An eagle in Africa

A Luftwaffe pilot talks to a soldier, standing next to a car of the make Adler (“Eagle”). The location is probably Libya or perhaps Tunisia, and it could be in 1942, give or take a few months. The air war over Northern Africa was intense at times. The premier ace was Hans-Joachim Marseille, a Luftwaffe pilot who scored 158 “kills”, earning the nickname “the Star of Africa”. Marseille was born in 1919, and joined the Luftwaffe in 1938. He participated in the Battle of Britain, with unremarkable results. There were disciplinary problems, and he was seen as a playboy who would either become a troublemaker or a great pilot. He not only stayed out late with girlfriends, but he also loved American jazz music, which was seen as “degenerate” by the Nazis. Marseille was transferred to Jagdgeschwader 27, which was deployed to Northern Africa.

It was here he came into his own as a pilot. In air combat, he was fearless, taking on superior numbers of enemies. He was an expert shot, scoring kills with a minimum of ammunition spent. Marseille was a natural pilot, employing unorthodox techniques. His disdain for the Nazi party came as a shock to his superiors, all the way up to Hitler. He befriended a black Southern African prisoner of war, who became his driver and personal assistant. The number of kills mounted. In one day, he claimed 17 kills, a record that is disputed. Even the sky was hardly a limit for Hans-Joachim Marseille, until the fateful day in 1942 when he flew his Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2 fighter and his cockpit began to fill up with smoke. He had to bail out, but apparently he hit the tail section of his plane and was killed or knocked unconscious. Marseille plummeted to the ground, his parachute never deployed. He was 22 years old when he died.

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A donkey and an ass

The donkey is to the left. It’s April 1941 in Greece, and a German soldier tries to make a stubborn donkey to stand up by pulling its ears. The campaign in Greece was short, but the occupation was troublesome, with partisans and resistance fighters making life difficult for the Germans. Still, holding Greece was necessary in order to keep the British from having a foothold in the northern Mediterranean. With its many islands and mountainous terrain, Greece was a challenge, and local German garrisons found themselves cut off by the end of the war. Germany occupied Greece together with Italy and Bulgaria, and like in other parts of the Balkans, the civilian population suffered severely at the hands of the occupying forces. When the war was over, the problems for Greece didn’t end there. A civil war between communist and anti-communist factions resulted in further deaths and devastation, and wasn’t over until 1949. It was one of the first conflicts of the Cold War, and set the tone for the coming 45-50 years.

The last hours in Africa

A group of Luftwaffe soldiers pose before the camera as they are about to go back to Europe. This could be in 1942 or early 1943, before the collapse of the German Forces in North Africa. Some of the soldiers wear pith helmets, the tropical helmets associated with troops in warmer climes. The kneeling guy on the left keeps his rifle in a cloth bag, which protects it from sand and dust. Most of them wear dark brown greatcoats, indicating that the photo might have been taken early in the morning before the temperature rose. How will they go back? Neither transport by air, nor by ship was safe. The Allied forces harried the German transport routes, which was one of the reasons why the Germans were beaten in North Africa; troops, supplies and fuel were lost to Allied attack aircraft, submarines, torpedo boats, and so on. Crossing from Tunisia via Sicily to the Italian mainland was the shortest route, and the fact that the soldier who mounted that photo in his album could write the caption tells us that he and his friends made it.

Greece is the word

Hans, a young Gebirgsjäger, stands in front of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, after the German capture of the city on 27 April, 1941. He serves in the 6. Gebirgs-Division, one of the elite mountain ranger divisions that saw action on most fronts. It was established in June 1940, spent its first time on occupation duty in France. It was relocated to Poland and then got its baptism of fire in “Operation Marita”, which was the code name for the invasion of Greece. In September that year it was deployed to Finnish Lapland, where it remained until the Germans were forced out from Finland after the armistice between Finland and the USSR in September 1944. It surrendered to British forces in Norway in May 1945.

About twelve years later, my father visited Athens as a young sailor, and went sightseeing. He had a look at the Acropolis; he took a photo that still hangs in my childhood home. The Third Reich had been gone for almost as many years as it had existed. Athens and the Acropolis still stood, while Berlin slowly rose from the ashes. In the annals of history, both Athens and the Third Reich will stand out, but for different reasons.

Welcome to the new masters

A bazaar in a Croatian city, 1941. A German soldier (center left) strolls down the street, his arm in a sling, perhaps the result of a wound sustained during the invasion. The Nazi German flag flies next to that of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, as if the locals want to ingratiate themselves with the invaders.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was a patchwork of ethnic groups created from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the tensions that sparked the First World War not really gone. Also, Italy, ruled by the fascist Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, had geopolitical goals in the Balkans, clashing with those of Great Britain. Italy invaded Greece in 1940, starting a six-month battle that ended when the Germans joined in April, 1941. The Yugoslav government signed a pact with the Axis powers, as they feared they would be invaded if they tried to stay neutral. After a military coup in March 1941, which was supported by the British, Germany and Italy invaded Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941. The campaign was short and ended with the Yugoslav army’s surrender on 18 April.

What followed was four years of bitter civil war, where the divided Yugoslav territories saw fascist and communist forces clash in a dirty conflict that killed hundreds of thousands civilians, which in turn caused long-lived resentment that erupted again in 1991, effectively ending the nation known as Yugoslavia.

There’s a persistent myth that the invasion of Yugoslavia threw the German plans for the launching of Operation Barbarossa on 15 May 1941, and that the delay resulted in the German failure to capture Moscow before the onset of winter. Rains in the late spring of 1941 raised the water levels in the Soviet rivers, and Finland and Romania, which hadn’t been involved in the planning, needed time to prepare. Most historians think that the campaign in Yugoslavia didn’t affect the outcome of Operation Barbarossa.

Stolz des Herrenvolks?

The image of the German soldier as some sort of superhuman has been perpetuated through war movies, photos in books and articles (often featuring pics taken by Wehrmacht propaganda units), as the tough opposition in computer games, and – I think – a need to paint the enemy larger than life in order to make the victory over him so much more impressive.

Here we have a study in contrasts. To the left, a blond Germanic warrior, the typical  jack-booted soldier, probably on occupation duty somewhere in France in 1940-41. Just add the iconic helmet, and you would have a nice propaganda picture. I’m pretty sure he was popular with the girls, too. Then we have the rather lumpy-looking Unteroffizier August of the Luftwaffe in Greece, 29 October, 1943… The guy looks like a regular human being (with big feet, though), and if he was ever to star in a movie or TV show, it would be as the bumbling sergeant in some POW camp comedy.

We know absolutely nothing about who August was as a person. A dyed-in-the-wool Nazi or someone who just did what he was told, and happy to be in a relatively safe and cushy location? One thing is for sure, though: he isn’t the image of the bad “Nazi” soldier favored in movies and games. Perhaps he would be like Gert Fröbe’s rotund sergeant in “The Longest Day”, but mostly for comic relief. Like millions of his countrymen, he served an evil cause, but rarely because of a need to be a bad person or to live out some power trip.

That’s the problem with humans – under certain circumstances, good people can be made to do (or at least actively or passively support) bad things. Before we pass judgment on them, we should ask ourselves: “What would I do in the same situation?”. In most totalitarian systems, the rebels and resistance fighters have formed a small minority. Most people just want to manage their own lives, keeping their heads down as to not attract unwanted attention, and perhaps secretly long for a change, only not with them in the first rank.

Reading Sebastian Haffner’s “Defying Hitler” gives an interesting look into life as a young man in the tumultuous times of 1920’s and 30’s Germany, and that the descent into a totalitarian state was gradual. Few people could foresee what was coming, just as we have been surprised by changes in our own time. It is said that history repeats itself, but it is more like that we who know something about history see leaders who haven’t learned anything from history repeating the mistakes of previous generations. All we can strive for is to make the right decisions. What those are? We’ll know with hindsight…

Freezing winter, blazing hate

January 1942, near Caparde in the Independent State of Croatia (now in Bosnia-Herzegovina). In the center of the photo is Oberst Rolf, and right behind him Hauptmann Köller, and to the right an unnamed Croatian Major acting as liaison officer for the Croatian Home Guard. The Germans are probably from the 718. Infanterie-Division, while the Croatian might be from the 5. Infantry Division. The photo might be taken prior to Unternehmen Kroatien Süd-Ost (“Operation Croatia South-East”), 15-23 January 1942. The German division was involved in anti-partisan warfare together with the 342. Infanterie-Division and Croatian units during this short campaign. It was essentially a search-and-destroy operation designed to locate and eliminate partisan forces in and around Sarajevo, Zvornik, Tuzla and others locations in the region. It was launched during the cold of winter so as to hit the partisan forces when they would be weak from lack of proper winter clothing and protection.

The 718. Infanterie-Division was formed on 30 April, 1941 from various units of the Replacement Army. It was intended for service in the Balkan region and was designed as an occupation and security unit to meet those needs. This unit, like the 14 others of the 700-designations, had at least half of its manpower consisting of older reservists with little experience. Many of the officers hadn’t been in uniform since WW1. The “700” divisions consisted of two infantry regiments instead of three, the latter being the norm until the Volksgrenadier divisions were introduced, and it had fewer motor vehicles and heavy weapons.

After formation, the Division was transported to Croatia and Bosnia, where it took part in security operations, anti-partisan drives, reconnaissance missions, mopping up actions, training, and general occupation duties. One of the major tasks was to protect the local industry, major railroads, and bauxite mining, which was very important to the German war effort (bauxite being needed for the production of aluminium). The Division was renamed the 118. Jäger-Division in 1943. It surrendered to British forces in Austria in May, 1945.

The Croatian Home Guard was founded in April 1941, a few days after the founding of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) itself, following the collapse of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It was done with the authorisation of German occupation authorities. The task of the new Croatian armed forces was to defend the new state against both foreign and domestic enemies. Its name was taken from the old Royal Croatian Home Guard – the Croatian section of the Royal Hungarian Landwehr component of the Austro-Hungarian Army. The NDH was a Fascist puppet state following the lead of Germany and Italy, its leadership targeting Serbs, Communists, Jews, Roma, and other “undesirables”. Following the anti-partisan actions, a Gestapo report to Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, dated 17 February 1942, stated:

Increased activity of the [partisan] bands is chiefly due to atrocities carried out by Ustaše units in Croatia against the Orthodox population. The Ustaše [a Fascist Croatian movement] committed their deeds in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age, but especially against helpless old people, women and children. The number of the Orthodox that the Croats have massacred and sadistically tortured to death is about three hundred thousand.

The fighting in Yugoslavia was extremely cruel, making even the Gestapo blanch. The Croatian and Serbian factions showed little mercy to each other. Still, German units got bogged down in anti-partisan warfare, the Germans worsening the situation by raising ethnic units like Muslim SS forces, contributing to the rising number of atrocities. The resulting resentment needed little prompting to be fanned into full-blown civil war 50 years later…