IMAGES OF WAR. Hitler's Mountain Troops. The Gebirsjäger. Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives
Three photographs, taken from the same slide, showing SS-Division Nord during action against enemy positions in a wooded area. The division saw action on the Norwegian-Finnish border and began hostilities against the Russians, in June 1941, in an Operation, code-named 'Arctic Fox'. During a battle at Salla, against strong Russian forces, Nord suffered 300 killed and 400 wounded in the first two days of the invasion.
At the end of the year, the 5.Gebirgs-Division was withdrawn from the Leningrad sector where it saw extensive action on the Southern Front. But, despite the stiffening of German forces in the south, nothing could prevent the growing strength of the Soviet Army. By early 1944, over four million Russian soldiers were now being thrown at the exhausted troops. Even the elite Waffen-SS Gebirgs-Divisions could do nothing to stem the rapid enemy onslaught. By mid-May, the Red Army overran the Crimea and was remorse¬lessly bearing down on the Carpathian Mountains.
The end in the East seemed imminent. Hitler began taking drastic steps to try and hold the Russians from overrunning the Hungarian oilfields. To bear the brunt of this massive defence strategy, the 1.Gebirgs-Division, now attached to parts of the 2.Panzer-Armee, took part in the offensive around the area of the Platensee.
On 5 March 1944, the attack began in earnest, but the spring thaw turned the countryside into a sea of mud and almost immediately the troops of the 2.Panzer-Armee were bogged down in the mire. As for the Gebirsjäger, they could still move with their pack animals, and, during the first ten days, they made good progress. But then their advance ground to a halt. Along the disin¬tegrating German front, a mere handful of units, including the 1.Gebirgs-Division and the 13.Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS 'Handschar', mainly composed of Bosnian Moslems, faced a massive Russian Army of some 40 divi¬sions. Under the pulverizing effects of the Russian troops and their artillery, both the 2.Panzer-Armee and the 6.SS.Panzer-Armee were forced to withdraw. As the bulk of the German forces retreated under a hurricane of fire, it was up to the 1.Gebirgs-Division to fight back the Soviet force whilst the remnants of the Wehrmacht clawed its way westward.
Gebirgstruppen from the new SS-Division Nord during operations in the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. A motorcycle combination is following a Pz.Kpfw.11 towards the battlefront watched by soldiers on the edge of the road. SS Kampfgruppe Nord was formed in February 1941, from two SS Totenkopf Regiments. The designation changed to SS-Division Nord in September 1941, and again in September 1942, to SS Gebirgs-Division Nord, and finally to 6th SS Gebirgs-Division Nord.
Nord truppen in action with their 3.7cm PaK35/36. Even though the PaK35/36 had become inadequate for operational needs, in the face of growing armoured opposition, they were still quite capable of causing some serious damage to their opponent.
A Nord MG34 machine gun crew with their weapon attached to a Lafette 34 sustained- fire mount with optical sight. Note the special pads on the front of the tripod. These were specifically used when the weapon was being carried on the carriers back. The pads would allow the carrier some reasonable comfort.
Here, Gebirgstruppen hold a morning formation inside a Russian village. They are all wearing the standard Gebirsjäger uniform. Once their commander had finished lecturing his men, the troops would disperse and prepare for their daily duties in the snow. This would first consist of the soldiers donning their winter camouflage smocks and standard field equipment.
Three photographs showing a Gebirsjäger wearing the special woolen toque beneath the Bergmütze. Typically, troops wore two toques in the extreme arctic conditions, as these photographs vividly illustrate. One was worn over the head to protect the ears and face, and one around the neck. The toques main purpose was intended to keep the head warm whilst wearing the steel helmet, which during winter operations in the east, the soldiers referred them as like a 'freezer box'. Along with the toque, the soldier either wore the winter white camouflage smock or the standard issue greatcoat with insulated two-finger mittens.
Five photographs showing an SS-Division Nord ski patrol during operations in Army Group North, during the winter of 1942. They are all wearing the early winter camouflage smocks over their uniforms and fur covered head-dress. The fur covered caps were issued to German troops serving in the East during the winter of 1942. Most of the men are carrying over their shoulder the Kar98k carbine bolt action rifle, which was distributed to all infantrymen during the war. Of particular interest, many of the ski troops can be seen wearing the coloured friend-or-foe recognition stripes on both sleeves.
Inside a Russian village and a Gebirsjäger award ceremony is being undertaken. The soldier on the left, wearing a whitewashed M35 steel helmet, holds the rank of an Oberleutnant and congratulates a Leutnant on his award of the Iron Cross 2nd Class.
Three Gebirgs soldiers pause in their march following a ski patrol. During the snow months in Russia, especially during the second winter period, the new practical loose-fitting hooded snow overalls were worn, purely designed to wear over many layers of clothing, including the greatcoat. These men are wearing thick woolen gloves and a woolen toque for the head. Two of the men wear tinted ski goggles over their Bergmütze field cap. They are armed with the 7.92mm Mauser Gew33/40 rifles, which were slightly shorter than the standard Kar98k carbine.
Gebirgs soldiers using a sled to move from one part of the front to another. Even by 1942, the majority of motive power within the regiments of the infantry divisions was mainly animal draught. As a consequence, many hundreds of thousands of horses died either due to combat action, or succumbed to the extreme weather, lack of forage, or were eaten by starving soldiers.
Gebirgstruppen approach a forest in deep snow during operations on the Ostfront in 1942. Signs of enemy movement were often easier to identify in the snow, and a vigilant patrol could quickly detect the location of their enemy by fresh foot prints and snow knocked off bushes and other disturbed foliage.
A mountain trooper on a ski patrol. He wears the standard issue Gebirgs rucksack, which appears to be heavily laden with supplies. In order to camouflage him in the snow he wears the snow overall. The snow overall was large and shapeless and worn without a belt over any of the uniform and all equipment. However, in spite of being produced in high numbers to the Gebirsjäger, this item of clothing did not prove to be as practical as other camouflage smocks, as it tended to restrict the wearers freedom of movement.
An MG34 machine gun squad advance through a wooded area to a new firing position. They wear the two piece snow suit and white washed M35 steel helmets. In snow, soldiers found it necessary to apply white paint over the steel helmet. Initially, during the first winter of 1941, many troops did not attempt to apply their steel helmets with any type of white camouflage, often leaving them in the field-grey. However, some did attempt to find a solution in order for them to blend in with the local terrain. A number of soldiers found that chalk was very useful and applied this crudely over the entire helmet. But it was whitewash paint that became the most widely used form of winter camouflage.
Weary infantry rest in a wooded area and try to sleep in the snow after enduring probably many days of bitter fighting against stiffening Russian resistance. The troops are compelled to protect themselves against the bitter temperatures with Zeltbahn shelter-quarters. Foliage from the surrounding pine trees would also have been used as bedding to keep the men dry. For the German forces on the Eastern Front there was little respite - if the Red Army let up for a brief period, the sub zero temperatures certainly did not.
Supply vehicles for Gebirsjäger and Wehrmacht front line troops have halted on a congested road. During the winter on the Ostfront, wheeled forms of transportation were frequently immobilised due to the extreme weather conditions. Consequently, this would hamper supplies to the front line and occasionally bring an advance to a stall.
For local defence, an MG34 machine gun is seen mounted on an anti-aircraft tripod mount. Throughout the war, support units were issued with light machine guns for self-defence and were able to counter low flying enemy aircraft quite regularly. The Gebirgs machine gunner wears the animal skin fur coat, issued for use to German troops driving vehicles or on guard duties on the Eastern Front during the winter.
A well camouflaged Pz.Kpfw.111 has halted on a congested road. One of the crewman watches a long column of Panjewagens pass by. These troops are part of the SS Gebirgs Division Nord, and are more than likely transporting divisional rations and equipment to frontline troops.
Two photographs showing two different artillery observation posts using the 6×30 Sf.14Z Scherefernrohr or scissor binoculars, searching for enemy targets. Each artillery battery had an observation post among the frontline positions. However, in extreme arctic conditions, the lenses sometimes iced over, hampering the surveillance of the frontlines.
Two photographs, taken in sequence, showing a 7.5cm Geb36 gun being loaded and then fired by its well trained crew. Firing an artillery piece in the snow could be frequently problematic for the gun crew. The recoil would regularly drive the weapon deep into the snow and would often cause inaccurate firing. For this reason, a number of gun crew sometimes modified their 7.5cm Geb36 gun, removing its wheels and replacing them with sturdy gun trails.
Two Pz.Kpfw.11's can be seen passing pioneers attached to the SS Gebirgs Division Nord, in 1942. The area can be seen totally devastated by either heavy artillery or air bombardments. Whilst this type of tactical bombardment served the Germans well, during the winter the lack of shelter was often problematic for the soldiers.
Soldiers of the SS Gebirgs Division Nord stand beside two stationary Pz.Kpfw.11 tanks during operations on the Kestenga front. The soldier standing to the left of the motorcyclist, who is wearing the special motorcycle protective suit, appears to be armed with a captured Russian 7.62mm Mosin-Nagant M1891/30 rifle. The Germans designated this Soviet weapon as the Gew252(r).
A convoy of supply trucks carrying men and equipment has halted along a road. Some of the mountain troops have dismounted from their vehicles and are seen standing near a stream. It is more than probable that this is a temporary stop and the column would have resumed its drive.
Soldiers of the 6.SS-Division-Nord in one of a number of shelters erected along the stagnate front. Although such shelters did not provide much, in terms of protection to the men against enemy fire, they certainly provided the soldiers with adequate shelter against the bitter elements.
A road march, during the summer of 1943, in Army Group South. The pack animals are well laden with equipment and a number of them can be seen attached with basket carriers, which were commonly used by the Gebirsjäger to carry their rations and other vital supplies needed to sustain them in some of the most inhospitable places on the Ostfront.
An interesting photograph showing a Gebirgs Artillery unit on a long march. One of the pack animals can be seen towing a 7.5cm GebG36, which was the standard artillery piece used by the mountain troops during the war in the East.
Apart from towing ordnance, the pack animals were also well adapted for carrying artillery. Here, in this photograph, pack handlers and their animals rest before resuming their march. A 7.5cm GebG36 has been broken down into eight loads for transportation. Note the mule carrying the spoke wheels for the gun.