The good old times?

An officer, probably in an artillery unit, takes a swig from a bottle of booze in France, summer of 1940. Despite losses of some 45,000 soldiers killed or missing in action, it was still nothing compared to the casualties in a single battle 25 years earlier. The campaign was a smashing success, and the public back home in Germany was in a patriotic fervor. Surely this meant that Germany would be great again?

Looking back on World War 2, it’s easy to see which side to pick if one had been alive back then and of age to serve. There’s some nostalgic notion that people showed more solidarity, and that they weathered the hard times with cheer and a hope for a better tomorrow. Life seemed simpler, the choices clearer, the world more black and white. Some people caught up in the complex world of today look back at those years with a certain longing. Movies feed the romantic view that WW2 was a rough time, but also a great time to be alive, and anyone playing WW2 computer games can be heroes who, if killed, just need to load the latest save and have another go at that machine gun position. It was the time of the Greatest Generation.

Or was it? Sure, many of the soldiers who volunteered to fight for their beliefs were brave, and those who had little choice, being conscripted, showed great courage in many situations, too. Opposing the Axis powers was the right thing to do, regardless of personal reasons to fight. On the other hand, the world in the 1930s and 40s wasn’t a nice place. Some aspects were good and deserve to be revived, but in general it’s clear that most people are better off today, especially women and minorities. It was a time that would be exciting to visit as a time traveler, but also one that most of us would be happy to return from. Besides, the 1940s didn’t have wifi.

Followers of my blog may be excused if they think that I would’ve liked to fight on the German side, at least if you haven’t read what I write. It’s a mistake to believe that just because one has an interest in a certain nation at a certain time in history, one would like to live in it during that time. While I have some equipment that allows me to reenact a German soldier if I wanted to (not that I have done it), I think that given the choice and a time machine, I would like to serve in the US Navy in the Pacific. I don’t know why I have a soft spot for that particular setting, but there it is. My father served in the Swedish Navy in the mid-1950s, and my father-in-law served in the US Navy in the Pacific right after the war had ended (I had my preferences long before I married, though). I guess there’s something about warships and the tropical setting, coupled with the epic nature of the whole campaign in the Pacific.

So there you have it – perhaps I should get a bunch of US photos and blog about them instead. That might be a future project, but for now I’ll stick with the Germans.


Twin-turreted tank trophy

The Soviet Union had several rather odd tanks at the beginning of the war, like the five-turreted T-35. The T-26 in the photo is the 1933 version, and sported two turrets armed with a DT 7.62 mm machine gun each. Their fighting value was dubious by the time of WW2, and the twin-turreted T-26s were replaced by single-turreted versions armed with a 45 mm gun. Despite being rather crap, they were still used by the end of the war on secondary fronts like Manchuria.

The clip below is from the excellent Finnish war movie “Talvisota” (“The Winter War”, 1989), where T-26 tanks attack Finnish positions. The flamethrower tank is an OT-26, a special version of the T-26. As you can see, determined fighters could knock out those with simple means.



With the defeat in World War 1, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up, and Austrian politics entered a period of turbulence. Trying to keep Austria independent from Germany while having its own version of Fascism ultimately failed, when on the morning of 12 March 1938, the 8th Army of the German Wehrmacht crossed the border into Austria, effecting the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Greater Germany. The troops were greeted by cheering Austrians with Nazi salutes, Nazi flags, and flowers. That afternoon, the Austrian-born Führer Adolf Hitler, crossed the border at his birthplace, Braunau am Inn. The enthusiasm displayed toward Hitler and the German troops surprised both Nazis and non-Nazis, as most people had believed that a majority of Austrians opposed the Anschluss. The Austrian army with its eight infantry divisions and other units were absorbed into the Wehrmacht, and Austrian units would play an important role in the coming war.

When I first looked at the photo above, I thought it showed Germans and Hungarians, as Hungary was an ally of Germany. I learned soon that the three men in the front row with the ammo pouches were Austrians, and that both Austria and Hungary had kept much of the uniform style from the time of the empire. So what we see are new brothers-in-arms, the Austrians soon to be in German uniform, their fate tied to that of Germany and the leader who was born in their country. Some of the leading Nazis were Austrians, including several concentration camp commanders and staff, but somehow Austria managed to distance itself from Hitler’s Reich after the war, and paint the country as a victim, and the denazification process that took place in post-war Germany wasn’t implemented as strongly in Austria.

The Light Side of the Armored Force

France or Belgium, summer of 1940. Two German soldiers inspect a captured Vickers Light Tank Mk. VIC. Of about 400 Vickers Mk. VIs deployed by the British Expeditionary Force, only six made it back to England. The British had a penchant for light tanks, just like many other countries in the 1930s. They were intended as support for infantry attacks (especially in the colonies), as well as for reconnaissance. They were armed with machineguns and had thin armor, and weren’t intended to combat other tanks. As the expert says in the video below, they were pretty rubbish when it came to combat.

The Germans, true to form, adopted almost all captured equipment they thought they had use for. Designated “Leichter Panzerkampfwagen Mk.VIC 736(e)”, they were used (in addition to the original tasks) for policing rear areas and as training vehicles, and were issued to second rank divisions. Some were converted to 105mm light howitzer carriers designated as 10.5cm leFH 16 auf Geschutzwagen Mk.VI(e), and ammunition carriers designated as Munitionspanzer auf Fahrgestell Mk.VI(e). As reconnaissance tanks, they got the designation Beobachtungspanzer auf Fahrgestell Mk.VI(e).

The tank weighed about five tons depending on version, and was capable of a road speed of 55 km/h (40 km/h in terrain). Production ceased in 1940 after 1682 vehicles had been built (all versions). It saw action in the Arab-Israeli War in 1948 before being retired for good. The video below is about the Mk. VIB, but the comments applies to the Mk. VIC, too.


Thanks to Axis History Forum member peeved for help in identifying the tank.


Bread and circuses

Part of living in a militarized state is the martial pageantry, and Nazi Germany excelled at that. Parades served several purposes: they showed off the might of the military forces, they established the power of the state, and they served as a focus for displays of patriotism. By the heavy use of the swastika, which was a party symbol turned into a national emblem, the NSDAP was effectively telling the people that – to paraphrase Louis XIV – “the state is us”.

The photo above shows a parade in some major German city. I haven’t been able to identify the building, but none of my Berlin maps and guidebooks from 1923 – 1936 show a stately building like the one in the picture. A company of sailors march past the tribune, which is full of military top brass and Party functionaries. Men in Sturmabteilung uniforms salute the troops, as do the civilians out in the streets to gawk at the display.

The initial victories were celebrated with parades through Berlin, but as the war progressed and the victories dried up, the parades were more Party business than military. The enthusiasm shown in the newsreels shouldn’t be interpreted as the Germans were 100 % Nazi, but that many years of hardship and humiliation were exchanged for successes that promised a brighter future.

Carefully orchestrated propaganda reinforced national pride, and laid the credit for the victories at the feet of the Führer. As in all 20th century dictatorships, the image of the strong leader was a priority. The fact that the “true believers” were convinced that miracle weapons and the genius of Hitler would turn the fortunes of war even as the Allies crossed the German borders in 1945, just goes on to show how effective the propaganda was.

Memories of Mennonites

Two soldiers posing with a sign in what’s today known as Morozivka, Zaporiz’ka oblast, Ukraine – what is the deal with that? To begin with, “Morosowo” was also known as “Hochfeld”. Why a German name on a place deep into the Soviet Union? Read on…

While German troops arrived in the region in mid-August 1941, the photo appears to have been taken after the first snows later that year. It’s also quite possible that the soldiers, looking rather fresh-faced, were new arrivals stationed to Morozivka in the spring of 1942.

The Mennonites is a Christian sect with many similarities with the more well-known Amish. They originated in the Netherlands in the 16th century, but some moved to the Vistula region in Poland in search of religious freedom and exemption from military service. As Prussia emerged as a local power, most of the Vistula Mennonite lands became part of the kingdom. They had to pay heavy fees in order to keep the exemption from military service. In 1763, the Empress Catherine the Great invited all Europeans to settle in various parts of Russia, and the Vistula Mennonites, not happy with the situation in Prussia, heeded the call and began settling in 1789 in lands won from the war with the Ottoman Empire.

Hardworking farmers, the Mennonites mostly kept to themselves, happy to enjoy religious freedom. Things changed with the government’s 1870 plan of Russification of the diverse ethnic parts of the Empire. Afraid to lose their status as pacifists, many Mennonites chose to emigrate to the United States and Canada. Whole villages moved off, and the Russian government, not wanting to lose the best farmers in the Empire, offered an alternative to armed service in 1880. In the chaos following WW1 – the fall of the Czar, the Bolshevik power grab, and the Russian Civil War – the Mennonite communities suffered. More emigrated, mostly to North America. With the Communist collectivization of farms, Mennonite lands were confiscated.

The Mennonites were part of a greater German-speaking population known as the Volga Germans, who had colonized the area following Catherine’s decree. During Stalin’s Great Purge in 1937-38, German-speakers were targeted and in many cases deported to Siberia. When the invading German Army entered the region in 1941, it was seen as a liberator, at least initially. Some Mennonites went on to serve in the Wehrmacht, some voluntarily, some not. Following the war, about a million ethnic Germans, among them Mennonites, were forcibly deported to Siberia, where 200,000 – 300,000 died from starvation and exposure. When Stalin died in 1953, his draconian policies were rescinded, but the German-speaking communities were smashed for good.

So that’s the story behind the sign held by those soldiers in the winter of 1941-42.


Target for today

Luftwaffe aircrew attend a briefing or a post-mission debriefing, going over points on a large map. The photo might have been taken in 1940 or ’41 in France. They are probably members of medium bomber crews, flying Junkers Ju 88s, Dornier Do 17s, or Heinkel He 111s, all of which were used for tactical bombing. The greatest failing of the Luftwaffe was the lack of a strategic bomber like the B-17 or Lancaster. The use of medium bombers coupled with the limited range of the fighter escorts were two of the reasons why Germany failed to win the Battle of Britain.

Still, the Germans managed to produce some of the most elite bomber crews of all time. While the USAAF retired their bomber crews after 25 missions (later upped to 30 and then to 35 in 1944) missions, and the RAF rotated out their crews after 30 missions for six months of other assignments before a second tour of 25 missions, the Luftwaffe had the crews serving until lost or permanently disabled. Adolf Galland, fighter ace and legendary commander of the Luftwaffe fighter arm, once said: “Our pilots and crews fought until they died.” For those who didn’t die, the steady fighting resulted in impressive mission counts, with scores of Luftwaffe pilots racking up 300+ combat missions. Foremost of those was Oberstleutnant Hansgeorg Bätcher, who flew 658 combat missions. He was 31 years old by the end of the war, and in those years he had advanced from flying gliders as a 17 years old to flying the world’s first jet bomber, the Arado Ar 234, in 1945.

The addition of heavier bombers, like the problematic Heinkel He 177, came too late, as the Luftwaffe bomber arm was largely irrelevant by 1943. The blame is to be laid at the feet of Göring and Hitler, who by their decisions made sure that no matter how skilled and brave the individual pilots were, they had no chance of winning the war. In retrospect, it was for the better, as it made the Allied victory easier.