About to head out

A group of lieutenants going through orders. Platoon commanders in what appears to be a mounted unit – reconaissance, most likely – (riding breeches, boots and spurs hint at that), there’s little that gives any hint about time or location, The lack of medals makes me think it’s during the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa, though. The second guy from the right carries a captured Soviet PPD-40 submachine gun.

The PPD (Pistolet-Pulemyot Degtyarova) was developed in 1934. It was adopted by the Red Army in 1935 and entered production as the PPD-34. Made in small numbers, it was mostly issued to the NKVD, foremost to border guards. Slightly modified in 1938, it was re-designed after the Winter War with Finland (1939-40), adopting a copy of the Finnish 70-round drum magazine (71 rounds in the Soviet version), thus becoming the PPD-40. After the German invasion in 1941, it was soon discovered that the PPD-40 was less than ideal for wartime production, so it was quickly replaced by the more inexpensive and easier to produce PPSh-41, the iconic SMG of the Red Army. The PPD-40 was a first generation submachine gun, and an indifferent weapon useful mainly for the large magazine capacity.

It was rather common among troops to use captured enemy weapons, as long as there was access to captured ammunition stocks. The officer to right in the photo carries the MP-40 (or MP-38) he was issued. One advantage of using a captured weapon is that it doesn’t give away the shooter as an enemy due to the sound, which might give an element of surprise. On the other hand, it might also confuse friendly troops…

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Forging ahead

A lieutenant watches as horse-drawn wagons bring baggage and supplies to the front, using a pontoon bridge built by the Brückenkolonne of a Pionier (combat engineer) battalion. It’s probably during the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa. The retreating Soviets blew up any bridge they could, and those had to be replaced. In some cases, rivers were bridged in unexpected spots in order to make flanking attacks possible. The company-sized bridge-building unit could build longer or shorter bridges, depending on what load they were to handle. The pontoons could also be used when building ferries, as some rivers were simply too wide to be bridged in time. There were inflatable boats, too, which together with assault boats were used for attacks across rivers. Without the combat engineers, the armies would have a much harder time moving forward.

This is the last post in the five-part series about my WW2 interest and the ways it manifests itself. I will return to different aspects of it in future posts, elaborating on the themes that I find interesting.

In June 2014, I and some friends went to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. We spent a week looking at bunkers and tanks, walking invasion beaches and battlefields, and even had the good fortune to meet and talk to a couple of Allied D-Day veterans. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to make similar trips in the future. Over the years, I have met people who experienced WW2 first hand, and I hope to incorporate their stories in one way or other in my posts. I have a project brewing, where I plan to read and analyze the articles published in the German propaganda magazine ”Signal”, comparing how the Germans presented the fighting in Normandy with what really happened. Then I have this blog, which has turned my collecting of original German photos into a way of expressing myself through research and writing, presenting the photos together with capsule histories and trying to put them in a historical context. Hopefully it will broaden the readers’ understanding of the war just as it has broadened mine. That’s my excuse, anyway.

There are times when I get the question “Why waste time on dead people?” Well, the people in the photos are long gone (except perhaps the odd 90+ years old), but they lived during a tumultous period in our history. They would’ve been happier if they had been allowed to live their lives in peace, but that wasn’t to be. Their stories and fates are too often untold and forgotten; I’ve met people who lived through those years and who experienced things that they haven’t even told their own children. While most of the people in the photos I post here will remain anonymous, I want to put them in a context. In a way, if circumstances had been different, we could’ve been them. That alone makes it worth telling about the people and events all those years ago.

Dig our dugout

Three soldiers in their dugout, somewhere in Russia in 1941. The guy on the right is darning his socks, his comrade on the left is about to open a bottle of wine, while the third is just looking a bit bored. Their little bunker looks pretty snug. They have a stove, its chimney made from tin cans, and seem to enjoy relative comfort. The wine bottles indicate that they have arrived from France or Germany not too long ago. They could be artillerymen or combat engineers, or some other branch of the Army other than infantry (or recon, or signals), but it’s hard to tell the color of their Waffenfarbe piping. Their dugout is just temporary; they better find some thing good next time they move up. In a few months, the Russian winter will hit them.

Here’s the fourth and next to last post on aspects of my WW2 interest.

”So don’t you ever get tired of that war?” Well, while the war only lasted for six years, there are so many aspects of it to explore, that one could spend a lifetime reading about it and never be able to keep up with the new research. ”But all that death and destruction? How can someone like to read books and watch movies about that?” Okay, but some people watch crime shows, and most of them don’t like murders, and others watch hospital series but don’t get thrills from pain and suffering. To me, reading about WW2 is to learn what happened to people in extreme situations and how they coped with it. I don’t derive any pleasure from watching movies were soldiers are gunned down for cheap thrills, or even worse: laughs. As I served in an infantry company in 1986-87, I have way too easy to identify with the PBI (poor bloody infantry). I have a hard time watching movies like ”Inglorius Basterds” (which I’ve actually only seen some scenes from), where the war is an excuse for gory entertainment. Still, the war is intensely interesting. When it comes to drama, World War 2 has it all.

There are people who think that one probably harbors sympathy for Nazism just because of the interest in the German side of the war. Over the years, I’ve encountered war buffs who have an unhealthy fascination with the Third Reich. They fail to separate sympathy for the common men from making excuses for the evil system they were caught up in. A few deny the crimes of the Nazis, or try to rationalize them. Some are fascinated by the aesthetics of the uniforms and hardware design, thinking the Germans should’ve won because they had cooler tanks. Still, those people are in minority in the WW2-related hobbies. Most have a sound interest in history, and want to look behind the narratives of more general books, documentaries and movies. For my own part, it is impossible to ignore that the soldiers that I read about and feature in my blog posts were fighting for an evil regime, even if they had few options. Anyone who thinks becoming a Nazi is a good idea after reading about what transpired in 1933-45 is just plain stupid.

Next: the final part. Why bother with dead people?

Untermensch?

In my collection, I have several photos of prisoners of war captured by Germans. Most of them are either columns of PoWs marching off to captivity, or of a few individuals who often even smiles at the camera. The photos express no ill will towards the captured enemies, and in some cases even curiosity and a certain respect. I know I might be projecting here, and that much is in the eye of the beholder, but then there are a handful of photos that make me ill at ease, as they seem to convey the photographer’s racism and sense of superiority.

People back in the first half of the 20th century were more racist then than most of us are today. The British and French had their colonies, and had no qualms about using Indians and Africans in battles far away from their home countries. The US Army was segregated, Afro-Americans thought to be too stupid to operate machinery like tanks. The Japanese perpetrated horrible war crimes against anyone they thought racially inferior, which was pretty much anyone not from Japan. The Germans, fed propaganda extolling the superiority of the “Aryan race” for years, went to war with the idea that they were the race that was entitled to Lebensraum – living space – that “lesser races” were unfit to occupy. This ideology was practiced in the East, starting with the idea that the Slavic peoples by and large were less worthy and in many cases Untermenschen (subhumans).

Coupled with unexpected successes in the beginning of Operation Barbarossa and the lack of planning to handle the enormous numbers of prisoners of war captured, this thinking resulted in the death of several million Soviet PoWs. What I find troubling with this photo is that in my mind, it expresses the German soldier’s view of this Russian. With his slightly crooked teeth, somewhat Asian features, dirty cap and rumpled uniform, as well as the perspective, this is pretty much the Nazi propaganda view of the Soviet subhuman that doesn’t have a place in the Thousand Year Reich. This soldier’s chance of surviving past the first year of captivity was minimal. No one knows his name, but now you’ve seen his face.

Something good to read

An officer, probably a Leutnant or Oberleutnant, his shoulderboards obscured by slip-on covers in order to make him a less obvious target, sits by the big oven in a Russian izba (peasant house), probably in 1941 or 1942. A man after my own heart, he has brought a book. Back when I did my military service, I was probably the only one in our company bringing a book to read when we were in the field.

There are many memoirs by German soldiers and officers that give an insight in what it was like to fight. I’ve read several, some of the best I’ll list here. For those of you who have only read Sven Hassel’s war novels, these books are the real stuff, in contrast to Hassel’s made-up stories. Here goes…

Gottlob Biedermann: In Deadly Combat   Biedermann rose from private to lieutenant, serving in an infantry division on the Eastern Front. He survived four years of war; of his original squad of 13 men, only three did. His memoir provides an insight in the life as an NCO and junior officer. A particularily striking chapter is when the academic-looking Biedermann went berzerk during a Red Army assault.

Otto Carius: Tigers in the Mud   Slight of stature, Carius went from being a gunner in a PzKpfw 38(t) in 1941 to becoming the third highest-scoring tank ace of all time. He served for the largest part of the war  on the Eastern Front, but ended the war on the Western Front, fighting the Americans. Carius was an incredibly lucky soldier, and in one memorable episode proves that smoking can actually save one’s life…

Siegfried Knappe: Soldat   A lieutenant during the invasion of France in 1940, Knappe was decorated for his bravery. He served on the Eastern Front and in Italy. Towards the end of the war, he served on General Wiedling’s staff during the fighting for Berlin, reporting to the Führerbunker. He became a prisoner of war, and spent five years in the USSR before being released. Knappe emigrated to the USA in the 1950’s.

Günther Koschorrek: Blood Red Snow   A simple soldier and machinegunner, Koschorrek was lucky to escape the hell in Stalingrad before it was too late. His account tells the tale of years of hard combat on the Eastern Front, and it rarely gets more intense and brutal than this. This is the story of a regular Frontschwein who was fortunate to survive it all, unlike most of his comrades.

Hans von Luck: Panzer Commander   A colonel by the end of WW2, Hans von Luck served on almost all fronts from the invasion of Poland in 1939, France 1940, the Soviet Union in 1941, North Africa, and Normandy, to the fall of Germany in 1945. His account is full of exciting and sometimes amusing stories. Few officers saw more action, and he even served under the legendary Field Marshal Rommel.

Kurt Meyer: Grenadiers   The youngest general in the German armed forces, the controversial “Panzer-Meyer” was in the thick of combat from the invasion of Poland to his capture in September 1944. Serving first in the elite Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler, then the 12. SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend”, he made a name for himself as an aggressive commander. He was tried for war crimes and sentenced to death, but managed to escape the hangman’s noose.

Martin Pöppel: Heaven & Hell   A rare account by one of the elite German Fallschirmjäger, Pöppel was a paratrooper who fought in Poland, Norway, Holland, Crete, Russia, Sicily and southern Italy, Normandy and Holland/Lower Rhine. He ended up as a prisoner of war in 1944, and spent some time in a PoW camp in Britain. The chapters on the fighting in Normandy are an interesting counterpoint to “Band of Brothers”, as his unit fought the 101st Airborne.

Guy Sajer: The Forgotten Soldier   Guy Sajer was an Alsacian who served in the elite Groβdeutschland Division (GD). He was just in his teens, and his story is one of a young man caught up in momentous events. There have been grave doubts whether he served in the German Army at all, as his book has many flaws and inaccuracies, but research has shown that he did serve in GD. Don’t read the book as a 100 % factual account of events, but as very personal story.

Johann Voss: Black Edelweiss   The 17 years old Voss joined the 6. SS-Gebirgs-Divsion in 1943 because a friend served there. The division was posted to the front in Finland, and in contrast to the other accounts listed here, he saw relatively little action to begin with. In 1944, the division fought rearguard actions in the Lapland War, and was deployed in the Vosges Mountains for Operation Nordwind, the little-known later phase of the Battle of the Bulge. Still, his book offers an insight into the mind of a young, idealistic soldier who had to deal with the fact that he had fought for an evil regime. In 2004, I managed to contact the author (“Johann Voss” isn’t his real name), and learned that he was still angry with how his youthful idealism had been exploited by Hitler and Himmler.

Final stop

Go home Ivan, you’re drunk… A Soviet BT-7-2 has crashed into a phone pole, the driver having trouble controlling it after losing the track on the right side. The BT-7 was introduced in 1935, and got its baptism of fire against the Japanese at Khalkin Gol in 1939. It saw action in Poland and Finland later that year, the Finns capturing 56 of them and adding them to their small tank force.

Armed with a 45 mm gun, the tank was a so called “cavalry tank”, which sacrificed armor protection for speed. The Christie suspension (later seen on its successor, the T-34) gave it good cross-country characteristics. The tank in the photo is the 1937 upgrade with the T-26 model 1937 conical turret, the two round hatches making the Germans nickname it “Mickey Mouse”. A pair of headlights above the main gun were used for night fighting. The tank had a crew of three (commander/gunner, loader, and driver), which together with the lack of a commander’s cupola and radio made the commander’s task hard and dangerous.

About 2000 tanks – 40 % of the total number built – were lost in the first 12 months after the launch of Operation Barbarossa. Still, the BT-7 was still active on all fronts by the end of the war in 1945.

A ditched gun and a puzzle

Near the Desna River in eastern Ukraine, July 1941, a couple of soldiers belonging to Army Group Center take a look at a ditched Soviet 152 mm howitzer-gun M1937 (ML-20). The ML-20 was one of the most successful Soviet artillery pieces of WW2. Its characteristics positioned it between classical short-range howitzers and special long-range guns. Like so many other Red Army guns left behind, this one will probably be pressed into German service, designated as 15,2-cm Kanonenhaubitze 433/1(r).

The photo is interesting as it makes me wonder who the guy who took it was. On the back of it is pencilled: “Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum” (“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”), a line from psalm 133. The combination of education and irony appeals to me. Did his erudition and wit see him through the war, or did he end up beneath a birch cross somewhere in the depths of Russia? If so, which psalm was sung over him in the church back in his home town? Or did he return after the war to pick up his civilian career? So many questions, so few answers…