The War on the Eastern Front
The Soviet Union 1941-45 A Photographic History
The excerpt this week consists of a series of images from Soviet era archives, recently published in The War on the Eastern Front, The Soviet Union 1941-45 A Photographic History. For a long time images portraying ‘The Great Patriotic War’ from the Russian perspective seemed to be limited to a very small range of propaganda images released in the west during the war. Only recently have many more photographs from the archives started to become available. Alexander Hill’s selection of photographs portrays the course of the war and each image is accompanied with a well informed caption. Provides a fresh perspective on the war, often very close to the Red Army soldier on the ground. Recommended.
This photograph, taken on 20 November 1941, actually shows Soviet troops in action on the streets of Rostov-on-Don in the far south of the Soviet Union rather than near Moscow. It was here, rather than at Moscow, tlaat German forces suffered their first obvious reverse, as they were pushed back from the Caucasus in late November 1941. They would soon also suffer a similar fate not only on the outskirts of Moscow but near Tikhvin, east of Leningrad. Note that the Soviet troops in this picture are still only equipped with rifles, as the sub-machine guns that would become almost ubiquitous in the Red Army were still not available in large numbers. Being equipped only with rifles would put Soviet troops at a disadvantage against German forces in some situations where German troops at least had some MP 40 sub-machine guns for use at relatively close quarters.
Both sides in the Great Patriotic War were heavily reliant on the horse throughout the war, the Red Army particularly so during 1941-1942. Here a 76.2mm Model 1939 Divisional gun (USB) is being pulled by a horse team somewhere near Moscow in late December 1941. The beauty of the trees encased in snow and ice provides something of a contrast with the weapon of war passing by. Fortunately the snow here does not appear to be sufficiently deep to seriously hamper movement, and the gun and limber also have the advantage of having pneumatic tyres. In deep snow with wooden wheels progress would have been much more difficult. Much as was the case for the F-22 gun, stocks of the USB would be largely expended by the end of the war, as the USB was not produced from 1943 onwards. Once again, seeing such a weapon in a picture is one clue as to when the picture was probably taken.
Sputnik 2278743. Alongside partisans there were other Soviet troops operating on German and Axis-occupied territory. Some of those troops were Red Army scouts, such as Senior Sergeant Frolchenko pictured here in August 1943 after he had participated in the Battle of Kursk. Frolchenko fought from the Battle of Stalingrad through to the Battle of Berlin. He is wearing a camouflage coverall as frequently worn by Red Army scouts during tile latter half of the war, has a pair of binoculars, and is armed with the by this point ubiquitous PPSh sub-machine gun. Although such reconnaissance troops were more likely to be found closer to the front line, they sometimes penetrated deep into enemy-held territory.
Sputnik 491038. The first two photographs in this chapter capture something of the intensity and horror of combat. Here a British-supplied 'Matilda' tank - with accompanying infantry of the South-Western Front —is shown on the attack near Zmiev, south of Kharkov, during the summer of 1942. This is certainly not a staged photograph, with a casualty certainly evident on the right-hand side of the tank, and possibly also the left. Although the Soviet practice of having infantrymen ride on tanks into battle meant that tanks were more likely to have close infantry support - and to some extent made up for shortages in armoured fighting and other vehicles to carry infantry into battle - it also resulted in heavy casualties. There is, as is clear from this photograph, little protection for infantrymen on the back of a tank, and their desperation to get off the tank into some sort of cover is very much evident.
Sputnik 666554. This second photograph, taken moments after 491038, shows the body of one of the infantrymen on the ground in tire front-centre part of the picture, with what is quite possibly a second casualty on the far left. None of the infantrymen here has a PPSh sub machine gun, a weapon that would become synonymous with tank-riding infantry as the war progressed. Consequently the infantrymen here would be very much dependent on the firepower of the accompanying tank when engaging enemy positions at close range.
Sputnik 5646055. To open this chapter, which deals with a period starting with the Soviet counter- offensive near Stalingrad - Operation 'Uranus' - we have a picture taken on 20 November 1942, a day after the official start of the operation. Taken somewhere near Stalingrad, this picture is unusual in that it was taken at night, where achieving a good photograph without flash would have been far from easy. Fortunately in this instance the photographer has caught this T-34 at just the right moment to have the flash from the gun firing illuminate the tank. Tank buffs and those with a keen eye for such details will have noticed that this tank differs from those in earlier photos of T-34 tanks in this book and indeed from the tanks in Sputnik 882842 in this chapter (see p. 162), where the turret shape is significantly different. The tank pictured here is the 1942 variant of the T-34 tank. When comparing this variant to its predecessor, particularly important to note is the addition of a commander's cupola on the turret. This gave the commander much better vision from within the tank through vision blocks in the cupola than in the previous version of the tank.
Sputnik 5337. The German defenders of Berlin consisted of a range of troops from elite units of the Waffen SS down to Volksstunn militia. The latter in particular were often equipped with weapons of First World War vintage, like the MG-08/15 machine gun shown partially on the body of the dead German in the foreground of this picture, taken towards the end of the fighting for Berlin. Behind him Red Army soldiers scurry for cover with their own equivalent of the MG-08, the trusted Maxim Model 1910. German resistance was at times fanatical, as highlighted by the pockets of resistance that did not surrender on 2 May on the orders of the garrison commander. The 1st Guards Tank Army, one of the Soviet formations fighting for the city, would record that despite the surrender early on 2 May it would suffer 63 killed and 228 wounded that day as a result of 'fighting that took place in isolated sectors because the enemy sought to put up [further] resistance and not lay down their arms'. In the process of suppressing resistance that day the army claimed to have killed 470 of the enemy. Overall, that the 1st Guards Tank Army claims to have killed more of the enemy than it captured during the period from 16 April through to 2 May 1945 - 24,192 compared to 17,573 - can also be taken as evidence of the ferocity of resistance.
This excerpt from The War on the Eastern Front, The Soviet Union 1941-45 A Photographic History appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.