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.
Columns of conscripts lug their suitcases as they are about to enter military life. Soon they’ll wear the same field-grey uniforms, learning to march and shoot. After Germany re-introduced conscription in 1935 in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, a total of about 18.2 million men served in the Wehrmacht until the defeat in 1945. The Wehrmacht suffered about 10 million casualties during WW2, a combination of about 2 million killed in action, 3 million missing in action (most likely dead), and 5 million wounded in action. As WW2 intensified, Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe personnel were increasingly transferred to the Army, and “voluntary” enlistments in the SS were stepped up as well. Following the defeat in Battle of Stalingrad in early 1943, fitness standards for Wehrmacht recruits were drastically lowered, with the regime going so far as to create “special diet” battalions for men with severe stomach ailments. Rear-echelon personnel were sent to front-line duty wherever possible, especially during the last two years of the war.
With the introduction of military conscription in 1935, the 1914 class of 21 year olds were called up. Each conscripted annual intake (in peacetime) could be expected to bring in around 300,000 men, reduced to 250,000 for the 1916-18 classes due to the lower birth rate during WW1. Those who had experienced no military training (the so called ‘white years’ classes of 1901 to 1913, due to the reduction of the Army after WW1) were available as a untrained reserve, listed as Class 2 reservists. General Fretter-Pico complained in 1944 that after the Waffen-SS, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Heer technical services had combed through and picked out the best of recruits, the poor bloody infantry was left with whatever recruits there was. The same complaint could be heard in the US Army, though.
By May 1940 the call-up classes for 1919 and 1920 (that is to say those 21 and 20) were entering the Ersatzheer to begin training, while the earlier classes of 1915-18 were already in the Field Army. Generally someone born in 1919 or 1920 wouldn’t have participated in the French campaign of 1940, but would’ve been readily trained and deployed for Operation Barbarossa in 1941. By early June 1941, after only 3 months of training, 80,000 men of the 1921 Class were formed into reinforcement Marschbataillone for the upcoming campaign in USSR.
The conscription age was lowered as the war progressed, and the losses had to be replaced. Before the outbreak of the war, it was 21, but was lowered to 20 in the later part of 1939. It was lowered yet again after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, calling up 19-years olds. In late 1942, it was the 18-years olds turn, and a year later the 17-years olds. By the end of 1944, the conscription age was lowered a final time, calling up the 16-years olds of the 1928 and 1929 classes. Of those, about 12,000 were killed in action. It isn’t just a cliché in movies and books when combat veterans comment that new reinforcements are just kids – “milk-beards”.
Of the men born in 1914-1924 and called up for service, about 35 % (on average) of each year class didn’t survive the war. Worst hit was the class of 1921, of which 38.95 % died (286,380 out of 735,206 men born that year). Most of them had been called up in 1941, and I guess the majority of them went to the meat grinder on the Eastern Front.
A somewhat dejected Luftwaffe private contemplates the mess in (and outside) his locker. Like his colleagues in other armies, he has quite a bit of clothing and equipment to keep in order. If the gear wasn’t in its right place, the sergeant might throw it all on the floor and have the hapless soldier put it back according to the regulations. Below is a list of the personal equipment of a German Soldier.
1. Steel helmet
2. Knapsack/backpack, behind it is the gas mask and gas mask container
3. Blanket (in knapsack/backpack)
4. Shelter half (Zeltbahn) with accessories
6. Sports pants, swimwear, sports shirts, sweater
8. Handkerchiefs, socks, scarf
9. Field cap
10. Peaked cap
13. Cooking utensils, cutlery, dinnerware
14. Lockable compartment for personal items (valuables)
15. Washing and shaving equipment
16. Pen and ink, books
17. Laundry bag
18. Shoe polish, leather grease
19. Sewing kit
20. Weapon cleaning kit, gun oil, cleaning cloths
21. Fatigue uniform and/or coveralls
22. Field uniform
23. Walking out uniform
25. Spade with carrier
26. Gas protection sheet in pouch
27. Marching boots
28. Lace-up shoes and loafers for walking out uniform
29. Sports shoes
30. Bayonet with scabbard
31. Belt and combat suspenders
33. Ammunition pouches
34. Bread bag
35. Field bottle with cover
Quite a bit to keep track on… In the field, some of the stuff was kept in the backpack, while the rest was transported in the baggage train.
Recruits cleaning their Mauser Karabiner 98 kurz rifles, probably before 1939 as the rifles have neither the sight hoods, nor the cupped butt-plates adopted in 1939 and 1940, respectively. The Kar98k was the standard rifle of the Wehrmacht, with a staggering 14.6 million made between 1935 and 1945. It was a is a bolt-action rifle chambered for the 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridge, and was adopted in 1935 as the standard service rifle by the Wehrmacht. It was one of the final developments in the long line of Mauser military rifles, and is regarded as one of the best bolt-action rifles of all time. Although supplemented by semi- and fully automatic rifles during WW2, it remained the primary service rifle until the end of the war.
It was in February 1934 that the Heereswaffenamt (Army Weapons Agency) ordered the adoption of a new military rifle. The Karabiner 98k was derived from earlier rifles, namely the Mauser Kar98b, which in turn had been developed from the Gewehr 98, the standard German rifle in WW1. Just like its predecessors, the rifle was noted for its reliability, great accuracy and an effective range of up to 500 metres with iron sights. Its internal magazine could be loaded with five 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridges from a stripper clip or one-by-one. The straight bolt handle found on the Gewehr 98 bolt was replaced by a turned-down bolt handle. This change made it easier to rapidly operate the bolt, and reduced the amount the handle projected beyond the receiver.
While the Americans had standardized the semi-automatic M1 Garand in 1936, the Germans kept to the bolt-action Kar98k due to their tactical doctrine of basing a squad’s firepower on the machine gun. The role of the rifleman was largely to carry ammunition and provide covering fire for the machine gunners. All German soldiers trained on the Kar98k in basic training, and while they didn’t stress markmanship like the British, or rate of fire like the Americans, the Kar98k served them well throughout the war. While they introduced their own semi-automatic rifle (the Gewehr 43) and the world’s first successful assault rifle (the Sturmgewehr 44), those were produced in less than 900,000 units total, the Kar98k was the mainstay of the German Army.
Sweden adopted the Mauser system in 1896, and the “Swedish Mausers” are held in high regard for their high standard of manufacture and precision. Using a 6.5 mm caliber round, it differs in some minor ways from the German Mausers, but it is a prominent member of the Mauser legacy.
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
A young Luftwaffe second lieutenant, pilot’s badge on his chest, is surrounded by the mess staff at an airbase somewhere in Europe. Is there an occasion for celebration? A portrait of Adolf Hitler looms over them, one of countless mass-produced paintings hanging wherever there were German officers or officials. The Leader was ever present, a reminder that the soldiers and officers were oath-bound to obey him. Too many did that for too long…
Here’s the third part of my musings over my WW2 interest.
”Why this interest in the Germans? They were Nazis. Why not the Allies instead?” I guess there’s a psychological explanation behind that. Why are some more interested in the bad guys? That’s something that cuts across many genres. There are people who are fascinated by serial killers, gangsters, vampires, or the Empire in ”Star Wars”. The ”dark side” is often more interesting than the good guys, probably because one wants to know what makes it tick. In the case of the Third Reich and World War 2, we have a story of epic proportions, with consequences to this day (and probably for generations to come). The German war machine was the driving force in the conflict, going from the initial successes to a crushing defeat. People think that they could’ve won the war – those of us who know better wonder why they didn’t lose sooner.
Some people – the fanboys – are just attracted to the hardware and the myth of the invincible Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. Others, like me, want to learn more about the people in the uniforms. What made basically decent men fight for an evil regime? What did the man in the frontline know? What was his part in it all? We have the full range from the war criminals of the Dirlewanger Brigade, to the police soldiers killing Jews described in Christopher Browning’s book “Ordinary Men”, to the men in the regular units who might have known about the atrocities, or were involved in them, to those who tried to resist. It’s complex and diverse, and far from the simplified stories of many war movies and novels.
Next: So why this interest in that old war? Is it really healthy?
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?