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.



Five men from an antitank gun platoon posing for their buddy with the camera, taking a break from cutting wood, somewhere on the Eastern Front, spring of 1942. All of them enjoy a pipe of tobacco, using pipes with small bowls typical of the time. The daily ration was seven cigarettes or two cigars, and as the war had stopped trade with the US, the smoother Virginia tobacco was replaced with the stronger Turkish equivalent. The pipes had wooden bowls, or bowls made from bakelite with a clay lining, with room for a cigarette’s worth of tobacco. Many soldiers eked out their tobacco rations with tobacco sent from home, or the rougher Russian makhorka, which is usually described as particularly vile.

Using a pipe had some advantages. It was less susceptible to rain, didn’t need rolling paper, and the glow was far less conspicuous when standing guard (a good sniper could spot the glow from a cigarette and aim five centimeters higher…). While smoking was officially discouraged in the Third Reich, reality called for a steady supply of tobacco, not least for frontline morale reasons. Non-smokers used to trade their cigarettes for chocolate, biscuits and other goodies. If a soldier got hold on American cigarettes, like Lucky Strikes, he had some hard currency in his hands. Ah, the many aspects of nicotine addiction!

Leave checklist

Every once in a while, a soldier might be lucky enough to get leave for a week or two. He couldn’t just jump on the first train, though. No, as this placard indicates, there was much to think of.

(My German is pretty poor, and Google Translate isn’t as precise as one could wish for, so any corrections are welcome. The translation is as close as I can make it. “Heimat” is hard to translate, though, as the German meaning is deeper than just “home”.)

Preparation for going to the home country
1. Turn in ammunition.
2. Delousing.
3. Check documents, train assignment and stamps at the command post.
4. Pick up travel rations.
5. Exchange money.
6. Visit the barber if you wish.
7. Message home through the camp post office: “Mommy, I’m coming!”
8. Go to the trains about 1½ hours in advance before entraining and assignment [of seat?].
9. All with good humor, proper behavior and enjoyment of the homeland.

If I’m not mistaken, German soldiers brought their personal weapons while on leave, but they couldn’t bring any ammunition. Delousing was important, as no soldier wanted to bring any vermin home to their families (or suffer them at all). Having the travel documents in order was of utmost importance, as the military police could check the papers any time. If the papers weren’t in order, the soldier could be in for a hard time. Travel rations were needed, and soldiers on leave were issued rationing coupons to ensure that they got what they were entitled to. Getting a haircut and a shave was always nice after the delousing. Alerting the family back home that one was coming was common courtesy, while going to the train with a good margin was just common sense. Finally, not making an embarrassment of yourself while on leave and in uniform is still good advice.

Eggstra rations

These German soldiers, perhaps from a field workshop unit, fry up some eggs to be enjoyed on slices of bread. Adding whatever you can get hold on to your allotted rations could give you those extra calories to make it through the day, a truth as old as soldiering. Hidden behind the word “foraging”, it usually meant grabbing whatever you could from suffering peasants, and meant severe problems in wars like the Thirty Years War, where armies were like swarms of locusts. A consequence of an insufficient supply chain, it would be wrong to accuse the individual soldiers of doing whatever they could to survive, though. The guys in the photo don’t look particularily starving, and perhaps they bought the eggs from a farmer for a pack of cigarettes. Barter was a common way of getting extra rations without upsetting civilians, and in occupied zones both sides benefited from a flourishing black market. Now pass me the salt and pepper, please.


Attentive readers might’ve noticed that I don’t post every day, like I did in December. That’s for three reasons: 1) I made a point of making a post for each day in December, counting down to Christmas and New Year’s, 2) I’ve been fairly busy this month, and 3)I’m thinking about making an experiment. As this blog has only a dozen followers, and attract less than ten vistors per day, I’ll start a Facebook page where the posts will appear, and hopefully generate both discussions and traffic to this blog. Some might think that I’m an attention seeker, and that’s actually pretty true – after all, I want to share my photos and receive feedback. The Facebook page is already created, but it hasn’t gone public yet. Watch this space for more news.

Happy New Year?

It’s New Year’s Eve, or “Silvester” as the Germans call it. The soldiers enjoy smokes and drinks, celebrating the end of 1943 and hoping that 1944 will bring about a change in Germany’s fortunes. In the background is the Christmas tree, a window covered by a blackout curtain, an icon and a religious painting. Uniforms jackets, equipment and Zeltbähne hang from hooks. If it wasn’t for the Obergefreiter in the black Panzer jacket, it would be hard to tell what kind of unit they belong to. The piping around the collar patch isn’t bright enough to be the golden yellow of an armored reconnaisance unit, which makes me think it’s the pink of the Panzer troops. On his sleeve can be seen the Kraftfahrbewährungsabzeichen, a badge awarded to experienced drivers.

Whatever hopes they had for 1944, they were thoroughly squashed by the end of that year. The Reich was bombed day and night, the Battle of the Atlantic had been definitely lost, the Allies had taken large parts of Italy and landed in France, causing a retreat back to the German border. The Eastern Front had almost collapsed. The last gamble to turn the tide of the war against the Western Allies, the Ardennes Offensive, had stalled. If anything, the prospects for 1945 were even worse, and if any of the guys in the photo survived the war, they probably spent New Year’s Eve 1945 in a prisoner of war camp.

So this wraps up the first half year of this blog. Next year, I’ll probably update it every two days, as I have to attend to other projects. Rest assured that I have hundreds of photos to write about, so it isn’t like I’m running out of subjects.

Happy New Year!

Well ventilated

After the Christmas food, a visit to the field latrine might be needed. This rather sketchy outhouse doesn’t offer much in the way of privacy or protection from the elements, but on the flip side is that the stink is whisked away by the wind. Judging by the felt boots worn by the soldiers, this photo is probably from the winter of 1942-43.

Going to the crapper in the middle of winter can be an experience. One cannot wear too much, as bulky winter pants and coats tend to get in the way. Then there’s the temperature. I remember the last day of our winter exercise in early January, 1987. After several days in -27º C (-17º F), I had to relieve myself in the morning. I left the tent and went to the “fold-and-crap”, a sturdy cardboard box over a bucket, wearing my woolen uniform pants and a sweater. I thought the temperature was rather pleasant after those days in Arctic conditions. Half an hour later I learned that the temperature was a sweltering -16º C (3º F). How easily one gets accustomed to extreme conditions…