No home to return to

The fine studio photo of a young Gefreiter manages to convey the self-assuredness of a proud Prussian soldier. He belongs to one of the machinegun companies of Infanterie-Regiment 311, which was part of the 217. Infanterie-Division. He has been awarded the Iron Cross, 2nd class, the Infantry Assault Badge, and the Wound Badge in black. His M1935 Waffenrock isn’t part of his personal uniform, but on loan for the photo session.

I was about to post just the studio photo, when I remembered that I had some photos of troops from 217 ID. Sure enough, our young warrior is in the middle of the front row in the top photo. The photos taken in the field show him and his comrades during the winter of 1941-42, when they were posted to Oranienbaum, west of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg). The divisional sign can be seen on the truck in the lower photo.

The division was formed in August 1939 in Allenstein in East Prussia (now Olsztyn in Poland). The division took part in the invasion of Poland, where it was mainly used as a reserve unit. It participated in the fighting in Belgium and France, before going back to East Prussia in July, 1940, where it spent almost a year securing the border. In June 1941 it was part of Army Group North, invading the USSR and capturing Tallinn in Estonia. It saw action on the Leningrad front, but was rushed to Ukraine in October 1943 in order to stem the Red Army advance. The Infanterie-Regiment 311 was disbanded together with the rest of the division in November 1943 after suffering heavy losses.

What’s the thing about having no home to retrun to? East Prussia had been Germanized in the 13th century, and became a province that changed owners over the centuries. The capital was Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). In 1525, it became the Duchy of Prussia, and later a kingdom. When the German Empire was created in 1871, Prussia was the leading state, but after WW1 and the Treaty of Versailles, Prussia was split between Poland and Germany, the Eastern (German) part separated from the rest of the country. This was changed in 1939 and the invasion of Poland, where reconnecting East Prussia with Germany was one of Hitler’s reasons for the attack. East Prussia was relatively unaffected by the war until the vengeful Red Army invaded in early 1945. The civilian population, rightly fearing massacres and rapes, began a mass exodus, and a majority of the 2.2 million Prussians, 85 % of whom were ethnic Germans, fled westwards or were expelled later in ethnic cleansings. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives during those last months, by bombs, in the sinkings of evacuation ships, or freezing to death on the road to safety. This expulsion is still the largest in history, but seldom talked about. East Prussia was divided between the USSR and Poland, and ceased to be a German territory.

It’s funny that it was years after I got the photos, which were part of a bigger lot, that I saw the connection between studio portrait and the dozen or so MG company photos. Could it be an indication that the young man survived the war, as the photos had somehow made it to the west? It’s impossible to know. What we do know is that he didn’t have a home to return to.

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Skulls

This studio portrait of two young soldiers, who I presume are friends, contains some interesting details, a couple of enigmas, and some historical background. My guess is that the photo was taken in 1941 or 1942. The Place is the small town of Dürnholz, since WW2 known as Drnholec in Moravia in the Czech Republic. The young men are most likely Sudeten Germans, the Volksdeutsche – ethnically German – population of western Czechoslovakia that the Nazi government in Germany used to further their territorial claims. When the war was over, Czechoslovakia was ethnically cleansed, the Sudeten Germans forced to flee to the zones under Western Allied administration.

The Soldat on the left is a Panzer crewman. He wears the black side-buttoned tunic typical of the Panzer crews. His collar tabs sport the silver skulls of the armored troops. Those had their roots in the skulls worn on the headdress of Napoleonic-era Prussian Hussars, symbolizing the do-or-die attitude of the daring cavalrymen. Many Panzer divisions were mechanized cavalry units, changing horses for tanks and armored cars. His shoulder straps are partially covered by slip-on fabric loops used to obscure the regimental number. This was done for operational secrecy, but there’s the possibility that his regiment is one of those that use differently-colored loops to differentiate between the battalions. His black sidecap indicates that the photo is taken after 1940.

His friend is a Waffen-SS Sturmmann (lance corporal) of some experience, implied by his Iron Cross, 2nd class, ribbon and the silver Wound Badge. He’s a member of a Waffen-SS division, but as his cuff title isn’t visible, it’s impossible to tell which one. One intriguing detail is the Edelweiss flower tucked in his cap. It’s a real flower, and not the embroidered patch of the SS-Gebirgsjäger mountain rangers. It obviously has some personal meaning, as it wasn’t an official feature of the uniform. The skull on his cap is the SS version, which symbolizes the willingness of the SS soldiers to die for the Reich.

It wasn’t uncommon for Panzer crewmen to be confused with SS troops because of the skulls and black uniforms. If they were taken prisoner, they ran the risk of being shot straightaway, as both western Allied and Soviet troops thought they were SS soldiers. One can but wonder about the final fates of the two young men in the photo.

For a more light-hearted take on the skull theme, the British comedians Mitchell and Webb made a pretty hilarious sketch on the subject some years ago.

 

Going south

This bright young man is Stabsgefreiter (Senior Lance Corporal) August König of Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 49. He’s wearing the tropical uniform prior to the deployment of the 10. Panzer-Division to Tunisia. His uniform tells a lot to someone versed in reading German uniform insignia and medals. Apart from the rank chevrons on his sleeve, there’s the black Waffenfarbe (branch of service piping) on his shoulderboards that tells us that he’s in an engineer unit. On his pocket is the Reichssportabzeichen (Reich Sports Badge) in bronze, and the Allgemeines Sturmabzeichen (General Assault Badge) in silver, which was awarded for participation in three assaults on different three days. In his buttonhole is the ribbon of the Eisener Kreuz, 2. Klasse (Iron Cross, second class), which was usually awarded for battlefield bravery. The Iron Cross was a prestigious award early in the war, but during the last years it was awarded more liberally as a morale booster. Anyway, his uniform tells us that he has displayed courage in combat in support of infantry and armored assaults on several occasions.

The 10. Panzer-Division arrived to Tunisia in December, 1942. It was a part of Fifth Panzer Army, and participated in the Battle of Kasserine Pass and several of the other early battles. It also took part in the failed Axis offensive of Operation Ochsenkopf in late February 1943. When the Axis line collapsed in May 1943, the division was trapped. It surrendered on 12 May and was never rebuilt.

I’m fairly certain that August König went into captivity, returning to Germany a couple of years after the war ended. He was the owner of the photo album that was obtained by someone who cut it up and sold off the loose photos on eBay. Much of the context has been lost, and I suspect the best photos were sold off for big money. Still, those I got hold on tells a story, some of which I’ve relayed here.

A Green Devil

France, 1943. Willy, a young Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper) poses for a photograph. On the back, he writes a few loving lines to his girlfriend, Dora. He’s in France for training, and belongs to either the 1. or the 2. Fallschirm-Jäger-Division. His shoulderboards sport the loops of an Unteroffizieranwärter, an NCO candidate. By this stage of the war, the Germans usually deployed the paratroopers as elite infantry; after the heavy losses during the fight for Crete in 1941, Hitler was very hesitant to risk them again. Still, they were tough soldiers, and got the nickname “the Green Devils”. Willy’s tan uniform has the baggy pants of the paratroopers, and his sidecap is set at a jaunty angle, but the only medal is the Reichssportabzeichen, the Reich Sports Badge. And no, he isn’t one-armed – he holds the left arm on his back. I bet Dora was a bit worried for a minute, though.