“Spätlese” – a German term for wine made from ripe grapes – could also be applied to this quartet of mature gentlemen. The photo is from 1943 or later, as evident from the “M42” uniforms worn the first three soldiers (the Germans themselves didn’t use any model years for the uniforms; that’s a post-war distinction to differentiate between the variants of the same field uniform). The boots and gaiters also indicate a date of 1941 or later, and finally the caps are of the new 1943 pattern. The guy on the right wears an “M36” uniform, distinguished by the dark collar and pleats on the pockets, and still issued late in the war. Perhaps his girth made the depot issue a uniform that was still in storage, the smaller sizes already taken.
They are all in their 40’s, and most likely belonging to a second line or rear area unit. Of the year classes born around 1900, 4-9 % of the men died during the war, which was far better than those a generation younger, of which more than a third were killed. They were probably taken prisoner by the end of the war – by the Western Allies, if they were lucky. If so, they were probably held in a PoW camp for short while before sent home. If, on the other hand, they ended up in Soviet captivity, they weren’t released until 1953, if they had survived for that long. Small wonder German troops tried to surrender to the Western Allies as the Third Reich collapsed.
“Wir fliegen gegen Engelland mit einem abgeschossenen Franzose.” “We fly to England with a downed Frenchie.” German soldiers have fun with a grounded Bloch MB.210 bomber, summer of 1940. The prototype of the boxy and unappealing MB.210 first flew in 1934, and the first production aircraft in 1936. It was underpowered, the engines prone to overheating, and had to have the engines exchanged. Less than 300 were built, ten of them sold to Romania. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, the twelve bomber squadrons equipped with the MB.210 were in the middle of reorganization, where outdated aircraft were to be retired. The slow aircraft saw some action, primarily as a night bomber, but by the armistice there were only 119 flyable aircraft left. The Romanian air force used it on the Eastern Front, but appears to have retired the surviving aircraft in 1942. The Bloch MB.210 is a testament to the rapid development of aircraft in the 1930s. Planes that were state of the art in the beginning of the decade were obsolete by the end of it, and when the war broke out, the development was sped up even more. World War 2 was a period of rapid technological advances.
Time to celebrate! This post marks the start of the second year of this blog. In the past year, I’ve made 341 posts, all featuring original photos and documents from my collection. For those of you who are new to my blog, the purpose of it to tell the history of World War 2 from the perspective of photos taken by German soldiers. The intent is to take a look at different aspects of the German war effort and the years preceding the war. It shouldn’t in no way be taken as apologetics for the criminal and cruel war, the Wehrmacht, or for the Nazi regime. On the other hand, I want to present a more personal side of the war, giving the often anonymous soldiers a name (if possible) and a context. Sometimes I give their opponents a face, too, honoring the memory of the untold millions who suffered and died. Some photos have presented mysteries that I’ve been able to solve, many times with the help of fellow amateur historians. Thus the photos form pieces in the immense jigsaw puzzle that is World War 2, hopefully making it a fraction more understandable.
Please join me for the second year of the journey. I will present more photos and the histories behind them, hopefully adding to both my and your knowledge of that time over 70 years ago.
Men and vehicles of the 35. Infanterie-Division advance eastwards on 24 June 1941, on the third day of the invasion of the Soviet Union. They move through the part of Poland that was occupied by the USSR in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin divided the country between them. The Division is heading towards Bialystok, where it will take part in the capture of the city three days later.
The 35. Infanterie-Division was raised in Karlsruhe on 1 October 1936, as part of the remilitarization of Germany. It was kept on the western border during the first months of the war, and got its baptism of fire in May 1940, when it broke through the fortifications in the Dutch-Belgian border area. It was kept in reserve for the second part of the campaign, and was later stationed on the Belgian coast, slated for participation in an eventual invasion of Britain. In April 1941, it was moved to the German-Soviet border in preparation for operation Barbarossa.
After the capture of Bialystok, it advanced with the rest of the 9th Army towards Smolensk, where it suffered heavy losses in a Soviet counterattack near the small town Dukhovshchina (northeast of Smolensk). The Division was part of Operation Typhoon, the advance on Moscow, but worsening weather and the Red Army counteroffensive saw it retreat to the area of Gzhatsk (renamed in 1968 as Gagarin), where it remained for all of 1942. 1943 and 1944 were spent in defensive battles, and when the Soviet offensive on the second anniversary of Operation Barbarossa hit the German frontlines, the 35. Infanterie-Division had to be pulled back for rest and refit after having had to break out of the Bobruisk encirclement.
More defensive battles ensued, and from mid-January 1945, the Division defended German soil in West Prussia. Part of the Division was evacuated west to Schleswig-Holstein, while the rest went into Soviet captivity.
“Tag vor Einmarsch Russland” is written on the back of this photo. “The day before the invasion of Russia.” It’s somewhere in eastern Poland, and the date is 21 June 1941. After months of troop transports to the German-Soviet border, some units hidden, other conducting “field manoeuvres”, 3.8 million Axis soldiers stand poised for the invasion. This might be the last meal the men in the photo had before crossing the border at 3:15 AM next day.
The initial assault was a knock-out blow to the Red Army, and German infantry troops could advance up to 40-50 km in one day. We know how it ended, but in those summer months of 1941, the Wehrmacht seemed unstoppable. Four years later, perhaps two or three of the men in the photo were still alive.
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.
A military band marches down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. It’s early November 1940, and the Germans have occupied Paris for almost five months. Having a band playing marches in the heart of an occupied capital is a way of asserting dominance. One march which was played during the victory parade in June was the Pariser Einzugsmarsch, the Paris Entry March, a piece hailing back to around 1800 and the Napoleonic wars. It was played there in 1814, and perhaps again in 1871.
Interestingly, tens of thousands of French volunteers served in the Wehrmacht, and another 20,000 served in the Waffen-SS and associated units. French SS volunteers were among the last defenders of Berlin. After the war, many of those who survived were sentenced to prison terms, and in cases of especially serious collaboration (for example leading to the death of French nationals) capital punishment.
Today, people like to think of the occupation years as a fight between valiant French patriots and evil German occupiers, but the situation was far more complicated and messy. For the Parisians, their least problem was a military band blaring away.