Let’s go to the movies

A Panzer soldier and his Fallschirmjäger friend in tropical uniforms, perhaps on their way to the movies. The photo is probably taken in 1942, location unknown.

There’s been many hundreds of movies made about World War 2, both during the war and after it. Most of them feature American and/or British good guys fighting evil Nazis, but in recent years there’s also been an increase in Russian-made war movies. It’s easy to tire of Brad Pitt fight half the Third Reich, or Russian movies that only make Putin happy. Those of us who like a more varied fare look for other perspectives. As the theme for this blog is the German Wehrmacht, I’ll take a look at some of the best movies from a German viewpoint. I’m afraid the list won’t be terribly original, but that’s a consequence of the lack of good movies about the German wartime experience. So, in chronological order as the events unfolded in the war, here’s my list of five war movies with a German point of view that are worth (re-)watching.

First out isDas Boot from 1981. Regarded as the best submarine movie of all time, it tells the story of a combat tour with U-96. Set in 1941, it covers the successes and terrors experienced by the young crew. Based on the novel by former war correspondent Lothar-Günther Buchheim, who in turn based it on a combat tour with the real U-96, the movie became an international success, paving the way for the Hollywood careers of director Wolfgang Petersen and leading man Jürgen Prochnow. While some of the special effects are dated (the destroyer model wasn’t convincing even in 1981), it’s still a powerful movie. Long periods of tedium are interrupted by moments of terror, when the U-96 has to dodge attacks by enemy ships and aircraft. It has been released in three versions: the theatrical cut at 149 minutes, the director’s cut at 209 minutes, and the full mini-series at 293 minutes. The longer versions allow for more character development and exposition, and I recommend either of them. The theatrical cut isn’t available, anyway. A new mini-series based on the same story will be released in 2018.

Avoid: “U-571″, a sub-standard (pun intended) Hollywood movie that managed to insult the British by claiming that Americans captured an Enigma code machine before the Brits did.

 

The producers of “Das Boot” wanted to make another movie/mini-series about the German war experience, and opted for the Battle of Stalingrad. For some reason, the plans for the mini-series were scrapped, and a 134-minute movie was released in 1993. It tells the story of a combat engineer company which is sent to Stalingrad after a stint in North Africa. We follow some soldiers in a platoon commanded by Lieutenant von Witzleben (Thomas Kretschmann in his second role as a German officer; he’s played officers in at least ten movies). They descend into the hell known as Stalingrad, and the losses mount in the fierce fighting in the ruins. Things take a turn for the (even) worse when the men are sent to a penal battalion. A memorable fight against T-34 tanks sees them rehabilitated, but not without losses. As the 6th Army is surrounded, the winter growing harsher and supplies dwindle, the situation gets desperate, and one by one the soldiers meet their untimely ends. The last two try to break out of the encirclement, leading to one of the most depressing movie endings ever. While “Stalingrad” isn’t perfect, it’s still one of the best Eastern Front movies.

Avoid: the Russian “Stalingrad” (2013), which is so bad that even Russians didn’t like it.

 

Before “Stalingrad” there was “Cross of Iron” (1977). Based on the novel “The Willing Flesh” by Eastern Front veteran Willi Heinrich, it was one of the first non-German post-war movies to show an entirely German perspective. It was directed by Sam Peckinpah and featured a cast of American, German, British and Yugoslavian actors. Set in 1943, it tells the story of a squad led by Sergeant Steiner (James Coburn; almost twice as old as one would expect, but still great in that role). Their new company commander, Captain Stransky, arrives to the front. He’s a martinet and glory-hound, out for an Iron Cross, which he couldn’t get in his previous cushy posting in France. The two men clash, and as the Soviets assault their positions, things come to a head. Cynical and realistic, “Cross of Iron” still stands out. Peckinpah’s trademark bloody slow motion scenes have been parodied, but they work in this context. The ending, which was rewritten due to budget constraints, might not be to everyone’s taste, but it works.

Avoid: “Breakthrough”, the sequel to “Cross of Iron”, which was just an attempt to cash in on the first movie. Steiner and Stransky aren’t even played by the same actors.

 

How do you manage to make an exciting thriller about an event with an ending just slightly less predictable than that of “Titanic“? You let Bryan Singer direct it. “Valkyrie” from 2008 works. Even though you know Hitler will survive and the conspirators fail, Singer managed to create a movie that moves along at a steady clip, somehow managing to make it feel like the bomb plot will work. There was much criticism when Tom Cruise was picked to play Stauffenberg, but I think he did a really good job, working together with a great cast without hogging the limelight. While this movie is about officers in the highest echelons, plotting away in headquarters, there are some scenes from the front in North Africa that puts Stauffenberg in the line of fire, and not just as a smartly dressed staff officer. The art direction is great, presenting a time and place in a rich, convincing manner. It also reminds us of the other failed attempts on Hitler’s life, showing that there was opposition to him even before the war was about to be lost.

See also: “Operation Valkyrie“, a German TV movie from 2004. It covers most of the same events, but differently and in my opinion not as exciting. Appreciated by people with a fetish for dialogue in German.

 

Valkyrie” sort of sets the stage for “Downfall” (2004), the excellent retelling of the last weeks of the Thousand-Years Reich. Bruno Ganz delivers the best and most convincing movie Hitler ever, and it’s a pity that most people are only familiar with the movie through the innumerable “Hitler rant” clips on YouTube. It could easily have become a set piece in the bunker, but by following some of the defenders of Berlin, it recreates the final battle through the eyes of the kids and old men tasked with the defense. The desperation and sense of doom pervades the movie, and there are some strong scenes that will hit people who are parents especially hard. Told from the perspective of one of Hitler’s secretaries, Traudl Junge, it is probably the definite retelling of those final days.

For laughs: “Fall of Berlin“, a Soviet propaganda movie from 1949. It turns Hitler’s bunker into a freakshow, and features the perhaps most over-acting movie Hitler ever.

 

Somehow, this list doesn’t feel complete. While the movies are among the best war movies of all time, none of them really tells about the German war experience in a broader context, in part because a movie rarely can tell a story about a subject in depth over a longer period of time. In 2013, a German mini-series caused much discussion as it was the first real attempt in years to tell about the effect of the war on young Germans. In three 90-minutes episodes, “Generation War” (original title: “Unsere Mutter, unsere Väter“), we follow brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm and their friends Charlotte, Greta and Viktor during the years 1941-45. Wilhelm is a lieutenant whose patriotism and idealism is put to the test, while his younger brother Friedhelm goes from being an unwilling soldier to hardened cynic. Charlotte serves as a nurse on the Eastern Front, while Greta is a singer, using her connections with a Gestapo officer to further her career while protecting her secret boyfriend Viktor, who is a Jew. While the mini-series drew some criticism for simplifying some events, as well as portraying the Polish resistance as anti-Semitic, it’s still the best treatment of the subject I’ve seen. It doesn’t shy away from the brutalization of the war on the Eastern Front, or the moral challenge of living in the Third Reich. If you haven’t watched “Generation War“, do yourself a service and do that.

 

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Reach for the sky, end up in the woods

A machinegun team somewhere on the Eastern Front, their MG34 ready to fire. At first glance, they can be mistaken for Heer (Army) soldiers, but had this photo been in color, it would be apparent that they aren’t. Instead of the regular Army feldgrau (field grey) uniforms, their uniforms are blue-grey, and in place of the Army Litzen collar patches, there are green Luftwaffe-style patches with rank gulls. They serve in a Luftwaffen-Feld-Division (LwFD).

So why would an airforce get itself what in the end became 22 infantry divisions? The divisions were originally authorized in October 1942, following suggestions that the Heer could be bolstered by transferring personnel from other services. The head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, formulated an alternative plan to raise his own infantry formations under the command of Luftwaffe officers; this was at least partly due to political differences with the Heer, which Göring considered too “conservative”. In the jockeying for power in the Nazi state, Göring probably saw an advantage in having an army of his own, considering that Heinrich Himmler had his Waffen-SS. It was typical of the fragmentization in the supposedly totalitarian Nazi state.

The plan was approved, and the divisions were raised from 200,000–250,000 Luftwaffe ground, support and other excess personnel. So, instead of transferring Luftwaffe personnel to the Heer, rebuilding existing units that already had a cadre of experienced officers, NCOs and soldiers, the LwFD were built from scratch, and became smaller copies of the equivalent Heer divisions. By Göring’s personal order, the LwFD were to be deployed for defensive duties in quieter sectors. Most of  the units spent much of their existence on the Eastern Front, which was hardly quiet.

The Luftwaffe Field Divisions initially remained under Luftwaffe command, but late in 1943 those that had not already been disbanded were transferred to the Heer and were reorganized as standard infantry divisions (retaining their numbering, but with Luftwaffe attached to distinguish them from similarly numbered Heer divisions) and any Luftwaffe officers replaced with Army officers. In post-war literature, they are referred to as, for example, “16. Feld-Division (L)”.

Until taken over by the Heer, these units were issued with standard Luftwaffe feldblau uniforms (and even some time after), and being so easily identifiable were said to often be singled out by the enemy. They had a poor reputation as combat troops (despite the high standard of Luftwaffe recruits), at least in part from being required to perform roles (ground warfare) for which they as airmen had little training. They were frequently used for rear echelon duties to free up front line troops

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein blamed the decline of the Wehrmacht in 1943 to the creation of these divisions. Von Manstein argued that they recruited some of the most able young men into these divisions, when they would’ve made adequate NCOs and replacements to the decimated Army divisions. In his memoirs he later blamed their poor training and coordination as the cause for several notable defeats.

In the end, the creation of the Luftwaffen-Feld-Divisione had a negative impact on Germany’s ability to wage war. Not that it mattered much in the end, but hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers might have survived the war if they had been in stronger and better led units.

I spy with my little eye…

Luftwaffe Flak personnel using a Kommandogerät 36 (Kdo. Gr. 36) rangefinder, which is part of a battery of four 8.8 cm anti aircraft guns. Using trigonometry, the 4-meter base stereoscopic range finder has a magnification of 12x and 24x, and a range scale reading from 500 meters (550 yards) to 50,000 meters (55,000 yards). It is clamped by two rings to the mount, and kept in a chest while in transit. The instrument is manufactured by the famous Carl Zeiss optics company in Jena, and displays excellent workmanship.

The Kommandogerät 36 measures target course and speed. Ballistic data are obtained from graphical drums; varying heights are accepted, and corrections can be applied for wind, drift, displacement, dead time, and variations in muzzle velocity. Readings must be called out to the operator on the director. Information is passed from one operator to another by voice and via a telephone system. The target data are used to set the fuses of the grenades and to provide aiming points for the guns.

Period photos of this particular piece of equipment are relatively scarce on the Internet, so I’m happy to own this photograph.

Theory and practice…

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
5. Tra
cksuit
6. Sports pants, swimwear, sports shirts, sweater
7. Underwear
8. Handkerchiefs, socks,
scarf
9. Field cap
10.
Peaked cap

11. Gloves
12. Clothesbrush
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 clean
ing kit, gun oil, cleaning cloths

21. Fatigue uniform and/or coveralls
22. Field
uniform
23.
Walking out uniform
24.
Greatcoat
25. Spade with
carrier
26. Gas
protection sheet in pouch
27. Mar
ching boots
28. Lace-up shoes and
loafers for walking out uniform
29. Sports shoes
30.
Bayonet with scabbard

31. Belt and combat suspenders
32. Towels
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.

“Der eiserne Keller”

Generaloberst Alfred Keller stands together with new recipients of the Iron Cross, second class, probably in 1941. Alfred Keller (19 September 1882 – 11 February 1974) was a Luftwaffe general during WW2, and went on to become one of the most decorated generals of the Luftwaffe. His military career began in the Imperial German Armed Forces in 1897.  Initially a junior infantry officer, Keller became attracted to that newfangled invention: aircraft. He made his first flight at the school at Metz, becoming an observer in 1912. In the following year, Keller finished his training as a pilot and gained his pilot’s wings.

He served first in the reconnaisance, then the bomber arm of the Imperial German Air Force, where he was promoted to wing commander. Keller’s unit became the first German bombers to operate night missions, which was noted for the missions against Dunkirk and the British forces concentrated there. His sudden delivery of 100 tons of bombs on the port in the silence of the night in September 1917 caused considerable damage and forced a British retreat to Calais. For planning, organization and leadership in this attack and others he was awarded the prestigious order Pour le Mérite. It was during World War 1 that he got his nickname der eiserne Keller – “Iron Keller”.

In the years after WW1, Keller left the army and built a career in civilian aviation, offering air mail service in 1923 for the first time in Germany. During 1925 Keller operated an air traffic control school in Berlin, but in 1928 moved it to Braunschweig. Here he began, as a means of resistance to Allied conditions of Armistice the secret training of new military pilots, and he became one of the first men called by Hermann Göring to help in the construction of the Luftwaffe, as soon as the Nazis had assumed power in 1933.

In September 1939, when WW2 began, the then General Alfred Keller commanded the IV. Fliegerkorps during the invasion of Poland. The following campaigns against Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Battle of France, he commanded Luftflotte 2. Keller was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 24 June 1940, and shortly afterwards, on 19 July 1940, he was promoted Generaloberst. It is sometime after this the photo is taken, as he wears the collar tabs of that rank. On 19 August 1940, during the Battle of Britain, Alfred Keller was appointed as the commander of Luftflotte 1 and Air Force commander – East. Keller led this formation very energetically during the Balkans Campaign and later during the Operation Barbarossa, where he predominantly supported Army Group North. Keller remained with Luftflotte 1 until 12 June 1943, when he retired from active service at the age of 61.

However, he continued to perform important functions in NSFK (Nationalsozialistische Fliegerkorps – National Socialist Flying Corps), a paramilitary unit that he organised to form a civilian reserve of pilots). He was Korpsführer of the NSFK until the German surrender on May 8, 1945. Towards the end of the war, Keller was also responsible for the antitank weapons department of the Luftwaffe.

With the German capitulation on 8 May 1945, Keller became a British prisoner of war, being kept until 1947. He wasn’t charged with any war crimes. In the 1950s he became one of the first presidents of the Association of Knight’s Cross Recipients. Keller passed away in Berlin, aged 91 years.

Rare movie of Keller visiting the front.

 

Thanks to Axis History Forum member ttvon for identifying Keller.

Basic training

A platoon of Luftwaffe conscripts, wearing fatigue uniforms, are drilled in the field during their basic training.

The Versailles Treaty stipulated that Germany couldn’t have an army larger than 115,000 men, the navy included. The treaty forbade Germany to have heavy artillery, airplanes and tanks. The Reichswehr was a professional army, forming a cadre which became the backbone of the future Wehrmacht. After the Nazis came to power, the limitations of the Versailles Treaty were ignored, and the Wehrmacht expanded rapidly. Compulsory military service was reintroduced in 1935. A conscript served for two years, and only a few limited categories (e.g. married men) were discharged after one year’s service.

The conscripts had usually been members of the Hitlerjugend, were they had been drilled in marching and fieldcraft, as well as having served for six months in the Reichsarbeitsdienst (National Labor service), resulting in fit young men used to life in the field and in barracks. All of them went through the same training, which included the following for the Heer (Army; there were some variations for the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine): eight to twelve weeks of basic training, learning to use the Kar98k rifle, and possibly also the pistol and handgrenade. Training in the basics of combat, defense of positions, and marching, as well as guard duty and protection against chemical agents.

There were also theoretical classes and sports education. When the basic training was completed, the soldiers were trained for their future positions, like machinegunners or artillery or tank crews. This was supplemented with training in other specialist skills, like driving, signals, reconnaisance, etc. The soldiers were trained to function in increasingly larger units, culminating in the annual autumn field manoeuver. This could go on for two to four weeks, and usually by the end of the first and second year of service, respectively.

The conscripts in the German Army didn’t receive training that differed greatly from that of other nations, but there were a few differences. Soldiers were trained to assume the duties of the rank directly above them, which meant that a unit that lost its commanding officer wouldn’t be leaderless. German doctrine also stressed Auftragstaktik, were NCOs and officers were trained to solve situations with the resources assigned them, and where personal initiative was encouraged, it being said that it was more important to do something which might turn out to not be optimal, than to wait for orders while letting the initiative pass to the enemy.

The recruits were trained in replacement batallions directly connected to their future regiments, which meant that they knew which units they would serve in, and that they would do it together with comrades from basic training. This was in sharp contrast to the US Army system, where replacements were trained back in the States, then split up and shipped overseas, ending up in units they had no prior connection with, resulting in poor unit cohesion and an unnecessarily high rate of casulties among the replacements. Still, the German replacements were often in need of additional training upon arrival to their frontline units, and this was conducted (if possible) behind the front under the supervision of experienced NCOs.

As the war progressed and the losses mounted, the conscripts received shorter training, which affected the quality of the soldiers as well as their life expectancy. By 1945, the manpower reserves were exhausted, and together with fuel and matériel shortages, the collapse of the Wehrmacht was inevitable.

Boys in the hood

Four Luftwaffe soldiers learning about the intricacies of automobiles. The Gefreiter to the right has the round DLV Glider Pilot “A” Level Proficiency Badge on his chest (DLV = Deutscher Luftsportverband – German Air Sports Association) and on his uniform sleeve the winged wheel badge denoting a Schirrmeister/Geräteverwalter (K.) (technical NCO for motor vehicles). It was important to teach how to operate and maintain cars and trucks, as Germany had a rather low number of motor vehicles in relation to the population. According to my 1938 The Matthews-Northrup New International Atlas & Illustrated Gazetteer, the number of cars registered in the USA equalled one car for every five citizens, while the number in for example France was one in twenty. In Germany, it was one in sixty!

A possible reason for that low number might’ve been the weak German economy after World War 1 – the average Schmidt couldn’t afford a car. The motorization of the Wehrmacht wasn’t as widespread as in the US Army, and where the Germans still used horses to tow for example artillery as late as in 1944, the Americans, British and Soviets used trucks. As I’ve pointed out in other posts, the chronic fuel shortage and use of hard to maintain captured vehicles (instead of a standardized fleet of Army motor vehicles), meant that the Germans enjoyed less of a tactical and strategic flexibility compared to their opponents. The propaganda image of Panzers, armored cars and halftracks blitzing their way across Europe was false, but it still endures in shallow documentaries.