150 posts!

That deserves a medal, I think. This photo was most likely taken in France, 1940. A Feldwebel (Staff sergeant) receives a medal, most likely an Iron Cross. It all seems a little improptu, which makes me believe that this was right after the sergeant had done something brave.

So, 150 posts… That’s about 50 posts a month, but as some of you might’ve noticed, I have cut it back to about one post a day. Almost half of the posts were in July alone, but then I wanted to create something for people to browse as the rate would inevitably drop. I still have a lot of photos to talk about, so I won’t run out of material any time soon. What I would like to see is more people following this blog, and especially to see more comments. It’s not like I’m attention-seeking, but it would be nice to have a two-way communication with visitors and followers.

Anyway, those of you who return here to read what I post about World War 2 and the men of the Wehrmacht, I thank you, and hope you’ll continue to follow this blog.

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“Gott mit uns”

A field service, the Kriegspfarrer (military chaplain) holding a sermon while the pulpit is wrapped in the Nazi war flag. The attending soldiers all wear belts with the motto “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”) embossed on the buckles. The motto had been a rallying cry from the Medieval crusades, through the Thirty Years War, to the Prussian kingdom of the 18th Century. It had been on the belt buckles worn by those soldiers’ fathers in World War One, and now they wore it while expanding the Lebensraum.

Military chaplains in German armies wasn’t something new; they had been around since the 18th century, and during WW1, the German Imperial Army fielded both Lutheran and Catholic priests, as well as 30 rabbis. The practice of having military chaplains was continued by the Wehrmacht, as 95 % of all Germans belonged to some Christian denomination, mainly evangelical Lutheran or Catholic. While there were clergymen opposed to Hitler and the Nazis, enough priests were willing to serve as military chaplains. Hitler, himself a believer in a Creator and who was never excommunicated by the Catholic church, wanted the church(es) tamed and to be a tool of the Nazi state. The men of cloth approved to serve as military chaplains had been cleared by the Gestapo.

While German military chaplains weren’t part of the ordinary military rank system, a Kriegspfarrer held the rank of captain, and after a year of service he was promoted to major. The chaplains wore a plain uniform without rank insignia, the Catholic military chaplains also had a crucifix in a neck chain. If there was risk of enemy fire, chaplains wore a red cross armband with a purple stripe (the color of the clergy). The Waffen-SS didn’t have any chaplains, expect for a few “ethnic” divisions, among them those with Muslim soldiers.

German Kriegspfarrer who served in the Wehrmacht were part of the German mainstream and lent the Nazi war effort legitimacy. The military chaplains mostly wanted to bring the word of the Christian God to men in the field and to deliver the sacraments, make their families proud and serve their country. According to the memorandum on field service, the Kriegspfarrer had the task of strengthening the fighting power of the soldiers. To this end they carried out services, general absolution, confession, communion and prayer. In addition, they took up wills or sent consoling letters to the families of fallen soldiers. They also contributed to the execution of burials and funerals. They were able to carry out their tasks independently and largely without problems. 

Their pastoral care and close contact with ordinary soldiers made them held in high esteem, which Hitler and Goebbels increasingly dreaded. From 1944 on, National Socialist leadership officers (NSFO, similar to the Red Army commissars) were introduced in the Wehrmacht in order to boost morale and promote the Nazi agenda. In the end, none of that mattered. Their God wasn’t with them.

“Der eiserne Keller”

Generaloberst Alfred Keller stands together with new recipients of the Iron Cross, second class, probably in 1941. Alfred Keller (19 September 1882 – 11 February 1974) was a Luftwaffe general during WW2, and went on to become one of the most decorated generals of the Luftwaffe. His military career began in the Imperial German Armed Forces in 1897.  Initially a junior infantry officer, Keller became attracted to that newfangled invention: aircraft. He made his first flight at the school at Metz, becoming an observer in 1912. In the following year, Keller finished his training as a pilot and gained his pilot’s wings.

He served first in the reconnaisance, then the bomber arm of the Imperial German Air Force, where he was promoted to wing commander. Keller’s unit became the first German bombers to operate night missions, which was noted for the missions against Dunkirk and the British forces concentrated there. His sudden delivery of 100 tons of bombs on the port in the silence of the night in September 1917 caused considerable damage and forced a British retreat to Calais. For planning, organization and leadership in this attack and others he was awarded the prestigious order Pour le Mérite. It was during World War 1 that he got his nickname der eiserne Keller – “Iron Keller”.

In the years after WW1, Keller left the army and built a career in civilian aviation, offering air mail service in 1923 for the first time in Germany. During 1925 Keller operated an air traffic control school in Berlin, but in 1928 moved it to Braunschweig. Here he began, as a means of resistance to Allied conditions of Armistice the secret training of new military pilots, and he became one of the first men called by Hermann Göring to help in the construction of the Luftwaffe, as soon as the Nazis had assumed power in 1933.

In September 1939, when WW2 began, the then General Alfred Keller commanded the IV. Fliegerkorps during the invasion of Poland. The following campaigns against Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Battle of France, he commanded Luftflotte 2. Keller was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 24 June 1940, and shortly afterwards, on 19 July 1940, he was promoted Generaloberst. It is sometime after this the photo is taken, as he wears the collar tabs of that rank. On 19 August 1940, during the Battle of Britain, Alfred Keller was appointed as the commander of Luftflotte 1 and Air Force commander – East. Keller led this formation very energetically during the Balkans Campaign and later during the Operation Barbarossa, where he predominantly supported Army Group North. Keller remained with Luftflotte 1 until 12 June 1943, when he retired from active service at the age of 61.

However, he continued to perform important functions in NSFK (Nationalsozialistische Fliegerkorps – National Socialist Flying Corps), a paramilitary unit that he organised to form a civilian reserve of pilots). He was Korpsführer of the NSFK until the German surrender on May 8, 1945. Towards the end of the war, Keller was also responsible for the antitank weapons department of the Luftwaffe.

With the German capitulation on 8 May 1945, Keller became a British prisoner of war, being kept until 1947. He wasn’t charged with any war crimes. In the 1950s he became one of the first presidents of the Association of Knight’s Cross Recipients. Keller passed away in Berlin, aged 91 years.

Rare movie of Keller visiting the front.

 

Thanks to Axis History Forum member ttvon for identifying Keller.

O Tannenberg, o Tannenberg…

A few photos of the Tannenberg Memorial from my collection. It was a monument to the German soldiers of the second Battle of Tannenberg in 1914 which was named after the medieval battle of the same name. The victorious commander, Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg, became a national hero, and was later elected president of Germany.

The massive memorial was built in 1924-27, inspired by medieval castles and Stonehenge, near Hohenstein (Ostpreußen, now Olsztynek, Poland). Its plan was octagonal, with eight 20 meters high towers. 20 unknown soldiers from the battle of 1914 were buried inside. When von Hindenburg died in 1934, his coffin was placed in a crypt that had been added, guarded by a pair of soldier statues. This was against the wish of von Hindenburg and his family, but the Nazis wanted to make a national shrine of the monument. It became a place where German military units paid their respects to Hindenburg and the unknown soldiers.

As the Red Army approached the monument in early 1945, German troops removed Hindenburg’s remains and demolished parts of the structure. In the 1950s, Polish authorities razed the site, leaving few traces. Stone and masonry from the Tannenberg Memorial was used for other buildnings and monuments, and today there’s only some overgrown rubble left on the site.

On parade

Spring, 1939. German troops march past their commander. These are men of Pionier-Bataillon 49 of the 10. Panzer-Division, who shortly will be part of the forces occupying Czechoslovakia. There, immaculate uniforms, well-orded ranks, and walking in step to a military band will be of little use other than to impress the local population.

The point of military pageantry is to show the level of training and discipline, where spit and polish and coordination is part of the impression made on other military – in particular that of other countries – and the public. Marching in close order looked good on parade grounds and the boulevards of capital cities, but had no military use after the end of the 19th century. The goose-stepping (parade marching with straight legs) associated with Prussian militarism was largely abandonded by the Wehrmacht, as it required a lot of training, the time for which could be put to better use in training for war instead. Today, it is usually associated with dictatorships like North Korea, where hundreds of soldiers can be seen strutting before their glorious and rather pudgy leader.

A few musicians of the military band can be glimpsed on the right side of the photo. Perhaps did they play this march from 1866:

 

 

General unpleasantness

An unnamed British Lieutenant General inspects a Luftwaffe honor guard, sometime in 1935 or 1936. The German Generalleutnant right behind him is Walther von Reichenau. He was born in 1884, joined the army in 1902, and served in the First World War. After the war, he continued his military career. When he was introduced to Hitler by an uncle in 1932, he became a loyal follower and joined the NSDAP (Nazi Party), despite the army regulations that were there to keep the army and politics separate. Apart from furthering his career, he opposed the radical SA (Sturmabteilung) leader Ernst Röhm, who had pressed for SA to become the major military force in the new Reich. Conspiring with Himmler and Göring, he was one of the instigators of “the Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, where Röhm and other leaders of the SA were purged and executed.

In 1938 Adolf Hitler wanted to appoint him as Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Leading figures in the German Army complained and Gerd von Rundstedt, Franz Halder and Ludwig Beck all refused to serve under him. The job went to Friedrich von Brauchitsch instead. von Reichenau led armies in both the invasion of Poland and of France, and was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall in 1940. One would think that such an ardent Nazi and career officer would favor the plans for an attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, but von Reichenau actually opposed them. This didn’t stop him from being appointed to lead the 6th Army.

Once committed to the war in the East, he led the 6th Army in capturing Kiev, Belgorod, Kharkov and Kursk. An anti-semite, Reichenau encouraged his soldiers to commit atrocities against the Jews in the territory under his control (the “Reichenau Order”). On one occasion he told his men: “In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war… For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry…” All Jews were henceforth to be treated as de facto partisans, and commanders were directed that they be either summarily shot or handed over to the Einsatzgruppen execution squads.

In other matters, he displayed some sound thinking, like recognizing the Soviet superiority in armor and the risks attached to it, the need for recruiting Ukrainians and Byelorussians to fight the Red Army alongside the Wehrmacht, and the risk of increasing partisan warfare. Reichenau used to go on a daily cross-country run in order to keep fit. On 12 January, 1942, he ran several kilometers in temperatures well below -20 degrees Celcius. When he returned, he had a severe heart attack (some sources say that it was a stroke). After being unconscious for five days, it was decided to fly him back to Germany. Walter von Reichenau died on 17 January 1942, when the plane carrying him to Leipzig crash-landed and he reportedly suffered a fatal heart attack. His funeral was performed with the usual pomp of the Third Reich. Hitler did not attend his funeral.

He was succeeded by General Friedrich Paulus, who took command of the 6th Army. Paulus was a staff officer who had never led a unit larger than a battalion. A year later, he surrendered to the Soviets in the ruins of Stalingrad, his army in tatters. What would have happened if von Reichenau, a much more competent and decisive officer, hadn’t died? One thing is pretty sure, though: if he had survived to the end of the war, he would’ve been one of the generals on trial in Nürnberg, and would probably have ended up in the gallows as a war criminal.

“Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden”

Gefreiter Hans Brasser was born on 20 October, 1917 in Aulhausen (near Mainz). He served in 4. Kompanie, Panzerjäger-Abteilung 33 of the 33. Infanterie-Division. On 17 June, eight days before the end of the Battle of France, he and some other soldiers were killed in action in Loury, just northeast of Orléans. He was 22 years old, and that’s all we know about him. His relatives might know about some grand-uncle who died in the war, but nothing more. At of his funeral, his comrades probably sang “Der gute Kamerad“.

The song “Der gute Kamerad” (“The good Comrade”) is the traditional lament of the German armed forces. The text was written by Ludwig Uhland in 1809, set to music in 1825, and has been translated to several other languages thanks to its universal nature.

I once had a comrade,
You will find no better.
The drum called to battle,
He walked at my side,
In the same pace and step.

A bullet came a-flying,
Is it my turn or yours?
He was swept away,
He lies at my feet,
Like it were a part of me.

He still reaches out his hand to me,
While I am about to reload.
I cannot hold onto your hand,
You stay in eternal life
My good comrade.