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.


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.


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.

Feeling tired? Have a pill!

Troops of a cavalry unit advancing during the Campaign in the West, 1940. An Obergefreiter and an Oberfeldwebel naps on the back of a wagon. They were probably up early, and now the advance along French country roads lulls them to sleep. War can be tiring, with odd hours, long days, great physical exertion, and “months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror”, to use a phrase coined during WW1. There was a need to have troops alert and ready for action, and the solution was… methamphetamine! Yup, the Third Reich wasn’t just bad, but breaking bad!

Amphetamine was invented in 1887, but it took a few decades before the medical industry found a use for it. In the early 1930s, it was a component of the asthma drug Benzedrine. Soon the effects of amphetamine became apparent: it raised awareness, made the user awake, dulled hunger and pain, and alleviated boredom. It was soon modified into methamphetamine. In 1938, it was marketed under the name Pervitin in Germany, and sold over the counter at chemists. It attracted the attention of the German Army, but it was already used by some troops as early as the invasion of Poland in 1939. Pilots and tank and truck drivers were among those who found most use of the drug. The authorities made so it wasn’t sold over the counter anymore, but the Army is said to have distributed 35 million Pervitin and the similar Isophan pills during the campaigns of April – July 1940 alone!

Drug addiction wasn’t unknown; drugs of choice in the first half of the 20th century were cocaine and morphine. “Meth” wasn’t an exception, and as it was increasingly abused, the Army became very restrictive in its use from the spring of 1941. Historian Lukasz Kamienski says “A soldier going to battle on Pervitin usually found himself unable to perform effectively for the next day or two. Suffering from a drug hangover and looking more like a zombie than a great warrior, he had to recover from the side effects.” Some soldiers turned very violent, committing war crimes against civilians; others attacked their own officers. Still, it was issued throughout the war, and one can only wonder what it did to its users.

The Allies used meth, too, in the shape of Benzedrine, also known as “wakey-wakey pills”. The British used it primarily to keep bomber pilots alert, but also aircrew on submarine-hunting missions, which demanded sharpened wits for hours at an end. Ground troops, too, were issued Benzedrine, and it is said that large quantities were ordered before the showdown at el-Alamein. After some initial skepticism, the Americans followed suit and issued Benzedrine to the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps. The drawbacks of the drug became apparent, though, and it was a known fact that the self-confidence felt by the users wasn’t reflected in actual performance, where all sorts of mistakes were made. After the war, amphetamine-based drugs were sold to truck drivers and as a weight-loss drug to housewives, but abuse called for restrictions and legislation.

Chariot of feuer

This photo most likely depicts a parade in France, 1940, possibly in Paris after the surrender of the French army. An Sd.Kfz. 251/4 pulling a field gun rumbles past a Panzer crewman holding a banner of some sort. His padded beret helps date the photo, as it was officially withdrawn from use in January 1941.

The distinctive Sd.Kfz. 251 was the main armored halftrack used by the Heer. It was mainly used by Panzergrenadier troops, but also as a support vehicle with a range of heavier weapons. With 15,252 vehicles made (all versions), there were never enough to go around, which made the Germans use the halftracks for one Panzergrenadier regiment in a Panzer division, the other riding on trucks instead.

It held a squad of soldiers (10 soldiers), a driver and a commander. It was capable of a road speed of 53 km/h (33 mph). It had very good cross-country capability, but the interleaved wheels were susceptible to getting clogged by heavy mud and icy snow.

There are several Sd.Kfz. 251s in running condition, but in war movies, the Czech-built copy OT-810 is commonly used. It has a roof over the crew compartment, so it has to be modified in order to look like the original. The Germans used the American M3 halftrack if they captured one, so if you see one in a movie, it hasn’t to be a goof. The US vehicle had better performance, but without the Sd.Kfz. 251, the Germans would’ve had a harder time with their Blitzkrieg.