Soggy Bottom Boys

Wading through a marsh, boots removed and carrying heavy drums of telephone cable, a signals troop is making its way in roadless terrain. A couple of the soldiers wear rubber bands on their helmets, cut from car inner tubes. It was used to hold camoflage, like grass or foilage. The box carried by the soldier at the head of the squad is probably a radio set, possibly a Tornister-Funkgerät Torn.Fu.d2.

While I can’t say for sure, the photo might be from the Pripet Marshes, the vast region of wetlands in Belarus and northwestern Ukraine. Covering more than a quarter million square kilometers (about 100,000 sq.mi.), the marshes have had an impact on military campaigns throughout history. When the Germans invaded in 1941, they went north and south of the marshes, as it was impassable for larger military forces. The area became a hiding place for partisans and Jews, serving as a base of operations for attacks in the rear. The Germans even considered draining the marshes, but scrapped the plans.

Whether it’s the Pripet Marshes or not, I don’t think the soldiers in the photo had a good time there in that swamp, with mosquitoes and leeches to deal with. Sure beats the Russian winter, though.

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Is this the reel life?

A soldier, perhaps in an engineer or artillery unit, reels in telephone cable by turning a crank on a carrying frame. When retrieving the cable, the frame was carried on the chest, while it was carried on the back when laying the cable. A cable-laying party consisted of a leader and three men, one carrying the cable reel in its frame, and the other a long pole (usually three meters) a with fork-like tip to hold and lift the cable, while the third was responsible for tensioning the cable. A bag with pliers, electrical tape, screwdriver, knife, pencils, and a note pad was carried by the third man. The leader would reconnoiter the best route for the cable.

There were two kinds of telephone wire used. The light type was on hand-held reels, while the heavy cable seen in the photo was wound on drums. In the latter case, the cable was 1000 meters long, but if my experience at cable-laying is anything to go by, lengths of cable were lost in the field, the drums ending up holding about 800 meters. Building a telephone line takes different amounts of time, depending on the terrain and length. If the ground is flat and the trees have their branches high up (for example pines), a kilometer of telephone line can be built in less than 20 minutes. If speed is needed, the cable is laid directly on the ground.

A telephone network is more reliable, and can be used during radio silence. A drawback is that it can be damaged by e.g. artillery fire, or cut by enemy infiltrators. To make life harder for repair parties, a trick is to push a pin through the cable and cut off the ends. It will break the connection, and requires a soldier to run his fingers along the entire length of the cable, trying to find the exact spot where the pin has been inserted. Still, it beats being in a frontline trench.

“Ring, ring, why don’t you give me a call?”

This photo is probably from around 1940, possibly earlier. It is hard to determine the Waffenfarbe – the corps colors – piping on the shoulderboards, but it could be signals troops yellow, judging by the brightness of the sidecap soutache (chevron). The M39 uniforms, the lack of combat suspenders, and the gloss paint on the helmets indicate that this is early in the war and that it’s during training. The Feldfernsprecher 33 field telephone was a simple phone in a brown bakelite casing, which held a handset, a generator crank, a battery, a headset, and a throat microphone, in total weighing around 2.5 kilos and carried in a leather shoulder strap when not connected. It was used for communications within a company, between companies and upwards, by artillery batteries and their forward observers, between bunkers, and many other units and situations.

In the photo, a reel of telephone wire can be seen next to the phone. The leather case next to the phone operator’s hand probably contains pliers and other tools for setting up the telephone line. Phone wire can be seen wrapped around the tree trunk. Usually, the rest of the wire was suspended from branches or secured by a single turn around a tree trunk at least three meters up.

The Swedish Army adopted a domestically-made version of the FF33, the m/37 field telephone. When I made my military service in 1986-87, I served as a corporal in the headquarters of a rifle company. We used the field telephones mainly for communication with battalion headquarters. Even now, when I’m a volunteer in a Home Guard unit, we use the m/37 as a way for guard posts to contact the company commanding officer.