I’m a lucky guy. I have a thousand friends. Many are scholars, and they are interesting, educated, and globe-trotting. A lot of them take advantage of the summer to do their research, and they all make sure to post their photos to me on Facebook. Last week I discussed a Historian Friend of Mine visiting eastern Europe and posting a beautiful image of a museum-quality piece from World War II.
This time, I thought I’d throw you all a curve ball, really shake things up a bit. I thought I’d discuss another Historian Friend of Mine doing the exact same thing.
Well, let me be honest. It’s not exactly the same. Last week, the photo was of a light tank, more precisely a tankette, from the Italian Regio Esercito. This time, it is of a heavy gun, an artillery piece from the fearsome arsenal of the Wehrmacht. In other words, we are moving from the hapless to the heroic. Every student of the war recognizes the Italians as the comic relief of a very unfunny war, while the Wehrmacht still represents a kind of tactical and operational gold standard. Whatever we may think of the German army’s morals, we very rarely laugh at it.
So, let me introduce to you this week’s featured weapon. The German “sIG 33,” a heavy infantry gun (in German, a “schweres Infanterie Geschütz”). This was a marvel of German engineering, an elegant design of the sort that anyone who owns a modern Krups coffee grinder will instantly recognize. It was the standard German heavy infantry gun of the war, and the largest weapon ever classified as an infantry gun by any nation. While it was originally designed to be horse drawn, later versions received solid rubber tires and air brakes for towing by truck. In the 1938 version, the one that went to war, the sIG 33 could deliver a 149.1 mm shell an effective range of 4,700 meters (nearly three miles). As World War II artillery pieces went, it was light, mobile, and lethal.
So there we have it. Laughable Italians. Lethal Germans. The entire story of the Axis war effort. An Italian tank that was little more than a tin can, a “rolling coffin,” contrasted with a German gun capable of probing, pinning, and pulverizing its enemy.
As always, however, the actual history of the World War II battlefield confounds all our neat little schemes. Sure, the Italian CV-33 turned out to be a joke. It barely survived its peacetime maneuvers, it met tough opposition in Ethiopia, and by the time Italy entered the war in 1940 it was altogether obsolete.
But let us be equally honest about the sIG 33. Conceived by the finest military minds in the world, and then designed by some very gifted engineers, it seemed an ideal solution to a serious problem: how to provide the infantry with the heavy fire support it needed to overcome modern defensive systems echeloned in depth. And it did just that, 150mm worth. It provided a level of firepower that in the previous world war would have been deployed only at corps-level, but was now available to the regiment. It worked in Poland in small numbers, and then in France in larger ones.
By the spring of 1941, however, we might say that it met its match. Anyone who studies war for a living will recognize the situation. A flare up. An unexpected crisis. A quiet zone that suddenly becomes a trouble spot. What does that equal? There can be only one answer.
A coup in the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade in March 1941 overthrew the pro-Axis regency of Prince Paul. The new men in power wanted neither war, nor alliance with Germany, “ni rat ni pakt” in the Serbo-Croatian. Hitler (rightly or wrongly, we can leave the point moot for the moment) decided to invade Yugoslavia in order to pacify the Balkans before his big grab for world power in the Soviet Union in June 1941.
It was a hastily planned operation, so “ad hoc” that it never even got a proper name. It went into the books as “Operation 25,” and like everything the Germans did up to this point in the war, it worked like a charm. It overran Yugoslavia in record time with near-zero casualties. Three German terms suffice to explain it: Panzer, Stuka, Kesselschlacht.
This campaign ended differently from earlier ones, however. The Germans conquered Yugoslavia but had a hard time holding it. With the Wehrmacht aiming at bigger game in Russia, the forces left in the Balkans were relatively small. And they had enemies galore, “cetniks” aligned with the previous royal regime in Belgrade and “partisans” aiming to build a new communist Yugoslavia. Josip Broz was the leader of the latter faction, although the world would come to know him by his alias of “Tito.” Cetnik and partisan might have hated each other–this was the Balkans, after all–but both of them managed to hate the “Nijemci” with equal ferocity.
As a result, German garrison forces in Yugoslavia soon came under attack from all directions. They held the towns, but the roads and countryside between them were anything but secure, and a trip from one town to another almost always led to roadblocks, ambush, and disaster. Perhaps a heavy mechanized force might have been able to solve the problem, but by late 1941 the German Panzers were in no condition to help. They had their hands full at places like Minsk, Smolensk, and Moscow.
And this is where the sIG 33 comes back into the picture. Let me pose four questions to the very discerning readership of this column. In the mountainous theater of the Balkans, just how useful was this big infantry gun, weighing a full 1,800 kilograms (nearly 4,000 pounds)? How often, when second-rate German troops ran into a partisan ambush on an obscure mountain road, did they actually manage to deploy it? And even when they did, how often did it get into action too late? Finally, how many of these German guns were overrun?
Four questions; four answers. In order, I would say: not very; rarely; almost always; and all too often.
So sure, go ahead: laugh at those idiot Italians who placed their ill-designed tank into situations for which it was hopelessly unsuited. But just be sure to reserve some of your laughter for the German Wehrmacht. War almost always surprises the participants.
And oh, did I mention? My friend took this photo of the German sIG 33 on the grounds of the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s actually very close to Caffe Tito.
Why am I not surprised?