B(r)oomsticks

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.

Advertisements

This is my rifle, this is my gun…

Recruits cleaning their Mauser Karabiner 98 kurz rifles, probably before 1939 as the rifles have neither the sight hoods, nor the cupped butt-plates adopted in 1939 and 1940, respectively. The Kar98k was the standard rifle of the Wehrmacht, with a staggering 14.6 million made between 1935 and 1945. It was a is a bolt-action rifle chambered for the 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridge, and was adopted in 1935 as the standard service rifle by the Wehrmacht. It was one of the final developments in the long line of Mauser military rifles, and is regarded as one of the best bolt-action rifles of all time. Although supplemented by semi- and fully automatic rifles during WW2, it remained the primary service rifle until the end of the war.

It was in February 1934 that the Heereswaffenamt (Army Weapons Agency) ordered the adoption of a new military rifle. The Karabiner 98k was derived from earlier rifles, namely the Mauser Kar98b, which in turn had been developed from the Gewehr 98, the standard German rifle in WW1. Just like its predecessors, the rifle was noted for its reliability, great accuracy and an effective range of up to 500 metres with iron sights. Its internal magazine could be loaded with five 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridges from a stripper clip or one-by-one. The straight bolt handle found on the Gewehr 98 bolt was replaced by a turned-down bolt handle. This change made it easier to rapidly operate the bolt, and reduced the amount the handle projected beyond the receiver.

While the Americans had standardized the semi-automatic M1 Garand in 1936, the Germans kept to the bolt-action Kar98k due to their tactical doctrine of basing a squad’s firepower on the machine gun. The role of the rifleman was largely to carry ammunition and provide covering fire for the machine gunners. All German soldiers trained on the Kar98k in basic training, and while they didn’t stress markmanship like the British, or rate of fire like the Americans, the Kar98k served them well throughout the war. While they introduced their own semi-automatic rifle (the Gewehr 43) and the world’s first successful assault rifle (the Sturmgewehr 44), those were produced in less than 900,000 units total, the Kar98k was the mainstay of the German Army.

Sweden adopted the Mauser system in 1896, and the “Swedish Mausers” are held in high regard for their high standard of manufacture and precision. Using a 6.5 mm caliber round, it differs in some minor ways from the German Mausers, but it is a prominent member of the Mauser legacy.

General embarrassment

Generaloberst Werner von Blomberg in happier days, sometime between the summer of 1934 and the autumn of 1937. Born in 1878 in Stargard, Pomerania, he joined the Army at an early age and served in WW1 with distinction, where he was awarded the Pour le Mérite, the highest award for extraordinary achievement in battle. After the war, he served in the Reichswehr in different capacities, like Chief of the Troop Office. With the rise of Nazism as a political power, von Blomberg began to support it, as his belief was that only a dictatorship (like that in the Soviet Union) could make Germany a great military power.

In 1933, von Blomberg rose to national prominence when he was appointed Minister of Defense in Hitler’s government. He became one of Hitler’s most devoted followers, and worked hard to expand the Army. In 1934, von Blomberg had all of the Jews serving in the Reichswehr given an automatic and immediate dishonorable discharge. He got a reputation as something of a lackey to Adolf Hitler. As such, he was nicknamed “the Rubber Lion” by some of his critics in the Army. In the same year, after President Paul von Hindenburg’s death, von Blomberg ordered all soldiers in the Army to pledge the Reichswehreid (oath of allegiance) not to Folk and Fatherland, but to the new Führer.

In 1935, the Ministry of Defense was renamed the Ministry of War. Generaloberst von Blomberg also took the title of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. In 1936, the loyal von Blomberg was the first Generalfeldmarschall appointed by Adolf Hitler. His growing power roused the jealousy of Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler, who conspired to oust him from his position. Göring had ambitions of becoming Commander-in-Chief himself.

In late 1937, Hitler announced to his top military-foreign policy leadership that it was time for war in order to expand Germany’s Lebensraum eastwards and to grab the initiative before Britian and France grew too strong. While none of those present had any moral objections to the plans, von Blomberg was one of the few opposed to going to war before 1942, as he didn’t think Germany was prepared for war and that there was a considerable risk that France and Britain might declare war on Germany. This didn’t sit well with Hitler, and this gave Göring and Himmler an opportunity to strike.

Werner von Blomberg had been a widower for some years, but in January 1938, at the age of 59, he married the 26 years old secretary Erna Gruhn. A police officer discovered that Gruhn in 1932 had posed for pornographic photos (taken by a Jew with whom she was living at the time) and reported this to the Gestapo and Hermann Göring (who had served as best man at the wedding). Göring chose to misrepresent Frau von Blomberg’s criminal record as being for prostitution as a way of smearing her husband. He then informed Hitler, who ordered von Blomberg to annul the marriage in order to avoid a scandal. Werner von Blomberg refused, and consequently resigned from all of his posts when Göring threatened to make his wife’s past public knowledge.

Werner von Blomberg’s career ended badly when he flew too close to the sun, but he was right on at least one count: Germany wasn’t prepared for war, and that she would get more enemies than she could handle. The couple were exiled for a year to the isle of Capri in the Mediterranean. Spending WW2 in obscurity, von Blomberg was captured by the Allies in 1945. He later gave evidence at the Nuremberg Trials, earning the scorn of his erstwhile colleagues. While in detention in Nürnberg, Werner von Blomberg died of cancer in 1946, and was buried without ceremony in an unmarked grave. Later, his remains were interred in his residence in Bad Wiessee in Bavaria.

 

Thanks to member “graveland” on Axis History Forum for identifying von Blomberg.

Mystery uniform

Young artillerymen training with a 7,5 cm leichtes Infanteriegeschütz 18 (7,5 cm le.IG 18), autumn of 1936. This light artillery piece was introduced in 1932, intended to provide artillery support on regimental level. It was crewed by five, and could fire a 6 kg grenade up to 3.5 kilometers.

The uniforms of the gun crew are a bit of an enigma. They look like police uniforms, with their dark, two-button cuffs and many front buttons. The boots seems to be police issue, too. The Army-style national eagle over the breast pocket wasn’t a feature on police uniforms, even if there were exceptions. The M1918 Stahlhelm doesn’t add to the mystery, though, as the newly introduced M35 helmet hadn’t been produced in sufficient numbers by then.

This is one of those photos that raises more questions than it answers. Were they issued police uniforms because of shortages due to the rapid expansion of the Wehrmacht that began in 1935? This is what makes researching even a rather trivial photo an interesting challenge.

Edited to add: The boots are probably the three-buckle Army boots used before the traditional jackboot was reintroduced again. The buckled boots had lacing, but there were issues with them leaking, so the older style was preferred.

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.