“Now, where are we?”

A common misconception is that German officers were heel-clicking automatons shouting “Jawohl, Herr General!” and sending the soldiers into enemy gunfire. In countless movies, the officers and soldiers appear unimaginative and acting out orders to the letter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The German Army used (and still use) a doctrine called “Auftragstaktik” – mission-type tactics. It wasn’t something new; the concept had been around since the Napoleonic Wars, but the Germans took it to heart. Instead of having superior officers giving specific orders on how to execute a mission, the German commanders gave their subordinates a specific goal, the resources to achieve it with, and a time frame. “Captain, you are to take the three bunkers on Hill 213. You have a rifle company, a platoon of combat engineers, and support from the regimental mortars at your disposal. This mission is to be finished no later than 1400 hours. Questions?”

With the commanding officer planning and executing the mission, a greater degree of flexibility was achieved. If some unforeseen event occurred, the officer didn’t have to check back for updated orders, losing momentum in the process. He could modify his plan on the spot, living up to the German military proverb that “it’s better to do something, than to wait”, meaning that even if an immediate decision could turn out to be less than optimal in retrospect, it was better to act than to wait for orders and miss an opportunity. By acting on opportunities, the mission could turn into a greater success than originally planned. The US and British armies had a much more top-down chain of command, which made officers at lower levels less flexible. Coupled with the German ability to form Kampfgruppen, ad hoc combat commands made up from available troops, this made for an opponent that proved to be tougher than the Allies expected.

So, instead of having “Prussian” officers rigidly following orders, the Germans influenced post-war officer training in other armies. Mission-type tactics are pretty much the norm today, more than two centuries after the concept began to take root.


The third wheel

The speed of Blitzkrieg warfare required that motorcycle units had to be able to change wheels while moving.

Naah. The riders of that BMW R75 sidecar combination show off a trick that appears to have been rather popular, as I’ve seen a couple other photos featuring the same stunt. Motorcycles were used for reconnaissance and communications (dispatch riders), but there were also motorcycle battalions, a more modern form of cavalry. They were introduced as a cheap way to mechanize units when the Army expanded rapidly in the years before the outbreak of the war. The sidecar could have an MG 34 machine gun as armament. Motorcycle battalions were fast but lightly armed, and part of the Panzer divisions. From 1942, the MC battalions were equipped with armored vehicles instead. About 17,000 BMW R75 motorcycles were built before the war ended. It was rugged and popular, and copied by both Americans and Soviets.

Pocket artillery

Half a squad training, taking cover behind a slight rise. Judging by their Mauser rifles, the photo is from before 1940, as from 1939 onwards the rifles had sight hoods. Their shoulder boards are turned, a common way to keep unit affiliation secret, as the regimental number was embroidered on the obverse. The numbers were done away with later for operational secrecy. One could think that the guy with the pistol might be an officer, but it’s far more likely that he’s the squad’s machine gunner, as the gunner was the only one equipped with a pistol in addition to the primary weapon.

The pistol is the legendary Pistole 08, more commonly known as the Luger. It was designed 120 years ago in 1898, and has gone on to become one of the most iconic firearms of all time. Sleek and nicely balanced, the toggle mechanism gives it a distinctive look. It was adopted by several armies, and saw combat use from around 1900. It was widely used by the German Imperial Army in WW1. While the Walther P38 was far more common during WW2 due to ease of production and lower cost, the Luger remained a prized souvenir for Allied trophy hunters. The gun is still produced today in small numbers for collectors and shooting enthusiasts.

On course

Checking hits in a silhouette figure at the shooting range, a Leutnant rates the marksmanship of an NCO taking the Offizieranwärter-Lehrgang (OAL, officer candidate course). The photo is probably from 1943 or 1944, at the training grounds by the quaint northern German town Celle. The men in the photo might belong to Infanterie-Regiment 17, part of the 31. Infanterie-Division, which was destroyed on the Eastern Front in June 1944, the survivors used as a cadre for the rebuilt division (renamed 31. Grenadier-Division, and later in 1944 31. Volks-Grenadier-Division).

To become an officer during the war, the candidate (preferably already an NCO) was to be unmarried (except for professional NCOs), not older than 25 years (those older entered a somewhat different track for promotion to officer), and with proven racial purity. No higher education necessary.

An officer candidate got some training at his front unit before being sent to the OAL. There, he received 4-6 months of weapons training at the replacement formation of the regiment. Then followed 3-4 months of officers’ school, and if he passed the exam, the candidate was promoted to Fahnenjunker-Feldwebel (ensign). He then served in his frontline unit for 15 months before his promotion to officer (usually Leutnant – second lieutenant). In total, it could take a couple of years to become an officer.

The loss of officers in the first years of the war depleted the traditional pool of officers, who were usually from the nobility and upper classes. Gottlob Bidermann, a soldier who rose through the ranks, wrote in his memoir “In Deadly Combat” that there was some deep-seated resentment at how the Wehrmacht accepted non-gentry officers into its ranks. Officers from the working classes were sometimes given the derogatory name of VOMAG (Volksoffizier mit Arbeiter Gesicht, “Peoples’ officer with the face of a laborer”). The Army couldn’t afford to be snobbish or choosy, though, and promoted anyone who proved his mettle.


At first I thought this photo was an aerial photo, but I soon realized that it was wargame terrain for the training of officers. It shows a small airfield, biplanes (Heinkel He 51?) hidden away under trees. Wargaming has been around since the 1800’s, invented by German officers as a means of training officers. Tactical problems are presented to the officers, who control one side each, and under the leadership of an umpire they are to try to win the fight. The umpire might throw in unexpected events as a way of making the officers adapt to changed circumstances. The German General Staff also played through scenarios on a strategic level, testing their war plans and trying to foresee complications and how to deal with them. Today, wargaming is a hobby and still used as a way of training officers in the art of war.

Strike from behind

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.

Target acquisition

Two second lieutenants practicing with a Maschinengewehr 34 light machine gun, the two junior officers having the dubious pleasure of lying down in the snow. The weapon isn’t loaded yet; the loader rests his arms on two ammo drum carriers, each holding a pair of drums with a 75-round belt each. The drums were used while assaulting, whereas an ammo can with 250 belted rounds was used for more sustained fire. The loader holds a pair of Zeiss 6×30 binoculars for observation of the target.

The development of the MG 34 began in 1930, as there was a need for a machine gun that was lighter than e.g. the MG 08/15. While named “MG 34”, the weapon wasn’t adopted by the Wehrmacht until January 1939. It was a multi-purpose MG, which could be used with the integral bipod in the light mode, or with a sturdy tripod in the heavy mode. There was also a tripod for anti-aircraft use, and it was the standard machine gun for the majority of the armored vehicles

The MG 34 weighed 12.1 kg with its bipod, with a fire rate of 900 rounds per minute, using the standard 7.92 x 57 mm rifle round. The practical rate of fire was 300-400 rounds per minute, as the barrel would get too hot otherwise. The barrel could be changed in seconds, though. The effective range of the weapon was 2,000 m, but in theory it could be used for indirect fire at up to 3,500 meters. Germany entered the war in 1939 with 84,078 MG 34, and it remained the principal MG until 1943.

The problem with the MG 34 was that it was too well made. In the harsh winters on the Eastern Front, the finely machined parts were susceptible to jamming if the temperature got too low. Dirt and mud were other causes of jamming. The production of the weapon used a lot of raw materials (49 kg), and it took 150 hours to make. The Army saw the need for an MG that was cheaper and easier to produce (using stamped metal parts), and with tolerances that allowed for greater reliability in battlefield conditions. The answer was the iconic MG 42, which used 27.5 kilos of raw materials and took 75 hours to produce. This increased the output from 3,000 MGs per month in the fall of 1941 to 24,000 MGs in early 1944.

The MG 42 is still used in many armies of the world, only marginally updated, while the MG 34 is found in museums. Well, perhaps not just museums… Next time you watch a Star Wars movie, you can see that the DLT-19 heavy blaster rifles used by the Imperial stormtroopers are modified MG 34s.