On course

Checking hits in a silhouette figure at the shooting range, a Leutnant rates the marksmanship of an NCO taking the Offizieranwärter-Lehrgang (OAL, officer candidate course). The photo is probably from 1943 or 1944, at the training grounds by the quaint northern German town Celle. The men in the photo might belong to Infanterie-Regiment 17, part of the 31. Infanterie-Division, which was destroyed on the Eastern Front in June 1944, the survivors used as a cadre for the rebuilt division (renamed 31. Grenadier-Division, and later in 1944 31. Volks-Grenadier-Division).

To become an officer during the war, the candidate (preferably already an NCO) was to be unmarried (except for professional NCOs), not older than 25 years (those older entered a somewhat different track for promotion to officer), and with proven racial purity. No higher education necessary.

An officer candidate got some training at his front unit before being sent to the OAL. There, he received 4-6 months of weapons training at the replacement formation of the regiment. Then followed 3-4 months of officers’ school, and if he passed the exam, the candidate was promoted to Fahnenjunker-Feldwebel (ensign). He then served in his frontline unit for 15 months before his promotion to officer (usually Leutnant – second lieutenant). In total, it could take a couple of years to become an officer.

The loss of officers in the first years of the war depleted the traditional pool of officers, who were usually from the nobility and upper classes. Gottlob Bidermann, a soldier who rose through the ranks, wrote in his memoir “In Deadly Combat” that there was some deep-seated resentment at how the Wehrmacht accepted non-gentry officers into its ranks. Officers from the working classes were sometimes given the derogatory name of VOMAG (Volksoffizier mit Arbeiter Gesicht, “Peoples’ officer with the face of a laborer”). The Army couldn’t afford to be snobbish or choosy, though, and promoted anyone who proved his mettle.



Five men from an antitank gun platoon posing for their buddy with the camera, taking a break from cutting wood, somewhere on the Eastern Front, spring of 1942. All of them enjoy a pipe of tobacco, using pipes with small bowls typical of the time. The daily ration was seven cigarettes or two cigars, and as the war had stopped trade with the US, the smoother Virginia tobacco was replaced with the stronger Turkish equivalent. The pipes had wooden bowls, or bowls made from bakelite with a clay lining, with room for a cigarette’s worth of tobacco. Many soldiers eked out their tobacco rations with tobacco sent from home, or the rougher Russian makhorka, which is usually described as particularly vile.

Using a pipe had some advantages. It was less susceptible to rain, didn’t need rolling paper, and the glow was far less conspicuous when standing guard (a good sniper could spot the glow from a cigarette and aim five centimeters higher…). While smoking was officially discouraged in the Third Reich, reality called for a steady supply of tobacco, not least for frontline morale reasons. Non-smokers used to trade their cigarettes for chocolate, biscuits and other goodies. If a soldier got hold on American cigarettes, like Lucky Strikes, he had some hard currency in his hands. Ah, the many aspects of nicotine addiction!

Kameraden in Karelia

This photo puzzled me at first. The soldiers aren’t wearing the regular Army uniforms, but the boots and caps typical of the mountain troops, but no Edelweiss cap badges nor any sleeve patches are in evidence (like on the cap worn by the guy in the front row looking left). The terrain indicates the northern part of the Eastern Front, but the location jotted down on the back, “Kairalle”, didn’t show up in a Google Maps search. I had a feeling that the photo was taken in Finland, and together with the date on the back (11 June 1942), it was easy to pinpoint the unit in question: the 7. Gebirgs-Division (not to be confused with the 7. SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgs-Division “Prinz Eugen”, which was active in Yugoslavia). Sure enough, at the time in question, the Division was located to Kaurila in Karelia, Finland. It was also known as the “Bergschuh-Division” because of its unit sign, a white mountain boot on a red shield.

The 7. Gebirgs-Division was set up on 15 November 1941 at the military training area Grafenwöhr, north-east of Nürnberg (Nuremberg to you Anglo-American types) in Bavaria. The division was formed by the reclassification of the 99. leichten Infanterie-Division. Part of the division was grouped together in the group “Hoffmeister” and deployed to the northern sector of the Eastern Front, where it fought south of Leningrad. The remainder of the division was combined to form the group “Krakau” and sent to Finland, among them the men in the photo. It saw action in defensive battles in the Uhtua area, then followed by fighting at Kiestinki in northern Karelia. The division was reunited in August 1942, and remained in the Kiestinki sector. The division participated in the battles for the “Bunker Ridge” in the Sennosero area. Subsequently, the division went over to the defense here and held positions until 1944. Following the armistice between Finland and the USSR in September 1944, the division withdrew via Rovaniemi and Tornio to Narvik, rounding the northern part of Sweden. At the end of the war, the division surrendered to British forces at Lillehammer and went into captivity.

The middle of winter

These two sentries are lucky to have ample protection against the elements. This is probably the winter of 1942-43. They wear Omas (“Oma” = “granny”), the balaclava-like head protection, as well as heavy coats, and thick felt over-boots. As the regular jackboot had iron hobnails that helped the cold go through the sole and to the foot, the over-boots made stationary tasks like sentry duty more tolerable, plus they reduced the risk of frostbite. After that first disatrous winter of 1941-42, the German Army issued good winter gear. This was collected when spring arrived and sent to depots for cleaning, mending and storing for next winter.

Between the battles

A Mercedes-Benz Typ L1500 A Mannschaftwagen (L301) outside a burned-out apartment building, probably in the Rzhev area during the winter of 1942-43. The all-terrain vehicle is very easy to confuse with the mittlere geländegängige Personenkraftwagen (medium cross country passenger car), type Kfz. 12, which was built by Steyr, Wanderer and Opel. It had a similar function, though, and 4,900 cars were made between 1941 and 1943.

The cross on the side of the vehicle (and faintly seen on the back) is most likely a divisional sign, and not the Balkencreuz painted on German vehicles in almost every war movie. Contrary to popular belief, soft-skinned vehicles (trucks, cars) rarely carried the cross seen on armored vehicles. Anyway, a yellow cross was used by the 72. Infanterie-Division, and I think that it’s the likeliest candidate for the unit having its car park outside those ruins.

The 72. Infanterie-Division was raised in 1939 in Trier, and took part in the campaigns in France 1940, the Balkans in 1941, and then the Soviet Union a couple months later. It saw heavy action on the Eastern Front, and suffered severe losses when breaking out of the Korsun Pocket in February 1944. The division was rebuilt and sent back into the fray. In January 1945, the division was mauled at the Baranow bridgehead on the Vistula, and after a retreat the division surrendered to the Red Army in May 1945 in the Erzgebirge region of Czechoslovakia.

When reading about this or that division taking heavy losses, it’s easy to forget that a division is more than 10,000 men suffering hardships, many of them never returning home. While the strategic and operational narratives are important in order to understand the flow of the war, it is the reading of personal accounts that puts a human aspect on the events. The rest of my posts for this month will (with a couple of exceptions) be more about the people fighting and enduring the war, and the times they could enjoy a temporary escape from the hardships.

Bring out the barrel

I wonder what’s in that barrel… A peaceful scene with a wintry backdrop, probably late in the winter of 1941-42. The icy barrel is placed on a small sled pulled by a hardy horse. Three German soldiers, one holding a single ski pole, are accompanied by two “Hiwis”. A “Hiwi”, which is short for Hilfswilliger (voluntary assistant), was a Soviet civilian or prisoner of war who had been enlisted or volunteered to assist the German Army. The one in the center of the photo wears overalls and valenki felt boots, while the other appears to wear a mix of military and civilian clothing. His armband has the text Im Dienst der Deutschen Wehrmacht (“In service of the German Armed Forces”) printed on it. This armband was introduced on 1 October 1941 for wear by non-German civilians serving the Wehrmacht and Soviet auxiliaries when not in uniform. If the Hiwis survived the war, they were probably sentenced for treason and sent to the gulag, from which they weren’t released until 1955.

Fieldworks, part 7:

As a contrast to my post two days ago, this is what most other dugouts looked like. While it might to cosy inside, the outside is serviceable and nothing more. This photo is probably from the later half of 1943, showing a dugout on the Eastern Front. The writing on the back says it’s in a place called “Botchkari”, which probably is Bochkary in Belarus (about halfway between Vitebsk and Minsk), and which was in German hands until the massive Red Army offensive known as Operation Bagration in the summer of 1944. The soldiers in the photo were lucky if they managed to escape the Soviet onslaught.

As already noted, this dugout isn’t as tidy as the previous one. A two-man saw lies behind the man on the left. A stovepipe leans out of the dugout, and a field telephone wire spool holds the last meters of the phone wire leading to company headquarters. Some spruce boughs serve as camouflage, but the overturned sandy soil makes spotting the position from a reconnaisance airplane easy. Today, there’s probably just an overgrown mound with some rotting logs and whatever items the soldiers had to leave behind.