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.

Hermann Göring’s Workout Book

An NCO puts four Luftwaffe soldiers (one is obscured by him) through some physical training. The second guy from the right, a Gefreiter, holds an MP 40 submachine gun, the rest Kar 98k rifles. The photo appears to have been taken in the Netherlands in 1940, but with no note on the back or any real telltale signs, it’s impossible to really know. Still, it’s a fun photo.


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.

You’re in the army now

Columns of conscripts lug their suitcases as they are about to enter military life. Soon they’ll wear the same field-grey uniforms, learning to march and shoot. After Germany re-introduced conscription in 1935 in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, a total of about 18.2 million men served in the Wehrmacht until the defeat in 1945. The Wehrmacht suffered about 10 million casualties during WW2, a combination of about 2 million killed in action, 3 million missing in action (most likely dead), and 5 million wounded in action. As WW2 intensified, Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe personnel were increasingly transferred to the Army, and “voluntary” enlistments in the SS were stepped up as well. Following the defeat in Battle of Stalingrad in early 1943, fitness standards for Wehrmacht recruits were drastically lowered, with the regime going so far as to create “special diet” battalions for men with severe stomach ailments. Rear-echelon personnel were sent to front-line duty wherever possible, especially during the last two years of the war.

With the introduction of military conscription in 1935, the 1914 class of 21 year olds were called up. Each conscripted annual intake (in peacetime) could be expected to bring in around 300,000 men, reduced to 250,000 for the 1916-18 classes due to the lower birth rate during WW1. Those who had experienced no military training (the so called ‘white years’ classes of 1901 to 1913, due to the reduction of the Army after WW1) were available as a untrained reserve, listed as Class 2 reservists. General Fretter-Pico complained in 1944 that after the Waffen-SS, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Heer technical services had combed through and picked out the best of recruits, the poor bloody infantry was left with whatever recruits there was. The same complaint could be heard in the US Army, though.

By May 1940 the call-up classes for 1919 and 1920 (that is to say those 21 and 20) were entering the Ersatzheer to begin training, while the earlier classes of 1915-18 were already in the Field Army. Generally someone born in 1919 or 1920 wouldn’t have participated in the French campaign of 1940, but would’ve been readily trained and deployed for Operation Barbarossa in 1941. By early June 1941, after only 3 months of training, 80,000 men of the 1921 Class were formed into reinforcement Marschbataillone for the upcoming campaign in USSR.

The conscription age was lowered as the war progressed, and the losses had to be replaced. Before the outbreak of the war, it was 21, but was lowered to 20 in the later part of 1939. It was lowered yet again after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, calling up 19-years olds. In late 1942, it was the 18-years olds turn, and a year later the 17-years olds. By the end of 1944, the conscription age was lowered a final time, calling up the 16-years olds of the 1928 and 1929 classes. Of those, about 12,000 were killed in action. It isn’t just a cliché in movies and books when combat veterans comment that new reinforcements are just kids – “milk-beards”.

Of the men born in 1914-1924 and called up for service, about 35 % (on average) of each year class didn’t survive the war. Worst hit was the class of 1921, of which 38.95 % died (286,380 out of 735,206 men born that year). Most of them had been called up in 1941, and I guess the majority of them went to the meat grinder on the Eastern Front.