Looking for Private Ryan?

This photo is a recent acquisition, part of a small lot of photos from Norway. I took one look at it and thought: “That looks like France” – the countryside is decidedly not Norwegian. The thing that really tipped me off was the helmet carried by the guy on the right, which sports the camouflage paintjob seen on helmets worn by troops stationed in Normandy. Then I flipped the photo, and saw a scrawled note on the back with “Caen” in it. Bingo! Further analysis of the photo makes me pretty sure that the soldiers belong to a Luftwaffe Field Division, things like the cap worn by the soldier on the right, and the belt buckle on his comrade on the left. That, and the location, tells us that only one unit can come into question: The 16. Feld-Division (L).

The 16. Luftwaffen-Feld-Division was formed in December 1942 by the XIII. Fliegerkorps. It was transferred to the Heer (Army) in November 1943 and redesignated 16. Feld-Division (L). It was deployed in the Hague-Haarlem area of the Netherlands as an occupation force. In June 1944, the division was sent to Normandy under the control of Heeresgruppe B and deployed in the front lines on 2 July. The British launched an offensive the day after the division arrived and by late July, it had been effectively destroyed in the defense of Caen. The division was formally dissolved on 4 August 1944, its remaining infantry allocated to the 21. Panzer-Division, while other elements were used to resurrect the 16. Infanterie-Division. (More on the Luftwaffe Feld-Divisionen here.)

Some more observations on the guys in the photo: the one on the left has a leather map case, binoculars (probably 7×50), a magazine pouch with three magazines for his MP 40 (not visible), and a helmet possibly painted with a mix of dark yellow paint and sawdust (to reduce glare). His colleague wears a Zeltbahn as camouflage, 6×30 binoculars, and probably an MP 40. Both are NCOs, as there are no rank insignia on the sleeves.

Speaking of Normandy and the Allied landings there, this year marks 20 years since the premiere of Saving Private Ryan, the epic war movie directed by Steven Spielberg. Regarded as one of the great war movies, I’m not quite as impressed by it. While there are some powerful scenes in it, like the brilliantly staged beach landing, the movie has several weak spots. I’m not going to nit-pick on trivia like the fact that there were no Tiger tanks in the American area of Normandy by the time the action takes place, but I’ll address problems with the plot.

The basic premise of the movie is that it is discovered that all brothers Ryan are killed or missing in action around the same time. Mommy Ryan receives all the telegrams just a few days after the D-Day landings. By that time, most of the airborne units were still struggling to organize themselves after being scattered over a large area. In real life, it would’ve taken many days, if not weeks, before it would’ve been apparent that Private Ryan was indeed MIA. In the movie, the rescue operation is launched just a few days after D-Day.

One pivotal scene is when Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) decides that it’s important to knock out the German defenders of a damaged radar installation. The squad charging uphill against a machine gun position, the medic, Wade, is mortally wounded. Miller had a crack sniper, Jackson, in his squad – why not take out the MG crew at a distance? Or just bypass the Germans, as they weren’t a threat? The whole scene is just a way of introducing the surviving German soldier, “Steamboat Willie”, and setting the stage for the final scenes.

After finding the right Ryan, the surviving members of the squad (plus some airborne troops) are pitted against crack Waffen-SS troops in the fight for the fictious town of Ramelle. The Germans make just about every tactical mistake they could make; even considering the state of German troops by that time of the war, they wouldn’t have assaulted a town like that. Anyway, in the fighting, most of the squad meets a sticky end, including Captain Miller, who is shot by “Steamboat Willie”. “Willie”, who was let go by Miller earlier, and who has been picked up by the SS unit, clearly doesn’t know who he’s firing at. The interpreter, Upham, kills “Willie”. This is one of the morally ambigious problems with the story. Was Miller wrong to let “Willie” live? Should they’ve killed him straight away, the only good German being a dead German? Spielberg didn’t think this through, obviously.

Upham and Ryan are the only survivors, and the final scene has an aged and tearful Ryan by the graves of Miller and the others, surrounded by his family. Seven men died so he could live. Was it worth it? Mommy Ryan got one son back, and he apparently raised a fine family, but seven other mothers lost their sons, men who never got to form families and raise their kids. The movie leaves that question open, but I for one find that it’s debatable whether it was worth the sacrifice. The whole plot feels contrived, but at least Spielberg and Hanks got the inspiration to make “Band of Brothers”, that most excellent mini-series.


Norway, May 1945

German soldiers are literally laying down their arms somewhere in Norway on 9 May 1945, as Germany surrendered to the Allies. After five years, the occupation was finally over. By the end of the war, there were 400,000 German troops in Norway, which had a population of barely three million. The threat of an invasion and the potenial loss of important ports like Narvik, Trondheim and Bergen made the Germans keep a large force in Norway, troops which were needed on other fronts.

The surrender was largely uneventful, the majority of those involved relieved that the war was over. The conditions included that the German High Command agreed to arrest and intern all German and Norwegian Nazi party members listed by the Allies, disarm and intern all SS troops, and send all German forces to designated areas. Among those arrested was the Norwegian Nazi leader and collaborator, Vidkun Quisling.

The underground resistance movement known as Milorg, numbering more than 40,000 armed Norwegians, took command, joined later by detachments of regular Norwegian and Allied troops which were sent to Norway, including 13,000 Norwegian troops trained in Sweden and 30,000 British and American troops. Finally, on 7 June, King Haakon VII arrived in Oslo after his exile in London.

Picnic in wartime

Thursday 8th June 1944, outside Turin, Italy. An SS-Untersturmführer (Lieutenant, standing) and a Fallschirmjäger (sitting in front of him) enjoy a day out together with a couple of Wehrmachthelferinnen (female Army auxiliaries), two civilian women and a little girl. The woman in the floral pattern dress (probably the mother of the girl) has donned the SS officer’s peaked cap, the silver death’s head glinting in the sun. It looks idyllic, but the people in the photo don’t know that there’s just eleven months left of the war. On 4 June, Allied troops captured Rome, and two days later Allied forces landed in Normandy. The Third Reich is crumbling around them, but perhaps they think that the vengance weapons or some other miracle the propaganda talks about will turn the tide of the war.

The female auxiliaries wear the lightning emblem of the signals troops on the sleeves of their white dresses, identifying them as telephone or radio operators. Over half a million German women served as auxiliaries for shorter or longer periods during the war, more than half of them as volunteers, the rest as conscripts. Those in signals capacity were known as “Blitzmädel“, “lightning-girls”, because of the signals troops patch. Other served as Flakhelferinnen (female anti-aircraft auxiliaries), manning searchlights, rangefinders, listening equipment, and even AA guns. It isn’t known how many women were killed while in service of the Wehrmacht.

Three amigos

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.


A group of Unteroffiziere and a Feldwebel, at least two wearing patches or armbands showing that they belong to a medical unit, are standing around in the mud, probably near an aid station. The photo is clearly taken in the later part of the war, as they all wear the new field cap, Einheitsfeldmütze M43, introduced on 11 June, 1943. Very similar caps were already worn by Gebirgsjäger and Afrika Korps troops. They were in turn inspired by caps worn by Austrian troops during WW1.

Sanitäter – Medical NCOs – could be found on company level and up, assisted by stretcher bearers, usually one medic (Sanitätsunteroffizier) and four stretcher bearers (Krankenträger) per company.  The medic was responsible for the medical treatment and organisation of the company in both garrison and in the field. He had been trained in a medical school for about six months, and had also taken special courses.

The Sanitätsunteroffizier was always wearing a red cross armband on his upper left arm and caduceus patches on both lower sleeves. The Krankenträger wore just a red cross armband. If necessary, the medical NCOs of the companies gathered and built the battalion’s Truppenverbandplatz (aid station). This might be during such an occasion that the photo was taken.

The second medic from the left is a veteran, wearing the ribbons of the Iron Cross, 2nd class, and the Eastern Front Medal (awarded to troops who survived the winter of 1941-42), and on his left breast pocket the General Assault Badge, the Wound Badge in black, and a medal I can’t identify. The third man from the right wears the caduceus patch on the uniform sleeve, while the guy on the right wears the red cross armband. He also carries a medic bag in his belt (there should be one on the other side, too).

German medics were usually armed with a pistol for self defense. Contrary to the myth, it wasn’t used to administer “mercy killings” of wounded that couldn’t be saved. US Army medics went unarmed, as the Americans interpreted the laws of war that medics were to be strictly non-combatant. When US troops captured German medics, it happened that they executed them because they thought the Germans defied the laws.

From the first day of the war, 1 September 1939, to the last nearly six years later, the cry for “Sani!” – medic – was heard countless times. The men in the photo were some of those who heeded that call.