I’m back!

The blog has had a short hiatus, as I’ve been busy with a trip and visiting family. Also, my vacation is over and I’ll have to fit the updates with my overall schedule. Anyway, August will hold some interesting posts, I hope.

The photo shows a couple of soldiers, possibly on the Eastern Front in 1941. Some common pieces of German Army field gear are visible. The water bottle was carried by most soldiers, and consisted of a metal bottle with a felt cover and a metal or bakelite mug. It’s strapped to the bread bag, a cloth bag used for things like rations, the rifle cleaning set, and other odds and sundries. Next to it is the ubiquitous gas mask case, a water-tight, ridged metal tube that held the gas mask. As the use of chemical agents was exceedingly rare (neither side wanted to experience the gas warfare of WW1 again), many soldiers chucked the gas mask in the luggage and used the case for stuff that needed to be kept dry, like cigarettes. It was also perfect for holding a bottle.

Not quite visible is the entrenching tool, a short spade carried in a leather carrier. The bayonet was strapped to it, which reduced any clatter while moving in the field. Other items not visible are the ammunition pouches, worn next to the belt buckle and holding 60 rounds of rifle ammunition in 5-round stripper clips. There was also the pouch for the gas protection sheet, which as the war progressed was usually strapped to the gas mask case instead of worn on the chest. The metal mess kit was often strapped to the bread bag, but the soldier in the photo probably carries it on his combat pack.

This was the basic personal equipment. Items like the combat pack, the Zeltbahn, and specialist equipment like wire cutters, machine gun accessory case, etc, can be seen in some photos. I’ll post those as I find nice examples in my collection.

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Spätlese

“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.

All work and no play

The third man from the right in the photo, standing slightly higher than the others, is Generalarbeitsführer Hans Baumann. The rather cumbersome title translates as “general work leader”, the equivalent of an Army Generalmajor. He’s an officer of the Reichsarbeitsdienst, the National Labor Service. The other uniformed people in the photo are a gaggle of RAD officers, as well as a black-uniformed Allgemeine-SS lieutenant and a portly Nazi Party official. The photo is probably from around 1937 or 1938, as evidenced by the “Deutsche Wehrmacht” armband worn by the RAD Arbeitsführer (major) and the black SS uniform. The location is probably München (Munich).

Hans Baumann was born in 1875 and joined the Bavarian army in 1894 after the completion of his studies. He rose in the ranks, and served as a battalion commander in Bavarian reserve infantry regiments during World War 1. Baumann was a member of the paramilitary Freikorps Epp during the unrest after the war. In 1919 he joined a small party on the extreme right, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers’ Party). Another war veteran who joined the party was a certain A. Hitler, who quickly emerged as a prominent orator. The DAP soon became the NSDAP, and the march towards the pinnacles of power began. History had taken a dark turn.

Hans Baumann had been discharged from the army, which was to be severely reduced in accordance with the Versailles Treaty. He worked as a farmer, but he had a second career as a politician and regional leader in the Freiwilligen Arbeitsdienst, the forerunner to the RAD. He became a member of the Reichstag (parliament) in 1933, a position he held until 1945. Baumann was promoted to Obergeneralarbeitsführer in 1940, making him one of the 20 or so highest ranking officers of the RAD in the Third Reich. While being one of the old guard, it appears like he wasn’t prosecuted after the war, and seems to have faded into obscurity. He died in 1951, aged 76, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was an unrepentant Nazi to the very end. Today he is all but forgotten.

This is Hans

Hans serves in the Reichsarbeitsdienst, the National Labor Service, which was compulsory before getting conscripted into the army. Six months of living in barracks, digging ditches and building roads, and in some cases serving abroad as auxiliary troops. Hans looks like a proper Nazi with his swastika armband, but the armband was part of the RAD uniform, and not a sign of Party membership. For all we know, he couldn’t have cared less for the Nazis. In fact, no Army troops, nor Waffen-SS wore swastika armbands. That was a feature of Party-affiliated organizations like the Hitler-Jugend, RAD, SA, and Allgemeine SS. The sleeve patch over the swastika armband has the number “353”, which means that he belongs to the 353rd Arbeitsgruppe in Wien-Niederdonau district, Austria. An Arbeitsgruppe was made up from 1,200 to 1,800 men. This dates the photo as from 1938 or later.

He wears the earth-brown uniform of the RAD, an M35 helmet, the cow-hide backpack called “Affe” (“monkey”, due to the hairs being left on) with a rolled, dark brown greatcoat strapped to it. The round, metal gas mask case is just visible, while the long bayonet can be spotted by his left leg. Not visible are his bread bag, water bottle and mess kit. The spade usually seen together with the bayonet is probably replaced by the longer RAD equivalent. His rifle is a WW1-vintage Mauser Gewehr 98, which had been replaced in the Army by the Mauser Kar98k, but which apparently saw continued service in rear area units.

On the back of the photo, Hans has inked in neat handwriting “Zum Gedenken an Euren Neffen Hans.” (“In memory of your nephew Hans.”) This doesn’t mean that he had been killed; ” zum Gedenken” and “zu Erinnerung” are common wordings on photos intended for sweethearts, family and relatives. In the case of death, it was more common for the surviving family to give a way “death cards”, which were card-sized obituaries intended as mementos of the dead soldier. If Hans was lucky, he didn’t end up on one of those.

20 April

It’s 20 April, 1941, which is the Führergeburtstag – Hitler’s birthday (his 52nd). Soldiers – probably wagon-drivers – are all dressed up with little bouquets in their chest pockets. The guy in the center wears the SA sports badge and the Reiterabzeichen (horse rider’s badge). It isn’t clear whether the flowers are to celebrate der Führer, or if the troops are about to depart on a journey (the back of the photo says something about “abreise”), and have received flowers from locals.

There’s a subtle hint that things aren’t all good in Hitler’s Reich, though… The soldiers wear laced boots and old-style Wickelgamaschen (puttees or leg-wraps). The German soldiers were known for their traditional, black, hobnailed jackboots (or Marschstiefel), but by this time leather had been scarce for a year. First the boots were shortened, then they were only issued to combat troops. By 1941, new recruits weren’t issued jackboots, and in late 1943 production ceased altogether. However, as late as fall 1944 depots were encouraged to issue Marschstiefel to infantry and artillery, to the extent they were available. The boots became a sign of experienced combat troops. Instead, low, laced boots were issued together with short canvas gaiters (Gamaschen), and became increasingly common from 1941 onwards.

The soldiers in the photo wear a different kind of Gamaschen, which I think must’ve been a stop-gap solution while the canvas gaiters were in production. The leather shortage was a minor problem, though, compared to the shortages in fuel that hampered operations and was one of the reasons Hitler wanted to take the oil fields in the southern part of the USSR.

Trampling the free world under… uh, felt-slippered feet?

A soldier tending to his Knobelbecher (“dice-shakers”), the classic German Marschstiefel (marching boot), while wearing checkered felt slippers. The sole of the boot is clearly visible, with its toe and heel irons and 33 hobnails. There were 35-45 hobnails per boot, depending on size, but earlier boots had toe irons, which might account for the lower hobnail count. The jackboot was an iconic piece of the German uniform, with roots in the 19th century. The calf part of the boot was originally 35 cm high, but it was shortened to 29 cm in order to save leather. In 1941, the laced low boot was introduced as another measure to make leather stocks last, and the jackboot was reserved for infantry and other front-line units.

Marching 40-50 km a day resulted in many soldiers developing varicose veins, something veterans blamed the boots for. Still, by the latter half of the war, the jackboots were the sign of an Alte Hase (“old hare” – a veteran), and worn with pride. The hobnails – intended to make the soles last longer and to improve footing – had the unfortunate effect of leading the icy cold through the sole, which added to the frostbite problem during the cold Russian winters. If I’m not mistaken, the boots issued to armored vehicle crews lacked the hobnails, as they would increase the risk of slipping when stepping on metal plates of the hull otherwise.

In war movies produced well after the war, hobnail-counters can often spot German troops wearing Russian jackboots (no hobnails) or post-war boots (modern rubber soles). Finding well-made reproduction boots can be hard; expect to pay about 150 USD/Euro for a decent pair.

Waffenbrüder

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.