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.

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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.

“Sani!”

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.