The donkey is to the left. It’s April 1941 in Greece, and a German soldier tries to make a stubborn donkey to stand up by pulling its ears. The campaign in Greece was short, but the occupation was troublesome, with partisans and resistance fighters making life difficult for the Germans. Still, holding Greece was necessary in order to keep the British from having a foothold in the northern Mediterranean. With its many islands and mountainous terrain, Greece was a challenge, and local German garrisons found themselves cut off by the end of the war. Germany occupied Greece together with Italy and Bulgaria, and like in other parts of the Balkans, the civilian population suffered severely at the hands of the occupying forces. When the war was over, the problems for Greece didn’t end there. A civil war between communist and anti-communist factions resulted in further deaths and devastation, and wasn’t over until 1949. It was one of the first conflicts of the Cold War, and set the tone for the coming 45-50 years.
A German soldier has a snug seat between the humps of a Bactrian camel. The place is probably southern Russia, north of the Caucasus Mountains, and the time is 1942 or 1943. I can imagine that few soldiers pictured themselves riding camels one day when they crossed the Soviet border. The push in the southeast was a bid to capture the oil fields at Baku, and thus secure the supply of oil and gas for the fuel-starved Wehrmacht. The Battle for Stalingrad was part of the greater plan, and the failure to capture the city and secure the flank meant that the German positions in the Caucasus region became precarious. The Germans had to retreat.
The man on the hay wagon is probably a Hiwi, a Soviet volunteer who accepted to serve as an auxiliary instead of facing the much darker prospects in a prisoner of war camp. The camels didn’t have much of a say at all.
The better part of an infantry battalion is visible in this photo, which gives us an idea of the number of men, horses and wagons in such a unit. I believe the machine gun (heavy weapons) company isn’t in view, which would add another 200 men or so. A German infantry battalion had one commander, usually a lieutenant colonel or major, but later in the war often a captain, 13 officers, 1 official, and 846 non-commissioned officers and enlisted men, plus 131 horses. There was the battalion staff unit, a signals unit, an engineer platoon, three rifle companies, a machine gun/heavy weapons company, combat supply troop, and a pack train.
The table of organization was one thing, reality another. Combat meant losses, and it wasn’t unusual for battalions to shrink to company size. That was true for most armies, where units in the front line often suffered many casualties. When a battalion was too weak to function as a unit, it was usually pulled from the front line and sent for rest and refit in the rear. Reinforcements from the regiment’s replacement battalion brought the battalion back up to strength, and it was sent into the fray again. I’ve read memoirs by soldiers from both the German and the Allied side, and it was apparently common for some battalions to have just a handful of its original soldiers left after a year of combat. There are many accounts where the veterans don’t bother with learning the names of the new guys until they have survived the first fight or two. Life in the frontline was hard and unforgiving.
I remember playing the US mission in “Call of Duty” (2003), when, as a paratrooper in Normandy on D-Day, I was to make my way into a German-held town. A detail that I noticed, and which was consistent with photos from that time, were the bloated dead cows dotting the landscape. The poor heifers were killed by bombs and artillery, and the loss of the livestock was a serious blow to the local farmers.
One thing that neither games, nor books or movies can convey is the smell of the battlefields. Witness accounts and memoirs tell about the sickly-sweet odor of rotting meat, animal and human, when corpses decomposed in the sun, or resurfaced after the winter when the snow melted away. Burial details tried to identify killed soldiers, but if their ID tags or papers were gone, the bodies ended up in graves marked at best with “An unknown soldier”.
I once read an account from the Eastern Front – it could have been on the Finnish part of it – where entrenched soldiers were plagued by a Soviet sniper picking off unwary sentries and officers. They couldn’t figure out where the sniper hid, but after about three days, someone noticed that the sniper was hidden in a hole covered by a dead horse or cow. He had plugged his nose, and fired through a hole in the side of the carcass. Once spotted, the sniper was “taken care of”, but even his enemies had to admire his determination.
Animal carcasses were a source of meat if they weren’t too long gone. In an environment where meat was scarce, beggars couldn’t be choosers. As for the dead cows in the photo above, they were probably just dumped in a pit and buried. There are limits as to what one can eat…
Taking a break, an Obergefreiter, a Gefreiter, and a Frettchen (ferret) pose for the camera. Armed with shotguns, the soldiers will hunt for rabbits, the ferret… well, ferreting out the rabbits from their warrens. Ferrets have been used for hunting since ancient times, their sleek build ideal for going down tunnels and driving out rabbits, rats and other rodents. Another photo shows the hunters with a dozen rabbits, so the ferret did a good job. Rabbit meat was an important part of the diet all over Europe during WW2, as meat from larger animals was rationed. Many families bred rabbits for food, keeping them in hutches in the back yard. Butchers kept the feet on the otherwise skinned rabbits, proving that they actually were rabbits and not cats. In wartime Europe, you couldn’t be picky about what meat you got…
Another Caturday post, and this time it’s a small big cat. I recently got hold on this photo of the lion cub mascot of Kampfgeschwader 76, a Luftwaffe bomber wing that saw action from the beginning of the war to its very end. At first, it sported an emblem depicting a duck with a cigar, an umbrella, a British helmet, and a bowel problem. It was used during the Battle of Britain and the early stages of Operation Barbarossa, but was changed to a more respectable eagle’s claw in late 1941. The unit had a lion cub as a mascot. I have only found two other photos of it, so this is the third known photo of the little tyke. There’s no information on what the lion was named, nor what became of it.
Hear me roar louder than the engines of a Junkers Ju 88! (Photo source: Internet)
One of the most notable successes of KG 76 was the raid on the Italian port of Bari on the night of 2/3 December 1943, where it made up part of the attacking force of 105 Junkers Ju 88 bombers. Called “the European Pearl Harbor”, the surprise attack belied the claim that the Luftwaffe was a spent force. KG 76 was also notable for being one of the very first air units in history to operate jet bombers, the Arado Ar 234. But what is that in comparison to having an awesome mascot? If anyone knows what became of the lion, please let me know.
Thanks to Axis History Forum member “ilfil” for ID’ing the emblem.
It’s Caturday, and it has been a while since I had a photo with a cat in it. The young Schütze holding the black-and-white moggy did so on 10 July, 1942 (which happened to be on a Friday, but every day should be Caturday). The location – judging by the log house in the background – is most likely on the Eastern Front, perhaps the northern part. Did the soldier leave the cat on the farm, or was it brought along as a pet and mascot? Let’s hope that it stayed there, and kept the barn free from rats and mice. The battlefield is no place for a cat.