Happy New Year?

It’s New Year’s Eve, or “Silvester” as the Germans call it. The soldiers enjoy smokes and drinks, celebrating the end of 1943 and hoping that 1944 will bring about a change in Germany’s fortunes. In the background is the Christmas tree, a window covered by a blackout curtain, an icon and a religious painting. Uniforms jackets, equipment and Zeltbähne hang from hooks. If it wasn’t for the Obergefreiter in the black Panzer jacket, it would be hard to tell what kind of unit they belong to. The piping around the collar patch isn’t bright enough to be the golden yellow of an armored reconnaisance unit, which makes me think it’s the pink of the Panzer troops. On his sleeve can be seen the Kraftfahrbewährungsabzeichen, a badge awarded to experienced drivers.

Whatever hopes they had for 1944, they were thoroughly squashed by the end of that year. The Reich was bombed day and night, the Battle of the Atlantic had been definitely lost, the Allies had taken large parts of Italy and landed in France, causing a retreat back to the German border. The Eastern Front had almost collapsed. The last gamble to turn the tide of the war against the Western Allies, the Ardennes Offensive, had stalled. If anything, the prospects for 1945 were even worse, and if any of the guys in the photo survived the war, they probably spent New Year’s Eve 1945 in a prisoner of war camp.

So this wraps up the first half year of this blog. Next year, I’ll probably update it every two days, as I have to attend to other projects. Rest assured that I have hundreds of photos to write about, so it isn’t like I’m running out of subjects.

Happy New Year!

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The middle of winter

These two sentries are lucky to have ample protection against the elements. This is probably the winter of 1942-43. They wear Omas (“Oma” = “granny”), the balaclava-like head protection, as well as heavy coats, and thick felt over-boots. As the regular jackboot had iron hobnails that helped the cold go through the sole and to the foot, the over-boots made stationary tasks like sentry duty more tolerable, plus they reduced the risk of frostbite. After that first disatrous winter of 1941-42, the German Army issued good winter gear. This was collected when spring arrived and sent to depots for cleaning, mending and storing for next winter.

“How’s your girlfriend?”

“I don’t know. She’s been so cold towards me lately.”

Obviously having some free time, these soldiers have built a snow fort and peopled it with a rather frigid lady. If she’s warming to their advances, she doesn’t let on. She’s more likely to have a meltdown sooner or later. They need real girlfriends…

Having a ball (for the New Year?)

Two Unteroffiziere (sergeants) together with a local woman, possibly in Ukraine, 1941-42. She’s making a snowball. Will she throw it at the guy behind the camera? Like so many other photos, this one has no other context than what I could figure out from the uniforms, the houses, and the embroidery pattern on her blouse, which I think indicates a Ukrainian setting.

As the Germans occupied large parts of Europe, local women had to find ways to manage under the new circumstances. Many men were gone – dead or missing in battle, as prisoners of war, or as forced labor. There were children to feed, so some women found employ as cooks, cleaners, washerwomen, and so on. Some entered relationships with German Soldiers, out of opportunism or real love. A minority became real collaborators, actively supporting the occupying forces and ratting on people they didn’t like. As the Wehrmacht had to retreat, many of the mistresses, girlfriends and wives joined their German men, but those who were left behind had to deal with the consequences of their choices. It could get really ugly…

So, the story of woman with the snowball is one of the millions of untold and unknown stories from World War 2.

Well ventilated

After the Christmas food, a visit to the field latrine might be needed. This rather sketchy outhouse doesn’t offer much in the way of privacy or protection from the elements, but on the flip side is that the stink is whisked away by the wind. Judging by the felt boots worn by the soldiers, this photo is probably from the winter of 1942-43.

Going to the crapper in the middle of winter can be an experience. One cannot wear too much, as bulky winter pants and coats tend to get in the way. Then there’s the temperature. I remember the last day of our winter exercise in early January, 1987. After several days in -27º C (-17º F), I had to relieve myself in the morning. I left the tent and went to the “fold-and-crap”, a sturdy cardboard box over a bucket, wearing my woolen uniform pants and a sweater. I thought the temperature was rather pleasant after those days in Arctic conditions. Half an hour later I learned that the temperature was a sweltering -16º C (3º F). How easily one gets accustomed to extreme conditions…

Going downhill

An Obergefreiter, probably belonging to an artillery unit, zooms down a snowy slope, a look of concentration on his face. The photo is probably from around 1938-39 or earlier, as he wears the three-buckle boots that were replaced by the classic jackboot.

The German Army had several divisions that used skis. Those were the Gebirgsjäger-Divisionen (mountain ranger divisions) and the 1. Skijäger-Division. The personnel came primarily from Bavaria and Austria, but there was also a Skijäger battalion in the 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division “Nord”, consisting of Norwegian SS volunteers.

My own personal experience of army issue skis is 31 years back, when I checked out the bindings on the ironically named “White Lightning” wooden skis of 1940’s provenience. I never had to use them.

Christmas Day

A Leutnant strumming his guitar, most likely playing some popular Christmas songs. The tree is decorated, a nativity scene before it, and some semblance of normalcy and Christmas cheer is probably felt. Nazi Germany was anything but a normal place, though. It was a traumatized country after WW1, the British blockade that starved tens of thousands of Germans to death, the unrest after the war, the hyper inflation, the political upheavals of the 1920’s, the Depression, and then the Nazi rise to power. While the arrival of order was greeted by many, it came at a price. The dissidents sent to concentration camps, the racial laws, the incessant propaganda, the nazification of all aspects of society, and then war. Rationing, air raids, hundreds of thousands of men never coming back (and the Jewish neighbors being “relocated” to the east).

The official propaganda tried to instil a sense of unity, and traditional holidays were part of that. Below is a compilation from newsreels with Christmas at the home front during WW2. 1944 was the last year the Christmas trees were decorated with Nazi flags.