Surviving Hitler

A street scene in a German town. A bunch of Sturmabteilung stormtroopers stands to the left. Just like in Hollywood movies, there are swastika banners everywhere. For anyone not supporting Hitler and the Nazis, it must’ve felt oppressive. Those who could had already left Germany. Those who didn’t get out in time and who were in opposition kept a low profile, unless they wanted to risk ending up in a Gestapo interrogation room or a concentration camp. Others didn’t mind. They had it better than in the 1920’s and 30’s, at least until the bombs started falling, and enjoyed the sense of order after a couple of chaotic decades.

Today is the 74th anniversary of the assassination attempt on Hitler – or rather, the assassination attempt that was closest to success, as there had been numerous attempts before the 20 July plot. Less than ten months later, the war was over for Germany. People could breathe again, but there were many who genuinely missed “the old times”. It’s a phenomenon that repeats itself over and over. Those who weren’t negatively affected by the oppression, or perhaps even thrived under it, bemoan that the good old days are gone. We see it in Russia today, where Stalin is partially rehabilitated.

Germany went through a de-Nazification process after the war, but save for the worst war criminals, officials, judges, doctors and other people who had been part of the system got away with a rap across the knuckles and made to promise to not do it again. Had every Party member and other sympathizers ben put in prison, the system would’ve collapsed and the rebuilding of Germany would’ve become much more difficult. That was the mistake the USA made in Iraq after ousting Saddam Hussein. By weeding out every Ba’ath Party member in the administration and army, the country collapsed and the seeds for the current situation in the Middle East were sown. There were draconian plans to make Germany unable to wage war again (see the “Morgenthau Plan”), but cooler heads fortunately prevailed.

Winning wars are easy compared to winning the peace. Unless the peace is seen as just by the involved parties, there will be resentment that could make conflicts flare up again. Never start a war without having a plan on what to do once it’s won.

 

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“Now, where are we?”

A common misconception is that German officers were heel-clicking automatons shouting “Jawohl, Herr General!” and sending the soldiers into enemy gunfire. In countless movies, the officers and soldiers appear unimaginative and acting out orders to the letter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The German Army used (and still use) a doctrine called “Auftragstaktik” – mission-type tactics. It wasn’t something new; the concept had been around since the Napoleonic Wars, but the Germans took it to heart. Instead of having superior officers giving specific orders on how to execute a mission, the German commanders gave their subordinates a specific goal, the resources to achieve it with, and a time frame. “Captain, you are to take the three bunkers on Hill 213. You have a rifle company, a platoon of combat engineers, and support from the regimental mortars at your disposal. This mission is to be finished no later than 1400 hours. Questions?”

With the commanding officer planning and executing the mission, a greater degree of flexibility was achieved. If some unforeseen event occurred, the officer didn’t have to check back for updated orders, losing momentum in the process. He could modify his plan on the spot, living up to the German military proverb that “it’s better to do something, than to wait”, meaning that even if an immediate decision could turn out to be less than optimal in retrospect, it was better to act than to wait for orders and miss an opportunity. By acting on opportunities, the mission could turn into a greater success than originally planned. The US and British armies had a much more top-down chain of command, which made officers at lower levels less flexible. Coupled with the German ability to form Kampfgruppen, ad hoc combat commands made up from available troops, this made for an opponent that proved to be tougher than the Allies expected.

So, instead of having “Prussian” officers rigidly following orders, the Germans influenced post-war officer training in other armies. Mission-type tactics are pretty much the norm today, more than two centuries after the concept began to take root.

Spätlese

“Spätlese” – a German term for wine made from ripe grapes – could also be applied to this quartet of mature gentlemen. The photo is from 1943 or later, as evident from the “M42” uniforms worn the first three soldiers (the Germans themselves didn’t use any model years for the uniforms; that’s a post-war distinction to differentiate between the variants of the same field uniform). The boots and gaiters also indicate a date of 1941 or later, and finally the caps are of the new 1943 pattern. The guy on the right wears an “M36” uniform, distinguished by the dark collar and pleats on the pockets, and still issued late in the war. Perhaps his girth made the depot issue a uniform that was still in storage, the smaller sizes already taken.

They are all in their 40’s, and most likely belonging to a second line or rear area unit. Of the year classes born around 1900, 4-9 % of the men died during the war, which was far better than those a generation younger, of which more than a third were killed. They were probably taken prisoner by the end of the war – by the Western Allies, if they were lucky. If so, they were probably held in a PoW camp for short while before sent home. If, on the other hand, they ended up in Soviet captivity, they weren’t released until 1953, if they had survived for that long. Small wonder German troops tried to surrender to the Western Allies as the Third Reich collapsed.

A chip off the old Bloch

“Wir fliegen gegen Engelland mit einem abgeschossenen Franzose.” “We fly to England with a downed Frenchie.” German soldiers have fun with a grounded Bloch MB.210 bomber, summer of 1940. The prototype of the boxy and unappealing MB.210 first flew in 1934, and the first production aircraft in 1936. It was underpowered, the engines prone to overheating, and had to have the engines exchanged. Less than 300 were built, ten of them sold to Romania. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, the twelve bomber squadrons equipped with the MB.210 were in the middle of reorganization, where outdated aircraft were to be retired. The slow aircraft saw some action, primarily as a night bomber, but by the armistice there were only 119 flyable aircraft left. The Romanian air force used it on the Eastern Front, but appears to have retired the surviving aircraft in 1942. The Bloch MB.210 is a testament to the rapid development of aircraft in the 1930s. Planes that were state of the art in the beginning of the decade were obsolete by the end of it, and when the war broke out, the development was sped up even more. World War 2 was a period of rapid technological advances.

Into the great wide open

A column of Panzerkampfwagen IV tanks make its way across a featureless Soviet landscape. The dusty road is rutted by the passing of numerous cars and tanks. This photo is probably from 1941 or the early summer of 1942, and the vehicle on the left could be a Horch all-terrain car with a 2 cm anti-aircraft gun, towing an ammunition trailer. The markings appear to be those of Beobachtungs-Abteilung 27 (right side of trailer), combined with the symbol of Panzergruppe 3 (the “Hh”-like symbol) and the H-in-a-circle for an independent army unit. This poses a bit of a problem, though, as records show that Beo.Abt.27 was assigned to the 17th Army in 1941. Something doesn’t add up, but then the records are incomplete for many units during the war.

The Beobachtungs-Abteilung 27 was one of 40 artillery observation battalions, which used several means of locating enemy artillery for counter-battery fire, like observation of muzzle flashes and gun sound, and from balloons. They initially had an anti-aircraft platoon, which was removed after 1942. The battalion was transferred to the West in 1944, and surrendered to the Allies in the Netherlands in May 1945.

The problem with properly identifying the unit puzzled several of the members of an Eastern Front-themed FaceBook group. As many of them are very knowledgeable and accomplished researchers and authors, I’ll have to be content with that we might never know the exact circumstances regarding that photo. As it had been mounted in an album, it’s a prime example of what happens when a photo is removed from its context.

A pioneer that went a long way

The first time I saw the photos posted here, I thought that the caption might be wrong. A Renault FT tank in Russia 1942? Shouldn’t that be France in 1940? Then I read about the tank and the armies which used it, and things became clearer, even though a mystery still remained.

The small Renault FT tank debuted on the battlefield in 1918, armed with either a short 37 mm cannon or an 8 mm machinegun. The crew consisted of a driver and a commander, the latter also acting as gunner. While it might not look that impressive, its design nonetheless set the standard for tanks for a century and counting. It was sold to several countries, and saw use in conflicts between the world wars, and also during WW2 and beyond. In the East, Renault FTs were used by Poland, Lithuania, and the USSR. The Germans captured several hundred tanks in the Battle of France in 1940, but they were mostly used in the occupied countries in western Europe.

The camouflage paintjob could be Polish. The tank might be one captured from the Poles, either in the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-21, or in 1939. The Red Army didn’t use them in WW2. Anyway, for some reason it ended up far away from the Renault factory in France, but not as far as some of the tanks captured in 1921. Eight of them were given to Afghanistan, where they were decommissioned in the 1950s. What happened to the tank in the photos, then? We don’t know, but if it was still in working condition, it might have been used for rear area security.
renault_ft2In this view, it is apparent that the tail skid that was intended to make crossing trenches easier has been damaged in some way, as it isn’t attached to the upper fastening point.

Here’s a video for those of you who want to know more about the Renault FT.

Off to an uncertain fate

A long column of Soviet prisoners of war march to the rear in the hot summer weather of 1941. They have surrendered to the 10. Panzer-Division, and don’t know what fate they’ll meet when handed over to security units in the rear. The Wehrmacht treated the Soviet PoWs like the subhumans the Nazis regarded them as. The death rate was horrible, and was the result of part a murderous ideology, part insufficient logistics as the Germans weren’t prepared to deal with hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

The war on the Eastern Front took on a brutal character from the very beginning. Both sides committed massacres and killed prisoners. The ideological aspect aggravated it, as Nazism and Communism were competing for domination. Nazi Germany was worse by a few degrees, as it had a genocidal streak, but the USSR wasn’t exactly a shining example of humanism, either. The purges and terror against its own people began under Lenin, and Stalin cranked it up even more. Couple that with a tendency to view soldiers as a faceless resource, where millions of them were wasted because of orders not to retreat despite hopeless situations, and one can understand why the Eastern Front was such a horrible place. Hitler wasted the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, too, with “no retreat” orders. Add to this the plight of the civilian Soviet citizens and the Jews, and the result is the bloodiest war in history. Let’s hope it stays that.