Time to celebrate! This post marks the start of the second year of this blog. In the past year, I’ve made 341 posts, all featuring original photos and documents from my collection. For those of you who are new to my blog, the purpose of it to tell the history of World War 2 from the perspective of photos taken by German soldiers. The intent is to take a look at different aspects of the German war effort and the years preceding the war. It shouldn’t in no way be taken as apologetics for the criminal and cruel war, the Wehrmacht, or for the Nazi regime. On the other hand, I want to present a more personal side of the war, giving the often anonymous soldiers a name (if possible) and a context. Sometimes I give their opponents a face, too, honoring the memory of the untold millions who suffered and died. Some photos have presented mysteries that I’ve been able to solve, many times with the help of fellow amateur historians. Thus the photos form pieces in the immense jigsaw puzzle that is World War 2, hopefully making it a fraction more understandable.
Please join me for the second year of the journey. I will present more photos and the histories behind them, hopefully adding to both my and your knowledge of that time over 70 years ago.
One of the first things you are taught in the army is to take care of your weapon and equipment. Boots are to be shined, weapons to be cleaned and oiled, the field equipment is to be clean and in good repair. Inspections can be unforgiving; a speck of dirt, and you’ll have to do it all again. This isn’t because the officers and instructors think it’s fun to look for dirt, but because that in war, your life (and those of your fellow soldiers) depends on your weapon functioning and your equipment not failing.
The two soldiers in the photo are tending to their equipment. The guy to the left is obviously cleaning his rifle, but to those not familiar with German field equipment, it isn’t readily apparent what his comrade on the right is tinkering with. He sees to his Gasmaske 30, which is to be kept in the steel gas mask case in front of him. Next to the case is the pouch with the gas protection sheet, which was intended to be used if mustard gas was deployed by the enemy. According to regulations, the pouch was to be put on the gas mask container strap and worn on the chest, but it was an uncomfortable solution. The pouch was often strapped to the container itself, which had the added bonus of dampening any noise caused by other equipment hitting the container. The gas mask itself was often (and in defiance of regulations) put with the baggage, and the waterproof container used to store stuff like cigarettes, etc. As there were no gas attacks during the war, the soldiers felt the risk was worth taking.
To the left in the photo can be seen a sewing machine. Each soldier was expected to be able to make small repairs, like sewing on buttons, but for more complex work like major repairs or alterations, a company had a soldier doubling as tailor. All in all, the individual soldier was required to care for the weapon, uniform and equipment he had been issued. Failure to do so could have grave consequences.
A Luftwaffe soldier stands guard at an entrance to a newly built barracks. The text says “Errichtet unter der Regierung Adolf Hitlers im Jahre 1935“, which translates as “Erected during the rule of Adolf Hitler in the year 1935”. While the location is unknown, it isn’t impossible that the barracks are still standing. There are many buildings dating from the period that are in use today, most notably the Olympic arena in Berlin. In most cases, swastikas were removed and the buildings put to use again. The Nazis built with posterity in mind, and while grandiose plans like the reimagining of Berlin into Germania, the capital of Greater Germany, never saw the light of day, many other structures survived the war. Some of them appear in movies set in the period, like in Valkyrie (2008), where they form an effective backdrop. As for posterity, Hitler’s vision of a thousand year Reich fell short with 988 years, but it was indicative of the attitude that Nazism was to last once it had asserted dominance. History teaches us that empires rarely survive for that long, but had the Nazis won, we might’ve seen a post-war world much like the one in the 1994 HBO TV movie Fatherland (based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name). Let’s be happy that life in the Tausendjähriges Reich is the domain of speculative fiction and alternate history. Hitler and his cohorts managed to mess up things enough in the twelve years they got.
A regiment without a Kantine (cafeteria) would be a duller place. Here you could have a coffee or beer, have a smoke and play some cards. It was also a small store, where the soldiers could buy those personal necessities that weren’t part of the issued equipment. In the shelves behind the counter can be seen ink, pens, shaving supplies (razors, brushes), cigarettes, cigars, matches, postcards, inner soles, and other sundries I couldn’t figure out. This was the place to go if you hadn’t got evening leave, or if you didn’t want to hang out back in the baracks. The signs on the wall says that goods must be paid for (no credit), and:
Kantine. Geöffnet von 10 – 13 Uhr und von 18 – 21:45 Uhr
That translates as “Cafeteria. Open from 10 – 13 o’clock and from 18 – 21:45 o’clock”.
When I was in the Army, we had the “markenteteriet” near our barracks. It was a cafeteria where you could get hot or cold non-alcoholic beverages, pastries, sandwiches, and candy. There were a couple of pinball machines and a TV. It could be rather relaxing to kill an hour there after a day of training. Armies have been around for millennia, but the need to kick back and relax is just as old.
In Germany, as in my native Sweden, Christmas Eve is the day of gift-giving, but then several traditions originate in Germany, like the decorated tree. The soldiers in the photo appear to haven’t seen many Christmases, as they seem to be in their early 20s. Soon there will be roasted goose and other traditional German food.
They belong to 5. Kompanie, 2. Bataillon, Infanterie-Regiment 10, 4. Infanterie-Division, based in Saxony, and which saw action in Poland and France before the regiment was designated as Schützen-Regiment 108 in October 1940, as the division was converted to an armored division, the 14. Panzer-Division. In 1942, the regiment became Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 108. The 14. Panzer-Division was destroyed in the Battle of Stalingrad. If any of those young men made it through the war, they were extremely lucky.
On Christmas Eve 1942, the German radio made a brilliant propaganda broadcast. Calling local stations on the edges of the Third Reich as it was at its high water mark, the extent of the Nazi occupation of Europe and North Africa was brought home. In 1943, defeat after serious defeat would shrink the Reich, starting with the 6th Army surrounded in Stalingrad. In that fateful city, the soldiers were starving, the geese having been eaten long ago, and any trees that could’ve been decorated put on the fires to provide some warmth. The civilians both in the occupied countries and in Germany had to make the best they could do with the food rationing in effect. It would be many years before Christmas was a feast in peace and plenty around Europe again.
Two privates playing chess, wearing their best uniforms, while the Christmas tree is decorated with tinsel, shiny glass pinecones, and candles. They are probably serving in Infanterie-Regiment 4 in Kolberg, Prussia. At home in the barracks or in a dugout on the frontline, German soldiers always tried to create some Christmas cheer. The tree could be just a pine branch decorated with tinsel cut from cigarette packages when living in a bunker. If they were lucky, mail had arrived from family back home. Perhaps the package contained a Christstollen, a heavy fruit cake as traditional as Christmas pudding is for the British. Maybe there was a pair of socks, a scarf or a pair of mittens, knitted by a mother or wife, a welcome addition to the winter uniform. If the enemy was quiet, so much the better.
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.