Over the mountains

This photo presents a puzzle: those are the graves of German Gebirgsjäger (mountain rangers), but the helmets on top of the crosses are the paratrooper model. The photo was taken in 1940 near Narvik, Norway, and that gives us a clue…

The fighting for Narvik proved to be harder than the Germans expected. Getting reinforcements to the area was a challenge, but some Gebirgsjäger units got some parachute training, and where dropped over the area on 23 May 1940. On 28 May, a combined force of two French Foreign Legion battalions and a Norwegian battalion, supported by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, landed near Narvik. The 11. Kompanie, Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 137, belonging to the 2. Gebirgs-Division and commanded by Oberleutnant Erich Schwaiger, rushed from the area of Bjørnfjell to Forsneset to counter the landing force. Artillery fire from the Royal Navy ships inflicted heavy casualties on the Austrian mountain rangers. Schwaiger was killed together with several of his men, among them Gefreiter (Private) Fritz Wild and Gefreiter Johann Grübler. The Allied force captured Narvik, but due to the German offensive in France, the French and British withdrew ten days later. Narvik and Norway were in German hands on 10 June.

The two soldiers in the graves in the photo (the third one was buried without a name on the cross, perhaps because he couldn’t be identified) were Fritz Wild, born on 7 December 1916 in Kapfenberg, Austria, and Johann Grubler, born on 2 September 1916, presumably in Austria. Neither of them got to see their 24th birthday. Their remains were later moved to the war cemetery in Narvik.

While researching the photo, I had uncovered most of the information, but I googled a bit more and came across this blog post by military historian Lars Gyllenhaal. The photo in that post appears to be from the same roll of film, as save for a few spots and blemishes, it’s identical.


In for a humpy ride

A German soldier has a snug seat between the humps of a Bactrian camel. The place is probably southern Russia, north of the Caucasus Mountains, and the time is 1942 or 1943. I can imagine that few soldiers pictured themselves riding camels one day when they crossed the Soviet border. The push in the southeast was a bid to capture the oil fields at Baku, and thus secure the supply of oil and gas for the fuel-starved Wehrmacht. The Battle for Stalingrad was part of the greater plan, and the failure to capture the city and secure the flank meant that the German positions in the Caucasus region became precarious. The Germans had to retreat.

The man on the hay wagon is probably a Hiwi, a Soviet volunteer who accepted to serve as an auxiliary instead of facing the much darker prospects in a prisoner of war camp. The camels didn’t have much of a say at all.

A brief skirmish

Somewhere on the Western Front, May or June 1940. A column of German vehicles stands to the side of a road, while a couple of Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf.B sit in the field to the left. A house goes up in flames, perhaps a knocked out point of resistance for a group of enemy soldiers. Judging by the soldiers standing unconcerned in the middle of the road, the fighting has moved on. Forward elements are up ahead, securing the road for continued advance.

When we think of war and battles, we tend to think of big clashes and intense fighting. In many cases it was more like this – skirmishes, temporary halts while units to the side or up ahead engage the enemy, passing signs of combat like burning buildings, wrecked vehicles, the bodies of friends and foes. I’ve read accounts by soldiers who didn’t fire their weapons for months. As a soldier, the overall situation can be confusing, your knowledge restricted to what you can see and whatever the officers tell you. That’s why I found a posthumous memoir by a German soldier, “Eastern Inferno” by Hans Roth, a bit suspicious. It’s an intense account, and many details check out, but his grasp on the overall strategic situation hints at later editing or additions by the editor. If he had been a staff officer, then his knowledge of the identity of adjacent units and their objectives would’ve been logical, but hardly as a man in the ranks. It differed noticeably from the 30 or so memoirs by veterans I’ve read. In short, it’s a bit too good to be true.

Someone said that war is “months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror”. For the men at the forefront of a campaigning army, the spells of boredom were shorter, but combat could still be very much a case of “hurry up and wait”. In mobile warfare, you seldom know what’s behind the corner or the next bend of the road, and that goes for the men in the photo above.

Tomorrow belongs to us

A troop of boys, members of the Hitler-Jugend (HJ), stand to attention as their leaders make the Nazi salute. The photo is probably from a soldier’s album, documenting his life before entering the Reichsarbeitsdienst and then Army service. The Hitler Youth had its roots in groups in the early 1920’s, but got its name in 1926. It organized boys aged 14-18; those aged 10-14 belonged to Deutsches Jungvolk. After the Nazi rise to power in 1933, membership was voluntary, but access to higher studies, sports sites, etc, was much easier if one was a member. From 1936 onwards, membership was compulsory for “Aryan” boys. The purpose of HJ was twofold: to indoctrinate the German youth into Nazi thinking, and to condition them for Army service. Classes in Nazi ideology were an important feature, and through camps like the one in the photo above, where the boys marched and took part in field competitions, they got used to solve tasks in groups. When it was time for Army service, most of them were already prime recruit material.

As the war progressed, many members left HJ to volunteer for service in the Waffen-SS. Indeed, in 1943, the 12. SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend” was created, the bulk of the division made up from HJ members born in 1926. The division gained a reputation for ruthlessness and fanaticism, which was in part a result of their indoctrination. In many other places across Germany, HJ members made up the crews of antiaircraft guns, and when enemy forces closed in on the German borders, young boys were handed old rifles and Panzerfaust antitank weapons to stem the enemy advance. I knew a German who was 15 years old when the war ended. He and his comrades received training in the use of the Panzerfaust, but somehow he managed to avoid combat when the Red Army reached his village. Some of his friends weren’t that fortunate…

The video clip below is from the 1972 movie “Cabaret”, which is set in 1930. It captures some of the Nazi thinking, where the youth was destined to lead the country into the future. “Give me the child for the first seven years and I’ll show you the man” is a quote attributed to Aristotle and also the Jesuits. By taking children and indoctrinating them, totalitarian movements have aimed to shape the future. This is a chilling reminder of that. Never trust a regime which does that.


Beer by the barrel!

Time to celebrate! This post marks the start of the second year of this blog. In the past year, I’ve made 341 posts, all featuring original photos and documents from my collection. For those of you who are new to my blog, the purpose of it to tell the history of World War 2 from the perspective of photos taken by German soldiers. The intent is to take a look at different aspects of the German war effort and the years preceding the war. It shouldn’t in no way be taken as apologetics for the criminal and cruel war, the Wehrmacht, or for the Nazi regime. On the other hand, I want to present a more personal side of the war, giving the often anonymous soldiers a name (if possible) and a context. Sometimes I give their opponents a face, too, honoring the memory of the untold millions who suffered and died. Some photos have presented mysteries that I’ve been able to solve, many times with the help of fellow amateur historians. Thus the photos form pieces in the immense jigsaw puzzle that is World War 2, hopefully making it a fraction more understandable.

Please join me for the second year of the journey. I will present more photos and the histories behind them, hopefully adding to both my and your knowledge of that time over 70 years ago.

“Now you see me, now you don’t”

German officers are sight-seeing along the Maginot Line, summer of 1940. The strange-looking fortification is a pop-up turret housing a 75 mm cannon. The idea was to provide as small a target as possible, raising the turret when the gun was ready to fire. It was part of the massive line of fortifications and bunkers along the Franco-German border, intimidating enough to deter any German frontal assault. It is said that generals fight the last war, but it is more a question of what conclusions they draw from it. The French didn’t want a repeat of the grueling trench war of 1914-18, so they aimed at stopping the Germans on the border by building static defenses. The Germans didn’t want a repeat either, but their solution was to become more mobile. With hindsight, it was obvious: if there’s an obstacle, you take an alternate route. The French military planners counted on Belgium and the hilly, heavily forested Ardennes to protect their northern flank, and that the large army would be mobilized in time and ready to fend off the smaller German army. Unfortunately for France, the Germans didn’t want to play by their rules…

We know the result. The Maginot Line was bypassed and only saw some action when the fate of France was already sealed. It was used by the Germans, and after WW2 some of the fortifications became command centers. It was finally abandoned in the mid-1960’s. By then, nuclear weapons had become the new deterrent.


How the pop-up gun turret worked. Source: Wikipedia.

The ruins of Rotterdam

The shell of the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam is one of the few structures still standing after the devastating German bomb raid of 14 May 1940. The entire medieval city center of the old port city was wiped out in fires, and it was most likely due to a communications mishap which was to have far-reaching consequences.

The German army invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, and three days later troops stood outside Rotterdam, commanded by General Rudolf Schmidt. The Dutch garrison put up a spirited defense, and Schmidt planned a combined arms operation for the next day. He requested air support by Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, but got Heinkel He 111 bombers instead, which were more suited for area bombing. In the negotiations with the defenders, the threat of destruction of the city was used to make the Dutch Colonel Pieter Scharroo surrender it. The negotiations were still underway when the bombers appeared in the sky. The Luftwaffe commander on the ground, General Kurt Student, tried to call off the attack, but the bombers were never reached by the order to abort the attack. Bombs began to rain down, and the crowded, cluttered medieval cityscape was soon ablaze. The fires continued well into the next days.

Some 900 people were killed, and the city surrendered. A result of the raid, where initial reports in Allied media claimed that 30,000 civilians had been killed, was that the Royal Air Force abandoned their policy to avoid civilian targets. The air war took a more brutal turn, with hundreds of thousands of victims to die around the world in the following five years. In an ironic twist of fate, US Army Air Force bombers mistakenly bombed a civilian neighborhood on 31 March 1943 while attacking German targets, killing up to 400 Dutch civilians. That raid was hushed down for 50 years, though.

The rebuilding of Rotterdam began during the war, and while a few official buildings were restored, including the Laurenskerk seen in the photo, no attempt was made to bring back the old city. Modern buildings now dominate central Rotterdam, but the memories of the fateful attack still remain.