Threat from above

“Luftgefährdet – Verschwinde! – Tarne u[nd] Verdunkle” A warning sign, which roughly translates as “Danger from the air. Take cover! Camoflage and black out [headlights]”. The terrain around Shchigry, a town in Kursk Oblast, Russia, is mostly flat farmland with occasional gullies cut by streams, offering little cover from enemy aircraft. Shchigry is located between the Shchigra and Lesnaya Plata Rivers, 60 kilometers northeast of Kursk. During WW2, the town was occupied by German troops from 21 November 1941 to 5 February 1943. This photo of a Pionier squad resting by the roadside, some soldiers enjoying a smoke, was taken on 31 July, 1942. While the Germans enjoyed aerial superiority most of the time, Soviet attacks were a reality. Half a year later, the Soviet airforce had wrested the control of the skies from the Germans.

You’ve been warned

“Hier beginnt der Arsch der Welt!” “Here begins the ass end of the world!” The marshes and forests by the Volkhov River, east of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and north of Novgorod, wasn’t the first choice to fight in if you asked a German soldier. The sign was one that was rather frequently photographed, but the other side of it less so. There it says: “Gehst Du von hinnen denk an Götz von Berlichingen.” “If you go further, think of Götz von Berlichingen.” This is a reference to the 16th century mercenary captain Gottfried “Götz” von Berlichingen (1480-1562), known as “Götz of the Iron Hand” due to his prostethic hand after losing his right hand and forearm in 1504. His name became famous as an euphemism for a vulgar expression Er kann mich im Arsche lecken” – “He can lick my ass”, also known as “the Swabian greeting”.

The photo is from May, 1942, when the Volkhov area saw extensive fighting as German forces cut off and obliterated Red Army units in a salient created after a Soviet offensive in January 1942. The battles were savage and the terrain didn’t help. By the end of June, the Soviet pocket was wiped out and the frontline restored.

As for Götz von Berlichingen, there’s one more point of trivia. In October 1943, 17. SS-Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier-Division “Götz von Berlichingen” was formed. It was created from scratch, with the majority of its original cadre coming from replacement units and conscripts, many of whom were Romanian Germans and French volunteers. The division’s sign was a shield with an iron hand. It was a second-rate Waffen-SS division, lacking many of the vehicles that would’ve made it a proper Panzergrenadier division, as well as short on officers and NCOs. It saw its baptism of fire in Normandy in the days following D-Day, June 1944. The climactic battle in the third episode of the TV mini-series “Band of Brothers” sees a unit from the division clashing with US paratroopers in the Battle of Bloody Gulch, south of  Carentan.

Burial detail

The aftermath of battle… A group of German soldiers is about to take care of three dead French soldiers. The place is Boulogne-sur-Mer, a day or three after the Germans captured the Channel coast port town on 25 May, 1940. French and British units defended the town against attacks by the 2. Panzer-Division. The British managed to evacuate the majority of their troops, but a rearguard was left together with the French units, the survivors going into captivity for the next five years.

The delay caused by the fighting for Boulogne was a contributing factor to the success of the evacuation at Dunkerque. The few extra days meant that the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force got away. The dead French soldiers in that street corner never knew that their deaths were part of the price for the “Miracle of Dunkirk”.

Three amigos

A trio of cheerful guys, bespectacled and with classy straight pipes. The back of the photo only says “Januar 1944”. The place is western Europe – France, Belgium or the Netherlands – and their branch of service is probably the coastal artillery, which was the responsibility of the Kriegsmarine (Navy). There are some subtle differences to their uniforms that make me think that, mostly the style of their sidecaps and an emblem on their shoulderboards (visible under magnification on the original photo). Anyway, little do they know that they’ll probably be in combat in five months. Hopefully the three friends survived the war.

“Sani!”

A group of Unteroffiziere and a Feldwebel, at least two wearing patches or armbands showing that they belong to a medical unit, are standing around in the mud, probably near an aid station. The photo is clearly taken in the later part of the war, as they all wear the new field cap, Einheitsfeldmütze M43, introduced on 11 June, 1943. Very similar caps were already worn by Gebirgsjäger and Afrika Korps troops. They were in turn inspired by caps worn by Austrian troops during WW1.

Sanitäter – Medical NCOs – could be found on company level and up, assisted by stretcher bearers, usually one medic (Sanitätsunteroffizier) and four stretcher bearers (Krankenträger) per company.  The medic was responsible for the medical treatment and organisation of the company in both garrison and in the field. He had been trained in a medical school for about six months, and had also taken special courses.

The Sanitätsunteroffizier was always wearing a red cross armband on his upper left arm and caduceus patches on both lower sleeves. The Krankenträger wore just a red cross armband. If necessary, the medical NCOs of the companies gathered and built the battalion’s Truppenverbandplatz (aid station). This might be during such an occasion that the photo was taken.

The second medic from the left is a veteran, wearing the ribbons of the Iron Cross, 2nd class, and the Eastern Front Medal (awarded to troops who survived the winter of 1941-42), and on his left breast pocket the General Assault Badge, the Wound Badge in black, and a medal I can’t identify. The third man from the right wears the caduceus patch on the uniform sleeve, while the guy on the right wears the red cross armband. He also carries a medic bag in his belt (there should be one on the other side, too).

German medics were usually armed with a pistol for self defense. Contrary to the myth, it wasn’t used to administer “mercy killings” of wounded that couldn’t be saved. US Army medics went unarmed, as the Americans interpreted the laws of war that medics were to be strictly non-combatant. When US troops captured German medics, it happened that they executed them because they thought the Germans defied the laws.

From the first day of the war, 1 September 1939, to the last nearly six years later, the cry for “Sani!” – medic – was heard countless times. The men in the photo were some of those who heeded that call.

 

“Acht-acht”, part 2

This very nice photo of an “88” is in an album I own, once put together by a member of an as of yet unidentified Luftwaffe anti-aircraft unit. The gun crew is showing their piece to a gaggle of officers and functionaries. The man on the right, wearing a swastika armband and an NSDAP badge, is probably a member of some Nazi Party organization. At first, I thought he was in the Reichsluftschutzbund (National Air Raid Protection League), but the uniform doesn’t look right for that. One of the little mysteries of the uniform-obsessed Reich

Other photos in the album show the unit advancing through the Soviet Union as part of Army Group South, possibly in the 1. Panzerarmee. A postcard shows that the unit reached Kislovodsk, deep in the Caucasus, in late 1942. I guess the anonymous Luftwaffe soldier made it out alive when the Red Army launched a counteroffensive in 1943, but his final fate remains unknown.

It’s grim up north

A squad from III. Abteilung, Armee-Nachrichten-Regiment 501 in positions in a Russian village during the winter of 1942-43. Part of the 16th Army, Army Group North, it spent most of the war on the northern part of the Eastern Front. The Soldiers are armed with an MP 38 submachinegun, an MG 34 machinegun, and Kar 98k carbines. Wearing reversible snow suits, they are better equipped for the winter than a year ago. The Germans used black and red armbands buttoned to the upper half of the sleeves for recognition purposes. The combination of colors and which sleeve they were worn on changed from day to day, just like code words, as a way of minimizing the risk of Red Army infiltrators.