With the defeat in World War 1, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up, and Austrian politics entered a period of turbulence. Trying to keep Austria independent from Germany while having its own version of Fascism ultimately failed, when on the morning of 12 March 1938, the 8th Army of the German Wehrmacht crossed the border into Austria, effecting the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Greater Germany. The troops were greeted by cheering Austrians with Nazi salutes, Nazi flags, and flowers. That afternoon, the Austrian-born Führer Adolf Hitler, crossed the border at his birthplace, Braunau am Inn. The enthusiasm displayed toward Hitler and the German troops surprised both Nazis and non-Nazis, as most people had believed that a majority of Austrians opposed the Anschluss. The Austrian army with its eight infantry divisions and other units were absorbed into the Wehrmacht, and Austrian units would play an important role in the coming war.
When I first looked at the photo above, I thought it showed Germans and Hungarians, as Hungary was an ally of Germany. I learned soon that the three men in the front row with the ammo pouches were Austrians, and that both Austria and Hungary had kept much of the uniform style from the time of the empire. So what we see are new brothers-in-arms, the Austrians soon to be in German uniform, their fate tied to that of Germany and the leader who was born in their country. Some of the leading Nazis were Austrians, including several concentration camp commanders and staff, but somehow Austria managed to distance itself from Hitler’s Reich after the war, and paint the country as a victim, and the denazification process that took place in post-war Germany wasn’t implemented as strongly in Austria.
Thirsty soldiers down beer in the summer of 1934 (or 1935 or 1936). They wear the old style Reichswehr eight-buttoned uniform tunic, the new insignia sewn on as of May, 1934. The new uniform, which will be worn by the conquering Army a few years later, is still in development. The same goes for the iconic helmet, which is about to be approved and manufactured in millions. Until then the soldiers use two WW1-vintage Stahlhelme, the M1918 with its prominent lugs, and the relatively rare M1918 “ear cut-out” helmet, which was developed for field telephone operators, cavalrymen, artillery crews, and the like. It was popular, but arrived too late to be worn in any numbers before the armistice. When the Wehrmacht began to expand, old helmets were brought out of storage, refurbished (new liners, paint, and decals), and issued to the troops. Some were used as late as 1943. The men in the photo don’t know that in 3-5 years, they’ll be called up to arms and conquering Europe in the uniforms that are so deeply associated with war and terror.
Here’s a nice mix of seamen for the ladies ashore… The photo shows sailors from the Kriegsmarine and the Royal Navy fraternising on the deck of a British battleship, and it inspired me to do some digging. The back of the photo confused me at first, as a note says “England ) Ocktober [sic] 1934 Hipper (4)”. The only reference to as German naval visit to Britain in 1934 I could find was when Köningsberg and Leipzig visited Portsmouth. The Admiral Hipper wasn’t launched until 1937, so that reference was a bit puzzling. Clearly, the info in the back was wrong.
I posted the photo and a question about it in the Axis History Forum, and forum member GregSingh stepped up to the challenge. Further analysis of the photo showed that the Royal Navy cap bands said “HMS Nelson”, while the German caps said “Panzerschiff Deutschland”. GregSingh could convincingly prove that the photo must be from late January/early February 1938, when Nelson, together with sister battleship HMS Rodney, visited Lisbon in Portugal at the same time as the Deutschland. This caused a diplomatic embarrassment for Portugal, as the Portugese had to entertain both rivals with dinners and receptions. As evident, the crews got the opportunity to learn to know each other. A little over 1½ years later, the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine went to war…
The Panzerschiff Deutschland was commissioned in 1933, one of three “pocket battleships” that were built to get the most out of the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty. She was later reclassified as a heavy cruiser, and in 1940 she was renamed “Lützow”, as it was feared that it would look bad if a warship named “Deutschland” was sunk. She saw action until the last days of the war, when she was damaged and scuttled outside Swinemünde (now Świnoujście in Poland). Lützow was raised by the Soviets in 1946, and sunk in weapons experiments in 1947.
HMS Nelson was commissioned in 1927. She was the flag ship of the Home Fleet and saw action in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean, including artillery support of the landings in Normandy on D-Day. After the war, she was decommissioned in 1948, then used as a target ship before sold and scrapped in 1949. There’s a fair chance that the men in the photo survived the war, which was a happier outcome than those of the ships they served on.
This photo mystified me for a while, as I couldn’t identify the sword badge on the shirts. There were no known Wehrmacht units with that design, and a request on Axis History Forum Went unanswered. Then I made a picture search on the off chance that it might be something associated with the Reichswehr, the German Army of 1919-35, and lo and behold! It turned out to be the M32 sport shirt insignia (Truppensportabzeichen), as used by the Reichswehr. It was machine-woven design in black on white cotton, used on various Heeres sport shirts and training outfits. This is the Model 1932 sport shirt design as introduced in the Reichswehr period, but later replaced by the well-known sport shirt eagle-on-swastika Hoheitszeichen in May 1935.
So what’s the thing with the ass-slapping in the photo? No idea, but I guess the unfortunate target lost something in a game. A few years later, most of the young men in the photo were probably NCOs or junior officers in the rapidly expanding Wehrmacht.
Fischerischutzboot Weser, or her sister ship Elbe, in port 1933-35. The two ships were built in Wilhelmshafen in 1931, and served as support vessels for German fishing boats on the North Sea. They were based at Marinestation der Nordsee in Wilhelmshafen. The ships were armed with a 8.8 cm deck gun and machinegun. In 1939, both ships were rebuilt and had their sterns extended in order to improve their seaworthiness. They were transferred to the Kriegsmarine (Navy), and fitted with 2 cm AA guns and depth charge racks. The Weser and Elbe now served as minesweeper escorts. Weser ended up in the 7. Minesweeping Flotilla in northern Norway, and fell into British hands at the end of the war. She was used for post-war minesweeping, and was scrapped in 1954. The Elbe served in the Baltic Sea before going to the 5. Minesweeping Flotilla in northern Norway. Like her sister, she was captured by the British in 1945, but was handed over to the Soviets in December, 1945, and renamed Terek. She was scrapped in 1962.
Thanks to member Polar bear on Axis History Forum for help with identifying the ship.
How to make sure that your men always look keen: do the shaving. A Wachtmeister (artillery staff sergeant) gets a close shave by his Leutnant (2nd lieutenant). They serve in Artillerie-Regiment 72, and as the photo was developed in Wiesbaden, I believe it is from 1936 or 1937, between when the regiment’s 1st battalion was formed and its move to Mainz. It was reassigned to the 36. Infanterie-Division, and became the 3rd battalion of Artillerie-Regiment 36. It saw action in France in 1940. The division was motorized in late 1940. It participated in Operation Barbarossa, mostly in Army Group Center, and spent the rest of the war on the Eastern Front. The battalion was destroyed together with large parts of the regiment and the division in June, 1944. The men in the photo were lucky if they became prisoners of war, provided they had survived that long.
There’s nothing odd about this photo until one looks a bit closer at the machineguns lined up on the ground. While the one furtherst from the camera is clearly an MG 34, the two other are wooden mock-ups. It’s my guess that the photo is taken in 1935 or 1936, right after the Wehrmacht began to expand. When the Treaty of Versailles was renounced in 1935, the Army grew from the allowed 100,000 men to some 300,000 in one big leap. Germany had been hobbled by the Treaty, which prohibited weapons like tanks, and placed a cap on the maximum number of machineguns that the Germans were allowed to have. It was set at less than 2,000 machineguns (756 heavy and 1,134 light MGs) for the whole Army, and it took time to equip all the new units. So it seems like wooden “weapons” were used for training purposes during the first year or so of the newly-minted Wehrmacht. Soon every infantry squad in the Army had its own new MG, and the mock-ups could be turned into firewood.