Going where?

Sometime later in the war (1943 or later), an NCO looks out a train window. Is he going to or from the front? Is he on a two-week leave? There’s no way to tell.

Train travel was the most common mode of long-distance transport. Troops, supplies and materiel went thousands of kilometers all over Europe, and that made trains, bridges, railway hubs and marshalling yards prime targets for Allied bombers and fighter-bombers. Strafing attacks of trains destroyed many thousands of passenger and freight cars, as well as locomotives. The Allied pilots seldom had the opportunity to tell whether a train was transporting troops or civilians; if it didn’t display red cross markings, it was fair game. The attacks severely disrupted German troop movements and supply trains.

When I was a teenager, I worked together with a German, Günther, who was 15 years old when the war ended. He lived in the countryside north of Berlin, and one spring day in 1945, he was biking alongside a railway track some distance away. A train with freight cars with brabed wire across the small windows high up on the sides was chugging along, when a couple of Allied figther-bombers appeared. They began to shoot up the train. Günther threw himself in a ditch for cover, and saw hands stretched out of the openings, waving anything white. It seems like the train was carrying concentration camp prisoners. He didn’t stay around to check, and left as soon as the airplanes had run out of ammunition.

“Sani!”

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.

 

Dog of war

Something for you dog lovers this time. This Luftwaffe Unteroffizier (corporal) seems to love his (or his unit’s) dachshund. It isn’t possible to determine the branch he serves in, but at least he isn’t aircrew, as his collar patch would be lighter. The dachshund was bred to flush out badgers (German: Dachs), but this one is probably kept as a mascot and for company.

Too heavy machinegun

The crew of an MG 08 training in the use of the weapon. The Maschinengewehr 08 was the German version of Sir Hiram Maxim’s water-cooled machinegun, originally patented in 1883. The scourge of the battlefields of World War 1, the gun was relegated to second-line units in time for WW2. At 69 kilos (cooling water included), it was very heavy, and thus not practical for aggressive battlefield tactics. It was better suited for static positions, for example trenches and bunkers. Lighter machineguns, like the MG 34 and later MG 42, became the standard weapons.

The soldiers in the photo belong to a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft unit. Closest to the camera is the commander, an NCO, observing the target through a pair of Zeiss 6×30 binoculars. The loader feeds a cloth belt holding 250 rounds. The gunner fires in bursts to prevent the weapon from overheating, averaging about 600 rounds per minute. Two riflemen support the gun crew, and also act as ammunition carriers.

The British referred to the MG 08 as the “Spandau”, after the arsenal in Berlin, a name that spilled over on other German machinguns.

“Kiss me goodnight, Sergeant Major”

Each Company had a sergeant major responsible for keeping order and the everyday running of the Company, relieving the company commander of such trivial worries. In the Wehrmacht, the position was held by a Hauptfeldwebel known as der Spieβ (“spear”). He was recognized by the two narrow bands on his uniform sleeves, and the black notebook tucked between a couple of the front buttons. Due to him taking care of his “children”, he was also known as die Mutter der Kompanie, “the Mother of the Company”. The photo above is of a wall painting in an army barracks somewhere in Germany, painted by some humorous soldier in 1940. The song linked to below is about the Spieβ‘ colleague in the British army, but I’m sure that some things are universal.

 

Willkommen!

Welcome to my blog, which will feature original photos taken by German soldiers before and during World War 2. They are all from my private collection, and obtained over a period of several years. Most are bought on Internet auction sites, and many of them come from albums that the sellers have cut up, selling the best photos for big money and getting rid of the more common stuff in lots. Other photos have never even been mounted in albums. A great many of them holds no information on where or when they were taken, or who the people in the photos are. Sometimes, more can be gleaned from a photo, and it is then when a window into the past is opened. Someone long dead is no longer anonymous.

I’m aware that the German Wehrmacht was guilty of war crimes, and that it still stirs controversy. This blog isn’t an attempt to whitewash or excuse what happened. Still, most of the soldiers were people like you and me, but with the bad luck to end up serving an evil cause. The absolute majority were conscripts, with no real choice but to serve. More than four million soldiers never returned, but are buried in cemeteries in Europe, Africa, Russia, and North America, resting under the ocean waves, or gone without a trace, leaving their families futilely hoping for their return.

The photos I’ll post are from another time, more than 70 years ago. Yet that time shaped the world we live in. The people in the photos were lucky if they survived to see that new world emerge. These are their pictures. Short moments of their lives, recorded for posterity. They never expected them to be viewed this way, generations later.