Happy to be alive

Two young soldiers on their way back from the invasion of Poland. It’s 1939, the battle is over, and they are happy to be alive. Considering that about 20,000 German soldiers were killed in action or listed as missing (which usually meant that they were dead but unidentifiable or that their remains hadn’t been found) after an invasion that resulted in territorial gains greater than during WW1, it was a small price. About 1.3 % of the 1.5 million invading soldiers didn’t make it, but that was nothing compared to the total number of killed during the rest of the war. Of the soldiers old enough to participate in the invasion of Poland, about 35 % didn’t survive the war, the majority of them losing their lives on the Eastern Front. Several other of the warring nations experienced similar losses, causing a dent in the demographics just like after WW1.

Those of us born after the war – in my case in 1965 – were afraid that there would be a third world war, where the losses might be even greater. The Cold War ended, though, and we drew a breath of relief. Never think that peace is a natural state. Even now, there are forces about that could lead to war. The thing with wars are that it is usually easy to see what went wrong in retrospect, but that it’s really hard to predict the future.


Short back and sides, please

This photo, at a guess from 1940 or 1941, shows six German soldiers with different hair styles. Four of them have the common haircut with the hair trimmed really short on the back and sides, and the top short to longish. The second guy on the left appears to have a more uniform length of his hair, while the soldier in the window is bald or with his noggin shaved. Hair oil or pomade was used to keep it in place, something the man on the left has failed to do…

Contrary to the image conveyed by, for example, Saving Private Ryan, German soldiers were rarely (if ever) wearing their hair cut to a uniform 3 mm stubble. In that movie, the German soldiers all looked like skinhead thugs, which even caused some confusion when viewers mistook “Steamboat Willie” for the SS soldier knifing Mellish. Don Burgett, a US paratrooper who landed in Normandy on D-Day, wrote in his memoir “Currahee!” that he thought the German soldiers he saw in Normandy wore their hair longer than US soldiers, which strengthens the point that the haircuts in Saving Private Ryan were wrong. Some re-enactors who were hired as extras for the movie showed up at the set with authentic haircuts, only to have their hair shorn short with a trimmer…

Anyway, for those interested in the accurate portrayal of the appearance of German soldiers in art, on stage, in movies or as re-enactors should study the hair styles used in period. Proper hair will make one a cut above the rest!

Red Cross, Black Swastika

A busy winter scene at a railway station somewhere in the sprawling Third Reich. Troops from a cavalry unit stand around while women from the Deutches Rotes Kreuz (DRK; German Red Cross) are preparing to serve something hot, perhaps coffee or soup. In the background, railway employees walk with snow shovels over their shoulders. The soldiers are probably on their way to the Eastern Front, a journey that usually took several days, sometimes waiting on railway sidings for other trains to pass, and then the dangerous travel through partisan-infested areas. The DRK, as one of the auxiliary organizations helping the Wehrmacht, was there to offer relief.

Instituted in 1864 , the DRK was a voluntary civil assistance organization that was officially acknowledged by the Geneva Convention in 1929. One of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles prevented the DRK from having any involvement in military matters, but with the Nazi rise to power in 1933, the DRK, like most other organizations in the Third Reich, was nazified (those that weren’t were prohibited). Leftist and Jewish members and staff were kicked out, and those who remained were expected to conform to Nazi ideology. After the defeat of Germany, the DRK was outlawed like all other Nazi organizations, and had to start afresh. The German Red Cross of today has nothing to do with the doings of the DRK of 1933-45.

Last Train to Transsiberia

(Now there’s an obscure reference which will make one or two of my friends happy.) A Soviet VS-60 armored train stands wrecked and abandoned on a railway track, most likely knocked out by German forces during the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa. The VS-60 trains were among the lightest of the different types fielded by the Red Army. The car behind the locomotive was armed with two turrets with a 76,2 mm 1902 gun and a Maxim machinegun in each, and four more Maxim MGs. The type was introduced in 1931, and could also have a car with heavier armament.

The use of armored trains began in the later half of the 19th century, and was used by several major armies during WW1. Following the Russian Revolution, the Civil War saw extensive use of armored trains, which were an effective way of projecting firepower in a country with a poor road net. When WW2 rolled around, both Soviets and Germans used armored trains armed with machineguns, antiaircraft guns, cannons and howitzers, but the Soviets lost many of their trains in 1941.

There have been some armored trains in use in recent years, but those have tended to be local modifications in equally local conflicts.

On a rail

Somewhere on the Eastern Front, perhaps near Smolensk, September 1941. A flatbed railway car announces that it’s only 300 kilometers left to Moscow. The German army has covered two thirds of the distance between the 22 June front line and Moscow in less than 2½ months. The remaining distance would take four months against mud, snow, Arctic cold and stiffening Soviet resistance. The supply lines got increasingly longer, vehicles suffered mechanical breakdowns, the frontline units had lost soldiers, NCOs and officers. While the German divisions got increasingly weaker, the Red Army could replace the terrible losses suffered with a seemingly unending supply of fresh divisions. The Germans called it Totsiegen – to win the battles but dying while doing so, or a form of Pyrrhic victories. On 2 December a reconnaissance battalion reached the town of Khimki, some 18 km away from the Kremlin in central Moscow. This marked the farthest advance of German forces on Moscow. That railway car was off by only 6 %, but in military campaigns there’s no second prize…

Disaster has struck

Two train sets have smashed into each other, causing a massive derailment and an unknown number of deaths. On the ground close to the camera lie the bodies of killed soldiers, covered by Zeltbähne. Just to the left of the center of the photo is a dead mule or horse. The locomotives are still on the track, but the cab of left one is smashed by the tender. Railway cars have piled up and are torn asunder, spilling men, animals and matériel over the ground. Soldiers and railway personnel survey the devastation, which will take days to clear away. Telegrams will be sent to the families of those killed, while the people who escaped with injuries will spend the next weeks in hospitals.

There is no information when or where this accident occurred, or what caused it. Was it just an accident, human error like a mistake at a switch or a missed signal, setting the trains on a collision course, or was it sabotage while crossing occupied territory? As trains were the major means of transport, they were the targets of sabotage, partisan attacks, and airstrikes. Military trains had flatbed cars with antiaircraft guns, like the Flakvierling, and it wasn’t uncommon to have an empty goods or flatbed car in front of the locomotive, which would take the first hit if the rails were mined, saving the locomotive from the worst of the blast.

This photo is probably one of the few mementos of that railway disaster, apart for some yellowing clippings in some newspaper archive, a forgotten official report, and a few  letters stashed away with other memories of something that happened about 75 years ago. A tragedy lost in the greater tragedy that was the Second World War.

Going where?

Sometime later in the war (1943 or later), an NCO looks out a train window. Is he going to or from the front? Is he on a two-week leave? There’s no way to tell.

Train travel was the most common mode of long-distance transport. Troops, supplies and materiel went thousands of kilometers all over Europe, and that made trains, bridges, railway hubs and marshalling yards prime targets for Allied bombers and fighter-bombers. Strafing attacks of trains destroyed many thousands of passenger and freight cars, as well as locomotives. The Allied pilots seldom had the opportunity to tell whether a train was transporting troops or civilians; if it didn’t display red cross markings, it was fair game. The attacks severely disrupted German troop movements and supply trains.

When I was a teenager, I worked together with a German, Günther, who was 15 years old when the war ended. He lived in the countryside north of Berlin, and one spring day in 1945, he was biking alongside a railway track some distance away. A train with freight cars with barbed wire across the small windows high up on the sides was chugging along, when a couple of Allied figther-bombers appeared. They began to shoot up the train. Günther threw himself in a ditch for cover, and saw hands stretched out of the openings, waving anything white. It seems like the train was carrying concentration camp prisoners. He didn’t stay around to check, and left as soon as the airplanes had run out of ammunition.