Let’s party like it’s 1939

With the annual Oktoberfest in full swing right now, partying can hardly get much wetter than this. A Sanitätsunteroffizier (medic, left) enjoys a glass together with a couple of friends. The photo might actually have been taken somewhere in Bavaria, as a Munich address is written on the back of it.

Beer was and still is serious stuff in Germany. Every town of decent size had a brewery or two, and regional styles varied greatly. While in barracks or on leave, German soldiers had access to beer, but in the field it was pretty random whether they could get a bottle or two. Not being picky, Landsers (soldiers) drank what was at hand – wine, brandy, schnapps… For the soldiers’ part, Wehrmacht officers permitted and initially encouraged their charges to consume alcohol as a coping mechanism, believing it essential to good morale. This attitude shifted with the capture of France, when Hitler issued a statement proclaiming: “I expect that members of the Wehrmacht who allow themselves to be tempted to engage in criminal acts as a result of alcohol abuse will be severely punished.”

I don’t know if it was Hitler that Walter Kittel, a general in the medical corps, had in mind when he wrote that “only a fanatic would refuse to give a soldier something that can help him relax and enjoy life after he has faced the horrors of battle, or would reprimand him for enjoying a friendly drink or two with his comrades.” Officers would distribute alcohol to their troops as a reward, and schnapps was routinely sold in military commissaries, a policy that also had the happy side effect of returning soldiers’ pay to the military.

Did the men in the photo get the opportunity to share a bottle after the war? There are two names on the back on the photo, and another photo with two of them makes me think that those are the names of the men in question. The man in the middle is probably Karl Pillmeier, a barber living in Munich, born on 4 April, 1903 in Bad Abbach, Bavaria. He was killed in action on 12 October, 1944, and is buried in Solinka, Slovakia. The man with the newspaper might be Michael Apel, born on 27 January, 1909, in Trier. He fell on 2 April, 1942, somewhere near Chudovo on the Volkhov front. Of course, there might have been other soldiers with the same names, but the ages and ranks, and in Pillmeier’s case also the birthplace, seem to match.

Make beer, not 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.