Saturday, 23 April 2016

Captain Bekker's SPG

The Battle of Leningrad became a proving grounds for new weapons. From the middle of 1941 to the summer of 1944, the battlefield here saw the newest and most extraordinary creations from both side of the front line. Finding armoured vehicles here was most surprising, as the conditions did not make it easy to use tanks and SPGs. One of the most unusual vehicles that could be found here was a German 105 mm SPG on the chassis of a British light tank.

British tank, German howitzer

The creation of these interesting SPGs is covered in a number of works in both the German and English languages. As a brief reminder, many trophies were captured by the Germans after the fall of France in the summer of 1940. Among them were many armoured vehicles. One of the, the British Light Tank MkVI, served as the chassis for a German 105 mm mod. 1916 howitzer. The author of this project was Captain Bekker, commander of 12th battery, 227th Artillery Regiment, 227th Infantry Division.

The result was a lightly armoured vehicle with a casemate, open from the top and partially from the rear. The crew consisted of 4 men. The thickness of the front armour was 22 mm, 15 mm in the sides. The vehicle turned out very compact, especially when you consider the caliber of the gun. The length of the vehicle was under 4 meters, while the height was only 2 meters. The mass was less than 6.5 tons. The 88 hp engine allowed it to develop a very impressive speed: 40-50 kph on roads.

The maxium range of this improvised SPG was 9200 m. As a bonus, the gun could use ammunition from the most common weapon of German artillery regiments: the 105 mm leFH 18.

Six tanks were converted into these SPGs and were put through trials. All that was left was to test them in battle. The vehicles were formed into an extra 15th battery in the artillery regiment of the 227th division, with three platoons of two SPGs each. The battery was also equipped with munitions carriers. In documents, it was occasionally referred to as an assault battery. Even though using these SPGs as assault guns was not strictly correct, their combat history is long and varied.

Use in combat, 1941

For a while, the 227th division remained in France, but Army Group North urgently needed reserves by fall. The division was transferred to the Soviet north, where it was included in the 1st Army Corps. The 227th Division replaced elements of the 39th Motorized Corps in the forests south of Ladoga.

Almost instantly, the division ended up in the center of battle. The Soviet 54th Army desperately tried to penetrate the blockade. At the same time, German command was planning an offensive against Volkhovstroy. For the time being, the 227th division was defending.

On October 15th, 1941, the 15th battery took up positions in three places where tanks could appear, one platoon each. Several days were spent shooting at the enemy. The Germans were preparing for an offensive, and two platoons were transferred to the neighbouring 254th Infantry Division. They returned only after the 54th Army's offensive began on October 20th.

On October 23rd and 24th, the SPGs fought actively, firing over 200 rounds. They were also used as infantry support weapons. As a result, the battery suffered its first casualties: 4 men, including Bekker, were wounded.

On November 15th, another attempt to use the SPGs as assault guns was made in support of the unsuccessful assault by the 223rd Infantry Division. The battery lost three men killed, and one SPG was left in no man's land. It was only recovered after three days. Second and third platoons had a similar experience. The vehicles showed themselves to be well designed and reliable.

Out of the battery's three platoons, the first was the most active. Starting in late October, it supported the 11th Infantry Division as it attacked towards Pogostye and Volkhov. SPGs from the platoon fought alongside infantry, to the point of having to use hand grenades and the crew's personal weapons. On November 11th, the platoon fought Soviet tanks near Khotovskaya Gorka village. In this battle, one vehicle was hit 16 times, but its armour was never penetrated. This episode is confirmed by Soviet sources.

The village was defended by elements of the 3rd Guards Infantry Division, supported by several T-40 tanks from the 122nd Tank Brigade. Armed with machineguns, they proved powerless against the even relatively lightly armoured vehicles from Bekker's battery. The 122nd Tank Brigade lost 2 tanks that day. It's worth mentioning that the battles were very fierce and the German march to Volkhov was anything but a walk in the park. The platoon went through several commanders during that time and one SPG was heavily damaged by a mine.

In the end, the 54th Army managed to stop the Germans at the outskirts of Volkhov and push them back to their initial positions in December. Over more than a month, 15th battery managed to fire off up to 1300 shells, or over 200 per gun. The evaluation of the vehicle in combat was very positive. t was very stable when firing and its off-road performance was good.

Use in combat, 1941

The combat history of the battery doesn't end there. In the winter and spring of 1942, elements of the 227th Infantry Division fought at Pogostye. Among them were SPGs from 15th battery. The SPGs also supported infantry from the 269th Infantry Division.

On February 16th, the battery deflected an offensive by the 54th Army. This was the first time the battery saw KV tanks from the 124th Tank Brigade. The Germans lost three vehicles in the ensuing battle. Turns out that armour piercing shells of the 105 mm guns were powerless against the thick armour of Soviet tanks.

The remaining SPGs fought for another month in the swamps and forests near Pogostye. They were quite handy in March. The armour improved the chances of survival of both the crew and the gun, and the 54th Army was poorly equipped when it came to AT guns. As a result, the SPGs frequently played a role reserved for "real" assault guns.

For example, they escorted German infantry that moved through forest roads. Their firepower was enough to destroy a machinegun nest of fight off an unexpected attack. According to German sources, 15th battery managed to shoot up a Soviet infantry column. This fact cannot be confirmed by Soviet sources, but in the chaos of forest battle, something like this could very well have happened.

The SPGs were also useful when it was time to break out from an encirclement. After the fierce battles of March, the battery had only two functional vehicles left.

Despite all attempts to repair the SPGs, 15th battery still had only two vehicles by the time the Volkhov Front began their Sinyavino Offensive. These SPGs fought in the First Battle of Ladoga.

One of the remaining SPGs was used to punch a corridor through to the semi-encircled 366th regiment commanded by M. Wengler. It was shot up by Soviet AT riflemen on a forest road. The second SPG was sent to cover one of the main supply routes when it was threatened by the 4th Guards Infantry Corps. Here, the vehicle was lost to tankers of the 98th Tank Brigade.

After battles in the swamps of Sinyavino, 15th battery had no vehicle left. Nevertheless, the battery remained in records of the 227th Infantry Division during Operation Spark. However, no more combat action by its SPGs can be found in documents.

The battlefields around Leningrad proved to be a tough trial for this unusual vehicle. Its design was well thought out and earned few complaints. Experience earned during its use came in handy when the Germans designed other SPGs.

Original article by Vyachevlav Mosunov.

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