Saturday, October 18, 2014

German Railroad Destroyer Schienenwolf

When You Really Want to be Destructive....

Schienenwolf train track rail destroyer Rail Wolf worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Schienenwolf

If you ever wondered what the term 'scorched earth policy' meant, well, you are looking at it. When the Germans wanted to do something destructive, they did not go about it with half measures. One example of this is the Schienenwolf, or "Rail Wolf." The Heer used the Rail Wolf as part of its scorched earth policy beginning in 1943 (its use was codified much later by Hitler in the infamous "Nero Decree" of 19 March 1945, but it was in use throughout the retreat from Russia). This is one of the few "weapons" of World War II Nazi Germany which remains fully functional, out in the open on display and exactly as it was during the wary.

Schienenwolf train track rail destroyer Rail Wolf worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Schienenwolf

The Schienenwolf was fiendishly clever. It did its destructive job with a minimum of fuss and use of resources. For once, the Germans cannot be completely blamed for this weird tool, which basically was a simple railway wagon with an immense iron hook on the end. The hook was lowered with a hand crank and dragged behind the car in order to destroy the track and make it unusable by the enemy. Very simple and extremely effective. This slowed the pace of Soviet offensives and gave the Germans a little extra breathing room before the next onslaught.

Schienenwolf train track rail destroyer Rail Wolf worldwartwo.filminspector.com

The reason why the Germans cannot be solely blamed for this weapon is because the Schienenwolf apparently was being used by Czechoslovakia during the 1930s. How often the Czechs were using it and to what end is a bit murky, but apparently they came up with the idea. Perhaps its origins were completely benign, to remove track that had to be replaced anyway. The Germans, quick to note the potential of any truly efficient destructive gizmo, seized upon the Rail Wolf and put it work in Russia, Poland, Italy and neighboring countries - including their own.

Schienenwolf train track rail destroyer Rail Wolf worldwartwo.filminspector.com

Railroads were the primary means of transportation on the Continent during World War II, primarily because coal for steam locomotives was a lot more plentiful than oil for internal combustion engines. When the Schienenwolf's massive steel plow was lowered and towed along by a powerful locomotive, it ripped up the rails and left them completely unusable. The Russians were doing exactly the same thing in destroying rails, only with partisans blowing up the rails instead of ripping them up with a wagon. The Germans simply made the whole idea more thorough, cost-effective and industrial.

Schienenwolf worldwartwo.filminspector.com railroad destroyer
German soldiers on a train with a railroad destroyer. Italy 21 March 1944 (Frass, National Archive). This is conjecture, but one imagines that the Schienenwolf would be sent to railroad lines just behind the front lines and put on standby during enemy attacks. The officer with binoculars is probably watching for signs of a breakthrough in order to set the train in motion to the next switch position. The Germans badly needed the railroads, on which all of their supplies and troops moved, so they wouldn't want to destroy the tracks until absolutely necessary. Most likely, this was in the Monte Cassino sector and the train wasn't needed this day. If you compare these photos taken by the propaganda service to modern-day photos of the Schienenwolf, it becomes clear how they used camera angles to make it appear more fearsome than it actually was.

What's interesting to note is that the standard German and Russian railway gauges were of different sizes, so the Russians would have had to re-lay the rails anyway. The Schienenwolf, though, with the deep furrow it ripped and mass of mangled steel, had to make that job immensely more difficult, and it prevented the Russians from using any captured German rail cars and locomotives.

Schienenwolf train track rail destroyer Rail Wolf worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Germans loved to pose with evidence of their destruction, you see it time and time again in the photos. Note the officer hanging out of the cab making good and sure to be in the picture.

The Schienenwolf is known to have been used often. For instance, during the German retreat from Belorussia in the summer of 1944, as well as during the retreat from the Monte Cassino winter position in Italy that spring, it was used as often as possible. How many Schienenwolf there were is unclear. One thing is certain - on any particular stretch of rail, you only had to use the Schienenwolf once.

Schienenwolf train track rail destroyer Rail Wolf worldwartwo.filminspector.com

Naturally, the Germans only used the Schienenwolf when they had a pretty strong feeling that they weren't going to be going that way again any time soon. By late 1943 and 1944, that feeling was happening a lot, despite later myths that the Wehrmacht never realized that they were losing. They did indeed realize that the strategic situation had turned against them, and they acted accordingly. The only restriction on the Rail Wolf's use was time - the time that remained before the Russians arrived. Usually there wasn't a whole lot of that, so the Schienenwolf's use was somewhat haphazard.

Schienenwolf worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Schienenwolf in use on the Gothic Line, Itri, Italy, 1944 (Frak, Federal Archive).

There were times when retreats could be conducted in a fairly orderly manner, and those instances were when the Schienenwolf proved its value. Once Hitler ordered a scorched earth policy, though, as in the zone of the Army Group Center retreat after the Kursk battle, it was quite handy.

Schienenwolf train track rail destroyer Rail Wolf worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Schienenwolf (Schwellenpflug) in Ostpreussen (East Prussia) 1944 - 1945.

Unlike many of the German weapons such as their railroad guns and advanced tanks and airplanes, the Nazis did not bother to destroy the Schienenwolfs in their possession before the capitulation, or at least did not destroy all of them. Several survived. They simply sat in sidings, pretty much ignored, protected by their anonymity. The advancing Russian soldiers probably never paid them a second glance, but these innocuous-looking rail wagons had made their jobs a lot harder.

Schienenwolf train track rail destroyer Rail Wolf worldwartwo.filminspector.com
German railroad destroyer in action - Italy - 21 March 1944. This photo shows one reason why the Schienenwolf was not as effective in the West - there were multiple rails and close alternate routes throughout the heavily congested areas of western Europe, which made effectively destroying rail connections difficult and time-consuming. In Russia, on the other hand, long stretches of rail were single track only and you only had to run the Schienenwolf once to completely destroy rail connections between distant cities. The Western Allies, loaded with trucks, also were much less dependent upon trains for communications.

Eventually, the surviving Schienenwolf made their way to various museums. However, those museums are in Eastern Europe, and thus the Schienenwolf does not get much notice in the western world. One Rail Wolf is in Belgrade, another the Bosnia and Herzegovina Historical Museum, and another (a replica) in a central spot in Moscow. There is only one known to have found its way to the West, and it is not on display and may no longer even exist. It apparently is "somewhere in England" if it hasn't been melted down as scrap. All of the ones we know about sit outside in the elements, slowly rusting away, one of Germany's more interesting and effective tactical weapons almost completely forgotten.




2014



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