“Now, where are we?”

A common misconception is that German officers were heel-clicking automatons shouting “Jawohl, Herr General!” and sending the soldiers into enemy gunfire. In countless movies, the officers and soldiers appear unimaginative and acting out orders to the letter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The German Army used (and still use) a doctrine called “Auftragstaktik” – mission-type tactics. It wasn’t something new; the concept had been around since the Napoleonic Wars, but the Germans took it to heart. Instead of having superior officers giving specific orders on how to execute a mission, the German commanders gave their subordinates a specific goal, the resources to achieve it with, and a time frame. “Captain, you are to take the three bunkers on Hill 213. You have a rifle company, a platoon of combat engineers, and support from the regimental mortars at your disposal. This mission is to be finished no later than 1400 hours. Questions?”

With the commanding officer planning and executing the mission, a greater degree of flexibility was achieved. If some unforeseen event occurred, the officer didn’t have to check back for updated orders, losing momentum in the process. He could modify his plan on the spot, living up to the German military proverb that “it’s better to do something, than to wait”, meaning that even if an immediate decision could turn out to be less than optimal in retrospect, it was better to act than to wait for orders and miss an opportunity. By acting on opportunities, the mission could turn into a greater success than originally planned. The US and British armies had a much more top-down chain of command, which made officers at lower levels less flexible. Coupled with the German ability to form Kampfgruppen, ad hoc combat commands made up from available troops, this made for an opponent that proved to be tougher than the Allies expected.

So, instead of having “Prussian” officers rigidly following orders, the Germans influenced post-war officer training in other armies. Mission-type tactics are pretty much the norm today, more than two centuries after the concept began to take root.


All work and no play

The third man from the right in the photo, standing slightly higher than the others, is Generalarbeitsführer Hans Baumann. The rather cumbersome title translates as “general work leader”, the equivalent of an Army Generalmajor. He’s an officer of the Reichsarbeitsdienst, the National Labor Service. The other uniformed people in the photo are a gaggle of RAD officers, as well as a black-uniformed Allgemeine-SS lieutenant and a portly Nazi Party official. The photo is probably from around 1937 or 1938, as evidenced by the “Deutsche Wehrmacht” armband worn by the RAD Arbeitsführer (major) and the black SS uniform. The location is probably München (Munich).

Hans Baumann was born in 1875 and joined the Bavarian army in 1894 after the completion of his studies. He rose in the ranks, and served as a battalion commander in Bavarian reserve infantry regiments during World War 1. Baumann was a member of the paramilitary Freikorps Epp during the unrest after the war. In 1919 he joined a small party on the extreme right, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers’ Party). Another war veteran who joined the party was a certain A. Hitler, who quickly emerged as a prominent orator. The DAP soon became the NSDAP, and the march towards the pinnacles of power began. History had taken a dark turn.

Hans Baumann had been discharged from the army, which was to be severely reduced in accordance with the Versailles Treaty. He worked as a farmer, but he had a second career as a politician and regional leader in the Freiwilligen Arbeitsdienst, the forerunner to the RAD. He became a member of the Reichstag (parliament) in 1933, a position he held until 1945. Baumann was promoted to Obergeneralarbeitsführer in 1940, making him one of the 20 or so highest ranking officers of the RAD in the Third Reich. While being one of the old guard, it appears like he wasn’t prosecuted after the war, and seems to have faded into obscurity. He died in 1951, aged 76, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was an unrepentant Nazi to the very end. Today he is all but forgotten.

Generally unremarkable

The man in the center of the photo is Generalmajor Hans von Sommerfeld. It’s “Tag der Wehrmacht” (“Armed Forces Day”), 17 March 1940 in Rheine, Germany. You may be excused if you haven’t heard of him. There were hundreds of generals in the German Army, and his career, which looked promising at first, hit an invisible wall for some reason. His father and grandfather were Prussian officers, and it seemed like a natural choice for him to enter a military career. He was born on 7 January 1888 in Magdeburg, and joined Infanterie-Regiment 27 as a Fähnrich (ensign) in 1906. It was the same regiment as his father and grandfather had served in. He was promoted to 2nd lieutenant the following year. During WW1, von Sommerfeld served with distinction, and was promoted to captain. He was wounded in combat twice, became a battalion commander, and received both the Iron Cross (first and second class) and the Knight’s Cross of the Royal Order of Hohenzollern, as well as other awards.

After the war, he managed to stay on in the severely reduced army. Hans married Ernestine Clara Zuckschwerdt in 1923, fathering two daughters and a son. He served in the Reich Ministry of Defense between 1928 and 1932, where he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. With the expansion of the Wehrmacht beginning in 1935, von Sommerfeld got to command Infanterie-Regiment 33 in Dessau. After commanding the 526. Infanterie-Division (a border protection unit), he moved on to command the 306. Infanterie-Division in November 1939. It is here that something strange happens. While he gets promoted to Lieutenant General in September 1941, his long service and distinguished combat record in WW1 don’t give him a combat command. When the division is sent to the Eastern Front in November 1942, he was given the 462. Division instead, which appears to have been more or less a training unit until turned into a Volks-Grenadier-Division in October 1944 and put under the command of another general. Generalleutnant von Sommerfeld served the rest of the war as Rheinkommandeur II, which appears to have been some sort of border security/administrative posting. He became a US prisoner of war in 1945, and was released in 1947. The rest of his years until his death in Mönchengladbach in 1961 (three days after his 73rd birthday) appears to have been quiet. What you’ve read here is pretty much what one can find about him on the Internet.

So why was he relegated to secondary, behind-the-front commands? A disagreeable personality? Nerves? Hard on the bottle? Seen as a good administrator, better used behind the front? There are no hints. Anyway, he looks pretty happy in the photo, 52 years old and with a solid if largely unremarkable career. If you don’t remember his name tomorrow, I won’t blame you.

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.

Planned change

Instead of using my private Facebook page for announcements of new World War 2 in Photos posts, I will use the official WW2 in Photos Facebook page instead (it isn’t public yet). I plan to launch it this weekend. As stated in the previous post, I hope this will increase traffic as well as comments. That way those of my FB friends who don’t have an interest in WW2 (yes, there are actually people like that!) won’t get updates cluttering their feed, while those with an actual interest will have a dedicated FB page to follow.


Attentive readers might’ve noticed that I don’t post every day, like I did in December. That’s for three reasons: 1) I made a point of making a post for each day in December, counting down to Christmas and New Year’s, 2) I’ve been fairly busy this month, and 3)I’m thinking about making an experiment. As this blog has only a dozen followers, and attract less than ten vistors per day, I’ll start a Facebook page where the posts will appear, and hopefully generate both discussions and traffic to this blog. Some might think that I’m an attention seeker, and that’s actually pretty true – after all, I want to share my photos and receive feedback. The Facebook page is already created, but it hasn’t gone public yet. Watch this space for more news.

Christmas Day

A Leutnant strumming his guitar, most likely playing some popular Christmas songs. The tree is decorated, a nativity scene before it, and some semblance of normalcy and Christmas cheer is probably felt. Nazi Germany was anything but a normal place, though. It was a traumatized country after WW1, the British blockade that starved tens of thousands of Germans to death, the unrest after the war, the hyper inflation, the political upheavals of the 1920’s, the Depression, and then the Nazi rise to power. While the arrival of order was greeted by many, it came at a price. The dissidents sent to concentration camps, the racial laws, the incessant propaganda, the nazification of all aspects of society, and then war. Rationing, air raids, hundreds of thousands of men never coming back (and the Jewish neighbors being “relocated” to the east).

The official propaganda tried to instil a sense of unity, and traditional holidays were part of that. Below is a compilation from newsreels with Christmas at the home front during WW2. 1944 was the last year the Christmas trees were decorated with Nazi flags.