Hogging it

Somewhere  on the Eastern Front, mid-february 1943. German soldiers are apparently “procuring” a pig, which runs the risk of ending up at pork chops, roasts, and sausages. A couple of months earlier, those same troops were probably looking for a goose – or in a pinch a duck – for their Christmas dinner. It wasn’t without risk, though. Those Germans who ended up as prisoners of war, and who were found out to have engaged in theft of property of the Soviet state (like the pig above), could get several years added to their involuntary stay in the USSR.

Fresh meat was an appreciated addition to the diet on the frontline. Unless it was an army horse finally giving in to the hardships, or a wild animal, it meant that some Soviet farmer (or kolhoz) lost a cow, or sheep, or brace of chickens. As the Soviet civilians fared badly under the occupation, losing the one cow that could give milk was a serious matter. Later, when the Red Army harried the collapsing Reich, German farmers got to experience what the people under German occupation had endured for years.

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Logged in

Three signals troops soldiers outside their rather substantial log cabin on the Eastern Front, the time probably the winter of 1942-43. Telephone wires and at least one antenna tells us that this is likely a command post for a company, perhaps for an artillery battalion. The fact that the log cabin isn’t dug in could indicate that it’s a way back from the frontline, or built after the ground froze. With some more snow, it will be camouflaged for the rest of the winter.

The soldiers show a variety of uniforms. The guy on the left wears the reversible snow jacket, which arrived during the autumn of 1942. Together with the reversible pants, it was a warm and practical snow suit to be worn over the regular uniform. It had a mouse-grey side (later changed to a greyish green) and a white side (obviously). The Unteroffizier in the center wears a 1936 pattern uniform, the silver-white edging on the collar and shoulderboards indicating his rank. By this time, silver-grey trim had been introduced, as it made the NCOs stand out less – an advantage in environments with snipers and other dangers. The Obergefreiter on the right wears a 1940 pattern uniform with subdued collar patches and rank chevrons. The lightning sleeve patch confirms that he belongs to the signals troops, the lightning itself probably the red of soldiers in artillery units. His cap appears to be non-regulation.

“Reading” a photo like this provides some information, even if there are no notes on the back of it. It would’ve been nice to know the identity of the unit and the location, but this is a common problem with many photos. Unless there are notes or they are mounted in an annotated album, the photo collector can’t get much further than this.

Tucked in for the winter

In my series of posts on fieldworks and dugouts, you could see dugouts both neat and rough. This one, probably from the winter of 1941-42, belongs to the “neat” category. Partially dug under a big, stout barn and heated by a woodburning stove, it provides a nice shelter for the soldiers. Having a warm, safe place to stay in meant the difference between life and death during that harsh winter. Tens of thousands of soldiers suffered frostbite, and thousands more froze to death. Those not fortunate enough to be dug in like the soldiers in the photo had to find winter quarters that kept them out of the worst cold. That usually meant cramming themselves into a Russian farmhouse, sharing it with the peasant family, their livestock, fleas and lice. In worst case, the owners were thrown out and left to fend for themselves in the snow. War is cruel, and war in wintertime doubly so.

Shaving cream, be nice and clean

How to make sure that your men always look keen: do the shaving. A Wachtmeister (artillery staff sergeant) gets a close shave by his Leutnant (2nd lieutenant). They serve in Artillerie-Regiment 72, and as the photo was developed in Wiesbaden, I believe it is from 1936 or 1937, between when the regiment’s 1st battalion was formed and its move to Mainz. It was reassigned to the 36. Infanterie-Division, and became the 3rd battalion of Artillerie-Regiment 36. It saw action in France in 1940. The division was motorized in late 1940. It participated in Operation Barbarossa, mostly in Army Group Center, and spent the rest of the war on the Eastern Front. The battalion was destroyed together with large parts of the regiment and the division in June, 1944. The men in the photo were lucky if they became prisoners of war, provided they had survived that long.

Fieldworks, part 7:

As a contrast to my post two days ago, this is what most other dugouts looked like. While it might to cosy inside, the outside is serviceable and nothing more. This photo is probably from the later half of 1943, showing a dugout on the Eastern Front. The writing on the back says it’s in a place called “Botchkari”, which probably is Bochkary in Belarus (about halfway between Vitebsk and Minsk), and which was in German hands until the massive Red Army offensive known as Operation Bagration in the summer of 1944. The soldiers in the photo were lucky if they managed to escape the Soviet onslaught.

As already noted, this dugout isn’t as tidy as the previous one. A two-man saw lies behind the man on the left. A stovepipe leans out of the dugout, and a field telephone wire spool holds the last meters of the phone wire leading to company headquarters. Some spruce boughs serve as camouflage, but the overturned sandy soil makes spotting the position from a reconnaisance airplane easy. Today, there’s probably just an overgrown mound with some rotting logs and whatever items the soldiers had to leave behind.

Fieldworks, part 6: “In a hole in the ground…

…there lived a Nazi.” Of the many photos of dugouts and other temporary accommodations used by German soldiers that I own, this is the only one where a swastika is used. Most others have simple signs with unit designations or slightly ironic names like “Villa Bellevue”. Several are almost excessively tidy, though, with little fences and other features more commonly associated with summer houses. It was probably a way of making life on the frontline a little more bearable. Also, if there wasn’t much combat, improving your dugout and making it look less like a hole in the ground gave you something to do.

Fieldworks, part 5: Can you dig it?

When taking up static positions, a good dugout is a must. The Red Army artillery was feared for the heavy barrages it delivered, so it was prudent to dig in as soon as possible. The Germans were known for well-built, cosy (relatively) dugouts, a craft that appears to have originated in WW1. A half-squad dugout was 3.1 x 3.9 meters, with 2 meters from floor to ceiling. Walls and floor were covered with boards like in the photo above or built from logs (like a loghouse), while the roof consisted of c. 30 cms thick logs in two layers (one single layer and a double layer with the logs crosswise) with 40-50 cms of earth between them, and then a meter of dirt on top of it all. That gave decent protection against most artillery shells.

Inside, there were bunk beds, a table, chairs or stools, a stove for heating and simple cooking, a weapons rack, and a radio (if available). Candles and kerosene lanterns provided lighting, and in some cases electrical lighting. Dugouts varied in size and layout depending on what they were used for, like headquarters, cooking, etc. Soldiers tended to add personal items like photos of girlfriends in order to make the dugout more like a home. If they were to spend time living underground, they wanted to do the best of it.