A good start to a good day

The men of what appears to be a mobile field workshop having breakfast. A big pot of ersatz coffee, sandwiches with spreads like jam, liver paste or canned cheese make for a good start of a hopefully productive day. A hammer rests on an anvil. The car is probably a 1939 Horch 830 BL Pullman saloon, a little worse for wear since it joined the Army. The photo is stamped 7 April 1943 on the back, but I suspect it was taken the year before. The chevron painted on the door might be a unit marking, but I haven’t found out which one.

The men sport haircuts typical of the German Army at the time. The skinhead look of the German soldiers in Saving Private Ryan was rather ahistorical. Some soldiers even wore their hair longer than American GIs, something that surprised the Yanks.

The second guy from the left is sitting on a 20 liter gas can. It’s made from stamped sheet steel, and the design has been essentially unchanged to this day. The Allies copied the design, calling it “Jerry can” as in “Jerries” = Germans. The British in particular picked up any they could lay their hands on, as their equivalents were known as “flimsies”, the name indicating their sturdiness (or rather lack thereof). If the cans had a white cross painted on them, they held water instead. Otherwise the morning coffee might be a bit stronger than intended by accident…

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One of millions

German soldiers are sight-seeing in Paris in the summer of 1940 after the victory over France. They have gathered around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is situated beneath the Arc de Triomphe. The remains of an unknown French soldier, chosen from eight “candidates”, was moved to the Arc on Armistice Day 1920, and interred in its final resting place on 28 January 1921. It has the first eternal flame lit in Europe since the fourth century. It burns in memory of the war dead who were never identified.

A ceremony is held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every 11 November on the anniversary of the armistice signed by the Entente Powers and Germany in 1918. The slab on top bears the inscription ICI REPOSE UN SOLDAT FRANÇAIS MORT POUR LA PATRIE 1914–1918 (“Here lies a French soldier who died for the fatherland 1914–1918”). After the interment of the Unknown Soldier, all military parades have avoided marching through the actual arch. The route taken is up to the arch and then around its side, out of respect for the tomb. Both Hitler in 1940 and de Gaulle in 1944 observed this custom.

Did they think of fathers and older brothers, who had fought the unknown French soldier? Did they reflect over their own mortality? Did any of the soldiers in the photo end up in war graves, or go missing in combat? The dead aren’t bothered by such thoughts; it’s the living who are worried about dying without fulfilling their lives.

B(r)oomsticks

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.

Reach for the sky, end up in the woods

A machinegun team somewhere on the Eastern Front, their MG34 ready to fire. At first glance, they can be mistaken for Heer (Army) soldiers, but had this photo been in color, it would be apparent that they aren’t. Instead of the regular Army feldgrau (field grey) uniforms, their uniforms are blue-grey, and in place of the Army Litzen collar patches, there are green Luftwaffe-style patches with rank gulls. They serve in a Luftwaffen-Feld-Division (LwFD).

So why would an airforce get itself what in the end became 22 infantry divisions? The divisions were originally authorized in October 1942, following suggestions that the Heer could be bolstered by transferring personnel from other services. The head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, formulated an alternative plan to raise his own infantry formations under the command of Luftwaffe officers; this was at least partly due to political differences with the Heer, which Göring considered too “conservative”. In the jockeying for power in the Nazi state, Göring probably saw an advantage in having an army of his own, considering that Heinrich Himmler had his Waffen-SS. It was typical of the fragmentization in the supposedly totalitarian Nazi state.

The plan was approved, and the divisions were raised from 200,000–250,000 Luftwaffe ground, support and other excess personnel. So, instead of transferring Luftwaffe personnel to the Heer, rebuilding existing units that already had a cadre of experienced officers, NCOs and soldiers, the LwFD were built from scratch, and became smaller copies of the equivalent Heer divisions. By Göring’s personal order, the LwFD were to be deployed for defensive duties in quieter sectors. Most of  the units spent much of their existence on the Eastern Front, which was hardly quiet.

The Luftwaffe Field Divisions initially remained under Luftwaffe command, but late in 1943 those that had not already been disbanded were transferred to the Heer and were reorganized as standard infantry divisions (retaining their numbering, but with Luftwaffe attached to distinguish them from similarly numbered Heer divisions) and any Luftwaffe officers replaced with Army officers. In post-war literature, they are referred to as, for example, “16. Feld-Division (L)”.

Until taken over by the Heer, these units were issued with standard Luftwaffe feldblau uniforms (and even some time after), and being so easily identifiable were said to often be singled out by the enemy. They had a poor reputation as combat troops (despite the high standard of Luftwaffe recruits), at least in part from being required to perform roles (ground warfare) for which they as airmen had little training. They were frequently used for rear echelon duties to free up front line troops

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein blamed the decline of the Wehrmacht in 1943 to the creation of these divisions. Von Manstein argued that they recruited some of the most able young men into these divisions, when they would’ve made adequate NCOs and replacements to the decimated Army divisions. In his memoirs he later blamed their poor training and coordination as the cause for several notable defeats.

In the end, the creation of the Luftwaffen-Feld-Divisione had a negative impact on Germany’s ability to wage war. Not that it mattered much in the end, but hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers might have survived the war if they had been in stronger and better led units.

“Gott mit uns”

A field service, the Kriegspfarrer (military chaplain) holding a sermon while the pulpit is wrapped in the Nazi war flag. The attending soldiers all wear belts with the motto “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”) embossed on the buckles. The motto had been a rallying cry from the Medieval crusades, through the Thirty Years War, to the Prussian kingdom of the 18th Century. It had been on the belt buckles worn by those soldiers’ fathers in World War One, and now they wore it while expanding the Lebensraum.

Military chaplains in German armies wasn’t something new; they had been around since the 18th century, and during WW1, the German Imperial Army fielded both Lutheran and Catholic priests, as well as 30 rabbis. The practice of having military chaplains was continued by the Wehrmacht, as 95 % of all Germans belonged to some Christian denomination, mainly evangelical Lutheran or Catholic. While there were clergymen opposed to Hitler and the Nazis, enough priests were willing to serve as military chaplains. Hitler, himself a believer in a Creator and who was never excommunicated by the Catholic church, wanted the church(es) tamed and to be a tool of the Nazi state. The men of cloth approved to serve as military chaplains had been cleared by the Gestapo.

While German military chaplains weren’t part of the ordinary military rank system, a Kriegspfarrer held the rank of captain, and after a year of service he was promoted to major. The chaplains wore a plain uniform without rank insignia, the Catholic military chaplains also had a crucifix in a neck chain. If there was risk of enemy fire, chaplains wore a red cross armband with a purple stripe (the color of the clergy). The Waffen-SS didn’t have any chaplains, expect for a few “ethnic” divisions, among them those with Muslim soldiers.

German Kriegspfarrer who served in the Wehrmacht were part of the German mainstream and lent the Nazi war effort legitimacy. The military chaplains mostly wanted to bring the word of the Christian God to men in the field and to deliver the sacraments, make their families proud and serve their country. According to the memorandum on field service, the Kriegspfarrer had the task of strengthening the fighting power of the soldiers. To this end they carried out services, general absolution, confession, communion and prayer. In addition, they took up wills or sent consoling letters to the families of fallen soldiers. They also contributed to the execution of burials and funerals. They were able to carry out their tasks independently and largely without problems. 

Their pastoral care and close contact with ordinary soldiers made them held in high esteem, which Hitler and Goebbels increasingly dreaded. From 1944 on, National Socialist leadership officers (NSFO, similar to the Red Army commissars) were introduced in the Wehrmacht in order to boost morale and promote the Nazi agenda. In the end, none of that mattered. Their God wasn’t with them.

Roadside dinner

Chow time somewhere on the Eastern Front, possibly 1942 or thereabouts. It’s in the summer, as evident by the mosquito nets worn by some of the soldiers. The food transport has arrived, and some soup or stew is ladled into the soldiers’ M31 mess tins. The food is kept in 25-liter Essenträger (food carriers) seen in the right center of the photo. Those are like big thermos bottles made from aluminium, keeping the food warm long enough to be transported from the company’s field kitchen to the platoons. Clean water and/or ersatz coffee is in the large aluminium jars, and there are probably some loaves of dark rye bread from the field bakery. All of it has been transported on Infanteriekarren (infantry carts, official designation: Infanteriefahrzeug If.8), which can be pulled by two soldiers, a horse or two, a motorcycle, or a small tractor like a Kettenkrad. It was introduced after the campaigns of 1941, where the need for a light transport cart became evident.

The heavy Essenträger containers were usually carried to the platoons on the backs of soldiers, carrying straps fitted to ring mounts. It could be very dangerous, as the food transport detail might become exposed to enemy fire. Knowing what a blow to morale and stamina a missed meal could mean, the enemy made a point of targeting soldiers carrying food. If the threat level was too high, the meals were delivered under the cover of darkness. If the food made it to the front, it might still be somewhat lacking. German soldiers joked about “Horst Wessel soup”, meaning that any meat “marschier’n im Geist“/”marches along in spirit” (that is, not being there physically), making fun of one of the lines in the (in)famous song “Horst Wessel Lied“. You know the food is bad when people make irreverent references to a song which was practically the second anthem of the Third Reich…

Basic training

A platoon of Luftwaffe conscripts, wearing fatigue uniforms, are drilled in the field during their basic training.

The Versailles Treaty stipulated that Germany couldn’t have an army larger than 115,000 men, the navy included. The treaty forbade Germany to have heavy artillery, airplanes and tanks. The Reichswehr was a professional army, forming a cadre which became the backbone of the future Wehrmacht. After the Nazis came to power, the limitations of the Versailles Treaty were ignored, and the Wehrmacht expanded rapidly. Compulsory military service was reintroduced in 1935. A conscript served for two years, and only a few limited categories (e.g. married men) were discharged after one year’s service.

The conscripts had usually been members of the Hitlerjugend, were they had been drilled in marching and fieldcraft, as well as having served for six months in the Reichsarbeitsdienst (National Labor service), resulting in fit young men used to life in the field and in barracks. All of them went through the same training, which included the following for the Heer (Army; there were some variations for the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine): eight to twelve weeks of basic training, learning to use the Kar98k rifle, and possibly also the pistol and handgrenade. Training in the basics of combat, defense of positions, and marching, as well as guard duty and protection against chemical agents.

There were also theoretical classes and sports education. When the basic training was completed, the soldiers were trained for their future positions, like machinegunners or artillery or tank crews. This was supplemented with training in other specialist skills, like driving, signals, reconnaisance, etc. The soldiers were trained to function in increasingly larger units, culminating in the annual autumn field manoeuver. This could go on for two to four weeks, and usually by the end of the first and second year of service, respectively.

The conscripts in the German Army didn’t receive training that differed greatly from that of other nations, but there were a few differences. Soldiers were trained to assume the duties of the rank directly above them, which meant that a unit that lost its commanding officer wouldn’t be leaderless. German doctrine also stressed Auftragstaktik, were NCOs and officers were trained to solve situations with the resources assigned them, and where personal initiative was encouraged, it being said that it was more important to do something which might turn out to not be optimal, than to wait for orders while letting the initiative pass to the enemy.

The recruits were trained in replacement batallions directly connected to their future regiments, which meant that they knew which units they would serve in, and that they would do it together with comrades from basic training. This was in sharp contrast to the US Army system, where replacements were trained back in the States, then split up and shipped overseas, ending up in units they had no prior connection with, resulting in poor unit cohesion and an unnecessarily high rate of casulties among the replacements. Still, the German replacements were often in need of additional training upon arrival to their frontline units, and this was conducted (if possible) behind the front under the supervision of experienced NCOs.

As the war progressed and the losses mounted, the conscripts received shorter training, which affected the quality of the soldiers as well as their life expectancy. By 1945, the manpower reserves were exhausted, and together with fuel and matériel shortages, the collapse of the Wehrmacht was inevitable.