Twin-turreted tank trophy

The Soviet Union had several rather odd tanks at the beginning of the war, like the five-turreted T-35. The T-26 in the photo is the 1933 version, and sported two turrets armed with a DT 7.62 mm machine gun each. Their fighting value was dubious by the time of WW2, and the twin-turreted T-26s were replaced by single-turreted versions armed with a 45 mm gun. Despite being rather crap, they were still used by the end of the war on secondary fronts like Manchuria.

The clip below is from the excellent Finnish war movie “Talvisota” (“The Winter War”, 1989), where T-26 tanks attack Finnish positions. The flamethrower tank is an OT-26, a special version of the T-26. As you can see, determined fighters could knock out those with simple means.




With the defeat in World War 1, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up, and Austrian politics entered a period of turbulence. Trying to keep Austria independent from Germany while having its own version of Fascism ultimately failed, when on the morning of 12 March 1938, the 8th Army of the German Wehrmacht crossed the border into Austria, effecting the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Greater Germany. The troops were greeted by cheering Austrians with Nazi salutes, Nazi flags, and flowers. That afternoon, the Austrian-born Führer Adolf Hitler, crossed the border at his birthplace, Braunau am Inn. The enthusiasm displayed toward Hitler and the German troops surprised both Nazis and non-Nazis, as most people had believed that a majority of Austrians opposed the Anschluss. The Austrian army with its eight infantry divisions and other units were absorbed into the Wehrmacht, and Austrian units would play an important role in the coming war.

When I first looked at the photo above, I thought it showed Germans and Hungarians, as Hungary was an ally of Germany. I learned soon that the three men in the front row with the ammo pouches were Austrians, and that both Austria and Hungary had kept much of the uniform style from the time of the empire. So what we see are new brothers-in-arms, the Austrians soon to be in German uniform, their fate tied to that of Germany and the leader who was born in their country. Some of the leading Nazis were Austrians, including several concentration camp commanders and staff, but somehow Austria managed to distance itself from Hitler’s Reich after the war, and paint the country as a victim, and the denazification process that took place in post-war Germany wasn’t implemented as strongly in Austria.

Bread and circuses

Part of living in a militarized state is the martial pageantry, and Nazi Germany excelled at that. Parades served several purposes: they showed off the might of the military forces, they established the power of the state, and they served as a focus for displays of patriotism. By the heavy use of the swastika, which was a party symbol turned into a national emblem, the NSDAP was effectively telling the people that – to paraphrase Louis XIV – “the state is us”.

The photo above shows a parade in some major German city. I haven’t been able to identify the building, but none of my Berlin maps and guidebooks from 1923 – 1936 show a stately building like the one in the picture. A company of sailors march past the tribune, which is full of military top brass and Party functionaries. Men in Sturmabteilung uniforms salute the troops, as do the civilians out in the streets to gawk at the display.

The initial victories were celebrated with parades through Berlin, but as the war progressed and the victories dried up, the parades were more Party business than military. The enthusiasm shown in the newsreels shouldn’t be interpreted as the Germans were 100 % Nazi, but that many years of hardship and humiliation were exchanged for successes that promised a brighter future.

Carefully orchestrated propaganda reinforced national pride, and laid the credit for the victories at the feet of the Führer. As in all 20th century dictatorships, the image of the strong leader was a priority. The fact that the “true believers” were convinced that miracle weapons and the genius of Hitler would turn the fortunes of war even as the Allies crossed the German borders in 1945, just goes on to show how effective the propaganda was.

Target for today

Luftwaffe aircrew attend a briefing or a post-mission debriefing, going over points on a large map. The photo might have been taken in 1940 or ’41 in France. They are probably members of medium bomber crews, flying Junkers Ju 88s, Dornier Do 17s, or Heinkel He 111s, all of which were used for tactical bombing. The greatest failing of the Luftwaffe was the lack of a strategic bomber like the B-17 or Lancaster. The use of medium bombers coupled with the limited range of the fighter escorts were two of the reasons why Germany failed to win the Battle of Britain.

Still, the Germans managed to produce some of the most elite bomber crews of all time. While the USAAF retired their bomber crews after 25 missions (later upped to 30 and then to 35 in 1944) missions, and the RAF rotated out their crews after 30 missions for six months of other assignments before a second tour of 25 missions, the Luftwaffe had the crews serving until lost or permanently disabled. Adolf Galland, fighter ace and legendary commander of the Luftwaffe fighter arm, once said: “Our pilots and crews fought until they died.” For those who didn’t die, the steady fighting resulted in impressive mission counts, with scores of Luftwaffe pilots racking up 300+ combat missions. Foremost of those was Oberstleutnant Hansgeorg Bätcher, who flew 658 combat missions. He was 31 years old by the end of the war, and in those years he had advanced from flying gliders as a 17 years old to flying the world’s first jet bomber, the Arado Ar 234, in 1945.

The addition of heavier bombers, like the problematic Heinkel He 177, came too late, as the Luftwaffe bomber arm was largely irrelevant by 1943. The blame is to be laid at the feet of Göring and Hitler, who by their decisions made sure that no matter how skilled and brave the individual pilots were, they had no chance of winning the war. In retrospect, it was for the better, as it made the Allied victory easier.

Stolz des Herrenvolks?

The image of the German soldier as some sort of superhuman has been perpetuated through war movies, photos in books and articles (often featuring pics taken by Wehrmacht propaganda units), as the tough opposition in computer games, and – I think – a need to paint the enemy larger than life in order to make the victory over him so much more impressive.

Here we have a study in contrasts. To the left, a blond Germanic warrior, the typical  jack-booted soldier, probably on occupation duty somewhere in France in 1940-41. Just add the iconic helmet, and you would have a nice propaganda picture. I’m pretty sure he was popular with the girls, too. Then we have the rather lumpy-looking Unteroffizier August of the Luftwaffe in Greece, 29 October, 1943… The guy looks like a regular human being (with big feet, though), and if he was ever to star in a movie or TV show, it would be as the bumbling sergeant in some POW camp comedy.

We know absolutely nothing about who August was as a person. A dyed-in-the-wool Nazi or someone who just did what he was told, and happy to be in a relatively safe and cushy location? One thing is for sure, though: he isn’t the image of the bad “Nazi” soldier favored in movies and games. Perhaps he would be like Gert Fröbe’s rotund sergeant in “The Longest Day”, but mostly for comic relief. Like millions of his countrymen, he served an evil cause, but rarely because of a need to be a bad person or to live out some power trip.

That’s the problem with humans – under certain circumstances, good people can be made to do (or at least actively or passively support) bad things. Before we pass judgment on them, we should ask ourselves: “What would I do in the same situation?”. In most totalitarian systems, the rebels and resistance fighters have formed a small minority. Most people just want to manage their own lives, keeping their heads down as to not attract unwanted attention, and perhaps secretly long for a change, only not with them in the first rank.

Reading Sebastian Haffner’s “Defying Hitler” gives an interesting look into life as a young man in the tumultuous times of 1920’s and 30’s Germany, and that the descent into a totalitarian state was gradual. Few people could foresee what was coming, just as we have been surprised by changes in our own time. It is said that history repeats itself, but it is more like that we who know something about history see leaders who haven’t learned anything from history repeating the mistakes of previous generations. All we can strive for is to make the right decisions. What those are? We’ll know with hindsight…

The last straw

Weary German soldiers take a rest, perhaps during the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. They have crashed on the ground, not bothering to remove their equipment. Some appear to be napping. One would think that none would be up to a prank, but the Unteroffizier in the middle of the photo has another idea. Reaching across der Spieß – the company sergeant – he is about to tickle his colleague in the ear with a straw. There’s always a guy like that: the joker in the platoon.

Kurtz und Lang

I have a few photos in my collection which have the same theme: the tallest and the shortest guys in the company standing next to each other. This photo show two buddies, probably around 1939, posing for comedic effect.

To calculate their height, I measured the ammunition pouches. In real life, they are 10 centimeters high, which gave me something to base my calculations on. Give or take a couple centimeters, “Kurtz” is 160 cm’s (5′ 3″), while his buddy “Lang” is 197 cm’s (6′ 6″). It does the German uniform supply system credit that they were both able to get uniforms that fitted, even if “Lang” wears the older three-buckle laced boots, presumably because his size was hard to find.

Short soldiers were ideal as tank crews because of the cramped confines of the vehicles; the third highest-scoring tank ace of all time, Otto Carius, was about 160 cm’s tall. Another Otto was Otto Skorzeny, who at 192 cm’s towered over even other members of the Waffen-SS, in which he was an officer and known as a fearless commando.

The average male was shorter in the 1940’s, in some cases a result of malnutrition after WW1 and during the financial crisis in the 1920’s. On the other hand, people were more slim due to exercise and healthier diets.