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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Hanging out at the bar

Two Landser from an antitank unit on the “Donnerbalken” (“thunder beam”), or in plain parlance: the latrine. As a soldier, whenever you go into a more or less permanent position, it is of utmost importance that a good latrine is built. It should be away from the tents or bunkers, as it will attract flies you don’t want around where you sleep and eat, yet not too far away, as you need to be able to find it in the dark.

Good hygiene must be observed, or disease might spread. When reading German soldiers’ memoirs, it isn’t uncommon that there’s mention of the author catching dysentery, especially among those serving on the Eastern Front. Dysentery is a type of gastroenteritis that results in bloody diarrhea. Other symptoms may include fever, abdominal pain, and a feeling of incomplete defecation. It is caused by several types of infections such as bacteria, viruses, parasitic worms, or protozoa. The mechanism is an inflammatory disorder of the intestine, especially of the colon.

Symptoms normally present themselves after one to three days, and are usually no longer present after a week. Anyone who has experienced a stomach flu will recognize the problem with what’s basically the running shits. Dysentery is worse; imagine suffering from it, especially during the winter, where one will have to struggle with the uniform, find a spot – any spot – to squat and let loose, and not having any paper to wipe yourself with. Do this for week, and you’ll hardly to be in any condition to fight.

So, if the soldiers in the photo above observe basic hygiene and wash their hands, they might avoid catching a nasty stomach bug. Remember that, kids!

“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.

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…

Phoney War, part 2

Three of the men from the photo in the previous post are building a barbed wire entanglement and digging a foxhole, somewhere along the Franco-German border during the “Phoney War”, September 1939 to May 1940. This was pretty much what the “Siegfried Line” amounted to, as the Germans hadn’t finished building the line of bunkers and other fortifications that would later go under the name “Westwall“.

While the bulk of the German army was engaged in Poland, the western border was held by a much smaller force. At the much more intimidating Maginot Line across the border, British and French troops stood facing them, but there were only some local skirmishes, while in the air there were occasional dogfights between fighter planes.

The Saar Offensive was a French attack into the Saarland defended by the German 1st Army. It started on 7 September, its purpose to assist Poland, but the assault was stopped after a few kilometres and the French forces withdrew. Eleven French divisions had advanced along a 32 km line near Saarbrücken against weak German opposition, but the attack didn’t result in the diversion of any German troops from Poland. According to the Franco-Polish agreement, on the 15th day of the mobilisation (that is on 16 September), the French Army was to start a full-scale assault on Germany, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the French informed the Poles that the major offensive on the western front planned from 17–20 September had to be postponed. At the same time, French divisions were ordered to withdraw to their barracks along the Maginot Line, beginning the Phoney War.

At the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, German military commander Alfred Jodl said that “if we did not collapse already in the year 1939 that was due only to the fact that during the Polish campaign, the approximately 110 French and British divisions in the West were held completely inactive against the 23 German divisions.” General Siegfried Westphal stated that if the French had attacked in force in September 1939, the German Army “could only have held out for one or two weeks.” The German Army had ammunition stocks good for two weeks, so any major Allied offensive would’ve been devastating. Hitler could’ve been stopped in the autumn of 1939, had the Western Allies been more decisive. Instead, on 10 May 1940, the German Army attacked, and it would take almost five years before the Allies crossed the border to finish Hitler’s Reich, tens of millions of dead people later.

Phoney War, part 1

Somewhere along the Franco-German border, 1939-40, German soldiers take a break in the digging of foxholes to pose for some fun photos. The Unteroffizier just to the left of the center is holding a Bergmann MP28 submachinegun (with mounted bayonet). The guy in front of him is brandishing an M24 stick grenade (“potato-masher”). A loudspeaker lies on the ground, probably used to blare propaganda and music at their French colleagues across the border.

The “Phoney War” was the eight-month period at the start of WW2, during which there were no major military land operations on the Western Front. It began with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and the declaration of war by the United Kingdom and France against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, and ended with the German attack on France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940. The Germans called it the Sitzkrieg, a pun on the inactivity contrasted to the Blitzkrieg.

While the British and the French had declared war, they didn’t launch any offensive to aid the Poles, despite the Alliance between the three countries. There was some aerial and naval activity, and some skirmishes along the border, but the Germans were generally left alone to finish Poland, aided by the Soviet Union. The opportunity to stop Hitler was lost, which I will write about in my next post.

Landser-Sprache

Landser-Sprache – soldier-speak – were the expressions and slang words used by German soldiers. Here’s a selection of some popular words that could be heard at the front. They reflect attitudes towards bad soldiers, non-frontline troops, glory hounds, and much more. The expressions also give an idea about the often sarcastic humor typical for soldiers of all times.

Alter: “elder”; superiors, usually the company commander (“der Alte”)
a.v.: the proper abbreviation for Arbeitsverwendungsfähig, “one who can be used for work” but exempted from combat duty (see k.v.). Used here as a pun for ausgezeichnete Verbindungen (“excellent connections”)
Arschbetrüger: “ass-cheater”; the short M44 uniform jacket

Beutegermane: “booty-German”, a foreign volunteer, also used for the Volksdeutsche
Blechhut: “tin hat”; helmet
Blechkrawatte: “tin necktie”; the Knight’s Cross

Etappenschweine: “rear area pigs”; derogatory name for soldiers in non-combatant positions, like supply personnel

Donnerbalken: “thunderbeam”; latrine (literally the beam laid across a latrine pit)

Feldküchensturmabzeichen: “field kitchen assault badge”; the War Merit Cross
Fernkampfmedaille: “long distance fighting medal”; the War Merit Cross (suggesting the holders were far from the actual fighting)
Flintenweib: “gun woman”; a Soviet female soldier
Frontschwein: “front pig”; a seasoned soldier
Fußlappenindianer: “footwrap Indian”; infantryman

Gefrierfleischorden: “order of the frozen meat”; the Eastern Front Medal (awarded to those who served during the winter of 1941-42)
Gulaschkanone: “goulash cannon”; field kitchen
Gröfaz:Größter Feldherr aller Zeiten“; “the greatest commander of all time”, derogatory acronym for Adolf Hitler

Halseisen: “throat iron”; the Knight’s Cross
Halsschmerzen: “throat ache”; had by someone who wants to earn the Knight’s Cross
Heimatschuß: “homeland shot”; a light wound that would send a soldier home (“million dollar wound”)
Himmelfahrtskommando: “ride to heaven command”; a deployment with little chance of survival
Hitlersäge: “Hitler saw”; an MG42
HJ-Spätlese: “late vintage Hitlerjugend”; the Volkssturm (a militia made up from older men)
Hundemarke: “dog tag”; the German identity disc
Hurratüte: “hurrah cone”; helmet

Iwan: a Soviet soldier

Kantinenorden: “order of the canteen”; the War Merit Cross
Kettenhund: “chain dog”; a Feldgendarm (military police, who wore a gorget in a neck chain as mark of office)
Knarre: “rattle”; rifle
Knobelbecher: “dice cups”; the German high marching boots
k.v.: the proper abbreviation for kriegsverwendungsfähig, “fit for use in war”, used here as a pun for keine Verbindungen “no connections”, kann verrecken “can croak (die)”, or krepiert vielleicht “will perhaps die”

Landser: infantry soldier
Leithammel: “bellwether” (boss ram in a sheep flock); an Unteroffizier (NCO)
Makkaroni: “macaroni”; an Italian
Milchbart: “milkbeard”; a young, inexperienced soldier
Mündungsschoner: “muzzle protection cap”; a bad soldier

Panzer-Anklopf-Gerät: “tank knocking device” (as in door-knocker); term for the 37mm anti-tank gun, which had trouble knocking out enemy armor
Partisanen: “partisans”; lice

Querschläger: “ricochet”; an unpopular soldier

Ratschbumm: (onomatopoetic); a Soviet direct fire gun where the report is heard as the shot hits
Reichsheini: derogatory nickname for Reichsführer der SS Heinrich Himmler
Rückgrat der Armee: “backbone of the Army”; an Obergefreiter, also the experienced Landser

Schütze Arsch: “Rifleman Arse”; the “last” and worst soldier
Spiegelei: “fried egg”; the German Cross in Gold (“Hitler’s fried egg”)
Stalintorte: “Stalin cake”; stale bread

Taschenflak: “pocket anti-aircraft gun”; a pistol

Untergefreiter: a non-existent German military rank; a civilian

V3: (the last German “miracle weapon” after the V1 and V2 rockets); derogatory for Volkssturm

Wehrbeitrag: “war contribution”; to conceive a child during leave

Zigarettenbüchse: “cigarette tin”; the gas mask canister, which was usually used for other things
Zwölfender: “twelve-pointer”; a career soldier whose term is 12 years, especially used for a Stabsfeldwebel