“Acht-acht”, part 2

This very nice photo of an “88” is in an album I own, once put together by a member of an as of yet unidentified Luftwaffe anti-aircraft unit. The gun crew is showing their piece to a gaggle of officers and functionaries. The man on the right, wearing a swastika armband and an NSDAP badge, is probably a member of some Nazi Party organization. At first, I thought he was in the Reichsluftschutzbund (National Air Raid Protection League), but the uniform doesn’t look right for that. One of the little mysteries of the uniform-obsessed Reich

Other photos in the album show the unit advancing through the Soviet Union as part of Army Group South, possibly in the 1. Panzerarmee. A postcard shows that the unit reached Kislovodsk, deep in the Caucasus, in late 1942. I guess the anonymous Luftwaffe soldier made it out alive when the Red Army launched a counteroffensive in 1943, but his final fate remains unknown.

“Links, rechts, links!”

Recruits of the 1. Zug (1st platoon) of some unknown company marching, commanded by Leutnant (2nd Lieutenant) Förster. This is probably in 1940 or 1941, as Förster wears a Wound Badge on his uniform, indicating that he has participated in the campaigns in Poland and/or France. The soldiers wear Drillich linen fatigue uniforms in a mix of off-white and olive green items.

Learning to march was one of the first things that new recruits were taught. To function as a unit, follow orders, and build up stamina were some of the goals. Later the soldiers were able to march up to 40 km (25 miles) in a day, as the bulk of the divisions weren’t motorized. Those marching boots would see many kilometers…

General unpleasantness

An unnamed British Lieutenant General inspects a Luftwaffe honor guard, sometime in 1935 or 1936. The German Generalleutnant right behind him is Walther von Reichenau. He was born in 1884, joined the army in 1902, and served in the First World War. After the war, he continued his military career. When he was introduced to Hitler by an uncle in 1932, he became a loyal follower and joined the NSDAP (Nazi Party), despite the army regulations that were there to keep the army and politics separate. Apart from furthering his career, he opposed the radical SA (Sturmabteilung) leader Ernst Röhm, who had pressed for SA to become the major military force in the new Reich. Conspiring with Himmler and Göring, he was one of the instigators of “the Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, where Röhm and other leaders of the SA were purged and executed.

In 1938 Adolf Hitler wanted to appoint him as Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Leading figures in the German Army complained and Gerd von Rundstedt, Franz Halder and Ludwig Beck all refused to serve under him. The job went to Friedrich von Brauchitsch instead. von Reichenau led armies in both the invasion of Poland and of France, and was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall in 1940. One would think that such an ardent Nazi and career officer would favor the plans for an attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, but von Reichenau actually opposed them. This didn’t stop him from being appointed to lead the 6th Army.

Once committed to the war in the East, he led the 6th Army in capturing Kiev, Belgorod, Kharkov and Kursk. An anti-semite, Reichenau encouraged his soldiers to commit atrocities against the Jews in the territory under his control (the “Reichenau Order”). On one occasion he told his men: “In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war… For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry…” All Jews were henceforth to be treated as de facto partisans, and commanders were directed that they be either summarily shot or handed over to the Einsatzgruppen execution squads.

In other matters, he displayed some sound thinking, like recognizing the Soviet superiority in armor and the risks attached to it, the need for recruiting Ukrainians and Byelorussians to fight the Red Army alongside the Wehrmacht, and the risk of increasing partisan warfare. Reichenau used to go on a daily cross-country run in order to keep fit. On 12 January, 1942, he ran several kilometers in temperatures well below -20 degrees Celcius. When he returned, he had a severe heart attack (some sources say that it was a stroke). After being unconscious for five days, it was decided to fly him back to Germany. Walter von Reichenau died on 17 January 1942, when the plane carrying him to Leipzig crash-landed and he reportedly suffered a fatal heart attack. His funeral was performed with the usual pomp of the Third Reich. Hitler did not attend his funeral.

He was succeeded by General Friedrich Paulus, who took command of the 6th Army. Paulus was a staff officer who had never led a unit larger than a battalion. A year later, he surrendered to the Soviets in the ruins of Stalingrad, his army in tatters. What would have happened if von Reichenau, a much more competent and decisive officer, hadn’t died? One thing is pretty sure, though: if he had survived to the end of the war, he would’ve been one of the generals on trial in Nürnberg, and would probably have ended up in the gallows as a war criminal.

Building bridges, part 2

This photo, which is yet another by a soldier in Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 49, shows a German and a French officer conferring while French PoWs assist German engineers in building a pontoon bridge across a small river.

About 1.8 million French soldiers were captured during the Battle of France, or about 10 % of the adult male population. Some were repatriated, but most were put in PoW camps, where they had to work for the Germans. Most of those camps were in France, but after repeated escapes, the majority were transferred to Germany and Eastern Europe. They had to perform agricultural and industrial work, as well as mining. Those who were repatriated, or managed to escape, or were released by the war’s end, found that it was hard being accepted back to French society. They weren’t even recognized as veterans until the 1950’s, which affected benefits they could’ve otherwise enjoyed.

In a way, the French PoWs were let down by their country twice. The errors by the military leadership caused the French defeat, not the purported cowardice of French soldiers ignorant people still like to joke about more than 75 years later. Then there were all the issues after the war. Few loves a loser, and the former PoWs, through no fault of their own, experienced what so many other soldiers in defeated armies had to live through.

One oath to rule them all…

Luftwaffe soldiers swearing the Führereid with their hands on the officer’s saber, the swastika-emblazoned Reichskriegsflagge (national war flag) in the background. The Reichswehreid (national defense oath) of the Weimar Republic urged the soldiers to be loyal to the German constitution, protect the legal institutions, and to be obedient to the President and superior officers. After the Nazi takeover, the oath was changed in 1934 to the Führereid, and bound the soldiers to Hitler personally.

“I swear by God this holy oath, that I want to offer unconditional obedience to the Führer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, the commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, and be prepared as a brave soldier to risk my life for this oath at any time.”

This made it hard for more rigid officers and soldiers to contemplate opposition to Hitler and the regime, as they regarded themselves to be oathbound. Still, there were several attempts on Hitler’s life by German officers, the most well-known being the 20 July, 1944 bomb plot, but unfortunately all of them failed.

“Der Dicke”

Some years ago, I acquired a small lot of photos with a mainly Luftwaffe theme. While checking them, I came across a photo of a high-ranking officer, awarded with the Knight’s Cross and the “Blue Max” (Pour le Mérite), and wearing the collar patches of a Generalfeldmarschall of the Luftwaffe. A search showed that there were just six men who had held that rank, and none really matched the looks of the man in the photos. A check with the members of the eminent Axis History Forum identified him as Hermann Göring. What had thrown me was that he looked not as fat, and not wearing a flamboyant uniform. In fact, to some members of the forum, the photo to the left was pretty well-known, but the right-hand one wasn’t.

So, there he was, “der Dicke” (“the Fat One”), smoking his big seafoam pipe during a stop while inspecting the conquered parts of northern France in June, 1940. The identity of the SS officer in the background hasn’t been settled.

So how did those photos end up in that photo lot? My theory is that the photographer was a Luftwaffe soldier, and that he offered copies of the photos to other soldiers in his unit. The left photo, being the better one, became more known. Göring was the highest-ranking Nazi leader to be captured and prosecuted for crimes against humanity in the Nürnberg Trials, but he escaped the hangman’s noose by committing suicide on 15 October, 1946.

A flawed concept

Luftwaffe officer salutes in front of a Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighter. The heavy fighter concept was developed by several nations prior to the outbreak of WW2, but the increase in firepower and range didn’t make up for the loss in manoeuverability. This wasn’t a problem when aerial superiority was enjoyed, but when enemy fighters were around, the Bf 110 units suffered losses. In the case of the Bf 110, the heavy fighters eventually needed escort by single-engined fighters. Later versions of the Bf 110 were equipped with radar and deployed as night fighters, a role that suited the airplane really well, with several nightfighter aces scoring many kills against predominantly British bombers.