Across the Dnieper

The summer of 1941, the Soviet Union. An SdKfz 10 towing a PaK 36 anti-tank gun crosses the wide Dnieper river on a pontoon bridge built by an engineer unit. The registration plate on the halftrack marks the vehicle as belonging to the Waffen-SS, which, because of the location, would make it belong to either SS-Division (mot) “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” (LAH) or SS-Division “Wiking”. The former was Hitler’s “life guard” unit, first among equals, while the latter was made up from “Germanic” volunteers from the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and other countries occupied by Nazi Germany.

Six Waffen-SS divisions participated in Operation Barbarossa: LAH, Das Reich, Totenkopf, Polizei, Wiking, and Nord. As the war progressed, a further 32 divisions were established, but many were understrength and/or of questionable quality. Several were used for anti-partisan warfare, where they committed war crimes. Even the “elite” formations were involved in war crimes, with the possible exception for Nord. Some of the “ethnic” double-digit divisions acquitted themselves well, but in general they were far from the elite formations some think was the norm for the entire Waffen-SS. They were part of the Nazi idea of a pan-European army fighting against Communism, but the vision of an Aryan elite clashed with reality. Some of the units, most notably Dirlewanger and the Kaminski Brigade, were little more than armed rabble and criminals.

Still, when the best divisions were in the frontline, there were few other formations that could rival them. The fighting spirit displayed made them feared and respected adversaries, but the taint of their war crimes and involvement in crimes against humanity tarnishes their memory.

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Picnic in wartime

Thursday 8th June 1944, outside Turin, Italy. An SS-Untersturmführer (Lieutenant, standing) and a Fallschirmjäger (sitting in front of him) enjoy a day out together with a couple of Wehrmachthelferinnen (female Army auxiliaries), two civilian women and a little girl. The woman in the floral pattern dress (probably the mother of the girl) has donned the SS officer’s peaked cap, the silver death’s head glinting in the sun. It looks idyllic, but the people in the photo don’t know that there’s just eleven months left of the war. On 4 June, Allied troops captured Rome, and two days later Allied forces landed in Normandy. The Third Reich is crumbling around them, but perhaps they think that the vengance weapons or some other miracle the propaganda talks about will turn the tide of the war.

The female auxiliaries wear the lightning emblem of the signals troops on the sleeves of their white dresses, identifying them as telephone or radio operators. Over half a million German women served as auxiliaries for shorter or longer periods during the war, more than half of them as volunteers, the rest as conscripts. Those in signals capacity were known as “Blitzmädel“, “lightning-girls”, because of the signals troops patch. Other served as Flakhelferinnen (female anti-aircraft auxiliaries), manning searchlights, rangefinders, listening equipment, and even AA guns. It isn’t known how many women were killed while in service of the Wehrmacht.

Skulls

This studio portrait of two young soldiers, who I presume are friends, contains some interesting details, a couple of enigmas, and some historical background. My guess is that the photo was taken in 1941 or 1942. The Place is the small town of Dürnholz, since WW2 known as Drnholec in Moravia in the Czech Republic. The young men are most likely Sudeten Germans, the Volksdeutsche – ethnically German – population of western Czechoslovakia that the Nazi government in Germany used to further their territorial claims. When the war was over, Czechoslovakia was ethnically cleansed, the Sudeten Germans forced to flee to the zones under Western Allied administration.

The Soldat on the left is a Panzer crewman. He wears the black side-buttoned tunic typical of the Panzer crews. His collar tabs sport the silver skulls of the armored troops. Those had their roots in the skulls worn on the headdress of Napoleonic-era Prussian Hussars, symbolizing the do-or-die attitude of the daring cavalrymen. Many Panzer divisions were mechanized cavalry units, changing horses for tanks and armored cars. His shoulder straps are partially covered by slip-on fabric loops used to obscure the regimental number. This was done for operational secrecy, but there’s the possibility that his regiment is one of those that use differently-colored loops to differentiate between the battalions. His black sidecap indicates that the photo is taken after 1940.

His friend is a Waffen-SS Sturmmann (lance corporal) of some experience, implied by his Iron Cross, 2nd class, ribbon and the silver Wound Badge. He’s a member of a Waffen-SS division, but as his cuff title isn’t visible, it’s impossible to tell which one. One intriguing detail is the Edelweiss flower tucked in his cap. It’s a real flower, and not the embroidered patch of the SS-Gebirgsjäger mountain rangers. It obviously has some personal meaning, as it wasn’t an official feature of the uniform. The skull on his cap is the SS version, which symbolizes the willingness of the SS soldiers to die for the Reich.

It wasn’t uncommon for Panzer crewmen to be confused with SS troops because of the skulls and black uniforms. If they were taken prisoner, they ran the risk of being shot straightaway, as both western Allied and Soviet troops thought they were SS soldiers. One can but wonder about the final fates of the two young men in the photo.

For a more light-hearted take on the skull theme, the British comedians Mitchell and Webb made a pretty hilarious sketch on the subject some years ago.