Monday, May 16

Read n' reviewed: With Raupenschlepper Ost on the Eastern Front Orel-Brjansk-Kowel-Warsaw-Danzig from Peko Publishing

Peko Publishing's new title features the wartime journal of Wilhelm Bender. A simple soldier, whose writings & photos combined to make "With Raupenschlepper Ost on the Eastern Front - Orel-Brjansk-Kowel-Warsaw-Danzig". See how it looks & feels & we thought about this new book in our review...

With Raupenschlepper Ost on the Eastern Front

From Peko Publishing
Author: Wilhelm Bender
English language
180 Pages
Hardcover, landscape format
Dimensions: 297mm x 210mm
ISBN 9786155583681
Price: €26.05
Not many of us have a large percentage of our lives dedicated to print. The 75 + years since the end of World War Two and the historical significance and interest of the photos that Wilhelm Bender left for posterity made this portion of his life interesting to PeKo Publishing and presumably a lot of their readers. His photo albums were put together in this, their latest book, which details Bender's service on the Eastern Front in an artillery unit during WWII, most notably with the prominent Raupenschlepper Ost or "Caterpillar Tractor East" featuring heavily in the photos.
The book in its physical form
The publishers combined these photos along with Bender's own captions to outline his service and the interesting points, vehicles and scenes shown by these images right from the start until the end of the war. A hardcover book of a surprising one hundred and eighty pages. I say surprisingly because it is not that heavy of a read. Having the English text in blocks at the start of each chapter, then only in captions to describe briefly each photo.
The book has a familiar look and feel to it if you have PeKo's "on the Battlefield" series, you will be at home here. The photos and the text are all of excellent quality and certainly previously unpublished, which a lot of books cannot lay the claim to nowadays... 

The Synopsys:
The book follows Bender's career in the Wehrmacht. H started his military career as a medical soldier,  but later took part in the defensive battles of Orel, Bryansk, Kovel and later participated in the suppression of the Warsaw uprising and in defence of Danzig bridgehead with leichte Artillerie-Abteilung 849. This book is a story of his military experiences told in text and in more than 300 photos.

Page by page.
We will now look at the contents in a little more detail, going from page to page, chapter to chapter in as briefly as I can (I promise).

A medical soldier at the start of the war, the first chapter, titled "Securing the German Western Border in the Schnee-Eifel Region". The period runs from August 1939 through to March 1940. The book starts off as you would think a journal would Bender using the "I" in this description which brings you into focus straight away that is HIS story to tell, and it immediately focussed my listening. This chapter is filled with smaller form photos of his unit's soldiers and officers on or near the frontier country to protect from "invasion".
Bender's travels to Poland from March to August 1940 to work as a medical orderly fill the next small chapter of four pages. Smaller photos from groups of soldiers, usually in towns are added to with simple one-sentence captions here. 

The period of August 1940 through February 1942 is next, with Bender's service in San.Ers.Abt.12 (Medical staff replacement unit) in Bad Kreuznach is the focus. Block text fills the start of this chapter with smaller photos accompanied again with those small notes on who is who in each shot. The particulars are noted in brief form. These are a great study of the rear echelon soldiers at work and play.
From February 1942 through to May 1943 Bender spent time at the reserve field hospital in Lorchingen near Strasburg. Not just soldiers are on display in this chapter, but the nurses of the Red Cross and the chapel were a surprise to see. Along with photos of Bender and his comrades at work and leisure in the hospital and on parade and at special functions of the army. These smaller photos and supportive text show the wreckage of the 1940 campaign along the border in the Maginot Line and in towns like Saarbrucken among others.
The war really got real it seems in May 1943 when Benders was transferred to Le.Art.Abt.849. The idyllic life in the field hospital was swapped for the front after a long period of retraining and then moved to the eastern front. The new (then) RSO would be a large part of Bender's life from then on in the war, and it does feature quite a bit over this chapter (along with their 105mm cannons) in lovely large-format photos and supportive text over seven pages.
In July 1943 the unit and Bender were transferred to Russia. The defensive combat around the vicinity of Ore, Brjansk. This chapter of twenty-four pages details July through September and is full of mainly large-form photos. The shots include a group of photographs of the travel to the front, setting up the guns and sighting the enemy. We see our first Russian soldiers, a lot of camouflage from enemy fighters and general day to day shots. The feel of the photos are changing as we get further into the war.
The further defence of Brjansk & retreat from the Ssosch river area from September through December 1943 is the subject of our next chapter of eighteen pages. Again we have mostly larger format photos with the short text under each. The fast retreat of the unit, sometimes as Bender says, of 100 km a day leads to many shots of the soldiers on the road, refuelling and taking short breaks and of their guns firing in the line. The block text from Bender is becoming more sombre as the book's timeframe advances towards the end.
The next twenty-two pages feature the defensive combat around (the now infamous) Pripyat and "White Russia" as it is called in the book from December 1943 through March 1944. There is more description in Bender's block text at the start of the chapter, this gives way to some great photos of the RSOs and the men that live, drive, repair and load them. Some other very good shots of the 105mm battery in action are a great study.
The battle of Kowel from April through May 1944 was a combined arms effort, and Bender's unit was heavily involved. He describes just a little about the action in the block text, with some excellent photos of the men digging in foxholes, a long armoured train, Panzer IVs and Panthers, a luchs and even a wrecked lend lease Sherman. The wrecked town of Kowel is also featured in some smaller photos.
The fighting in Northern Ukraine with the 12.Konigl.Honved-Division in May through July involved co-operation with their Hungarian allies, and this small chapter shows some great close-in shots of the RSOs (like this one below with them on rails) and the Hungarians who they were fighting with.
Twenty-two pages that are filled with Bender's unit mostly on the road in the retreat from the Bug River to the Weichsel rivers from July to August in 1944 are next. These photos seem more functional. Less of people and more of machines during their travel and taking a rest when they can. Bender's summary of this time in block text talks of a race against death in the Russian encirclement with some interesting hints that I would like to know more about. The relief of the soldiers in their arrival near Warsaw seems palpable in the photos below.
A month or refitting in Prussia and then subordination to Heeres Fest.Art.Abt.849 during August through September of 1944 is a chapter of nine pages. Bender talks in the summary of the fourteen-day refitting, training and travelling period. New Russian 12.2 & 7.5cm guns are shown with the unit in training also. Spirits seem to be lifted in these shots.
A short chapter of Bender's unit in the suppression of the Warsaw uprising (as it is called here) is just over four pages. The text from Bender hints at the horrific fighting of the unit at that time and the destruction wrought upon it. The photos are mainly of the guns and the men's shelters. 
The second part of the unit's operations to secure the warsaw Fortress is just over four pages and it covers October 1944 through January 1945. The photos show a lot of soldiers and Polish civilians digging emplacements, camouflaging the guns quite effectively, eating and enjoying the period of comparable rest the Russians afforded them at the time.
There are only two pages left of Bender's service during WWII in this book, and there are no more photographs to be had. The four chapters feature block text describing the unexpected retreat from fortress Warsaw and the repercussions for the commanders, the refitting of the unit in Pomerania in Feb-march 1945. Through the battles of the Danzig Bridgehead in April 1945 where the times were becoming desperate. Bender helps us understand in his text, I would almost want to read more about these desperate times for some reason.

Through April and May 1945, we read in block text of the unit's final actions in the Frische Nehrung and the surrender of the German forces. The last few paragraphs detail Benders unit's capitulation, and the end of the book for us.

That was all he wrote...
So, what did I think?

The book's looks and composition are first class, and the photographs are all of the previously unpublished nature, which is kind of extraordinary seeing they feature the same man's career throughout the war. The subjects of the soldiers at rest and on duty, the subjects of the artillery guns and the many shots of the RSOs will be a great thing for many readers who love this tracked vehicle.

Although sometimes I would like to read more of Bender's thoughts. The general feeling of the man comes through the block text at the start of each section. A little more about the vehicles would be the only improvement I could add.

Loved this book, it is a great RSO reference, which is much appreciated by this reader.

Adam Norenberg

Thanks to PeKo Publishing for sending this book to us to read and to review - You can find out more about this, and PeKo's other publications on their website...