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.
Berck-sur-Mer, France, summer of 1940. Three combat engineers from the 10. Panzer-Division take a look at a defused British Mk XIV (or possibly the upgrade, Mk XVII) naval mine, the contact horns removed and the 145 kg TNT charge lying next to it.
Mine warfare was very much a thing during WW2, all nations with coasts using naval mines both to protect their territory, to disrupt enemy shipping (as part of a blockade), and to sink enemy warships and merchant ships. There were several types of mines, the most common being the contact mine like the one above. That type was moored and submerged just under the surface, a mechanism adjusting the length of the mooring wire as the tide rose and fell. The mine had a number of horns, and when one of those was struck by a ship, the main charge exploded, the resulting damage crippling or sinking the ship. Other types of mines reacted to the magnetic field of a ship, or the sound of its propellers. Naval mines were the cause of loss of ships and lives long after the war, as unswept mines continued to be a danger to shipping.
Berck-sur-Mer was a small fishing town in the Pas-de-Calais region which had become a resort in the mid-19th century, when a hosptial for the treatment of tuberculosis was built there, the sea air thought to be beneficial for the patients. The town was damaged in 1944, as Allied air raids in preparation of D-Day hit German coastal installations, mainly as a diversion in order to draw German attention from the landing beaches in Normandy. The town recovered, and is now a holiday resort.
Cheered on by a soldier in the black Panzer uniform and an Unteroffizier, two table tennis players fight it out. The guys in civilian clothing are probably soldiers themselves, enjoying some leisure time. The table looks rather improvised, but that is in tradition with the origins of the game. It has been suggested that makeshift versions of the game were developed by British military officers in India in the 1860s or 1870s, who brought it back to Europe with them. A row of books stood up along the center of the table served as a net, while two more books served as rackets and were used to hit a golf ball. The name “Ping pong” was trademarked in 1901, and in 1926 the International Table Tennis Federation was formed. The players in the photo didn’t concern themselves with the history of the rather young sport, but were intent of having a fun game.
Before the Internet, before television, it was broadcast radio that connected the world. People got news and entertainment through radio, but it was also a powerful propaganda tool. Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda saw to it that the Nazi party and government were the only to transmit their “truth” on the airwaves. Listening to foreign stations such as the BBC became a criminal offence in when the war began, while in some occupied territories, all radio listening by non-German citizens was prohibited. Penalties ranged from fines and confiscation of radios to sentencing to a concentration camp or even capital punishment. Nevertheless, people being people and channels of information other than Nazi propaganda so few, such clandestine listening was widespread in many Nazi-occupied countries and (particularly later in the war) in Germany itself.
There were moments when enemies could listen to the same programs and share something. After the capture of Belgrade in Yugoslavia in 1941, Radio Belgrade became the German forces’ radio station under the name of Soldatensender Belgrad (Soldiers’ Radio Belgrade), with transmissions heard throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. While on leave in Vienna, a lieutenant working at the station was asked to collect a pile of second-hand records from the Reich radio station. Among them was “Lili Marleen” sung by Lale Andersen, which up till then had sold around 700 copies. For lack of other recordings, Radio Belgrade played the song frequently.
“Lili Marleen” was a sentimental, romantic song with the words written in 1915 as a poem of three verses by Hans Leip, a school teacher from Hamburg who had been conscripted into the Imperial German Army. The poem was later published in 1937 as “Das Lied eines jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht” (“The Song of a Young Soldier on Watch”), with two further verses added. It was set to music by Norbert Schultze in 1938 and recorded for the first time by Lale Andersen in 1939.
The previously obscure song became a hit with German soldiers all over Europe and North Africa, and not only them, but with Allied soldiers, too. At one point Joseph Goebbels ordered broadcasting of the song to stop. Radio Belgrade received letters from Axis soldiers all over Europe asking them to play “Lili Marleen” again. Goebbels reluctantly changed his mind, and from then on the tune was used to sign-off the broadcast at 9:55 PM. A recording in English was made both by Lale Andersen and Marlene Dietrich (who had permanently left her native Germany for the US in 1939), the latter as a move by the Allies to make Allied Soldiers less prone to tune in German propaganda channels in order to listen to the song.
“Lili Marleen” became one of the signature songs of WW2, and unique because it was loved by both sides.
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
With the annual Oktoberfest in full swing right now, partying can hardly get much wetter than this. A Sanitätsunteroffizier (medic, left) enjoys a glass together with a couple of friends. The photo might actually have been taken somewhere in Bavaria, as a Munich address is written on the back of it.
Beer was and still is serious stuff in Germany. Every town of decent size had a brewery or two, and regional styles varied greatly. While in barracks or on leave, German soldiers had access to beer, but in the field it was pretty random whether they could get a bottle or two. Not being picky, Landsers (soldiers) drank what was at hand – wine, brandy, schnapps… For the soldiers’ part, Wehrmacht officers permitted and initially encouraged their charges to consume alcohol as a coping mechanism, believing it essential to good morale. This attitude shifted with the capture of France, when Hitler issued a statement proclaiming: “I expect that members of the Wehrmacht who allow themselves to be tempted to engage in criminal acts as a result of alcohol abuse will be severely punished.”
I don’t know if it was Hitler that Walter Kittel, a general in the medical corps, had in mind when he wrote that “only a fanatic would refuse to give a soldier something that can help him relax and enjoy life after he has faced the horrors of battle, or would reprimand him for enjoying a friendly drink or two with his comrades.” Officers would distribute alcohol to their troops as a reward, and schnapps was routinely sold in military commissaries, a policy that also had the happy side effect of returning soldiers’ pay to the military.
Did the men in the photo get the opportunity to share a bottle after the war? There are two names on the back on the photo, and another photo with two of them makes me think that those are the names of the men in question. The man in the middle is probably Karl Pillmeier, a barber living in Munich, born on 4 April, 1903 in Bad Abbach, Bavaria. He was killed in action on 12 October, 1944, and is buried in Solinka, Slovakia. The man with the newspaper might be Michael Apel, born on 27 January, 1909, in Trier. He fell on 2 April, 1942, somewhere near Chudovo on the Volkhov front. Of course, there might have been other soldiers with the same names, but the ages and ranks, and in Pillmeier’s case also the birthplace, seem to match.
Make beer, not war.
A squad of soldiers, probably recruits, goofing off for the camera. The sergeant stands above them, swinging a spade. My guess is that’s sometime late in 1943, judging by the NCO’s M1943 field cap. The soldiers are dressed in the M1935 Waffenrock, which was worn for more formal occasions. Production and issue of the Waffenrock was suspended in 1940. However, it remained authorized for walking out for those who had or could purchase it, and it was a widespread if unauthorized practice to loan a soldier a Waffenrock from regimental stocks to get married in, as evidenced by many wartime wedding photos, some of which I might post in the future. Some of them have tucked their spades in their belts, which was a practice to give some protection from the dreaded gut shot.
Here follows the second part of my exposé over my WW2 interest.
Indulging in other hobbies over the years, my WW2 interest was sometimes on the back burner, but about 20 years ago it flared up again. This time it was more mature (or so I would like to think). Reading histories of battles and campaigns as well as memoirs by veterans gave me a better understanding of the war. ”Saving Private Ryan” was impressive but flawed, but ”Band of Brothers” (2001) made me more interested in the Allied side of the war. Reading about the struggles of American, British, and Soviet soldiers against the armies of the Axis powers broadened my interest respect for the soldiers of the opposing sides. While I hadn’t been a German fanboy (the kind that gushes over Tiger tanks, Waffen-SS, and the exploits of Panzer aces like Michael Wittman – not that much, anyway), it put things in perspective. I hadn’t done any plastic modelling since my teens, but for some years I was active in the 1/6 scale community, assembling highly realistic soldier figures (or ”military Barbies” as some put it). The uniform, weapons, and medals trivia I accumulated in the process has been useful in for example analyzing photos of German soldiers. From the mid-90’s, I also began to game the period on my computer. ”Aces of the Deep”, ”Call of Duty”, ”Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault”, and online games like ”Heroes and Generals” and ”War Thunder” have been a way to immerse myself in WW2 settings.
In most movies and games, the German soldiers are portrayed as rather faceless enemies, whose main purpose in their short lives is to run into the machinegun fire of the Allied heroes. Their officers are either Prussian aristocrats who don’t hesitate to sacrifice their men for Führer and Fatherland, or as flawed anti-heroes who usually pay the ultimate price for their reluctant service to an evil cause. Then there’s of course the usual gaggle of SS officers and Gestapo agents who are unfailingly evil, and when they’re not torturing captured Allied heroes, they make life difficult for the flawed anti-hero German officer. The stereotypical portrayal of Germans has made more than one WW2 buff curious about the truth behind that image, one of them being yours truly. I will expand on this theme in a future post.
Next: Who in their right mind want to read about Nazis?