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.


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.

All in the family

This German family portrait shows the men engaged in different aspects of the Nazi state. Judging by the uniforms, it was taken in 1934 or later. The father is a member of the SA – the Sturmabteilung, the infamous Stormtroopers – with the rank of SA-Scharführer (equivalent to an Army NCO), and wearing the brown service tunic introduced in 1932. The two sleeve rings (SA-Ehrenstreifen) identify him as an “old fighter” with a join date of 1931 (those who joined after the Nazi power-grab in 1933 were seen as opportunists by some). He wears two sports badges, the Deutsches Reiterabzeichen and the Deutsches Fahrerabzeichen (the German horse rider’s and the horse-and-wagon driver’s badges, respectively).

The younger son (on the left) is in the RAD (Reichsarbeitsdienst, National Labor Service), doing his compulsory six months of service with the rank of Arbeitsmann (worker). The older son is wearing the old-style Army service tunic used for parades and other formal occasions. While the mother and daughter are in civilian clothing, it’s a rather safe bet that the are engaged in a Nazi organization for women or two, as the Party permeated every aspect of the State. Some Germans embraced the new order with enthusiasm, while others paid lip service and did the minimum in order to not appear in opposition.

It is hard for those of us who live in democratic countries to imagine life back then. What would one do? Go for it all, just hang on, or be a rebel? The Nazi state never had a complete grip on the German people, but enough people went along with it for it to work, even though the much-touted “Thousand Year Reich” only lasted for twelve years…


Thanks to Axis History Forum members HPL2008 and Waleed Y. Majeed for the identification of the SA uniform.

Old gear for a new army

Thirsty soldiers down beer in the summer of 1934 (or 1935 or 1936). They wear the old style Reichswehr eight-buttoned uniform tunic, the new insignia sewn on as of May, 1934. The new uniform, which will be worn by the conquering Army a few years later, is still in development. The same goes for the iconic helmet, which is about to be approved and manufactured in millions. Until then the soldiers use two WW1-vintage Stahlhelme, the M1918 with its prominent lugs, and the relatively rare M1918 “ear cut-out” helmet, which was developed for field telephone operators, cavalrymen, artillery crews, and the like. It was popular, but arrived too late to be worn in any numbers before the armistice. When the Wehrmacht began to expand, old helmets were brought out of storage, refurbished (new liners, paint, and decals), and issued to the troops. Some were used as late as 1943. The men in the photo don’t know that in 3-5 years, they’ll be called up to arms and conquering Europe in the uniforms that are so deeply associated with war and terror.

Looking for Private Ryan?

This photo is a recent acquisition, part of a small lot of photos from Norway. I took one look at it and thought: “That looks like France” – the countryside is decidedly not Norwegian. The thing that really tipped me off was the helmet carried by the guy on the right, which sports the camouflage paintjob seen on helmets worn by troops stationed in Normandy. Then I flipped the photo, and saw a scrawled note on the back with “Caen” in it. Bingo! Further analysis of the photo makes me pretty sure that the soldiers belong to a Luftwaffe Field Division, things like the cap worn by the soldier on the right, and the belt buckle on his comrade on the left. That, and the location, tells us that only one unit can come into question: The 16. Feld-Division (L).

The 16. Luftwaffen-Feld-Division was formed in December 1942 by the XIII. Fliegerkorps. It was transferred to the Heer (Army) in November 1943 and redesignated 16. Feld-Division (L). It was deployed in the Hague-Haarlem area of the Netherlands as an occupation force. In June 1944, the division was sent to Normandy under the control of Heeresgruppe B and deployed in the front lines on 2 July. The British launched an offensive the day after the division arrived and by late July, it had been effectively destroyed in the defense of Caen. The division was formally dissolved on 4 August 1944, its remaining infantry allocated to the 21. Panzer-Division, while other elements were used to resurrect the 16. Infanterie-Division. (More on the Luftwaffe Feld-Divisionen here.)

Some more observations on the guys in the photo: the one on the left has a leather map case, binoculars (probably 7×50), a magazine pouch with three magazines for his MP 40 (not visible), and a helmet possibly painted with a mix of dark yellow paint and sawdust (to reduce glare). His colleague wears a Zeltbahn as camouflage, 6×30 binoculars, and probably an MP 40. Both are NCOs, as there are no rank insignia on the sleeves.

Speaking of Normandy and the Allied landings there, this year marks 20 years since the premiere of Saving Private Ryan, the epic war movie directed by Steven Spielberg. Regarded as one of the great war movies, I’m not quite as impressed by it. While there are some powerful scenes in it, like the brilliantly staged beach landing, the movie has several weak spots. I’m not going to nit-pick on trivia like the fact that there were no Tiger tanks in the American area of Normandy by the time the action takes place, but I’ll address problems with the plot.

The basic premise of the movie is that it is discovered that all brothers Ryan are killed or missing in action around the same time. Mommy Ryan receives all the telegrams just a few days after the D-Day landings. By that time, most of the airborne units were still struggling to organize themselves after being scattered over a large area. In real life, it would’ve taken many days, if not weeks, before it would’ve been apparent that Private Ryan was indeed MIA. In the movie, the rescue operation is launched just a few days after D-Day.

One pivotal scene is when Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) decides that it’s important to knock out the German defenders of a damaged radar installation. The squad charging uphill against a machine gun position, the medic, Wade, is mortally wounded. Miller had a crack sniper, Jackson, in his squad – why not take out the MG crew at a distance? Or just bypass the Germans, as they weren’t a threat? The whole scene is just a way of introducing the surviving German soldier, “Steamboat Willie”, and setting the stage for the final scenes.

After finding the right Ryan, the surviving members of the squad (plus some airborne troops) are pitted against crack Waffen-SS troops in the fight for the fictious town of Ramelle. The Germans make just about every tactical mistake they could make; even considering the state of German troops by that time of the war, they wouldn’t have assaulted a town like that. Anyway, in the fighting, most of the squad meets a sticky end, including Captain Miller, who is shot by “Steamboat Willie”. “Willie”, who was let go by Miller earlier, and who has been picked up by the SS unit, clearly doesn’t know who he’s firing at. The interpreter, Upham, kills “Willie”. This is one of the morally ambigious problems with the story. Was Miller wrong to let “Willie” live? Should they’ve killed him straight away, the only good German being a dead German? Spielberg didn’t think this through, obviously.

Upham and Ryan are the only survivors, and the final scene has an aged and tearful Ryan by the graves of Miller and the others, surrounded by his family. Seven men died so he could live. Was it worth it? Mommy Ryan got one son back, and he apparently raised a fine family, but seven other mothers lost their sons, men who never got to form families and raise their kids. The movie leaves that question open, but I for one find that it’s debatable whether it was worth the sacrifice. The whole plot feels contrived, but at least Spielberg and Hanks got the inspiration to make “Band of Brothers”, that most excellent mini-series.

Waiting for Santa

Two privates playing chess, wearing their best uniforms, while the Christmas tree is decorated with tinsel, shiny glass pinecones, and candles. They are probably serving in Infanterie-Regiment 4 in Kolberg, Prussia. At home in the barracks or in a dugout on the frontline, German soldiers always tried to create some Christmas cheer. The tree could be just a pine branch decorated with tinsel cut from cigarette packages when living in a bunker. If they were lucky, mail had arrived from family back home. Perhaps the package contained a Christstollen, a heavy fruit cake as traditional as Christmas pudding is for the British. Maybe there was a pair of socks, a scarf or a pair of mittens, knitted by a mother or wife, a welcome addition to the winter uniform. If the enemy was quiet, so much the better.