Something good to read

An officer, probably a Leutnant or Oberleutnant, his shoulderboards obscured by slip-on covers in order to make him a less obvious target, sits by the big oven in a Russian izba (peasant house), probably in 1941 or 1942. A man after my own heart, he has brought a book. Back when I did my military service, I was probably the only one in our company bringing a book to read when we were in the field.

There are many memoirs by German soldiers and officers that give an insight in what it was like to fight. I’ve read several, some of the best I’ll list here. For those of you who have only read Sven Hassel’s war novels, these books are the real stuff, in contrast to Hassel’s made-up stories. Here goes…

Gottlob Biedermann: In Deadly Combat   Biedermann rose from from private to lieutenant, serving in an infantry division on the Eastern Front. He survived four years of war; of his original squad of 13 men, only three did. His memoir provides an insight in the life as an NCO and junior officer. A particularily striking chapter is when the academic-looking Biedermann went berzerk during a Red Army assault.

Otto Carius: Tigers in the Mud   Slight of stature, Carius went from being a gunner in a PzKpfw 38(t) in 1941 to becoming the third highest-scoring tank ace of all time. He served for the largest part of the war  on the Eastern Front, but ended the was on the Western Front, fighting the Americans. Carius was an incredibly lucky soldier, and one memorable episode proves that smoking can actually save one’s life…

Siegfried Knappe: Soldat   A lieutenant during the invasion of France in 1940, Knappe was decorated for his bravery. He served on the Eastern Front and in Italy. Towards the end of the war, he served on General Wiedling’s staff during the fighting for Berlin, reporting to the Führerbunker. He became a prisoner of war, and spent five years in the USSR before being released. Knappe emigrated to the USA in the 1950’s.

Günther Koschorrek: Blood Red Snow   A simple soldier and machinegunner, Koschorrek was lucky to escape the hell in Stalingrad before it was too late. His account tells the tale of years of hard combat on the Eastern Front, and it rarely gets more intense and brutal than this. This is the story of a regular Frontschwein who was fortunate to survive it all, unlike most of his comrades.

Hans von Luck: Panzer Commander   A colonel by the end of WW2, Hans von Luck served on almost all fronts from the invasion of Poland in 1939, France 1940, the Soviet Union in 1941, North Africa, and Normandy, to the fall of Germany in 1945. His account is full of exciting and sometimes amusing stories. Few officers saw more action, and he even served under the legendary Field Marshal Rommel.

Kurt Meyer: Grenadiers   The youngest general in the German armed forces, the controversial “Panzer-Meyer” was in the thick of combat from the invasion of Poland to his capture in September 1944. Serving first in the elite Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler, then the 12. SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend”, he made a name for himself as an aggressive commander. He was tried for war crimes and sentenced to death, but managed to escape the hangman’s noose.

Martin Pöppel: Heaven & Hell   A rare account by one of the elite German Fallschirmjäger, Pöppel was a paratrooper who fought in Poland, Norway, Holland, Crete, Russia, Sicily and southern Italy, Normandy and Holland/Lower Rhine. He ended up as a prisoner of war in 1944, and spent some time in a PoW camp in Britain. The chapters on the fighting in Normandy are an interesting counterpoint to “Band of Brothers”, as his unit fought the 101st Airborne.

Guy Sajer: The Forgotten Soldier   Guy Sajer was an Alsacian who served in the elite Groβdeutschland Division (GD). He was just in his teens, and his story is one of a young man caught up in momentous events. There have been grave doubts whether he served in the German Army at all, as his book has many flaws and inaccuracies, but research has shown that he did serve in GD. Don’t read the book as a 100 % factual account of events, but as very personal story.

Johann Voss: Black Edelweiss   The 17 years old Voss joined the 6. SS-Gebirgs-Divsion in 1943 because a friend served there. The division was posted to the front in Finland, and in contrast to the other accounts listed here, he saw relatively little action to begin with. In 1944, the division fought rearguard actions in the Lapland War, and was deployed in the Vosges Mountains for Operation Nordwind, the little-known later phase of the Battle of the Bulge. Still, his book offers an insight into the mind of a young, idealistic soldier who had to deal with the fact that he had fought for an evil regime. In 2004, I managed to contact the author (“Johann Voss” isn’t his real name), and learned that he was still angry with how his youthful idealism had been exploited by Hitler and Himmler.

Is this the reel life?

A soldier, perhaps in an engineer or artillery unit, reels in telephone cable by turning a crank on a carrying frame. When retrieving the cable, the frame was carried on the chest, while it was carried on the back when laying the cable. A cable-laying party consisted of a leader and three men, one carrying the cable reel in its frame, and the other a long pole (usually three meters) a with fork-like tip to hold and lift the cable, while the third was responsible for tensioning the cable. A bag with pliers, electrical tape, screwdriver, knife, pencils, and a note pad was carried by the third man. The leader would reconnoiter the best route for the cable.

There were two kinds of telephone wire used. The light type was on hand-held reels, while the heavy cable seen in the photo was wound on drums. In the latter case, the cable was 1000 meters long, but if my experience at cable-laying is anything to go by, lengths of cable were lost in the field, the drums ending up holding about 800 meters. Building a telephone line takes different amounts of time, depending on the terrain and length. If the ground is flat and the trees have their branches high up (for example pines), a kilometer of telephone line can be built in less than 20 minutes. If speed is needed, the cable is laid directly on the ground.

A telephone network is more reliable, and can be used during radio silence. A drawback is that it can be damaged by e.g. artillery fire, or cut by enemy infiltrators. To make life harder for repair parties, a trick is to push a pin through the cable and cut off the ends. It will break the connection, and requires a soldier to run his fingers along the entire length of the cable, trying to find the exact spot where the pin has been inserted. Still, it beats being in a frontline trench.

“Ring, ring, why don’t you give me a call?”

This photo is probably from around 1940, possibly earlier. It is hard to determine the Waffenfarbe – the corps colors – piping on the shoulderboards, but it could be signals troops yellow, judging by the brightness of the sidecap soutache (chevron). The M39 uniforms, the lack of combat suspenders, and the gloss paint on the helmets indicate that this is early in the war and that it’s during training. The Feldfernsprecher 33 field telephone was a simple phone in a brown bakelite casing, which held a handset, a generator crank, a battery, a headset, and a throat microphone, in total weighing around 2.5 kilos and carried in a leather shoulder strap when not connected. It was used for communications within a company, between companies and upwards, by artillery batteries and their forward observers, between bunkers, and many other units and situations.

In the photo, a reel of telephone wire can be seen next to the phone. The leather case next to the phone operator’s hand probably contains pliers and other tools for setting up the telephone line. Phone wire can be seen wrapped around the tree trunk. Usually, the rest of the wire was suspended from branches or secured by a single turn around a tree trunk at least three meters up.

The Swedish Army adopted a domestically-made version of the FF33, the m/37 field telephone. When I made my military service in 1986-87, I served as a corporal in the headquarters of a rifle company. We used the field telephones mainly for communication with battalion headquarters. Even now, when I’m a volunteer in a Home Guard unit, we use the m/37 as a way for guard posts to contact the company commanding officer.

Burial detail

The aftermath of battle… A group of German soldiers is about to take care of three dead French soldiers. The place is Boulogne-sur-Mer, a day or three after the Germans captured the Channel coast port town on 25 May, 1940. French and British units defended the town against attacks by the 2. Panzer-Division. The British managed to evacuate the majority of their troops, but a rearguard was left together with the French units, the survivors going into captivity for the next five years.

The delay caused by the fighting for Boulogne was a contributing factor to the success of the evacuation at Dunkerque. The few extra days meant that the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force got away. The dead French soldiers in that street corner never knew that their deaths were part of the price for the “Miracle of Dunkirk”.

A Wanderer on the Road

Gefreiter changes the tire on an Auto Union Wanderer cabriolet used by the medical personnel of a motorized anti-tank company. The car is a civilian vehicle, not originally intended for military use, but making up the plethora of models and makes used by the Wehrmacht. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the lack of standardization resulted in problems with the supply of spare parts. The car hasn’t got the characteristic slitted headlight covers seen on German military vehicles; instead, it appears like the headlights have received some paint in order to reduce the glare that could make the enemy spot a vehicle from afar in the dark. The chromed bumper has a worn coat of paint, too.

The Leutnant standing to the right might be a Sanitätsoffizier – medical officer – but at that rank, he should be at battalion level. A fun detail is that he has turned his peaked cap back-to-front, probably to avoid losing it when travelling at speed. There’s a chinstrap, but it seems like he doesn’t favor it. All in all, a snapshot of a small event, over 75 years ago.

“Heia Safari!”

Gefreiter wearing the tropical uniform used in North Africa and some parts of the Mediterranian Theater of Operations. While I cannot say for sure that he belongs to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, it is likely that the photo was shot either in southern Italy while waiting to be shipped over, or shortly after the arrival to Africa. Troops who had served in Africa for two months got the right to wear the “Afrikakorps” cuff title on the left sleeve.

Still, the young soldier in the photo has some experience. He has the ribbons for the Iron Cross, 2nd class (button hole) and the Kriegsverdienstkreuz (War Merit Cross, over left breast pocket). The War Merit Cross, which was often awarded to non-combatants and rear-area troops, was called das Feldküchensturmabzeichen (the Field Kitchen Assault Badge) by cynical frontline troops… The Infanterie-Sturmabzeichen in silver shows that he has participated in three separate assaults while serving in an infantry unit (as opposed to a motorized Panzer unit), and the Verwundeteabzeichen (Wound Badge), probably in black (paint rubbed off to reveal the brass underneath), for one or two combat wounds.

He’s wearing the tropical uniform, with the early high-laced canvas-and-leather boots, and the peaked cap. The tunic sleeves are too short, which is odd, as the Germans were pretty intent on having well-fitted uniforms (at least in the early years of the war). At least he hasn’t been issued the pith helmet (tropical helmet, which would make him look like an explorer), as the early versions of the tropical uniform was inspired by British styles.



Mortar Combat

Three Gefreiter (lance corporals) using a light mortar, the 5 cm leichter Granatwerfer 36 (5 cm leGrW 36). It could lob a 0.9 kg grenade up to 520 meters, and provided fire support at platoon and company level. It was easy to transport, but over-engineered, with not enough of a range and too light a round. Still, it was useful in the early years of the war. Production was discontinued in 1941, and the weapon phased out as mortars were lost and ammunition stocks dwindled.

The soldiers wear greatcoats, the second guy from the right clad in the all-grey version introduced in 1940. His comrades wear the M1939, which has a dark green, more narrow collar. They all wear double decal helmets; the black-white-red national colors shield was eliminated in 1940, and the eagle decal in 1943. Still, helmets could still be seen sporting decals by the end of the war.