A trio of cheerful guys, bespectacled and with classy straight pipes. The back of the photo only says “Januar 1944”. The place is western Europe – France, Belgium or the Netherlands – and their branch of service is probably the coastal artillery, which was the responsibility of the Kriegsmarine (Navy). There are some subtle differences to their uniforms that make me think that, mostly the style of their sidecaps and an emblem on their shoulderboards (visible under magnification on the original photo). Anyway, little do they know that they’ll probably be in combat in five months. Hopefully the three friends survived the war.
In the skies above Paris… Not really. An army Unteroffizier and his navy buddy have their photo taken in a studio in Paris, 1940. I have seen this very set used in at least one more photo, so I guess it was a rather popular souvenir back then.
Those were the happy days being a German soldier. Sure, at least 27,000 of them had been killed in the Battle of France, but the campaign was short and triumphant, and the humiliation of the defeat in 1918 paid back. The war against the Soviet Union was a year off in the future, and instead the German soldiers could enjoy occupation duty in France. There were plans and preparations for the invasion of Britain, Operation Seelöwe, but while the Luftwaffe fought in the skies over England, soldiers on leave had a fun time in Paris. A year and a half later, many of them would be freezing to death on the Eastern Front…
As I post this on a Saturday – also known as “Caturday” – and the Internet is primarily for pictures of cats, I want to share this photo of a tiny but ferocious kitten challenging a little puppy. The two soldiers evidently have differing preferences in pets. Soldiers have brought pets along on campaigns for centuries, as companions, mascots, and for tasks like catching rats. It wasn’t just cats or dogs, but also more exotic animals, like bears and lions. Taking care of a small animal provided some distraction and comfort, though, supplying a small measure of normalcy in the chaos of war.
They are all reclining on a triangular Zeltbahn, which could be used as a poncho, or buttoned together with other Zeltbähne to make a shelter, small tent, or even a larger tent. I will post other photos, where we will be able to see how that piece of equipment was put to use.
Each Company had a sergeant major responsible for keeping order and the everyday running of the Company, relieving the company commander of such trivial worries. In the Wehrmacht, the position was held by a Hauptfeldwebel known as der Spieβ (“spear”). He was recognized by the two narrow bands on his uniform sleeves, and the black notebook tucked between a couple of the front buttons. Due to him taking care of his “children”, he was also known as die Mutter der Kompanie, “the Mother of the Company”. The photo above is of a wall painting in an army barracks somewhere in Germany, painted by some humorous soldier in 1940. The song linked to below is about the Spieβ‘ colleague in the British army, but I’m sure that some things are universal.
A platoon of soldiers enjoying a plunge, probably during training in the first years of the war (or just before). While their swimming trunks leave something to be desired when it comes to fit, one has to admire their esprit de corps, manifested in the wearing of their unit’s insignia. I haven’t been able to tell which unit it is.
One thing that’s apparent is how fit they look. They were probably born right after the worst years after World War 1, when times were lean and many suffered from malnutrition (424,000 Germans died from starvation and disease due to the naval blockade 1914-19). The post-WW1 generation grew up with few extra calories, and were honed in the Hitlerjugend and then the six months of service in the RAD (Reichsarbeitsdient – the Reich Labor Service), before being conscripted to the Wehrmacht. They were generally in better physical shape than their adversaries, but that didn’t help in the long run.
The “Phoney War” (or as the Germans called it: “Sitzkrieg”) were the months between September 1939 and April 1940, when Germans and Allies glared at each other across the western border of Germany. To alleviate the boredom, soldiers amused themselves by poking fun at the leaders of their enemies.
The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was one of favourite targets. Here’s a photo with the caption “Mister Chamberlein hinter der deutschen Front” on the back. (“Mister Chamberlein [sic!] behind the German front.”) Note the umbrella under his right arm! I doubt a gas mask case was part of Neville’s wardrobe, though…
The riding boots with spurs and riding trousers with leather on the inside of the thighs suggest that the soldier in the photo is an officer in a cavalry unit, or a unit with horse-drawn transport. Contrary to popular belief, large parts of the German army relied on horses for transport. Motorization and mechanization were more evident in the propaganda newsreels, and that has coloured the perception that the German army was a Blitzkrieging, unstoppable force.