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.

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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.

A good start to a good day

The men of what appears to be a mobile field workshop having breakfast. A big pot of ersatz coffee, sandwiches with spreads like jam, liver paste or canned cheese make for a good start of a hopefully productive day. A hammer rests on an anvil. The car is probably a 1939 Horch 830 BL Pullman saloon, a little worse for wear since it joined the Army. The photo is stamped 7 April 1943 on the back, but I suspect it was taken the year before. The chevron painted on the door might be a unit marking, but I haven’t found out which one.

The men sport haircuts typical of the German Army at the time. The skinhead look of the German soldiers in Saving Private Ryan was rather ahistorical. Some soldiers even wore their hair longer than American GIs, something that surprised the Yanks.

The second guy from the left is sitting on a 20 liter gas can. It’s made from stamped sheet steel, and the design has been essentially unchanged to this day. The Allies copied the design, calling it “Jerry can” as in “Jerries” = Germans. The British in particular picked up any they could lay their hands on, as their equivalents were known as “flimsies”, the name indicating their sturdiness (or rather lack thereof). If the cans had a white cross painted on them, they held water instead. Otherwise the morning coffee might be a bit stronger than intended by accident…

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.

 

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.

Drive to the East

At first glance, this photo might be mistaken as being of an SS soldier.  The collar tabs and the sleeve eagle look like those of the Waffen-SS. This isn’t the case, though. In keeping with the motor transport theme set by the previous two posts, the guy in the pic is a member of the Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrkorps (National Socialist Motor Corps). The NSKK was a paramilitary organization within the Nazi Party, and served as a training organization, mainly instructing members in the operation and maintenance of motorcycles and cars, and providing drivers for Party officials. With the outbreak of WW2, NSKK members were recruited to serve in the transport corps of various German military branches, since they possessed knowledge of motorized transport, a useful skill when the bulk of German ground forces relied on horses. The NSKK was used to transport German Army troops, supplies and ammunition. By the time WW2 began, the NSKK had already trained some 200,000 men at its 21 training facilities.

The man in the photo is an NSKK-Rottenführer, which is the equivalent of a lance corporal. On the back of the photo it’s noted: “Jalta / Krim Juli 1943”. Given the Crimea location taken together with the collar tab which says “Sp”, it can be concluded that he is a member of Transportbrigade Speer, which followed Army Group South, providing infrastructural backup and supplies. It was organized in 1942, and had almost 50,000 vehicles and comprised about 70,000 men. Members of the Transportbrigade Speer wore either the gray-blue uniform of the Luftwaffe or the brown uniform of Speer’s staff (like the man in the photo). As with all other Nazi organizations, the NSKK was disbanded in May 1945.