Feeling tired? Have a pill!

Troops of a cavalry unit advancing during the Campaign in the West, 1940. An Obergefreiter and an Oberfeldwebel naps on the back of a wagon. They were probably up early, and now the advance along French country roads lulls them to sleep. War can be tiring, with odd hours, long days, great physical exertion, and “months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror”, to use a phrase coined during WW1. There was a need to have troops alert and ready for action, and the solution was… methamphetamine! Yup, the Third Reich wasn’t just bad, but breaking bad!

Amphetamine was invented in 1887, but it took a few decades before the medical industry found a use for it. In the early 1930s, it was a component of the asthma drug Benzedrine. Soon the effects of amphetamine became apparent: it raised awareness, made the user awake, dulled hunger and pain, and alleviated boredom. It was soon modified into methamphetamine. In 1938, it was marketed under the name Pervitin in Germany, and sold over the counter at chemists. It attracted the attention of the German Army, but it was already used by some troops as early as the invasion of Poland in 1939. Pilots and tank and truck drivers were among those who found most use of the drug. The authorities made so it wasn’t sold over the counter anymore, but the Army is said to have distributed 35 million Pervitin and the similar Isophan pills during the campaigns of April – July 1940 alone!

Drug addiction wasn’t unknown; drugs of choice in the first half of the 20th century were cocaine and morphine. “Meth” wasn’t an exception, and as it was increasingly abused, the Army became very restrictive in its use from the spring of 1941. Historian Lukasz Kamienski says “A soldier going to battle on Pervitin usually found himself unable to perform effectively for the next day or two. Suffering from a drug hangover and looking more like a zombie than a great warrior, he had to recover from the side effects.” Some soldiers turned very violent, committing war crimes against civilians; others attacked their own officers. Still, it was issued throughout the war, and one can only wonder what it did to its users.

The Allies used meth, too, in the shape of Benzedrine, also known as “wakey-wakey pills”. The British used it primarily to keep bomber pilots alert, but also aircrew on submarine-hunting missions, which demanded sharpened wits for hours at an end. Ground troops, too, were issued Benzedrine, and it is said that large quantities were ordered before the showdown at el-Alamein. After some initial skepticism, the Americans followed suit and issued Benzedrine to the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps. The drawbacks of the drug became apparent, though, and it was a known fact that the self-confidence felt by the users wasn’t reflected in actual performance, where all sorts of mistakes were made. After the war, amphetamine-based drugs were sold to truck drivers and as a weight-loss drug to housewives, but abuse called for restrictions and legislation.


That sinking feeling

A merchant ship, with a GRT of perhaps about 5000 tons, lists over as it is sinking. In a minute it will be gone. It could be Allied or from a neutral country. It isn’t apparent if the photo is taken from a Kriegsmarine surface ship or a U-boat. The normal procedure was to give the crew a chance to abandon ship, and then sink it with guns. U-boats carried a limited number of torpedoes, and used the 8.8 cm deck gun whenever possible in order to save the torpedoes for attacks while submerged.

More than 3,000 merchant and military vessels were sunk by the German navy during World War 2, the majority by submarines. The top ten U-boat commanders sank some 320 ships, and, surprisingly, nine of them survived the war. The war took a heavy toll on the U-boat fleet, 28,000 of 40,000 men not returning, ending up in a watery grave instead.

When the British documentary series “The World at War” aired in Sweden in the mid-1970s, I remember that my dad reacted negatively when we watched the part about German submarine warfare. He was a sailor for a few years in the early 1950s, and heard stories from older crewmates who had experienced the U-boat menace during the war. I, on the other hand, found it intersting, and got the Swedish translation of “U-Boat: The Secret Menace” by David Mason (from the Ballantine’s series of books on WW2).

Sweden was cut off from the rest of the world during WW2, the only sea route to the North Sea and the Atlantic patrolled by both the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine, minefields making any excursions outside the safe sea lanes dangerous. Sweden, which was neutral, needed to export goods in order to pay for the necessities needed for building the military forces, as well as the needs of the population. Treading a narrow path between the Allies and the Axis, playing them off each other, Sweden managed to import fuel and goods, even if it was just a fraction of the pre-war imports. Despite all possible precautions, ten of the 79 merchant ships involved were sunk, 166 people losing their lives. German submarines and sea mines were the main culprits. Small wonder my dad hated them.

Karl, where is my dud?

The Volkhov Front, east of Leningrad, autumn of 1941. An Oberfeldwebel stands next to a 21 cm shell fired by a Soviet Br-17 heavy siege gun. Luckily for him and his unit, the high explosive shell, loaded with some 20 kilos of TNT, was a dud. Even if it hadn’t exploded, it was still dangerous, and had to be removed carefully, or destroyed through a controlled explosion. A task for people with strong nerves…

In 1989, my rifle company participated in a refresher manoeuver together with the rest of the brigade. A couple of days were spent on a artillery firing range. As we made our way through the broken terrain, we saw several unexploded 155 mm artillery shells. After spotting the first one, we took great care where we placed our feet… Nothing like some duds of unknown volatility to sharpen your senses. There were no mishaps, but the exercise was eventful in other aspects.

Stolz des Herrenvolks?

The image of the German soldier as some sort of superhuman has been perpetuated through war movies, photos in books and articles (often featuring pics taken by Wehrmacht propaganda units), as the tough opposition in computer games, and – I think – a need to paint the enemy larger than life in order to make the victory over him so much more impressive.

Here we have a study in contrasts. To the left, a blond Germanic warrior, the typical  jack-booted soldier, probably on occupation duty somewhere in France in 1940-41. Just add the iconic helmet, and you would have a nice propaganda picture. I’m pretty sure he was popular with the girls, too. Then we have the rather lumpy-looking Unteroffizier August of the Luftwaffe in Greece, 29 October, 1943… The guy looks like a regular human being (with big feet, though), and if he was ever to star in a movie or TV show, it would be as the bumbling sergeant in some POW camp comedy.

We know absolutely nothing about who August was as a person. A dyed-in-the-wool Nazi or someone who just did what he was told, and happy to be in a relatively safe and cushy location? One thing is for sure, though: he isn’t the image of the bad “Nazi” soldier favored in movies and games. Perhaps he would be like Gert Fröbe’s rotund sergeant in “The Longest Day”, but mostly for comic relief. Like millions of his countrymen, he served an evil cause, but rarely because of a need to be a bad person or to live out some power trip.

That’s the problem with humans – under certain circumstances, good people can be made to do (or at least actively or passively support) bad things. Before we pass judgment on them, we should ask ourselves: “What would I do in the same situation?”. In most totalitarian systems, the rebels and resistance fighters have formed a small minority. Most people just want to manage their own lives, keeping their heads down as to not attract unwanted attention, and perhaps secretly long for a change, only not with them in the first rank.

Reading Sebastian Haffner’s “Defying Hitler” gives an interesting look into life as a young man in the tumultuous times of 1920’s and 30’s Germany, and that the descent into a totalitarian state was gradual. Few people could foresee what was coming, just as we have been surprised by changes in our own time. It is said that history repeats itself, but it is more like that we who know something about history see leaders who haven’t learned anything from history repeating the mistakes of previous generations. All we can strive for is to make the right decisions. What those are? We’ll know with hindsight…

Chariot of feuer

This photo most likely depicts a parade in France, 1940, possibly in Paris after the surrender of the French army. An Sd.Kfz. 251/4 pulling a field gun rumbles past a Panzer crewman holding a banner of some sort. His padded beret helps date the photo, as it was officially withdrawn from use in January 1941.

The distinctive Sd.Kfz. 251 was the main armored halftrack used by the Heer. It was mainly used by Panzergrenadier troops, but also as a support vehicle with a range of heavier weapons. With 15,252 vehicles made (all versions), there were never enough to go around, which made the Germans use the halftracks for one Panzergrenadier regiment in a Panzer division, the other riding on trucks instead.

It held a squad of soldiers (10 soldiers), a driver and a commander. It was capable of a road speed of 53 km/h (33 mph). It had very good cross-country capability, but the interleaved wheels were susceptible to getting clogged by heavy mud and icy snow.

There are several Sd.Kfz. 251s in running condition, but in war movies, the Czech-built copy OT-810 is commonly used. It has a roof over the crew compartment, so it has to be modified in order to look like the original. The Germans used the American M3 halftrack if they captured one, so if you see one in a movie, it hasn’t to be a goof. The US vehicle had better performance, but without the Sd.Kfz. 251, the Germans would’ve had a harder time with their Blitzkrieg.

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.

The last straw

Weary German soldiers take a rest, perhaps during the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. They have crashed on the ground, not bothering to remove their equipment. Some appear to be napping. One would think that none would be up to a prank, but the Unteroffizier in the middle of the photo has another idea. Reaching across der Spieß – the company sergeant – he is about to tickle his colleague in the ear with a straw. There’s always a guy like that: the joker in the platoon.