Untermensch?

In my collection, I have several photos of prisoners of war captured by Germans. Most of them are either columns of PoWs marching off to captivity, or of a few individuals who often even smiles at the camera. The photos express no ill will towards the captured enemies, and in some cases even curiosity and a certain respect. I know I might be projecting here, and that much is in the eye of the beholder, but then there are a handful of photos that make me ill at ease, as they seem to convey the photographer’s racism and sense of superiority.

People back in the first half of the 20th century were more racist then most of us are today. The British and French had their colonies, and had no qualms about using Indians and Africans in battles far away from their home countries. The US Army was segregated, Afro-Americans thought to be too stupid to operate machinery like tanks. The Japanese perpetrated horrible war crimes against anyone they thought racially inferior, which was pretty much anyone not from Japan. The Germans, fed propaganda extolling the superiority of the “Aryan race” for years, went to war with the idea that they were the race that was entitled to Lebensraum – living space – that “lesser races” were unfit to occupy. This ideology was practiced in the East, starting with the idea that the Slavic peoples by and large were less worthy and in many cases Untermenschen (subhumans).

Coupled with unexpected successes in the beginning of Operation Barbarossa and the lack of planning to handle the enormous numbers of prisoners of war captured, this thinking resulted in the death of several million Soviet PoWs. What I find troubling with this photo is that in my mind, it expresses the German soldier’s view of this Russian. With his slightly crooked teeth, somewhat Asian features, dirty cap and rumpled uniform, as well as the perspective, this is pretty much the Nazi propaganda view of the Soviet subhuman that doesn’t have a place in the Thousand Year Reich. This soldier’s chance of surviving past the first year of captivity was minimal. No one knows his name, but now you’ve seen his face.

Threat from above

“Luftgefährdet – Verschwinde! – Tarne u[nd] Verdunkle” A warning sign, which roughly translates as “Danger from the air. Take cover! Camoflage and black out [headlights]”. The terrain around Shchigry, a town in Kursk Oblast, Russia, is mostly flat farmland with occasional gullies cut by streams, offering little cover from enemy aircraft. Shchigry is located between the Shchigra and Lesnaya Plata Rivers, 60 kilometers northeast of Kursk. During WW2, the town was occupied by German troops from 21 November 1941 to 5 February 1943. This photo of a Pionier squad resting by the roadside, some soldiers enjoying a smoke, was taken on 31 July, 1942. While the Germans enjoyed aerial superiority most of the time, Soviet attacks were a reality. Half a year later, the Soviet airforce had wrested the control of the skies from the Germans.

You’ve been warned

“Hier beginnt der Arsch der Welt!” “Here begins the ass end of the world!” The marshes and forests by the Volkhov River, east of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and north of Novgorod, wasn’t the first choice to fight in if you asked a German soldier. The sign was one that was rather frequently photographed, but the other side of it less so. There it says: “Gehst Du von hinnen denk an Götz von Berlichingen.” “If you go further, think of Götz von Berlichingen.” This is a reference to the 16th century mercenary captain Gottfried “Götz” von Berlichingen (1480-1562), known as “Götz of the Iron Hand” due to his prostethic hand after losing his right hand and forearm in 1504. His name became famous as an euphemism for a vulgar expression Er kann mich im Arsche lecken” – “He can lick my ass”, also known as “the Swabian greeting”.

The photo is from May, 1942, when the Volkhov area saw extensive fighting as German forces cut off and obliterated Red Army units in a salient created after a Soviet offensive in January 1942. The battles were savage and the terrain didn’t help. By the end of June, the Soviet pocket was wiped out and the frontline restored.

As for Götz von Berlichingen, there’s one more point of trivia. In October 1943, 17. SS-Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier-Division “Götz von Berlichingen” was formed. It was created from scratch, with the majority of its original cadre coming from replacement units and conscripts, many of whom were Romanian Germans and French volunteers. The division’s sign was a shield with an iron hand. It was a second-rate Waffen-SS division, lacking many of the vehicles that would’ve made it a proper Panzergrenadier division, as well as short on officers and NCOs. It saw its baptism of fire in Normandy in the days following D-Day, June 1944. The climactic battle in the third episode of the TV mini-series “Band of Brothers” sees a unit from the division clashing with US paratroopers in the Battle of Bloody Gulch, south of  Carentan.

Something good to read

An officer, probably a Leutnant or Oberleutnant, his shoulderboards obscured by slip-on covers in order to make him a less obvious target, sits by the big oven in a Russian izba (peasant house), probably in 1941 or 1942. A man after my own heart, he has brought a book. Back when I did my military service, I was probably the only one in our company bringing a book to read when we were in the field.

There are many memoirs by German soldiers and officers that give an insight in what it was like to fight. I’ve read several, some of the best I’ll list here. For those of you who have only read Sven Hassel’s war novels, these books are the real stuff, in contrast to Hassel’s made-up stories. Here goes…

Gottlob Biedermann: In Deadly Combat   Biedermann rose from from private to lieutenant, serving in an infantry division on the Eastern Front. He survived four years of war; of his original squad of 13 men, only three did. His memoir provides an insight in the life as an NCO and junior officer. A particularily striking chapter is when the academic-looking Biedermann went berzerk during a Red Army assault.

Otto Carius: Tigers in the Mud   Slight of stature, Carius went from being a gunner in a PzKpfw 38(t) in 1941 to becoming the third highest-scoring tank ace of all time. He served for the largest part of the war  on the Eastern Front, but ended the was on the Western Front, fighting the Americans. Carius was an incredibly lucky soldier, and one memorable episode proves that smoking can actually save one’s life…

Siegfried Knappe: Soldat   A lieutenant during the invasion of France in 1940, Knappe was decorated for his bravery. He served on the Eastern Front and in Italy. Towards the end of the war, he served on General Wiedling’s staff during the fighting for Berlin, reporting to the Führerbunker. He became a prisoner of war, and spent five years in the USSR before being released. Knappe emigrated to the USA in the 1950’s.

Günther Koschorrek: Blood Red Snow   A simple soldier and machinegunner, Koschorrek was lucky to escape the hell in Stalingrad before it was too late. His account tells the tale of years of hard combat on the Eastern Front, and it rarely gets more intense and brutal than this. This is the story of a regular Frontschwein who was fortunate to survive it all, unlike most of his comrades.

Hans von Luck: Panzer Commander   A colonel by the end of WW2, Hans von Luck served on almost all fronts from the invasion of Poland in 1939, France 1940, the Soviet Union in 1941, North Africa, and Normandy, to the fall of Germany in 1945. His account is full of exciting and sometimes amusing stories. Few officers saw more action, and he even served under the legendary Field Marshal Rommel.

Kurt Meyer: Grenadiers   The youngest general in the German armed forces, the controversial “Panzer-Meyer” was in the thick of combat from the invasion of Poland to his capture in September 1944. Serving first in the elite Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler, then the 12. SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend”, he made a name for himself as an aggressive commander. He was tried for war crimes and sentenced to death, but managed to escape the hangman’s noose.

Martin Pöppel: Heaven & Hell   A rare account by one of the elite German Fallschirmjäger, Pöppel was a paratrooper who fought in Poland, Norway, Holland, Crete, Russia, Sicily and southern Italy, Normandy and Holland/Lower Rhine. He ended up as a prisoner of war in 1944, and spent some time in a PoW camp in Britain. The chapters on the fighting in Normandy are an interesting counterpoint to “Band of Brothers”, as his unit fought the 101st Airborne.

Guy Sajer: The Forgotten Soldier   Guy Sajer was an Alsacian who served in the elite Groβdeutschland Division (GD). He was just in his teens, and his story is one of a young man caught up in momentous events. There have been grave doubts whether he served in the German Army at all, as his book has many flaws and inaccuracies, but research has shown that he did serve in GD. Don’t read the book as a 100 % factual account of events, but as very personal story.

Johann Voss: Black Edelweiss   The 17 years old Voss joined the 6. SS-Gebirgs-Divsion in 1943 because a friend served there. The division was posted to the front in Finland, and in contrast to the other accounts listed here, he saw relatively little action to begin with. In 1944, the division fought rearguard actions in the Lapland War, and was deployed in the Vosges Mountains for Operation Nordwind, the little-known later phase of the Battle of the Bulge. Still, his book offers an insight into the mind of a young, idealistic soldier who had to deal with the fact that he had fought for an evil regime. In 2004, I managed to contact the author (“Johann Voss” isn’t his real name), and learned that he was still angry with how his youthful idealism had been exploited by Hitler and Himmler.

Is this the reel life?

A soldier, perhaps in an engineer or artillery unit, reels in telephone cable by turning a crank on a carrying frame. When retrieving the cable, the frame was carried on the chest, while it was carried on the back when laying the cable. A cable-laying party consisted of a leader and three men, one carrying the cable reel in its frame, and the other a long pole (usually three meters) a with fork-like tip to hold and lift the cable, while the third was responsible for tensioning the cable. A bag with pliers, electrical tape, screwdriver, knife, pencils, and a note pad was carried by the third man. The leader would reconnoiter the best route for the cable.

There were two kinds of telephone wire used. The light type was on hand-held reels, while the heavy cable seen in the photo was wound on drums. In the latter case, the cable was 1000 meters long, but if my experience at cable-laying is anything to go by, lengths of cable were lost in the field, the drums ending up holding about 800 meters. Building a telephone line takes different amounts of time, depending on the terrain and length. If the ground is flat and the trees have their branches high up (for example pines), a kilometer of telephone line can be built in less than 20 minutes. If speed is needed, the cable is laid directly on the ground.

A telephone network is more reliable, and can be used during radio silence. A drawback is that it can be damaged by e.g. artillery fire, or cut by enemy infiltrators. To make life harder for repair parties, a trick is to push a pin through the cable and cut off the ends. It will break the connection, and requires a soldier to run his fingers along the entire length of the cable, trying to find the exact spot where the pin has been inserted. Still, it beats being in a frontline trench.

“Ring, ring, why don’t you give me a call?”

This photo is probably from around 1940, possibly earlier. It is hard to determine the Waffenfarbe – the corps colors – piping on the shoulderboards, but it could be signals troops yellow, judging by the brightness of the sidecap soutache (chevron). The M39 uniforms, the lack of combat suspenders, and the gloss paint on the helmets indicate that this is early in the war and that it’s during training. The Feldfernsprecher 33 field telephone was a simple phone in a brown bakelite casing, which held a handset, a generator crank, a battery, a headset, and a throat microphone, in total weighing around 2.5 kilos and carried in a leather shoulder strap when not connected. It was used for communications within a company, between companies and upwards, by artillery batteries and their forward observers, between bunkers, and many other units and situations.

In the photo, a reel of telephone wire can be seen next to the phone. The leather case next to the phone operator’s hand probably contains pliers and other tools for setting up the telephone line. Phone wire can be seen wrapped around the tree trunk. Usually, the rest of the wire was suspended from branches or secured by a single turn around a tree trunk at least three meters up.

The Swedish Army adopted a domestically-made version of the FF33, the m/37 field telephone. When I made my military service in 1986-87, I served as a corporal in the headquarters of a rifle company. We used the field telephones mainly for communication with battalion headquarters. Even now, when I’m a volunteer in a Home Guard unit, we use the m/37 as a way for guard posts to contact the company commanding officer.

Final stop

Go home Ivan, you’re drunk… A Soviet BT-7-2 has crashed into a phone pole, the driver having trouble controlling it after losing the track on the right side. The BT-7 was introduced in 1935, and got its baptism of fire against the Japanese at Khalkin Gol in 1939. It saw action in Poland and Finland later that year, the Finns capturing 56 of them and adding them to their small tank force.

Armed with a 45 mm gun, the tank was a so called “cavalry tank”, which sacrificed armor protection for speed. The Christie suspension (later seen on its successor, the T-34) gave it good cross-country characteristics. The tank in the photo is the 1937 upgrade with the T-26 model 1937 conical turret, the two round hatches making the Germans nickname it “Mickey Mouse”. A pair of headlights above the main gun were used for night fighting. The tank had a crew of three (commander/gunner, loader, and driver), which together with the lack of a commander’s cupola and radio made the commander’s task hard and dangerous.

About 2000 tanks – 40 % of the total number built – were lost in the first 12 months after the launch of Operation Barbarossa. Still, the BT-7 was still active on all fronts by the end of the war in 1945.