A good start to a good day

The men of what appears to be a mobile field workshop having breakfast. A big pot of ersatz coffee, sandwiches with spreads like jam, liver paste or canned cheese make for a good start of a hopefully productive day. A hammer rests on an anvil. The car is probably a 1939 Horch 830 BL Pullman saloon, a little worse for wear since it joined the Army. The photo is stamped 7 April 1943 on the back, but I suspect it was taken the year before. The chevron painted on the door might be a unit marking, but I haven’t found out which one.

The men sport haircuts typical of the German Army at the time. The skinhead look of the German soldiers in Saving Private Ryan was rather ahistorical. Some soldiers even wore their hair longer than American GIs, something that surprised the Yanks.

The second guy from the left is sitting on a 20 liter gas can. It’s made from stamped sheet steel, and the design has been essentially unchanged to this day. The Allies copied the design, calling it “Jerry can” as in “Jerries” = Germans. The British in particular picked up any they could lay their hands on, as their equivalents were known as “flimsies”, the name indicating their sturdiness (or rather lack thereof). If the cans had a white cross painted on them, they held water instead. Otherwise the morning coffee might be a bit stronger than intended by accident…

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About to head out

A group of lieutenants going through orders. Platoon commanders in what appears to be a mounted unit – reconaissance, most likely – (riding breeches, boots and spurs hint at that), there’s little that gives any hint about time or location, The lack of medals makes me think it’s during the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa, though. The second guy from the right carries a captured Soviet PPD-40 submachine gun.

The PPD (Pistolet-Pulemyot Degtyarova) was developed in 1934. It was adopted by the Red Army in 1935 and entered production as the PPD-34. Made in small numbers, it was mostly issued to the NKVD, foremost to border guards. Slightly modified in 1938, it was re-designed after the Winter War with Finland (1939-40), adopting a copy of the Finnish 70-round drum magazine (71 rounds in the Soviet version), thus becoming the PPD-40. After the German invasion in 1941, it was soon discovered that the PPD-40 was less than ideal for wartime production, so it was quickly replaced by the more inexpensive and easier to produce PPSh-41, the iconic SMG of the Red Army. The PPD-40 was a first generation submachine gun, and an indifferent weapon useful mainly for the large magazine capacity.

It was rather common among troops to use captured enemy weapons, as long as there was access to captured ammunition stocks. The officer to right in the photo carries the MP-40 (or MP-38) he was issued. One advantage of using a captured weapon is that it doesn’t give away the shooter as an enemy due to the sound, which might give an element of surprise. On the other hand, it might also confuse friendly troops…

Roadside dinner

Chow time somewhere on the Eastern Front, possibly 1942 or thereabouts. It’s in the summer, as evident by the mosquito nets worn by some of the soldiers. The food transport has arrived, and some soup or stew is ladled into the soldiers’ M31 mess tins. The food is kept in 25-liter Essenträger (food carriers) seen in the right center of the photo. Those are like big thermos bottles made from aluminium, keeping the food warm long enough to be transported from the company’s field kitchen to the platoons. Clean water and/or ersatz coffee is in the large aluminium jars, and there are probably some loaves of dark rye bread from the field bakery. All of it has been transported on Infanteriekarren (infantry carts, official designation: Infanteriefahrzeug If.8), which can be pulled by two soldiers, a horse or two, a motorcycle, or a small tractor like a Kettenkrad. It was introduced after the campaigns of 1941, where the need for a light transport cart became evident.

The heavy Essenträger containers were usually carried to the platoons on the backs of soldiers, carrying straps fitted to ring mounts. It could be very dangerous, as the food transport detail might become exposed to enemy fire. Knowing what a blow to morale and stamina a missed meal could mean, the enemy made a point of targeting soldiers carrying food. If the threat level was too high, the meals were delivered under the cover of darkness. If the food made it to the front, it might still be somewhat lacking. German soldiers joked about “Horst Wessel soup”, meaning that any meat “marschier’n im Geist“/”marches along in spirit” (that is, not being there physically), making fun of one of the lines in the (in)famous song “Horst Wessel Lied“. You know the food is bad when people make irreverent references to a song which was practically the second anthem of the Third Reich…

Drive to the East

At first glance, this photo might be mistaken as being of an SS soldier.  The collar tabs and the sleeve eagle look like those of the Waffen-SS. This isn’t the case, though. In keeping with the motor transport theme set by the previous two posts, the guy in the pic is a member of the Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrkorps (National Socialist Motor Corps). The NSKK was a paramilitary organization within the Nazi Party, and served as a training organization, mainly instructing members in the operation and maintenance of motorcycles and cars, and providing drivers for Party officials. With the outbreak of WW2, NSKK members were recruited to serve in the transport corps of various German military branches, since they possessed knowledge of motorized transport, a useful skill when the bulk of German ground forces relied on horses. The NSKK was used to transport German Army troops, supplies and ammunition. By the time WW2 began, the NSKK had already trained some 200,000 men at its 21 training facilities.

The man in the photo is an NSKK-Rottenführer, which is the equivalent of a lance corporal. On the back of the photo it’s noted: “Jalta / Krim Juli 1943”. Given the Crimea location taken together with the collar tab which says “Sp”, it can be concluded that he is a member of Transportbrigade Speer, which followed Army Group South, providing infrastructural backup and supplies. It was organized in 1942, and had almost 50,000 vehicles and comprised about 70,000 men. Members of the Transportbrigade Speer wore either the gray-blue uniform of the Luftwaffe or the brown uniform of Speer’s staff (like the man in the photo). As with all other Nazi organizations, the NSKK was disbanded in May 1945.

Rollbahn

“Rollbahn.” A German word that can mean a designated road – a road for troop movements and supply transports. On the Eastern Front, there were several of them, spanning the vast distances of the western parts of the Soviet Union. They were the main arteries, feeding the constantly hungry front with men, machines and matériel, the trucks of the Nachschub-Kolonnen-Abteilungen (supply transport battalions) traveling from west to east with much-needed fuel, food and other supplies.

It was important to build supply depots and to use railroads as much as possible, because if the distances were too great, it would consume more than a unit fuel to transport one unit of fuel. Another consideration was rear area security. With long lines of supply, transports were targets for partisan units. The problem was greatest in Army Group Center’s area of operations, where some 80,000-100,000 partisans were active. The soldiers tasked with rear area security were mostly older men in their 40’s, many of them veterans of World War 1, organized in battalions. Armed mostly with captured weapons, they performed well given the circumstances. Still, given the number of partisans and the vast areas to cover, the Germans never gained the upper hand.

The photo above shows a part of the Rollbahn, like so many Soviet roads without any hardened road surface, muddy from the pelting rain. Imagine driving kilometer after kilometer on those roads, in a truck with no power steering and all the comforts of 1930’s technology, and with the constant threat of air attacks and partisan ambushes. The men – of any army – who managed to bring the supplies to the front were the unsung heroes of World War 2.

No home to return to

The fine studio photo of a young Gefreiter manages to convey the self-assuredness of a proud Prussian soldier. He belongs to one of the machinegun companies of Infanterie-Regiment 311, which was part of the 217. Infanterie-Division. He has been awarded the Iron Cross, 2nd class, the Infantry Assault Badge, and the Wound Badge in black. His M1935 Waffenrock isn’t part of his personal uniform, but on loan for the photo session.

I was about to post just the studio photo, when I remembered that I had some photos of troops from 217 ID. Sure enough, our young warrior is in the middle of the front row in the top photo. The photos taken in the field show him and his comrades during the winter of 1941-42, when they were posted to Oranienbaum, west of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg). The divisional sign can be seen on the truck in the lower photo.

The division was formed in August 1939 in Allenstein in East Prussia (now Olsztyn in Poland). The division took part in the invasion of Poland, where it was mainly used as a reserve unit. It participated in the fighting in Belgium and France, before going back to East Prussia in July, 1940, where it spent almost a year securing the border. In June 1941 it was part of Army Group North, invading the USSR and capturing Tallinn in Estonia. It saw action on the Leningrad front, but was rushed to Ukraine in October 1943 in order to stem the Red Army advance. The Infanterie-Regiment 311 was disbanded together with the rest of the division in November 1943 after suffering heavy losses.

What’s the thing about having no home to retrun to? East Prussia had been Germanized in the 13th century, and became a province that changed owners over the centuries. The capital was Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). In 1525, it became the Duchy of Prussia, and later a kingdom. When the German Empire was created in 1871, Prussia was the leading state, but after WW1 and the Treaty of Versailles, Prussia was split between Poland and Germany, the Eastern (German) part separated from the rest of the country. This was changed in 1939 and the invasion of Poland, where reconnecting East Prussia with Germany was one of Hitler’s reasons for the attack. East Prussia was relatively unaffected by the war until the vengeful Red Army invaded in early 1945. The civilian population, rightly fearing massacres and rapes, began a mass exodus, and a majority of the 2.2 million Prussians, 85 % of whom were ethnic Germans, fled westwards or were expelled later in ethnic cleansings. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives during those last months, by bombs, in the sinkings of evacuation ships, or freezing to death on the road to safety. This expulsion is still the largest in history, but seldom talked about. East Prussia was divided between the USSR and Poland, and ceased to be a German territory.

It’s funny that it was years after I got the photos, which were part of a bigger lot, that I saw the connection between studio portrait and the dozen or so MG company photos. Could it be an indication that the young man survived the war, as the photos had somehow made it to the west? It’s impossible to know. What we do know is that he didn’t have a home to return to.

Forging ahead

A lieutenant watches as horse-drawn wagons bring baggage and supplies to the front, using a pontoon bridge built by the Brückenkolonne of a Pionier (combat engineer) battalion. It’s probably during the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa. The retreating Soviets blew up any bridge they could, and those had to be replaced. In some cases, rivers were bridged in unexpected spots in order to make flanking attacks possible. The company-sized bridge-building unit could build longer or shorter bridges, depending on what load they were to handle. The pontoons could also be used when building ferries, as some rivers were simply too wide to be bridged in time. There were inflatable boats, too, which together with assault boats were used for attacks across rivers. Without the combat engineers, the armies would have a much harder time moving forward.

This is the last post in the five-part series about my WW2 interest and the ways it manifests itself. I will return to different aspects of it in future posts, elaborating on the themes that I find interesting.

In June 2014, I and some friends went to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. We spent a week looking at bunkers and tanks, walking invasion beaches and battlefields, and even had the good fortune to meet and talk to a couple of Allied D-Day veterans. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to make similar trips in the future. Over the years, I have met people who experienced WW2 first hand, and I hope to incorporate their stories in one way or other in my posts. I have a project brewing, where I plan to read and analyze the articles published in the German propaganda magazine ”Signal”, comparing how the Germans presented the fighting in Normandy with what really happened. Then I have this blog, which has turned my collecting of original German photos into a way of expressing myself through research and writing, presenting the photos together with capsule histories and trying to put them in a historical context. Hopefully it will broaden the readers’ understanding of the war just as it has broadened mine. That’s my excuse, anyway.

There are times when I get the question “Why waste time on dead people?” Well, the people in the photos are long gone (except perhaps the odd 90+ years old), but they lived during a tumultous period in our history. They would’ve been happier if they had been allowed to live their lives in peace, but that wasn’t to be. Their stories and fates are too often untold and forgotten; I’ve met people who lived through those years and who experienced things that they haven’t even told their own children. While most of the people in the photos I post here will remain anonymous, I want to put them in a context. In a way, if circumstances had been different, we could’ve been them. That alone makes it worth telling about the people and events all those years ago.