little on edge today.

The platoon had been sent forward with a party of Australian infantry to check out a slight rise in the desert floor which higher thought might contain a spotting party. German artillery had been falling with some accuracy on the supply lines leading to the border. Their job was to clear the slight knoll and establish their own forward post.

The sight of numerous burned out vehicles along the way, both British and German, made him apprehensive. This area was not controlled by either side, frequent fire fights had broken out between recovery parties trying to salvage what they could from the wrecks. It had gotten bad enough that both sides stayed out of the area. If they could.

"Fitzie, keep yer eyes peeled to the nor'west, ye should see the land start to rise in that direction. I expect trouble from that spot. Cheat the turret to that bearing, the 2-pounder is useless against infantry, but the coaxial machine gun will help keep any Jerry heads down. And if they have an armored vehicle, we can kill it with the main gun." O'Connell had explained all this before they set out, but it didn't hurt to repeat it.

"Well, I'll be damned ..." Fitzhugh didn't finish the sentence as he focused on engaging a target which had just presented itself. He fired the main gun, yelling for another round at the same time. There was something else behind what he was shooting at.

O'Connell couldn't see what his gunner was shooting at, then he saw a flash slightly to his right. Field glasses to his eyes and he saw the target, a Mark Four!

Feldwebel Marcus Lichterfeld swore as he spotted the British tanks, just half a second before one of them fired and hit his own Panzer in the engine compartment. As the vehicle ground to a halt he could hear his driver yelling, "Marcus! What the Hell?"

"Engine's hit lads, be ready to bail. Wolf, engage that Tommy bastard."

The short barreled 7.5 cm cannon barked, the loader screaming "Panzergranate geladen!" as soon as the breech was clear.

Lichterfeld watched through his field glasses as a British tank turned its turret towards them. His first shot had missed, there was no time for a second.

Flames were starting to issue from the back deck, something in the engine compartment was on fire.

"Aussteigen Männer! Wir brennen!¹" Lichterfeld yelled over the intercom just before tearing his headset off and sliding down the side of the turret.

"Another Mark Four, Fitzie. Eleven o'clock!"

Fitzhugh slewed the turret in that direction but that tank brewed up before he could fire, one of the other tanks in the platoon had killed that one. He searched through his sights but could see nothing else, "I'm blind down here Teddy!"

O'Connell watched as mortar rounds began to impact the area which had been occupied by at least one German tank platoon. He had to assume, as the infantry commander accompanying his tank must have assumed, that there had to be infantry there, supporting the tanks on the approach to the small knoll. He could barely make out anything himself, other than two burning Mark Fours.

Lichterfeld and his crew were sheltering in the defensive positions which had been created by the previous British occupants of the small knoll. Though it was raised from the desert floor enough to provide decent visibility for quite some ways into Egypt, it wasn't really high enough to merit a mention on the map. The infantry lieutenant commanding his support platoon jokingly called it "Hill Five," as it was at least five meters high, but no higher.

"Wolf, if we have artillery observers up on this hill, why aren't they returning fire?"

"I saw their position take a near miss from those British mortars, if they're still alive they're probably keeping their heads down." Wolf Müller was starting to get a bit nervous. The Tommies had infantry out there, he knew they had scarcely a platoon, maybe thirty men, with the Panzers. If the Tommies came in force, they wouldn't last long.

Captain Gerald Wiltshire blew his whistle and pointed at the knoll ahead. He and his company had moved up under the cover of the mortar barrage until they were practically on top of the German positions not 200 yards ahead.

The Australians were up and moving, firing as they advanced. Wiltshire knew that his men were anxious to relieve their mates besieged in Tobruk. Battleaxe had failed, but the high command was still determined to move forward. This operation was a small affair but it might lay the groundwork for pushing the Germans and Italians back far enough to prepare a springboard for another advance.

But Wiltshire knew his "Diggers" were simply anxious to kill more Germans. Splendid men, he thought, even if a bit unruly.

Sergeant Bill Murphy saw movement to his front, he reflexively fired his Thompson in that direction. He heard a scream then a voice saying something in German.

"'Ere Willy, go winkle those Jerry bastards out of that hole, if they don't want ta quit, toss a grenade in on 'em!"

Willy Jenkins yelled out in German, "Kommt raus ihr deutschen Bastarde.²" then fired three or four rounds from his Lee-Enfield in that direction.

"Bitte! Nicht schiessen³!"

Two Germans came out of the foxhole with their hands in the air, one of them was bleeding profusely from a laceration on his head. One of the Germans said, in broken English, "My man is there," he said nodding back at the foxhole, "he is bad hurt, you have doctor?"

Jenkins laughed then said, "Yeah mate, I've got yer f**king doctor right here," then proceeded to fire down into the foxhole, killing the wounded German cowering at the bottom of the hole.

Sergeant Murphy came over after reporting the position clear to his lieutenant, "Now, now, Willy, play nice, the wankers don't want ta fight no more."

"Tell that ta Roberts, Sarge. One of this lot did for him on the way up the hill."

"Roberts? Dead?" Murphy was surprised, Donny Roberts was an old soldier, very experienced.

"Yup, Donny's cactus,⁴ Sarge."

"Damn it!"

Lichterfeld and his crew were being marched back to the British lines. They passed by the burning hulk of their Panzer. The driver, Hans Kolb, muttered, "I left my best f**king tunic in there."

Fritz Schoerner, the bow gunner shook his head, "Don't think you'll need that in a Tommy prisoner camp."

Lichterfeld was about to tell the men to shut up when one of the Tommies took care of that for him. Swinging the butt of his Lee-Enfield in Kolb's direction, the Tommy shouted, "Stop yer bleedin' gob ya Hun bastard!"

Though none of the Germans understood a word of what the Australian soldier had said, not even Lichterfeld who spoke some English, they all understood the meaning.

They were quiet until turned over to a detachment of British military police who were collecting prisoners in a barbed-wire enclosure some five kilometers from where they were captured. At which point Lichterfeld said, "I guess our war is over boys."

¹ Get out men! We're burning!
² Come out you German bastards.
³ Please! Don't shoot!
⁴ Australian slang expression for "dead." (Source)

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Cut Off

One hundred and twenty seven men still in the ranks, at least that's what the sergeants were reporting. Majór Ivan Filippovich Telitsyn shook his head as he pondered the implications of that number. He had lost over eighty percent of his battalion. The high command would not be pleased with this, Telitsyn thought, not at all.

"Why so glum Comrade Major? Look on the bright side, none of the politruks¹ have been accounted for." Krasnoarmeyets Vitaliy Afanasievich Kolobkov grinned as he said this.

"I am still stunned that the Party hasn't had you shot for your anti-Soviet attitude, Vitaliy Afanasievich." Telitsyn smiled. He was rather fond of his orderly. Not a day went by that he didn't remember the Winter War in Finland. No doubt had it not been for Kolobkov, Telitsyn's corpse would be moldering in some Finnish bog.

"Without me, who would the politruk point to as a 'bad example,' Comrade Major?"

"Has Stárshiy Serzhánt² Kasharin been accounted for yet?" Stárshiy Serzhánt Arseniy Antonovich Kasharin was the battalion's senior non-commissioned officer. A professional soldier who had been conscripted into the Czar's army back in 1916, he had chosen wisely during the Revolution and had served with the Reds during the Civil War. Though long in the tooth at 41 years of age, men like him kept the Red Army going. The other non-commissioned officers in the battalion were jumped up conscripts, promoted for simply having served longest.

"No Sir, one of the junior lieutenants, his name escapes me, said he was spotted with the rear guard as we fell back into the forest. No one has seen him since." Kolobkov shook his head as he looked to the west. Though Kasharin was a crusty old bastard, the men liked him. He wasn't sure how things would go without the old sergeant around.

Ernst Paulus was sweating profusely, the 12 kilogram MG 34 felt heavier than it usually did after a long march. For today was the first time Paulus' team had taken a casualty.

They had been advancing down a dirt road, Paulus had heard that Russia had paved roads, but he'd yet to see one. Word was that the Soviets were falling back willy-nilly, trying to escape being surrounded by the German tanks advancing far more rapidly than the German infantry could keep up. Their job would be to mop up pockets of resistance.

So far that had consisted of detailing one or two men to herd hundreds, if not thousands, of Russians who no longer wished to fight for Stalin to the rear. As Paulus' team was the heart of the German squad, they weren't detailed to guard prisoners. But they had lost two riflemen from the squad detailed to escort prisoners, which left them understrength.

Paulus' squad leader had pointed that out to their platoon leader when he had directed that the squad take the point. To no avail, the young Leutnant was convinced that the Soviets were collapsing, just as Hitler had promised.³ He ordered the squad to take point, reluctantly their squad leader took them forward of the main column.

The squad leader and three of the squad's remaining riflemen were a good fifty meters ahead of Paulus and his team. The squad leader had told him, "Stay back here Ernst, be ready to come forward at the run if I need you."

The Russians who ambushed them knew their business, aiming for the machine gun team. Fortunately for Paulus and Kołodziej, they were not very good shots. But they were good enough to hit Schütze Kazimir Dutka, multiple times. The big Pole was dead before he hit the ground.

Paulus and Kołodziej had the gun in action in record time, laying down suppressing fire as their squad leader took the riflemen around behind the Russians. Within minutes the squad leader brought two Russians out of the woods lining the dirt track.

"Two men? That's all, two men killed Kazimir?" Paulus was outraged and was reaching for his sidearm.

"Calm down Ernst, there were four other live ones, we killed them when they wouldn't quit. There were also three bodies which appeared to have been killed by MG fire. These two decided not to die for the Motherland." The young Unteroffizier thought for a moment, then he looked at Paulus as if he'd come to a decision.

"What should we do with these two prisoners?" Paulus asked.

The Unteroffizier began to point his MP 40 at the two Russians, then stopped. "Send them back with Brinkmann, that's what we'll do. Let the Leutnant decide what to do with them."

The rifleman named Brinkmann gestured with his K98k, the two Russians understood and began to move. Both looked resigned to whatever fate awaited them.

"Sir, they've found Stárshiy Serzhánt Kasharin!" a man shouted as he approached the small command group.

"Where soldier, where is he?" Telitsyn asked, grabbing the man by the front of his gymnastyorka.

"Down by the road, Comrade Major, he's dead."

Telitsyn shook his head then turned to his orderly, "Vitaliy Afanasievich, have the surviving officers report here. Have them set up defenses before doing so, we'll spend the night here. It sounds as if the Germans are everywhere but our little slice of the Rodina."

Telitsyn's battalion, or what was left of it, was cut off in the forests between two German armored pincers. He and his men were not alone, the frontier defenses were collapsing all along the line. One scout had reported seeing a huge mass of Soviet soldiers, all disarmed and moving to the west, guarded by as little as one or two German soldiers.

Telitsyn was no longer worried about being shot by the Party, the Germans would probably finish him first.

Things looked very bad indeed for the Red Army.

¹ A politruk was a Soviet-era political officer or commissar.
² Equivalent to a Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army
³ "Wir müssen nur die Tür eintreten, und das ganze verrottete Gebäude wird zusammenbrechen." Hitler to his generals during planning for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. (We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.)

Monday, August 29, 2022

A little bit of Something from Nothing at all!

 juvat, how about starting with some good news for a change?

Ok, Sarge! How about just under 3 inches of rain this past week?  The grass is much greener and unfortunately, growing again.  

Why unfortunately?  Well, my lawn mower guy is off at college which means Mrs. J will ride the lawn tractor while I do the push thing and the weed whacking.  I know...Poor Baby!

But, Rain is good and more is forecast for this upcoming week.  So...We got that going for us.

Hope it doesn't rain quite as hard as it did this past week.  Glad Little J was driving.

On the truly important front, our eldest granddaughter (10 months) gave us a bit of a scare this week when she tested positive for you know what.  The family had been away at a Church Camp.  Lots of hoop jumping occurred immediately thereafter.  MBD and SIL tested negative which was good but made no sense since MG had been with her parents the whole time.  Fortunately, her pediatrician was able to make sense of the situation and ordered another test.  Which turned out negative.

Thank you Lord!

Pediatrician thinks it was a virus of some sort, but not any of the big ones.
Which is good!

On that same front, in a different City, LJD is doing well.  Little Juvat and LJW spent the weekend in San Antonio with her.  Her weight is up to 850 grams and she's downing 18 mLs of milk 8 times a day (For those of you that aren't into metric measurements, that's 1.87 lbs and a little over 5 oz./day.)

First "Not Sponge" Bath.  Progress!

Again...Not out of the woods, but headed that way.

After a bath, it's always a good time for a nap.

Parent's Aggie Rings for perspective.

Little J is making great progress on our network.  (I think it helps keep his mind off "Things".) With the exception of our connection to the internet, my wireless only printer, and our phones, everything here is now wired and so much faster and more reliable.  However, I will have a wireless connection to my woodshop.  One never knows when one needs to review the video on the project being built while working on it.  Or so I've been told.

BTW, the wireless printer? Nothing but a PITA.  Sometimes it prints, sometimes it doesn't.  Gonna be a doorstop soon.  Trying to troubleshoot a wireless "How come it didn't print?" has WAAAY more possible answers than a wired one does.  And yes...That happens often enough to put the doorstop option in to the decision tree.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln?

Things are going pretty well.  Most of the "Stuff" has been moved from my old shop.  Still need my table saw and workbench moved. but want to have the storage abilities in place before I move them.  It's on my priority list, but ....I think I've got my life's priorities in order.

So, on that note.  I liked this song.

Peace out, y'all!

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Hey, Hey, Hey ...

The Wee Lad and his ride.
So it was rather a longish week, though only four days in length, I worked ten hour days the first three. For to make up some time taken off over the period of the Wee Lad's birthday. Which we were in attendance at some two weeks ago.

It was a great time and it's always lovely visiting with the grandkids.

Oh yes, and their parents as well, after all, one of their parents is a child o' mine, the other being selected by the child o' mine to spend their lives with. Which makes 'em okay in my book.

Anyhoo, that being said, momentous news here at Chez Sarge ...

I ain't retiring at the end of the year.

I gave it a LOT of thought, I'm still productive, still enjoying the work, and (most especially) I enjoy the folks I work with. Truth be told, I have actually sung the chorus to this song at work -

Yup, they think I'm weird.

But in a good way.

I think.

But yes, work ain't half bad, the getting up early part sucks but the kicker there is, I don't have to. I could go in around ten-ish, put in my nine, then go home. But so far I like getting in early and finishing while the sun is still up. (Though soon enough that won't be true, no not at all, the light gets shorter every day and fall is in the air.)

Yeah, I do like the money, it's pretty good. As I am now doing something I kinda enjoy for good money ... Why stop now?

The plan is to stay until next August at least, then if I punch out at the end of that month, I'll have 24 years with the company, which matches my 24 years in the U.S.A.F. So that's kind of a thing for me.

Of course, those aren't the only factors. The Missus Herself has projects, projects which require the outlay of simoleons. Well, retiring would reduce the supply of those simoleons, not to any critical level mind you, but less than what we have now. Another thing is, my maternal grandmother worked into her 70s, as did my Dad. So it's a tradition, sort of. (Hint, I'll be 70 next year.)

So why not stay on the job? Might get a chance to go west again and see "my" ship. That's actually something else I really enjoy, working with the Navy.

So yeah, "Hey, hey, hey, I'm on vacation, every single day 'cause I love my occupation ..."

Hey, hey, hey ...

Editor's Note: Why yes, I did give the Muse the weekend off, why do you ask?

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Dawn, 22 June 1941

Soldiers of the Red Army, 1941
RIA Novosti
Krasnoarmeyets Vitaliy Afanasievich Kolobkov's world had gotten muffled during the bombardment. He was hoarse from screaming, trying desperately to preserve his hearing by doing so. As a result, his mouth tasted like dirt, for his head was buried in the floor of the trench with his hands holding his helmet down as tight as he could.

The ground seemed to be trying to throw him into the sky, with each explosion the earth heaved and rippled as if alive. Kolobkov had no idea of the fate of the men around him, all he knew was that he was still alive, but seemed fated to be swatted out of existence at any minute.

He nearly wet himself when a hand grabbed him by the back of his gymnastyorka¹, shaking him roughly. He could vaguely hear a voice ...

"Up and at it Kolobkov, the Fascists are coming for tea!"

Kolobkov raised his head, his ears were ringing but he could feel his hearing coming back.

"Damn it, Vitaliy Afanasievich, get on the Degtyaryov²! Suvorkin is dead, we need that gun in action."

Efréĭtor Ustin Rodionovich Kazankov practically dragged his old comrade to where Suvorkin lay atop his gun. Kazankov pulled Suvorkin's corpse aside, there didn't appear to be a mark on him but he was quite dead.

"Get on it, I'll get you an assistant if I can find someone alive!"

Then Kazankov disappeared down the trench.

Shaking his head, Kolobkov eventually got his bearings. He checked the gun, pulled the magazine off, checked the feed, it looked good. He put the magazine back in, then worked the action. He and the gun were as ready as they would ever be.

Suddenly realizing that a single drum magazine wouldn't last long, he looked around. There! A wooden box holding the spare ammunition for the gun. He pulled it close.

Gefreiter Ernst Paulus was moving forward, running hunched over as fast as he could. He looked rather comical to the two Poles who made up the rest of his machine gun team.

Schütze Kazimir Dutka grinned at his friend, Schütze Jan Kołodziej and briefly mimicked running like an ape. The smile froze on his face as they heard Paulus bellow, "DOWN!"

Both men had been under fire when they had been in the Polish Army, fighting the men wearing the uniform they now wore. The sound of enemy bullets overhead was nothing new to them.

It still terrified them though.

Paulus had the gun, it was his team and he was the gunner. The two Poles carried the ammunition which the MG 34 went through like a glutton at a buffet, as Dutka put it.

Paulus had the gun set-up quickly and was already returning fire. Dutka and Kołodziej quickly took up their positions to feed the gun as needed.

Kołodziej looked across the uneven ground towards the Soviet lines, it was partly wooded, with a few open fields interspersed. He had a rough idea of where he was but very little conception of what their exact mission was. He supposed it was to support the attack on Brest, the big Russian fortress to the south.

"Ah! Got you Ivan! Didn't duck fast enough did you?"

Paulus had a tendency to chatter when firing the gun, talking to the enemy as if they could hear him. He was firing in short bursts and his efforts were paying off.

Kołodziej looked over to his left, the infantry in his battalion were advancing in bounds. Here and there was a rumpled bundle of clothing and equipment which Kołodziej knew to be a man, struck down by the Russian fire, which was beginning to slacken.

"Come on my valiant Poles! We need to move up!" Paulus was up and running with the two Poles fast on his heels, they knew better than to lag behind.

Well, most of the men who survived the Winter War are still here, Kazankov thought to himself as he looked down at the body of Krasnoarmeyets Vladimir Antonovich Dudin.

Dudin had been hit multiple times as he had run down into the trench from the command post. He had lived long enough to pass along his message ...

"Fall back Ustin Rodionovich, the Majór ... commands it." His voice had trailed off on the last two words, then he had sighed and his eyes glazed over.

Shaking his head, Kazankov bellowed out, "Back to the next line boys! Stay low and move as if the devil himself was at your backside!"

Jan looked around the Soviet entrenchment, lots of bits of paper, scattered pieces of discarded equipment, and a number of dead bodies. The Russians had left in a hurry.

The two Poles were waiting for Paulus to return, he had moved past the trench to look for a place to set up the gun. He came scrambling back within minutes.

"Let's go boys, Ivan seems determined to run all the way to Moscow. So we need to give chase. Up and at 'em!"

Upon arrival at the second line of entrenchments, Kazankov and his men were ordered to continue to fall back. Apparently German armor had gotten through over on their left flank and were driving hard towards the division's rear areas.

Majór Ivan Filippovich Telitsyn had spotted Kazankov and his men, he came over to them.

"Lose anyone, Ustin Rodionovich?"

"Yes, Comrade Majór, Dudin was hit bringing us the word to fall back. He died shortly thereafter."

Telitsyn shook his head, "We've lost a lot of the boys today. Now we need to run, try to set up further east. This war has started badly, but we need to keep fighting, somehow."

"My boys will fight, you know that Comrade."

Telitsyn nodded, then put his hand on Kazankov's shoulder, "We fight for the Motherland."

"Yes Sir, for the Rodina³."

As darkness fell, the Russians continued to fall back. In the surrounding darkness the rattle of distant machine gun fire and the roar of artillery fire continued.

The first day had gone very badly indeed.

¹ Russian military smock, the men in the opening photo are wearing them.
² The DP-27, a Soviet light machine gun.
³ Literally, the homeland.

Friday, August 26, 2022

I Often Wonder ...

... who were those guys?

I've been doing this historical fiction thing for well over a year now, I've used a lot of pictures to help not only tell the story, but to set the mood for the story. That mood-setting thing is kind of for me, the writer, not necessarily for you, the reader. It helps me visualize the story (time, place, and weather - sometimes) and often sets the direction for a particular story thread.

Every now and then something in a photo will hit me, usually it's a person in that photo. I wonder, "Who was this person, what was he¹ like

I used that opening photo above just the other day for The Eve of Barbarossa, the photo is early in that conflict (you can tell by the uniforms and the equipment), so it helped set the scene for me. It was only later that the photo really hit me.

There are 29 men visible in that photo, one (partially obscured see next photo) is the commander of the tank, the other 28 men are on foot. Add in the other four crewmembers of that tank and there are 33 men within 100 feet of the camera. Five in the tank, 28 on foot. Not long after posting that, I began wondering about the men in that photo, especially in light of Rob's observation on the post "I wonder how many who started there came back?"

I zoomed in on the tank commander, chilling in his hatch. Guy looks pretty relaxed!
I wondered that as well.

But first off, what are we seeing in that photo?

The first thing that struck my eye were the men in the foreground carrying the long tubes. At first I thought "spare machine gun barrel container," then I realized that it was too big. Second thought was "mortar tube." Bingo!

The yellow arrows point to the mortar tubes, the orange arrows are the tripods for the mortars, and finally the green arrows point to the mortar baseplates.

So Sarge, what kind of mortar is that?

Glad you asked, it's the 8cm Granatwerfer 34, or GrW 34 for short. And of course, it's an 81 mm mortar, not 80. For whatever reason the Germans called it an 8cm mortar. (Probably the same reason we refer to their rifle ammunition as 8mm, when it's actually 7.92mm. Technically speaking it's 7.92x57mm, often referred to as 7.92x57mm Mauser.)

Where did these mortars fall in the Table of Organization & Equipment of the German infantry battalion?

Glad you asked ...

German infantry battalions in the early part of the war came in two types. Both types consisted of a Battalion Headquarters, three Rifle Companies, and a Machine Gun Company. The difference between the two battalion types was the composition of their Machine Gun Companies.

For both battalions the Machine Gun Company had three Platoons, each of four weapons (the ubiquitous MG 34, later the MG 42). In the type "a" battalion, the Platoons all fielded machine guns, in the type "b" battalion, one of the Platoons had six mortars rather than four machine guns. (Source, Page 7). That mortar being the GrW 34 which those guys in the photo are carrying.

According to the Kriegsstärkenachweisung² (KStN) the crew of a GrW 34 consists of six men. Three of the men are equipped with pistols as their personal weapon, they get to schlepp the mortar tube, the tripod, and the baseplate. The others schlepped ammunition for the tube. No doubt the guy in charge of the mortar team didn't "have to" schlepp ammo, but probably did if he was smart.

The ready ammunition for the tubes were stored in metal boxes like these -

Ammunition box for the GrW 34
In the photo below you can see two of these cases (orange arrows), no doubt there are more that you can't see. More ammunition would be carried in the munitions wagons, see the image below the next one for the complete TO&E for the 3rd Platoon of the type "b" Machine Gun Company.


Click to embiggen, but you get the idea, the German Army of WWII had a lot of horses.
Now the three guys who had to haul around the heavy pieces of gear also got to load and fire that bad boy.

For lots of good info on this weapon and its use, chase the link.
The guys schlepping the ammunition also carried rifles, once the mortar was set up and firing, they would provide security for their comrades firing the mortar. The guy in charge would do guy in charge type things: observe fall of shot, adjust fire, etc.

Back to the photo. It looks to me that there are two mortar teams in the picture, which makes sense, often the mortar platoon would be broken into three sections, one being assigned to each of the three Rifle Companies in the battalion. So here we have one section from the mortar platoon along with some other chaps that I'm betting are infantry. Might even be part of the company headquarters behind the tank.


Those guys inside the yellow box in the photo, gotta be an infantry squad. There is an MG 34 in the bunch, not on a tripod so it's a squad-level asset. Also there's nine of them (the tenth guy is no doubt outside the camera's field of vision - or he could be a casualty). Inside the green box is what could be a command element, I say that because one of the men has something on his back which looks a lot like a German backpack radio . (See below.)

Okay, that covers the men on foot, now the tank.

My guess is that's a Panzerkampfwagen III, I can't tell which Ausführung³ but fit has to be a III as they were much more common than the Panzerkampfwagen IV which looked very similar from astern.

Why just the one tank?

Glad you asked. German tank platoons typically had five tanks at this stage of the war, normally all of the same type for logistical reasons. Unlike Hollywood, these vehicles tended to keep a lot of space between each other, 50 yards or more when deployed. Of course in restricted terrain they'd be closer together for mutual support. As you can see in the photo, the terrain is pretty open.

So the other tanks, like the rest of the infantry company, are not within the camera's field of vision. Or it could indeed be a Panzerkampfwagen IV assigned to support the infantry surrounding it. The early versions of that vehicle carried a short-barreled 7.5cm gun meant for infantry support.

Panzerkampfwagen IV, Ausf. C
Now that I've bored you with all the minutiae in the photo ...

The area looks like the steppes of southern Russia, you can see other vehicles in the distance climbing a slight rise in the open terrain. Is that smoke or a low-hanging rain cloud above that rise? I'm thinking it's a combination of both, to the left of the photo I can see what appears to be a smoke plume, from something burning in the far distance.

But imagine this (I did) those men are about to advance, across open fields. Sure they have tank support, but when the bullets start flying, unless you're directly behind the tank, there's really nowhere to hide in that terrain.

You can only see two men's faces in that group in the foreground.

The guy in the yellow circle looks like a sergeant, he has that sergeant look about him. He's got his eyes on his men, the look says "do your jobs, don't think of anything else."

The guy in the blue circle, carrying the mortar tube, looks rather apprehensive. The look of a man about to go into combat. He either knows what to expect, and it terrifies him, or he's not quite sure what to expect, and that terrifies him as well.

An interesting photo, it has set the stage for the chapters in the parts of our story set on the Eastern Front. It inspired me in many ways.

One thing I can't stop thinking about - How many of the men in that photo survived the war? Of those men, for how many of them was the last photo ever taken of them? Knowing the Hell that was the war in Russia, my bet is that not many of those men survived to old age. 

War sucks.

¹ Invariably it's a "he," in the days of which I write, very few women served in combat. Russia was definitely an exception so perhaps the ladies will be better represented in the days to come.
² The Kriegsstärkenachweisung (KstN) is a chart which shows the theoretical organization and composition of a certain unit in the German Army.
³ Make of model. For instance, Willi Hoffmeister commands a PzKw II Ausf H, the H model of that tank.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

The Parthian Shot

PzKw III - North Africa
Hoffmeister stared in disbelief at Schumacher. Somehow, in the middle of nowhere, the man had found alcohol, enough to get himself blind drunk.

At morning roll call the man had been absent. After they'd refueled and rearmed Panzer 413, Hoffmeister went looking for his errant crewmember. He'd found the man sleeping it off with some rear area men.

Hoffmeister drew his sidearm, then kicked Schumacher, hard.

The drunken soldier stirred, muttering, "Who the Hell ...?" Schumacher opened his eyes and found himself staring down the barrel of Hoffmeister's pistol.

"Uffz, what's going on, I was just spending some time with my friends here and ..."

Shaking with anger Hoffmeister hissed at Schumacher, "What did I tell you Schumacher? I warned you about this shit, didn't I?"

Schumacher stood up, adjusting his clothing as he did so, "Sorry Uffz, but these two guys are buddies of mine from the old ..."

"I don't give a damn who they are, get your arse back to 413 before I shoot you. I should shoot you, you drunken bastard."

"Hey Uffz ..."

"It's Herr Unteroffizier to you, now move!"

"Lads, this is our new man, Alan Caddick, late of the 11th Hussars. Been here in Africa since ...?"

"February of 1940, Sar'nt. Drove armoured cars before this." Caddick had a pronounced Welsh accent which immediately gave Fitzhugh a smile.

"Where are ye from boyo?" Fitzhugh asked.

"Abergwyngregyn in Caernarvonshire, the seat of ..." Caddick began to explain before Fitzhugh cut him off.

"A Welshman, no doubt Fred McTavish would be laughing his arse off if he knew this."

O'Connell gave Fitzhugh a look, which stopped any further comment. "Don't mind the lads Alan, why did you leave your regiment?"

"Wasn't my idea Sar'nt, the Army needed drivers in the 3rd Royal Tanks, I'm a driver, a damned good one at that."

"Wot, no more holding onto our hats when Fitzie slams the brakes on, or takes a hard corner?" Bill O'Shea laughed as he threw Fitzhugh a look.

Fitzhugh looked surprised, "If I'm not the driver ..."

"You're my new gunner Fitzie. I know you can handle it. Also, you're now a Lance Corporal, get that stripe on as soon as you can." O'Connell tossed Fitzhugh a pair of stripes he'd cadged from the supply men.

"Be still my beating heart ..." Fitzhugh grinned as he caught the stripes.

Oberfeldwebel Kurt Weber signaled for the platoon to advance, the Tommies were falling back after hitting the Afrika Korps' anti-tank gun line.

From his hatch, Hoffmeister could see the smoke plumes from numerous burning vehicles. An involuntary shiver ran up his spine as they passed close to a knocked out British tank, the remains of its commander lay atop the turret, burned beyond recognition. Not the first time Hoffmeister had seen that, probably not the last time either.

Looking to his front again, Hoffmeister could see the beginning blossoms of artillery explosions on the next rise in the ground. No doubt the British were there, waiting, hull down, to strike back. Time to button up and prepare for battle.

"Looks like a Mark Three coming over that rise, Teddy." Fitzhugh's eye had been drawn to barely perceived motion which soon grew into the turret of a German tank. "I make the range to be a thousand yards."

O'Connell was watching through his own field glasses, "Agreed, take him when the hull is exposed."

Fitzhugh was watching and waiting, the German was within the effective range of the tank's 2-pounder gun, but before giving away his position, Fitzhugh wanted to be certain of a kill. His eyebrows arched up in surprise as the German crested the rise, then began to pivot to its right, exposing the weaker side armor.

"Firing!" Fitzhugh called as he stomped on the trigger.

Within a heartbeat, O'Shea called out, "Up!" meaning that another round was in the gun, and it was ready to fire.

"Firing!" Fitzhugh called out again.

His first round had stopped the German tank, but its turret was rotating in their direction, indicating that the vehicle was still in the fight. Fitzhugh's second round went in near the driver's position.

Oberfeldwebel Kurt Weber felt intense heat on his legs, as if a red-hot poker had been drawn across his calves. Things were happening far too fast.

First an unseen Tommy had put a round into his tank's engine compartment, causing the tank to abruptly pull up short. Then ...

"Fritz, what the Hell is ..." As he had been calling his driver on the intercom, a second round had come in through Fritz Mannerheim's side vision slit. Mannerheim had opened it to let some air into the crew's cabin.

The round had hit the inside of the hull just in front of the driver then shattered into fragments. Some of those fragments killed Mannerheim instantly and mortally wounded the bow gunner, Hans Wunsche.

Another fragment cut Weber across both legs, breaking his right tibia in the process. The loader, Herbert Zeitz, was wounded by the same fragment. He fell unconscious to the turret floor.

Gunner Max Schulte was frantically opening his hatch in the turret wall, he could smell something burning. As he crawled out of his hatch, one of the high explosive rounds in the ready rack detonated, throwing him clear of the vehicle, but he died within seconds of hitting the ground.

Weber was trying to pull himself up and out of his commander's cupola when the round detonated. What remained of his body sank back into the burning turret. He died as his tank burned.

"Jesus, 411 has had it." Hoffmeister had watched as the flames had burst from the open hatches as Weber's tank brewed up. He saw a man thrown from a hatch but couldn't see what had happened to him. It struck him that he was now the senior man in the platoon with Weber out of action.

"First platoon, this is 413, Oberfeldwebel Weber is down. I'm taking command. All tanks, reverse back over the rise, we'll try and maneuver to our right after that. Execute!"

Fitzhugh fired another round at the retreating Germans, it hit but glanced off the turret armor of the target. That tank kept reversing until it was out of sight. As he searched for another target, O'Connell ordered a cease fire. The Germans had pulled back over the rise.

"Caddick, start reversing, slowly laddie. Everyone else keep your eyes peeled to your front, we've stopped Jerry for now, but he'll be back, probably in a foul mood as well. Nice shooting Fitzie, you killed at least one Hun."

After thirty minutes of reversing, stopping to watch, then reversing again, it was clear that it would be some time before the Germans continued their pursuit. Battalion ordered a full retreat back to where they had started the offensive.

Operation Battleaxe¹ was a bust.

¹ You can read more about Battleaxe here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Eve of Barbarossa

Leutnant Hermann von Steinbrecher checked his watch for probably the hundredth time. He was sitting atop the turret of Panzer 231, his crew were trying to sleep at their positions, some having more luck than others. Von Steinbrecher wondered what his old crew were up to.

He had spent enough time with Willi Hoffmeister, Fritz Weber, Horst Krebs, and Ulrich Neuhäuser that he felt he knew them well. When the orders had come down transferring them to a detachment being sent to North Africa, he had protested.

"Herr Major, we have been training as a crew, as a platoon leader I need to ..."

"I know Hermann, I know. They asked for experienced men, Hoffmeister had his own vehicle in France, assigning you to them was in order to train you." Major Hans Waldmann had poked von Steinbrecher in the chest for emphasis. "If it makes you feel any better, Hoffmeister wished to stay in your platoon. Which tells me, he did his job. Pretty well, if I'm any judge."

Von Steinbrecher remembered blushing at the compliment and saying, "Sorry Sir, it's just that we ..."

"Yes, yes, you worked very well together, you and Hoffmeister made your platoon one of the very best in the battalion." Waldmann had a habit of finishing his subordinates sentences, he was a very abrupt man, not given to idle chit chat.

Von Steinbrecher had finally realized that any further conversation on the topic of Hoffmeister and the rest of the crew being transferred would probably just annoy the man, so he had dropped it with a, "Zu befehl, Herr Major." Then he had bashed his heels together, saluted and spun on his heel.

"Ah well, it's probably for the best." he said to the night sky. In less than three hours he and his platoon would be advancing to the east. The invasion of Russia was about to begin.

Schütze Jan Kołodziej woke up well before the rest of his squad. He was troubled, and not just by the fact that the invasion of Russia was to begin within hours. A letter he had received was on his mind.

Three days ago a letter had arrived for him from Warszawa, or "Warschau" as the Germans insisted, to fit in he followed suit. (That caused him pain each and every time he said it, or the German name for any number of Polish towns.) The letter had been from an old friend, though the return address had puzzled him at first, "Fr. Elizabeth Brot." Until the recall of the Polish "Warszawa" versus the German "Warschau," the letter had to be from Elżbieta Chlebek. (Chlebek being the word for "bread" in Polish, "Brot" in German.)

When he had torn it open his hopes had been confirmed, it was from Elżbieta. She was alive and working in a German hospital in Warszawa.


Ever since the day I saw you in that uniform I have been torn. Torn between the feelings I had for you before the war and the disgust I felt upon seeing you in that uniform.

Now I know why, I have done similar things in order to survive and pray for the end of this war. As I pray for your safety and well-being.

Stay alive, my love. Stay alive.



Part of him was ready to desert from this army he had more or less been forced into (see here). But he realized that getting back to Warszawa was impossible at this juncture. It seemed that the entire German military was on the road heading east, going against that tide would be nearly impossible without the right papers. Out of uniform he had every expectation of being shot out of hand by the Niemcy. He had seen it himself.

Better to stay with his unit and survive.

"Why aren't you sleeping Jan?" Kołodziej heard the voice of his buddy, Kazimir Dutka, another Pole conscripted into the German army.

"Just thinking of that letter, Kazimir. It gives me hope where I had none before."

"Hope? We're invading Russia in the morning, and you have hope? You're either an optimist or a fool, Jan."

Gefreiter Ernst Paulus interrupted the two Poles, "If you two Schwachköpfe¹ are done sleeping, one of you can go get me some coffee, the other check the gun. We'll need both before the sun is up!"

"231, 201, you boys awake over there?" von Steinbrecher had to grin, Hauptmann Oswald Erdinger was in fine fettle this morning.

"Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann, awake and raring to go!" von Steinbrecher answered.

"Sehr gut, I want your boys on the right flank, column formation for now. Use your judgement as to the best formation once we roll forward."

"Got it, gute Jagd Herr Hauptmann!²"


Over the platoon net, von Steinbrecher issued his orders, he had Panzer 235, Unteroffizier Kurt Schmeling's Panzer, take the lead. Per their discussed platoon doctrine, 234 would take up position behind 235, followed by the others in reverse turret number. Which left Panzer 231, von Steinbrecher's command tank, in the rear.

The infantry kept their heads down as the artillery pounded the Soviet front lines, when it stopped, they would advance to contact. Every man hoped that the artillery would do their jobs for them. If the guns could kill enough Russians or otherwise demoralize them, then the infantry could simply roll forward and clear holes for the armor to punch through to the rear.

Only the men who were new to war really believed this, the veterans knew better.

One thousand four-hundred and sixteen days of Hell were about to begin.

¹ Dimwits (German)
² Good hunting Captain! (German)
³ Same to you! (German)
⁴ The German Panzerwaffe had a numbering scheme for the vehicles, the first digit was the company, the second was the platoon, the last was the individual vehicle number within the platoon.