Approaching the point of no return

There’s just one name jotted on the back of this photo: “Geilenkirchen”. It gives one huge hint about the time and place for this photo. Geilenkirchen is a town on the Dutch-German border, across which is the town of Maastricht and its important bridges. The date is most likely 10 May 1940, and the officers in the car appears to consult a map. Nearest the camera is a captain, and next to him probably his commanding officer, which would be a major or colonel. Leaning on the windscreen is a lieutenant, while a lance corporal looks on. The officers have slip-on loops on their shoulder boards, covering the regimental numbers for operational security reasons. The senior officer has an Iron Cross, first class, which he probably won in World War 1. Now he is about to go to war again, as the unit he commands (probably a battalion) is poised for the attack on the Netherlands and Belgium. In the back seat is a small box camera, perhaps an Eastman Kodak “Brownie”, a common, inexpensive camera. Maybe the photos ended up in an album, commemorating the events that are about to unfold. The briefcase close to the lance corporal holds the commanding officer’s documents and maps. Once they’ve finished reading the map, there are just a few minutes of driving to cross the border, after which there’s no turning back.


Shipping out

This photo is simply marked “1943” on the back, which isn’t really all that helpful. We see German troops on a ship (obviously), most of them wearing life jackets. A couple of field kitchens can be seen to the right, as well as a shed-like structure that might house another kitchen. It’s really hard to tell the location; it could be the coast of Norway, or the Adriatic Sea, or the Black Sea. The soldiers wear field caps, and a closer look reveals them to be the short-billed M1938 Bergmütze worn by Jäger units, and not the longer-billed M1943 Feldmütze introduced in – you guessed it – 1943. The lack of cap insignia and Gebirgsjäger or Jäger sleeve patches is puzzling, though. As I discuss in this post, it appears like some units didn’t wear the distinctive badges in the field. I need to find out more on the subject…

Transport by sea was almost always fraught with danger. Enemy aircraft, surface ships and submarines posed a threat, but so did mines. If possible, troop transports hugged the coastline, often forming convoys escorted by frigates or destroyers. For German troops, the most dangerous route was between Europe and North Africa. Crossing the Mediterranean meant the British attack aircraft and submarines were likely to spot your ship and attempt to sink it. One of the main reasons Rommel and his Afrika Korps failed was that a lot of shipping was sunk, sending supplies, materiel and men to the bottom of the sea. If that happened, you wanted to wear one of those life jackets.

The enemy bellow

“The bunker on the Maginot Line.” That short description is all that hints at the time and place for this photo. Three friends relax on top of their hastily constructed dugout, the location somewhere along the Franco-German border sometime either during the Phoney War in the autumn of 1939, or after the Fall of France in June 1940. I tend to believe that it’s the former, and that the bunker was improved on before the arrival of winter. A stove pipe can be seen to the right, indicating that the bunker was intended for a prolonged stay. Either way, the soldiers look relaxed. The Unteroffizier drinks from his field bottle while he and the private on the right listen to the accordion player.

Light-hearted photos like this are more common early in the war. It is as if the seriousness of the situation really hasn’t taken hold yet, but then no one expected the war to drag on for more than five years. The outlook in 1940 was brighter than a year or two later, but even when the Third Reich was crumbling in 1945, German prisoners of war could tell their captors that Germany would win in the end. Such is the power of propaganda, and before we dismiss the German soldiers as deluded, just think of the crap we’re told to believe, and which people believe despite having access to infinitely more information than any person back in 1940…

Building military muscle

Grim-looking recruits are lined up for inspection prior to training. Each is armed with a Mauser Kar 98k rifle, their S84/96 III bayonets tucked into the front of their fatigue uniform jackets. It’s somewhere between 1935 and 1937 in one of the hundreds of garrisons that have sprung up across Germany, as the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty have been broken. Rapidly expanding the army from 100,000 men to many times that was a challenge, but as the professional soldiers of the Reichswehr had been trained to lead at a rank above their actual rank, the task was made easier.

It was men like these, who had received ample training during peacetime, who were the first to march into Austria, Czechoslovakia and then Poland. Few of the soldiers in the photo survived the war, as the attrition rate of frontline troops was heavy on the Eastern Front, unless they were lucky and ended up as occupation troops in places like Denmark or Norway. Still, there were those who saw combat on several fronts from the first day of the war to the last, and their stories are often fascinating reading. Their training was part of their survival.

That time of the year again

While this photo probably is from the spring of 1942, the lousy Soviet roads are much in evidence here. The ice indicates that the ground is thawing, but other than that, the mud is the same as in the autumn. The Germans learned about the infamous rasputitsa mud by this time in October 1941. The rains in the autumn were followed by a brief spell of snow, and when it melted, the unpaved roads throughout the western part of the Soviet Union turned into seas of mud, slowing German troop movements to a crawl. Cars, motorcycles and trucks got stuck, and soldiers on foot and horses had to exert themselves heavily in order to trudge through the mire. Tracked vehicles fared a little better but fuel consumption went up, and as it was hard for the fuel trucks to bring gas for the tanks and halftracks, they too had to slow their advance.

I haven’t been able to identify the 4×6 truck, but the smaller truck in the background looks like a captured Soviet GAZ AA truck. It’s loaded with a bedframe among other things. Could the vehicles belong to a medical unit?

Rear area security

While I’m not entirely sure, this undated photo gives me the impression of showing rear area security troops in the Balkans, 1941-42. The occupied territories could be relatively quiet, like Denmark, or hotbeds of insurrection, like Yugoslavia. The German response varied, but was in general marked by harsh reprisals and “anti-partisan” actions which probably killed more civilians than guerilla fighters. Apart for police units and SS extermination troops, the brunt of rear area security operations fell on Sicherungsdivisionen (security divisions). These units were usually made up from reservists and other soldiers who weren’t suitable for the heavy fighting on the frontline. With long lines of supply (usually by railroad), it was imperative that disruptions were kept to a minimum. Needless to say, the partisans held the upper hand most of the time…

The soldiers’ somewhat sloppy appearance and the absence of helmets are indications of a rear area unit, but also the submachine gun held by the guy wearing a Zeltbahn (fifth guy from right). With the magazine to the side, it’s probably an MP 34, also known under its original designation Steyr-Solothurn S1-100. It was an Austrian SMG that was used by the Wehrmacht after Austria was absorbed in the Greater German Reich. When the Germans had produced enough MP 38 and MP 40 SMGs for the frontline troops, the MP 34 and other captured weapons were sent to rear area units. The MP 34 was a high quality SMG, but I guess it made maintenance easier at the front if the number of different weapons was kept to a minimum.

Like the absolute majority of German divisions, this unit appears to rely on horse transport. “Alarm” units could be equipped with trucks and captured armored cars, though. When the tables were turned in last years of the war, security units often found themselves on the frontline. With limited combat training, they didn’t fare well…

Summer driving

Two friends, an Obergefreiter and a Gefreiter, in front of their Kübelwagen jeep. With no note on the back of the photo, it’s anybody’s guess when and where it was taken. They wear “M41” uniform tunics, and the guy on the right has the Iron Cross, second class medal ribbon. It would be easy to place them on the Eastern Front in 1944, but I tend to think it could be Italy or the Balkans in 1943. The cap worn by the Gefreiter looks like it’s the tropical cap, which allows for an earlier date. His tunic looks almost too short compared to that of his friend, which might be a sign of a problematic supply situation.

The car is a Volkswagen Typ 82, or as it became more known as: Kübelwagen. It’s a bit worse for wear, the headlight being just an empty shell. The edge of the fender is painted white as a safety measure for black-out conditions; it was common to mark the corners of cars with white paint, as it was common to drive without the headlights in order to escape detection by the enemy. The Kübelwagen was a better design than other similar cars used by the Wehrmacht, but still not as rugged as the American Jeep. It was based on the same chassis as the classic Volkswagen Beetle. The air-cooled engine made it less vulnerable in extreme temperatures, and is saw action from the icy steppes of Russia to the deserts of North Africa. It was popular with the troops, and an amphibian version, the Schwimmwagen, was used for reconnaissance.

This is yet another photo which has lost its history. It comes from an album, but with no notes it has little context and leaves it to us to guess its background.