Target for today

Luftwaffe aircrew attend a briefing or a post-mission debriefing, going over points on a large map. The photo might have been taken in 1940 or ’41 in France. They are probably members of medium bomber crews, flying Junkers Ju 88s, Dornier Do 17s, or Heinkel He 111s, all of which were used for tactical bombing. The greatest failing of the Luftwaffe was the lack of a strategic bomber like the B-17 or Lancaster. The use of medium bombers coupled with the limited range of the fighter escorts were two of the reasons why Germany failed to win the Battle of Britain.

Still, the Germans managed to produce some of the most elite bomber crews of all time. While the USAAF retired their bomber crews after 25 missions (later upped to 30 and then to 35 in 1944) missions, and the RAF rotated out their crews after 30 missions for six months of other assignments before a second tour of 25 missions, the Luftwaffe had the crews serving until lost or permanently disabled. Adolf Galland, fighter ace and legendary commander of the Luftwaffe fighter arm, once said: “Our pilots and crews fought until they died.” For those who didn’t die, the steady fighting resulted in impressive mission counts, with scores of Luftwaffe pilots racking up 300+ combat missions. Foremost of those was Oberstleutnant Hansgeorg Bätcher, who flew 658 combat missions. He was 31 years old by the end of the war, and in those years he had advanced from flying gliders as a 17 years old to flying the world’s first jet bomber, the Arado Ar 234, in 1945.

The addition of heavier bombers, like the problematic Heinkel He 177, came too late, as the Luftwaffe bomber arm was largely irrelevant by 1943. The blame is to be laid at the feet of Göring and Hitler, who by their decisions made sure that no matter how skilled and brave the individual pilots were, they had no chance of winning the war. In retrospect, it was for the better, as it made the Allied victory easier.


Karl, where is my dud?

The Volkhov Front, east of Leningrad, autumn of 1941. An Oberfeldwebel stands next to a 21 cm shell fired by a Soviet Br-17 heavy siege gun. Luckily for him and his unit, the high explosive shell, loaded with some 20 kilos of TNT, was a dud. Even if it hadn’t exploded, it was still dangerous, and had to be removed carefully, or destroyed through a controlled explosion. A task for people with strong nerves…

In 1989, my rifle company participated in a refresher manoeuver together with the rest of the brigade. A couple of days were spent on a artillery firing range. As we made our way through the broken terrain, we saw several unexploded 155 mm artillery shells. After spotting the first one, we took great care where we placed our feet… Nothing like some duds of unknown volatility to sharpen your senses. There were no mishaps, but the exercise was eventful in other aspects.

The last straw

Weary German soldiers take a rest, perhaps during the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. They have crashed on the ground, not bothering to remove their equipment. Some appear to be napping. One would think that none would be up to a prank, but the Unteroffizier in the middle of the photo has another idea. Reaching across der Spieß – the company sergeant – he is about to tickle his colleague in the ear with a straw. There’s always a guy like that: the joker in the platoon.

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.

Looking for Private Ryan?

This photo is a recent acquisition, part of a small lot of photos from Norway. I took one look at it and thought: “That looks like France” – the countryside is decidedly not Norwegian. The thing that really tipped me off was the helmet carried by the guy on the right, which sports the camouflage paintjob seen on helmets worn by troops stationed in Normandy. Then I flipped the photo, and saw a scrawled note on the back with “Caen” in it. Bingo! Further analysis of the photo makes me pretty sure that the soldiers belong to a Luftwaffe Field Division, things like the cap worn by the soldier on the right, and the belt buckle on his comrade on the left. That, and the location, tells us that only one unit can come into question: The 16. Feld-Division (L).

The 16. Luftwaffen-Feld-Division was formed in December 1942 by the XIII. Fliegerkorps. It was transferred to the Heer (Army) in November 1943 and redesignated 16. Feld-Division (L). It was deployed in the Hague-Haarlem area of the Netherlands as an occupation force. In June 1944, the division was sent to Normandy under the control of Heeresgruppe B and deployed in the front lines on 2 July. The British launched an offensive the day after the division arrived and by late July, it had been effectively destroyed in the defense of Caen. The division was formally dissolved on 4 August 1944, its remaining infantry allocated to the 21. Panzer-Division, while other elements were used to resurrect the 16. Infanterie-Division. (More on the Luftwaffe Feld-Divisionen here.)

Some more observations on the guys in the photo: the one on the left has a leather map case, binoculars (probably 7×50), a magazine pouch with three magazines for his MP 40 (not visible), and a helmet possibly painted with a mix of dark yellow paint and sawdust (to reduce glare). His colleague wears a Zeltbahn as camouflage, 6×30 binoculars, and probably an MP 40. Both are NCOs, as there are no rank insignia on the sleeves.

Speaking of Normandy and the Allied landings there, this year marks 20 years since the premiere of Saving Private Ryan, the epic war movie directed by Steven Spielberg. Regarded as one of the great war movies, I’m not quite as impressed by it. While there are some powerful scenes in it, like the brilliantly staged beach landing, the movie has several weak spots. I’m not going to nit-pick on trivia like the fact that there were no Tiger tanks in the American area of Normandy by the time the action takes place, but I’ll address problems with the plot.

The basic premise of the movie is that it is discovered that all brothers Ryan are killed or missing in action around the same time. Mommy Ryan receives all the telegrams just a few days after the D-Day landings. By that time, most of the airborne units were still struggling to organize themselves after being scattered over a large area. In real life, it would’ve taken many days, if not weeks, before it would’ve been apparent that Private Ryan was indeed MIA. In the movie, the rescue operation is launched just a few days after D-Day.

One pivotal scene is when Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) decides that it’s important to knock out the German defenders of a damaged radar installation. The squad charging uphill against a machine gun position, the medic, Wade, is mortally wounded. Miller had a crack sniper, Jackson, in his squad – why not take out the MG crew at a distance? Or just bypass the Germans, as they weren’t a threat? The whole scene is just a way of introducing the surviving German soldier, “Steamboat Willie”, and setting the stage for the final scenes.

After finding the right Ryan, the surviving members of the squad (plus some airborne troops) are pitted against crack Waffen-SS troops in the fight for the fictious town of Ramelle. The Germans make just about every tactical mistake they could make; even considering the state of German troops by that time of the war, they wouldn’t have assaulted a town like that. Anyway, in the fighting, most of the squad meets a sticky end, including Captain Miller, who is shot by “Steamboat Willie”. “Willie”, who was let go by Miller earlier, and who has been picked up by the SS unit, clearly doesn’t know who he’s firing at. The interpreter, Upham, kills “Willie”. This is one of the morally ambigious problems with the story. Was Miller wrong to let “Willie” live? Should they’ve killed him straight away, the only good German being a dead German? Spielberg didn’t think this through, obviously.

Upham and Ryan are the only survivors, and the final scene has an aged and tearful Ryan by the graves of Miller and the others, surrounded by his family. Seven men died so he could live. Was it worth it? Mommy Ryan got one son back, and he apparently raised a fine family, but seven other mothers lost their sons, men who never got to form families and raise their kids. The movie leaves that question open, but I for one find that it’s debatable whether it was worth the sacrifice. The whole plot feels contrived, but at least Spielberg and Hanks got the inspiration to make “Band of Brothers”, that most excellent mini-series.

Having a ball (for the New Year?)

Two Unteroffiziere (sergeants) together with a local woman, possibly in Ukraine, 1941-42. She’s making a snowball. Will she throw it at the guy behind the camera? Like so many other photos, this one has no other context than what I could figure out from the uniforms, the houses, and the embroidery pattern on her blouse, which I think indicates a Ukrainian setting.

As the Germans occupied large parts of Europe, local women had to find ways to manage under the new circumstances. Many men were gone – dead or missing in battle, as prisoners of war, or as forced labor. There were children to feed, so some women found employ as cooks, cleaners, washerwomen, and so on. Some entered relationships with German Soldiers, out of opportunism or real love. A minority became real collaborators, actively supporting the occupying forces and ratting on people they didn’t like. As the Wehrmacht had to retreat, many of the mistresses, girlfriends and wives joined their German men, but those who were left behind had to deal with the consequences of their choices. It could get really ugly…

So, the story of woman with the snowball is one of the millions of untold and unknown stories from World War 2.

Frohe Weihnachten!

In Germany, as in my native Sweden, Christmas Eve is the day of gift-giving, but then several traditions originate in Germany, like the decorated tree. The soldiers in the photo appear to haven’t seen many Christmases, as they seem to be in their early 20s. Soon there will be roasted goose and other traditional German food.

They belong to 5. Kompanie, 2. Bataillon, Infanterie-Regiment 10, 4. Infanterie-Division, based in Saxony, and which saw action in Poland and France before the regiment was designated as Schützen-Regiment 108 in October 1940, as the division was converted to an armored division, the 14. Panzer-Division. In 1942, the regiment became Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 108. The 14. Panzer-Division was destroyed in the Battle of Stalingrad. If any of those young men made it through the war, they were extremely lucky.

On Christmas Eve 1942, the German radio made a brilliant propaganda broadcast. Calling local stations on the edges of the Third Reich as it was at its high water mark, the extent of the Nazi occupation of Europe and North Africa was brought home. In 1943, defeat after serious defeat would shrink the Reich, starting with the 6th Army surrounded in Stalingrad. In that fateful city, the soldiers were starving, the geese having been eaten long ago, and any trees that could’ve been decorated put on the fires to provide some warmth. The civilians both in the occupied countries and in Germany had to make the best they could do with the food rationing in effect. It would be many years before Christmas was a feast in peace and plenty around Europe again.