Paying their respects

A couple of men from Propagandakompanie 612 musing at the rows upon rows of crosses at the German war cemetery at Langemark, West Flandres, Belgium, in June 1940. In the cemetery rests the bodies of more than 44,000 soldiers, many of them unknown, who mainly fell in the two battles of Langemark, which were parts of the First Battle of Ypres in 1914, and the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. The number of buried is about the same as the total number of dead or missing German soldiers in the entire Battle of France in 1940, which shows what a great success the latter was. Despite the losses, it was a much smaller price to pay for huge gains.

In the 1914 Battle of Langemark (usually spelled “Langemarck” in the literature), a number of German high school students, who had enrolled in patriotic fervor, were killed when attacking over open ground. They were inexperienced, but according to the legend that sprang up about “the slaughter of the innocents at Langemarck”, they went into battle singing patriotic songs and dying by the thousands. The legend was later exploited in Nazi propaganda, and once Hitler came to power, 10 November was chosen as the day on which the Party inducted students, and after 1938, every member of the Hitlerjugend paid a compulsory fee, known as the Langemarck-Pfennig. As a party publicist put it, “National Socialism and Langemarck are one and the same.” It suited the death-cultish tendencies of Nazi ideology, and mentally prepared young soldiers for the ultimate sacrifice in the years to come. Millions more of war graves would be dug before it was over in 1945.


What the Foch happened?

The men of Propagandakompanie 612 were busy documenting the aftermath of the successful campaign against France. What the Germans had failed to accomplish in four years a generation earlier, they had managed in just a little over six weeks in 1940. In the 1920’s, the French had erected a memorial in the Forest of Compiègne, where the Germans had signed the armistice in 1918 that ended WW1. The French delegation was led by Marshal Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929), whose private train was used for the meeting. In a glade in the forest was the railway car in which the armistice had been signed, a monument over the French victory, and a statue of Marshal Foch.

The armistice led to the Versailles Treaty in 1919, which imposed crippling and humiliating demands on Germany, causing resentment and the wish for revenge that paved the way for Hitler and his Nazis. It was small wonder that Hitler picked the same railway car for the French to sign the second armistice of Compiègne. The victory monument was destroyed, the railway car was brought as a trophy to Germany, but the statue of Foch was left to watch over the razed site. Hitler had his triumph, his sweet revenge for the loss in 1918 that had affected him deeply and put him on the track to dictatorship. His victory eventually turned to ashes, when Germany less than five years later lay in ruins, with Hitler dead and its armies beaten. After the war, the Compiègne site was restored by German PoW labor, a replica railway car added in place of the original, which had been destroyed in the last days of the war.

“Ich glaube es ist Französisch.”

In my ever-expanding series “Luftwaffe bombers that have met an ignominious end”, the turn has come to the Heinkel He 111. This is an He 111 P-2, as far as I can tell. This photo is from June 1940, somewhere in northern France. On the back, someone wrote “Abgeschossenes Französischer Bomber” – “downed French bomber” – which it definitely isn’t. The only explanation I can think of is that the person who wrote that remembered wrong when going through a bunch of photos with destroyed military hardware. The photographer was a member of Propagandakompanie 612, which was one of several such units tasked with producing propaganda in the form of leaflets, posters, etc.

Propagandakompanie 612 mobilized in 1939 in Wiesbaden, and was attached to 1st Army. It spent late 1939 and early 1940 during the “Phony War” at the Westwall. It followed the advance during the Battle of France in 1940, ending up in Le Havre. In 1941, it was transferred to the 9th Army and the Eastern Front, where it remained for the rest of the war. It recorded the battles in central Russia, like Vitebsk, Rzhev, and Kaluga. In 1944, it relocated to Warsaw, then Frankfurt and der Oder in 1945, and finally Berlin.

Normally a PK Propagandatrupp or Kriegsberichtertrupp at divisional or regimental level consisted of a war reporter (Kriegsberichter), cameraman (Bildberichter) and a driver. Several Truppen formed a propaganda platoon (Propagandazug or Kriegsberichterzug) at corps level, while several propaganda platoons constituted a propaganda company (Propagandakompanie) at Army level.

The cameramen, translators, reporters, censors, sound operators and other technical staff of a Propagandakompanie were often specialists, some being civilians recruited by the army in this role due to their individual skills and therefore often holding the special rank of Sonderführer (special director).

And what about the poor Heinkel? It was one of a total of 6,508 built, the first prototype flying in 1935. The project masqueraded as civilian at first, as Germany was prohibited to develop bombers by the Versailles Treaty. The “passenger planes” were eminently suited to serve as medium bombers, though… It first saw action in the Spanish Civil War, and went on to become the main bomber of the Luftwaffe, dropping bombs over Warszaw, Rotterdam, London, Belgrade… During the battle for Stalingrad, it was used as a transport, but the Luftwaffe managed to deliver only 10 % of what the encircled 6th Army needed. Weak defensive armament made it vulnerable to enemy fighters, though, and by 1943 it was edged out by the Junkers Ju 88 and Dornier Do 217. Still, it served to the last days of the war.

Battle on the Volga

This photo was in a lot I acquired recently. When I looked at the back of it, I got a surprise, as I could read “Stalingrad” written in pencil. Wow… Upon closer examination, I saw that the soldiers wear the sleeve patches of the 100. Jäger-Division, as well as the loose uniform pants and mountain boots of the Gebirgsjäger, which were worn by other Jäger units. The soldier standing to the right in the photo has leaned his rifle, a Soviet SVT-40, against the side of trench. The bare-headed man looking at the camera appears to be a HiWi. In the background can be seen the outskirts of Stalingrad.

Of particular interest is the Sturmgeschütz III Ausf B self-propelled assault gun to the left in the pic. There’s a name, “Struve”, painted on it, and using some Google-fu, I managed to find a couple other photos of the very same vehicle. It belonged to Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 243, which was in Stalingrad.

The 100. Jäger-Division was sent as a reinforcement to the ill-fated 6th Army, arriving in late September 1942. It was initially established in December 1940 as the 100. leichte Infanterie-Division, the unit was raised in Upper Austria, and comprised two-thirds Austrian and one-third Silesian men. The division’s first campaign as a fighting force was Operation Barbarossa, where was part of the 17th Army in the Southern Sector. Its baptism of fire was in the Battle of Uman, followed by action at Kiev and Odessa.

In October 1941, the 369th Reinforced Croatian Infantry Regiment (Verstärktes Kroatisches Infanterie-Regiment 369) was attached to the division increase its fighting power. In July 1942, the division was renamed 100. Jäger-Division. The division was among those destroyed in Stalingrad. It was reestablished in April 1943 and fought partisans in the Balkans, before surrendering to the Soviets in Silesia in February 1945.

Below is a clip from the German movie “Stalingrad” (1993), which shows the difficult conditions for fighting in the city. The movie is much better than the patriotic Russian offering of the same name from 2013.

Gunner A(r)sch?

It’s Sunday, and the end is in sight. This post is about rear area activities, like staying clean in the field. Is the soldier preparing for action behind enemy lines? Or is he just showing some cheek once in a full moon? OK, I’ll try to not crack more puns…

The log cabin could be a sauna, which could make the soldier in the photo a member of the German army corps in Finland. The Finns like their saunas, and no doubt Germans picked up the habit, too. Keeping clean in the field is essential, but it could be hard to manage that on the frontline. Body dirt and odor was one thing, but lice and fleas were a problem for several reasons. Their bites were irritating, causing itching and discomfort, as well as “trench fever”, which could lay a victim low for a couple of weeks. Hiding in the seams of the uniforms and hairy parts of the human body, the parasites were hard to eradicate. Delousing stations were erected behind the frontline, the only remedies being showers, pesticides, and clean clothing.

Another aspect of the photo is the view of nudity. Soldiers of most armies were less inhibited when it came to nudity, as living close to each other in barracks with communal showers broke down social conventions. As for the Germans, Nazi art celebrated the perfect body, like the statues by the neoclassicist sculptor Arno Breker, which featured nude, muscular men and women. On top of that, naturism had many followers in Germany, and even the rather prudish Nazis accepted it eventually, as long as the naturists kept away from public view. All in all, the turbulent times made prudishness trivial, and that’s why it isn’t strange to see a photo like the one above. There are reasons why they are rare in random photo lots in auctions, though, as there are collectors who pay good money for them. Of the more than one thousand photos I own, this is the only one with a nude person.

The “Gunner A(r)sch” pun above refers to the main character in Hans Hellmut Kirst’s satirical novels about Corporal Asch and his life as an artilleryman in the German army before and during the war, beginning with The Revolt of Gunner Asch (1955).

As for a different take on the importance of cleanliness in the field, we have the immortal wisdom of Unteroffizier Krüger in “Cross of Iron”:



A nice view of a “Gulaschkanone”, a field kitchen which was a WW1 design and the most common source of hot food for the WW2 German soldier. This groβe Feldküche Hf. 11 was pulled by a team of two horses. The nickname derived from “goulash”, the Hungarian stew that was common army food, and “cannon”, as the field kitchen looked like a field gun and its limber. It had a 200 liter cauldron and a 90 liter coffee boiler. The front half of the field kitchen held ingredients.

In the field, a German soldier was supposed to receive the following food as his daily Feldration. This was of course subject to the season and the supply situation.

Cold food:
– 750 grams of bread
– 150 grams of fat (divided into butter, lard, margarine as bread spread about 60 – 80 g,       animal or vegetable fat for the preparation of the warm food about 70 – 90 g)
– 120 grams of sausage (fresh or in cans) or fish preserves or cheese
– up to 200 grams of jam or artificial honey
– 7 cigarettes or 2 cigars

Hot food:
– 1000 grams of potatoes, which could be partially replaced by
+ 250 g fresh vegetables or
+ 150 g vegetable preserves
+ 125 g pasta, rice, grains, etc.
– up to 250 grams of fresh meat
– 15 grams of ingredients (salt, spices, etc.)
– 8 grams of bean coffee and 10 g of coffee substitute (or equivalent tea)

Eggs, fruit, chocolate, etc. depending on availability.

If there wasn’t any chance of food from the field kitchen, the soldiers could break out their “iron rations”, which consisted of hard bisquits or bread, canned food, and coffee substitute.

Edit: the field kitchen is marked with the emblem of the 262. Infanterie-Division.

Hares and pigs

I have no date for this photo, but it’s my guess that it was taken somewhere in the Soviet Union in the spring of 1942. The two Unteroffiziere (sergeants) are obviously happy to have survived the harshest winter in memory. The man on the left wears a pair of what appears to be a Soviet tanker’s padded winter trousers. His friend has been awarded the Iron Cross, first class, the Infantry Assault Badge, and the Wound Badge in black. For some reason, he doesn’t wear the ribbon of the Iron Cross, second class, in the buttonhole, but in a ribbon bar instead, just like the man on the left. Despite the rather sloppy appearance of both of them, their boots have a nice shine.

They are frontline veterans, in German soldiers’ slang known as Alte Hasen (“old hares”) and Frontschweine (“frontline pigs”). Experienced NCOs were the backbone of any company, where sergeants usually led squads, but had to be prepared to lead platoons if the commanders were lost. A newly-arrived soldier had a better chance of survival – eventually becoming a Frontschwein himself – if he had an experienced sergeant to look after him and teach him the skills needed at the front.