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Schwellenpflug: the “Rail Wolf” used by Germans in retreat.

3 min read

The bitter-sweet relationship of Stalin’s Russia and Third Reich had shaped the European theatre of the Second World War, and Adolf Hitler was undoubtedly the most ambitious dictator since Napoleon, a bit more ambitious and surely more ruthless. If Hitler hadn’t been so greedy and didn’t start the assault on Russia, the things probably would have turned out to be pretty different, at least for the Europe of the Second World War. Underestimating Russian resilience and over-estimating the military might of German Army, Hitler decided to faced the grim consequences, and after the initial few successes, Russians fought back and didn’t hesitate to defend their territory from invading Nazis. When Germans were forced to make the retreat from the regions that they initially took from the Russians with surprise land and air assault, Nazis want make sure that the places they were leaving behind were totally destroyed. Since the beginning of the warfare, the retreat was often considered as a defeat, but sometimes used like a strategic manoeuvring to fight back. If bridges were blown to smithereens, the railway lines were uprooted with a specially designed plough called Schwellenpflug.

The Schwellenpflug was an instrument for destroying the railway lines. The literal translation of the word is “Rail Wolf”, while sometimes it is also referred to as “sleeper plough”. Its operation is simple and intuitive: positioned inside a pit dug in the middle of the railway, the plow is able to disembowel the railway, destroying the ties and lifting the rails, causing complete destruction of the railway line. The ploughs were produced since 1942 from the Krupp factory, required only six to eight minutes to put the giant destroyer in position while a team of ten people operated the machine, and had an operating speed ranging from 7 to 10 km/h, depending on the strength of the tractor locomotive.

The destruction of the lines of communication on rail, now considered a real “crime of war”, was systematically carried out in the Nazi occupation territories, all along Italy and the border to the East, then in Russia and neighboring countries. The destroyer was not just a massive track demolisher, because it carried stock of explosive material, anti-aircraft guns, and several machine guns. The machine was highly efficient and completely destroyed the railway tracks: sleepers by 100%, bonding more than 30% whereas the actual rails at 93% on average.

It is interesting to note how the Germans destroyed the tracks they built themselves, especially in Russia. The Russian trains were much lighter than the German ones, and the railways were underpowered to run the convoys coming from Germany. During the operation Barbarossa, one of the activities that most involved the Germans, was the replacement of the rails (or their adaptation) with increased railways. For example, from these railways passed the famous German “Railway Cannons”, immense destruction machines used during the conquest of Sevastopol (but it is another story).

In the video you can see a Schwellenpflug that destroys a railway line with wooden ties, of Soviet type (the ties of the Germans were almost always in steel) but modified in width to make the trains coming from Germany pass.

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