IMPROVISATIONS IN THE FIELD OF
SUPPLY AND TRANSPORTATION
The German supply and transportation system in Russia was greatly dependent on improvisations because of the peculiarities of terrain and climate. From the outset of the campaign, supply columns were improvised with motor vehicles of every type which had been requisitioned from private owners. They did not fully replace standard military columns since some of the vehicles were in poor condition and therefore of little service. In addition, the problem of replacing spare parts for so many different types of trucks caused incessant difficulties. Yet, most of these vehicles were in service for many years and some of them lasted for the duration of the war.
I. The Panje Column
In Russia, motorized transportation was useless many months of the year. During winter and muddy periods the entire supply and transportation system would have been completely paralyzed if supply columns of Panje wagons or Panje sleighs had not come to the rescue. These vehicles were in use throughout the Russian campaign and were looked upon as vital for the prosecution of the war.
When the German armored and motorized units swept across the dusty plains of Russia during the summer of 1941, nobody paid much attention to the insignificant little peasant horses of the Russian steppe. The tankers and truck drivers could not fail to notice the industrious little animals pulling heavily loaded peasant wagons cross-country whenever they were pushed off the road by the modern mechanical giants. They were looked upon sympathetically, but what was their performance compared to that of the steel colossi and multiton carriers? Any comparison obviously was out of the question. Many a man dismissed them with a disdainful gesture and the words: "A
hundred years behind the times." Even next to the heavy cold-blooded draft horses and the tall mounts of the infantry divisions their dwarfish cousins seemed slightly ridiculous and insignificant.
A few months later the Panje horse was judged quite differently. It came into sudden demand during the muddy season when no motor vehicle could operate and any number of cold-blooded horses could not move the heavy guns and ammunition. How were the advance elements to be supplied when they were stranded without provisions? By Panje columns. Who brought the urgently needed ammunition to the front when the organic divisional supply columns were stuck in the mud as far as fifty miles to the rear of the advance elements? Again the Panje column. Who was capable of moving gasoline from the railheads to the mechanical colossi even through the deepest mud? The Panje horse. By what means of transportation were the badly wounded to be transported when the most modern ambulances could no longer advance in the mud? The answer was always the Panje horse and wagon. From then on they became faithful, indispensable companions of the field forces. In winter the Panje horse proved even more essential. The Panje sleigh became the universal means of transportation when motor vehicles were incapacitated and roads were snowbound or nonexistent. During the first months of 1942 some panzer divisions had as many as 2,000 Panje horses but hardly a single serviceable motor vehicle. For that reason they received the nickname "Panje divisions." This unexpected turn of events made the veterinarian the busiest man in any panzer division.
A good idea of the role played by the Panje horse may be gathered from an incident which occurred to the 51st Rocket Launcher Regiment when it was moved into the Vitebsk area in January 1942. After having lost most of its vehicles during the battles for Moscow, the regiment was in the midst of reorganization when it was suddenly called upon to participate in the defense against a major enemy break-through at Toropets. The organic prime movers were either unserviceable or had been lost in previous battles. Only a few trucks in poor condition were available. Snowstorms and high snowdrifts at a temperature of -22° F. impeded all motor traffic on the roads. Enemy spearheads were approaching the vicinity of Vitebsk, Velizh, and Velikiye Luki.
In this emergency two rocket launcher batteries were hurriedly mounted on sleighs. Each battery of six 150-mm. launchers was assigned seventy-five Panje horses and three ammunition sleighs for each launcher. After they had crossed the frozen Dvina River the two batteries were committed for the relief of Velizh
as part of a reinforced corps. Because of the heavy weight of the ammunition- each projectile weighed approximately 110 pounds- the few remaining trucks had to use the Vitebsk Velizh highway after it had been cleared of snow and mines. During this emergency march the local model of low, small sleighs usually drawn by one or two Panje horses proved to be the only effective means of transportation. The large sleighs supplied by the German Army were too heavy and far too wide for the narrow tracks made by native sleighs. Moreover the harness of the Panje horses which had to be used in this emergency was suitable for only limited loads. Despite very difficult terrain conditions the rocket launcher batteries reached the city in time to relieve it. On the other hand, four medium howitzers drawn by heavy German horses never reached their destination.
There was not a single German military agency in Russia which was not forced to employ Panje vehicles or columns during winter, not even excepting the Luftwaffe. German mechanization had not made sufficient progress to cope with the Russian, mud or terrain conditions in winter. As a result German motor vehicles were incapable of replacing native means of transportation despite the fact that the latter were "a century behind the times."
II. The Corduroy Road
War could never have been waged in the vast swamp regions of Russia had they not been made accessible by improvised corduroy roads. These were the most important static improvisation of the entire Russian campaign and many operations in swampy forests and in the mud of northern and central Russia were feasible only because of the construction of such roads. The first corduroy road was built soon after the Germans crossed into European Russia; the last one during the westward retreat across the German border. In the intervening period hundreds of miles of corduroy road had to be built or repaired during the muddy seasons in order to move up supplies and heavy equipment. At the beginning of the war it was often sufficient to construct a cordurory road 25 to 100 yards long to get hundreds of boggeddown vehicles back on the move.
During the thrust on Leningrad in mid-July 1941 an entire panzer corps bogged down in the swampy forests, separating the corps from the Luga River. For several days the corps was unable to assist its hardpressed advanced elements which were surrounded in a bridgehead on the other side of the river. Only corduroy roads built with considerable effort could restore the former mobility of the corps. In another instance, in 1942,
Eleventh Army had to abandon a planned offensive in the direction of the Neva River because corduroy roads could not be built in time.
The swamps along the Volkhov River were impassable because there were no usable roads. The construction of corduroy roads was the only means of overcoming such terrain difficulties. Since Russia lacks rock and gravel but has an abundance of timber in the central and northern parts, the construction of concrete or paved roads was impossible and corduroy roads became the only feasible substitute.
In constructing these roads it was important to select logs about ten inches in diameter and place them in several layers. As in the superstructure of a bridge, stringers, double layers of crossed logs, and siderail lashings had to be used. The guard rails had to be wired because nails could not be used. The cross logs had to be topped with a layer of sand-not dirt-or, when no sand was available, with cinders or rubble. Time and personnel permitting, the top layer of logs was to be levelled off. Only such thoroughly constructed corduroy roads could stand the strain of constant traffic.
The crossing of the many small swamps found along almost any Russian road caused many special difficulties. It was at these points that the supply convoys got stuck when the heavy trucks of the motor transportation regiments sank in. As a result, serious traffic disruptions lasting many hours and sometimes even several days occurred quite frequently. Over and over again the convoy commanders made the same mistake of failing to wait until the roadbed was repaired by the construction of corduroy roads. Instead, they believed that they could force their way through. The flat swampy stretches, which could have been repaired within a relatively short time before they were completely torn up, were soon in such a condition that their restoration became extremely difficult. The road had to be closed to all traffic since it had become impassable and the swampy stretches obstructed the flow of traffic. Frequently repair work could not be undertaken in time because the road construction engineers had no motor transportation and therefore arrived too late at crucial points. In general, the construction of a corduroy road proved sufficient to bridge small swamps. But whenever swamps were too deep a regular bridge had to be built across them.
Corduroy roads had a detrimental effect on the speed of movements since they slowed down traffic. The average march performance of foot troops dropped to two miles an hour whereas motor vehicles could cover about five miles an hour. Traveling along a corduroy road on foot or by motor was very strenous, and
equipment, especially sensitive instruments, suffered from incessant concussions. These roads complicated and slowed urgent movements of reserves in critical situations.
In the Leningrad area there was not a single serviceable hardsurface road leading east toward the German front. (Map 5) In this sector the local army commander was wholly dependent upon two long corduroy roads that covered a total distance of eighty miles. Since they were the only arteries for troop movements and supply traffic, they were used by day and night and their maintenance therefore presented many problems.
In the vicinity of Leningrad two types of construction were commonly used: the heavy corduroy road built over a foundation of five log stringers and the light one which was placed directly on the ground. The two layers of cross logs forming the roadway consisted of logs about five inches in diameter that were secured on both ends by guard rails which in turn were anchored to the ground by drift pins and wire loops. The road was just wide enough for one truck because longer logs could not be procured. Turnouts were built at 1000-yard intervals. Special traffic-regulating detachments directed all movements along these roads.
page created 4 September 2002
Return to the Table of Contents
Return to CMH Online