Scout camp (WW2 style)

Officers and soldiers of the Stabskompanie – headquarters company – of the 12. Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung (armored reconnaisance battalion), 12. Panzer-Division enjoying a game of cards in a forest, probably outside Orel, Russia, summer of 1943. The recon unit was responsible for scouting ahead of the main units, using armored cars and gathering intelligence. The division spent most of the year there, participating in the Battle of Kursk in July. By the end of the year, it transferred to Army Group North, where it eventually became trapped in the Courland Pocket, surrendering in May, 1945.

This photo has just a name scribbled on the back, but the license plate of the car to the left is legible (WH 430495), and an identification request on the Axis History Forum resulted in a reply where the vehicle’s unit was identified. There are many ways of researching photos, unit symbols, field post numbers, and license plates being useful identifiers.

Got milk?

Nothing like a bucket of fresh milk, even if it’s from a Soviet cowmunist… German signals troops supplementing their food and arsenal, Eastern Front, 1941. The soldier on the left holds a Soviet SVT-40 semi-automatic rifle, while the guy on the right carries a Mosin-Nagant M1891/30 bolt-action rifle, which was the standard rifle of the Red Army. The SVT-40 was supposed to replace it, but the huge losses in weapons in 1941 prompted production of the simpler Mosin-Nagant. Besides, the SVT-40 suffered from precision issues, both in manufacture and shooting. Still, some German soldiers liked the ten-round magazine, which held twice the amount of rounds compared to the Mauser Kar98k.

The Mosin-Nagant was a typical bolt-action rifle, with no special traits that would make German soldiers want to use it instead of their Mausers. The PPsH-41 submachinegun, on the other hand, found favour with German troops with its 71-round drum magazine. Ironically, Soviet reconnaisance troops liked the German MP-40 because how how well manufactured it was. As in all times and armies, the grass is always greener on the other side…

You’ve got mail

Luftwaffe soldier putting a letter to someone back home in the platoon’s mailbox. The German military mail system distributed an incredible 30-40 billion (30,000,000,000 – 40,000,000,000) postcards, letters and small packages between the homeland and the fronts during WW2. As the soldiers were away for many months without home leave, keeping in touch with family, girlfriends and wives was very important for morale, mail call being a daily occurrence. The wartime generations were writing generations, and many people wrote letters every day.

On the mailbox and a cabinet in the back of the truck is the Feldpostnummer (field mail number) of the unit the soldiers belong to. The number was a unique postal number assigned to a unit. It was used instead of an address, which made sense for two reasons. By the very nature of war, many units didn’t have a fixed address, but were on the move. Also, it kept the identities and locations of the units secret.

(Corrected and updated.) It is very hard to make out the number in the photo, as it is barely legible with a magnifying glass, but it’s “L 06727”, which identifies it as the Feldpostnummer of a Luftwaffe unit, in this case probably 4. Kompanie, Luftnachrichten-Regiment 222. Like the other companies in the regiment, it was based in Denmark and manned radar sites, monitoring enemy aircraft movements.

As in all armies, the correspondence was subject to military censorship. Sensitive information was blacked or cut out. This photo, though, while seemingly insignificant, tells us something about the mail system in wartime and the people it connected.

My Zeltbahn is my home

A German field camp on the steppe outside Bălți, Bessarabia (Moldavia). On 2 July 1941, the southern section of Army Group South – the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies, alongside the German 11th Army – invaded Soviet Moldavia. The region had been contested over the centuries, and after the fall of the Russian Empire, it proclaimed independence, then joined Romania in a union in 1920, something the USSR didn’t recognize. In August 1939, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and its secret additional protocol were signed, by which Nazi Germany recognized Bessarabia as being within the Soviet sphere of influence. On 28 June 1940, the Soviet Union issued an ultimatum to Romania requesting the cession of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, with which Romania complied the following day. Soon after, the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic was established. This state of affairs held for a year, then Romania reclaimed the region when it attacked the USSR together with Germany in Operation Barbarossa.

The Zeltbahn shelter halves were triangular pieces of camouflage cloth, which could be used as rain ponchos, camo ponchos, or as protection from the elements, either singly or with two or more buttoned together to create shelters or tents. In the photo above, eight pieces have been used to make an 8-man tent.



German farriers making horseshoes, working at the anvil of a mobile field smithy. In the early years of the war, an infantry regiment fielded about 600 horses, which were used to pull carts, wagons, and artillery pieces. Some were riding horses for officers. By the start of WW2, the German Army had 514,000 horses. The harsh Russian winter caused the death of 179,000 horses in December 1941 and January 1942 alone, freezing temperatures and lack of forage being the main reasons for the losses. As the war progressed, the average number of horses in the Army was 1.1 million.

The mechanization of the German Army substantially lagged behind that of their main adversaries. While they captured tanks, trucks and tractors, those became a hodge-podge that presented a logistical nightmare when it came to the supply of spare parts. As late as November 1944, of the 264 divisions active, only 42 were armored or mechanized. By then, the German Army managed to launch one last major offensive, in the Ardennes in December, but even then, the Germans gambled on captured fuel dumps to be able to proceed with the offensive. As it was, it failed. Germany was on the defensive, and by then, the lack of mechanization was one of their lesser problems. They had shot their bolt.