B(r)oomsticks

There’s nothing odd about this photo until one looks a bit closer at the machineguns lined up on the ground. While the one furtherst from the camera is clearly an MG 34, the two other are wooden mock-ups. It’s my guess that the photo is taken in 1935 or 1936, right after the Wehrmacht began to expand. When the Treaty of Versailles was renounced in 1935, the Army grew from the allowed 100,000 men to some 300,000 in one big leap. Germany had been hobbled by the Treaty, which prohibited weapons like tanks, and placed a cap on the maximum number of machineguns that the Germans were allowed to have. It was set at less than 2,000 machineguns (756 heavy and 1,134 light MGs) for the whole Army, and it took time to equip all the new units. So it seems like wooden “weapons” were used for training purposes during the first year or so of the newly-minted Wehrmacht. Soon every infantry squad in the Army had its own new MG, and the mock-ups could be turned into firewood.

Advertisements

Let’s go to the movies

A Panzer soldier and his Fallschirmjäger friend in tropical uniforms, perhaps on their way to the movies. The photo is probably taken in 1942, location unknown.

There’s been many hundreds of movies made about World War 2, both during the war and after it. Most of them feature American and/or British good guys fighting evil Nazis, but in recent years there’s also been an increase in Russian-made war movies. It’s easy to tire of Brad Pitt fight half the Third Reich, or Russian movies that only make Putin happy. Those of us who like a more varied fare look for other perspectives. As the theme for this blog is the German Wehrmacht, I’ll take a look at some of the best movies from a German viewpoint. I’m afraid the list won’t be terribly original, but that’s a consequence of the lack of good movies about the German wartime experience. So, in chronological order as the events unfolded in the war, here’s my list of five war movies with a German point of view that are worth (re-)watching.

First out isDas Boot from 1981. Regarded as the best submarine movie of all time, it tells the story of a combat tour with U-96. Set in 1941, it covers the successes and terrors experienced by the young crew. Based on the novel by former war correspondent Lothar-Günther Buchheim, who in turn based it on a combat tour with the real U-96, the movie became an international success, paving the way for the Hollywood careers of director Wolfgang Petersen and leading man Jürgen Prochnow. While some of the special effects are dated (the destroyer model wasn’t convincing even in 1981), it’s still a powerful movie. Long periods of tedium are interrupted by moments of terror, when the U-96 has to dodge attacks by enemy ships and aircraft. It has been released in three versions: the theatrical cut at 149 minutes, the director’s cut at 209 minutes, and the full mini-series at 293 minutes. The longer versions allow for more character development and exposition, and I recommend either of them. The theatrical cut isn’t available, anyway. A new mini-series based on the same story will be released in 2018.

Avoid: “U-571″, a sub-standard (pun intended) Hollywood movie that managed to insult the British by claiming that Americans captured an Enigma code machine before the Brits did.

 

The producers of “Das Boot” wanted to make another movie/mini-series about the German war experience, and opted for the Battle of Stalingrad. For some reason, the plans for the mini-series were scrapped, and a 134-minute movie was released in 1993. It tells the story of a combat engineer company which is sent to Stalingrad after a stint in North Africa. We follow some soldiers in a platoon commanded by Lieutenant von Witzleben (Thomas Kretschmann in his second role as a German officer; he’s played officers in at least ten movies). They descend into the hell known as Stalingrad, and the losses mount in the fierce fighting in the ruins. Things take a turn for the (even) worse when the men are sent to a penal battalion. A memorable fight against T-34 tanks sees them rehabilitated, but not without losses. As the 6th Army is surrounded, the winter growing harsher and supplies dwindle, the situation gets desperate, and one by one the soldiers meet their untimely ends. The last two try to break out of the encirclement, leading to one of the most depressing movie endings ever. While “Stalingrad” isn’t perfect, it’s still one of the best Eastern Front movies.

Avoid: the Russian “Stalingrad” (2013), which is so bad that even Russians didn’t like it.

 

Before “Stalingrad” there was “Cross of Iron” (1977). Based on the novel “The Willing Flesh” by Eastern Front veteran Willi Heinrich, it was one of the first non-German post-war movies to show an entirely German perspective. It was directed by Sam Peckinpah and featured a cast of American, German, British and Yugoslavian actors. Set in 1943, it tells the story of a squad led by Sergeant Steiner (James Coburn; almost twice as old as one would expect, but still great in that role). Their new company commander, Captain Stransky, arrives to the front. He’s a martinet and glory-hound, out for an Iron Cross, which he couldn’t get in his previous cushy posting in France. The two men clash, and as the Soviets assault their positions, things come to a head. Cynical and realistic, “Cross of Iron” still stands out. Peckinpah’s trademark bloody slow motion scenes have been parodied, but they work in this context. The ending, which was rewritten due to budget constraints, might not be to everyone’s taste, but it works.

Avoid: “Breakthrough”, the sequel to “Cross of Iron”, which was just an attempt to cash in on the first movie. Steiner and Stransky aren’t even played by the same actors.

 

How do you manage to make an exciting thriller about an event with an ending just slightly less predictable than that of “Titanic“? You let Bryan Singer direct it. “Valkyrie” from 2008 works. Even though you know Hitler will survive and the conspirators fail, Singer managed to create a movie that moves along at a steady clip, somehow managing to make it feel like the bomb plot will work. There was much criticism when Tom Cruise was picked to play Stauffenberg, but I think he did a really good job, working together with a great cast without hogging the limelight. While this movie is about officers in the highest echelons, plotting away in headquarters, there are some scenes from the front in North Africa that puts Stauffenberg in the line of fire, and not just as a smartly dressed staff officer. The art direction is great, presenting a time and place in a rich, convincing manner. It also reminds us of the other failed attempts on Hitler’s life, showing that there was opposition to him even before the war was about to be lost.

See also: “Operation Valkyrie“, a German TV movie from 2004. It covers most of the same events, but differently and in my opinion not as exciting. Appreciated by people with a fetish for dialogue in German.

 

Valkyrie” sort of sets the stage for “Downfall” (2004), the excellent retelling of the last weeks of the Thousand-Years Reich. Bruno Ganz delivers the best and most convincing movie Hitler ever, and it’s a pity that most people are only familiar with the movie through the innumerable “Hitler rant” clips on YouTube. It could easily have become a set piece in the bunker, but by following some of the defenders of Berlin, it recreates the final battle through the eyes of the kids and old men tasked with the defense. The desperation and sense of doom pervades the movie, and there are some strong scenes that will hit people who are parents especially hard. Told from the perspective of one of Hitler’s secretaries, Traudl Junge, it is probably the definite retelling of those final days.

For laughs: “Fall of Berlin“, a Soviet propaganda movie from 1949. It turns Hitler’s bunker into a freakshow, and features the perhaps most over-acting movie Hitler ever.

 

Somehow, this list doesn’t feel complete. While the movies are among the best war movies of all time, none of them really tells about the German war experience in a broader context, in part because a movie rarely can tell a story about a subject in depth over a longer period of time. In 2013, a German mini-series caused much discussion as it was the first real attempt in years to tell about the effect of the war on young Germans. In three 90-minutes episodes, “Generation War” (original title: “Unsere Mutter, unsere Väter“), we follow brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm and their friends Charlotte, Greta and Viktor during the years 1941-45. Wilhelm is a lieutenant whose patriotism and idealism is put to the test, while his younger brother Friedhelm goes from being an unwilling soldier to hardened cynic. Charlotte serves as a nurse on the Eastern Front, while Greta is a singer, using her connections with a Gestapo officer to further her career while protecting her secret boyfriend Viktor, who is a Jew. While the mini-series drew some criticism for simplifying some events, as well as portraying the Polish resistance as anti-Semitic, it’s still the best treatment of the subject I’ve seen. It doesn’t shy away from the brutalization of the war on the Eastern Front, or the moral challenge of living in the Third Reich. If you haven’t watched “Generation War“, do yourself a service and do that.

 

You’re in the army now

Columns of conscripts lug their suitcases as they are about to enter military life. Soon they’ll wear the same field-grey uniforms, learning to march and shoot. After Germany re-introduced conscription in 1935 in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, a total of about 18.2 million men served in the Wehrmacht until the defeat in 1945. The Wehrmacht suffered about 10 million casualties during WW2, a combination of about 2 million killed in action, 3 million missing in action (most likely dead), and 5 million wounded in action. As WW2 intensified, Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe personnel were increasingly transferred to the Army, and “voluntary” enlistments in the SS were stepped up as well. Following the defeat in Battle of Stalingrad in early 1943, fitness standards for Wehrmacht recruits were drastically lowered, with the regime going so far as to create “special diet” battalions for men with severe stomach ailments. Rear-echelon personnel were sent to front-line duty wherever possible, especially during the last two years of the war.

With the introduction of military conscription in 1935, the 1914 class of 21 year olds were called up. Each conscripted annual intake (in peacetime) could be expected to bring in around 300,000 men, reduced to 250,000 for the 1916-18 classes due to the lower birth rate during WW1. Those who had experienced no military training (the so called ‘white years’ classes of 1901 to 1913, due to the reduction of the Army after WW1) were available as a untrained reserve, listed as Class 2 reservists. General Fretter-Pico complained in 1944 that after the Waffen-SS, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Heer technical services had combed through and picked out the best of recruits, the poor bloody infantry was left with whatever recruits there was. The same complaint could be heard in the US Army, though.

By May 1940 the call-up classes for 1919 and 1920 (that is to say those 21 and 20) were entering the Ersatzheer to begin training, while the earlier classes of 1915-18 were already in the Field Army. Generally someone born in 1919 or 1920 wouldn’t have participated in the French campaign of 1940, but would’ve been readily trained and deployed for Operation Barbarossa in 1941. By early June 1941, after only 3 months of training, 80,000 men of the 1921 Class were formed into reinforcement Marschbataillone for the upcoming campaign in USSR.

The conscription age was lowered as the war progressed, and the losses had to be replaced. Before the outbreak of the war, it was 21, but was lowered to 20 in the later part of 1939. It was lowered yet again after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, calling up 19-years olds. In late 1942, it was the 18-years olds turn, and a year later the 17-years olds. By the end of 1944, the conscription age was lowered a final time, calling up the 16-years olds of the 1928 and 1929 classes. Of those, about 12,000 were killed in action. It isn’t just a cliché in movies and books when combat veterans comment that new reinforcements are just kids – “milk-beards”.

Of the men born in 1914-1924 and called up for service, about 35 % (on average) of each year class didn’t survive the war. Worst hit was the class of 1921, of which 38.95 % died (286,380 out of 735,206 men born that year). Most of them had been called up in 1941, and I guess the majority of them went to the meat grinder on the Eastern Front.

About to head out

A group of lieutenants going through orders. Platoon commanders in what appears to be a mounted unit – reconaissance, most likely – (riding breeches, boots and spurs hint at that), there’s little that gives any hint about time or location, The lack of medals makes me think it’s during the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa, though. The second guy from the right carries a captured Soviet PPD-40 submachine gun.

The PPD (Pistolet-Pulemyot Degtyarova) was developed in 1934. It was adopted by the Red Army in 1935 and entered production as the PPD-34. Made in small numbers, it was mostly issued to the NKVD, foremost to border guards. Slightly modified in 1938, it was re-designed after the Winter War with Finland (1939-40), adopting a copy of the Finnish 70-round drum magazine (71 rounds in the Soviet version), thus becoming the PPD-40. After the German invasion in 1941, it was soon discovered that the PPD-40 was less than ideal for wartime production, so it was quickly replaced by the more inexpensive and easier to produce PPSh-41, the iconic SMG of the Red Army. The PPD-40 was a first generation submachine gun, and an indifferent weapon useful mainly for the large magazine capacity.

It was rather common among troops to use captured enemy weapons, as long as there was access to captured ammunition stocks. The officer to right in the photo carries the MP-40 (or MP-38) he was issued. One advantage of using a captured weapon is that it doesn’t give away the shooter as an enemy due to the sound, which might give an element of surprise. On the other hand, it might also confuse friendly troops…

Hanging out at the bar

Two Landser from an antitank unit on the “Donnerbalken” (“thunder beam”), or in plain parlance: the latrine. As a soldier, whenever you go into a more or less permanent position, it is of utmost importance that a good latrine is built. It should be away from the tents or bunkers, as it will attract flies you don’t want around where you sleep and eat, yet not too far away, as you need to be able to find it in the dark.

Good hygiene must be observed, or disease might spread. When reading German soldiers’ memoirs, it isn’t uncommon that there’s mention of the author catching dysentery, especially among those serving on the Eastern Front. Dysentery is a type of gastroenteritis that results in bloody diarrhea. Other symptoms may include fever, abdominal pain, and a feeling of incomplete defecation. It is caused by several types of infections such as bacteria, viruses, parasitic worms, or protozoa. The mechanism is an inflammatory disorder of the intestine, especially of the colon.

Symptoms normally present themselves after one to three days, and are usually no longer present after a week. Anyone who has experienced a stomach flu will recognize the problem with what’s basically the running shits. Dysentery is worse; imagine suffering from it, especially during the winter, where one will have to struggle with the uniform, find a spot – any spot – to squat and let loose, and not having any paper to wipe yourself with. Do this for week, and you’ll hardly to be in any condition to fight.

So, if the soldiers in the photo above observe basic hygiene and wash their hands, they might avoid catching a nasty stomach bug. Remember that, kids!

150 posts!

That deserves a medal, I think. This photo was most likely taken in France, 1940. A Feldwebel (Staff sergeant) receives a medal, most likely an Iron Cross. It all seems a little improptu, which makes me believe that this was right after the sergeant had done something brave.

So, 150 posts… That’s about 50 posts a month, but as some of you might’ve noticed, I have cut it back to about one post a day. Almost half of the posts were in July alone, but then I wanted to create something for people to browse as the rate would inevitably drop. I still have a lot of photos to talk about, so I won’t run out of material any time soon. What I would like to see is more people following this blog, and especially to see more comments. It’s not like I’m attention-seeking, but it would be nice to have a two-way communication with visitors and followers.

Anyway, those of you who return here to read what I post about World War 2 and the men of the Wehrmacht, I thank you, and hope you’ll continue to follow this blog.

Reach for the sky, end up in the woods

A machinegun team somewhere on the Eastern Front, their MG34 ready to fire. At first glance, they can be mistaken for Heer (Army) soldiers, but had this photo been in color, it would be apparent that they aren’t. Instead of the regular Army feldgrau (field grey) uniforms, their uniforms are blue-grey, and in place of the Army Litzen collar patches, there are green Luftwaffe-style patches with rank gulls. They serve in a Luftwaffen-Feld-Division (LwFD).

So why would an airforce get itself what in the end became 22 infantry divisions? The divisions were originally authorized in October 1942, following suggestions that the Heer could be bolstered by transferring personnel from other services. The head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, formulated an alternative plan to raise his own infantry formations under the command of Luftwaffe officers; this was at least partly due to political differences with the Heer, which Göring considered too “conservative”. In the jockeying for power in the Nazi state, Göring probably saw an advantage in having an army of his own, considering that Heinrich Himmler had his Waffen-SS. It was typical of the fragmentization in the supposedly totalitarian Nazi state.

The plan was approved, and the divisions were raised from 200,000–250,000 Luftwaffe ground, support and other excess personnel. So, instead of transferring Luftwaffe personnel to the Heer, rebuilding existing units that already had a cadre of experienced officers, NCOs and soldiers, the LwFD were built from scratch, and became smaller copies of the equivalent Heer divisions. By Göring’s personal order, the LwFD were to be deployed for defensive duties in quieter sectors. Most of  the units spent much of their existence on the Eastern Front, which was hardly quiet.

The Luftwaffe Field Divisions initially remained under Luftwaffe command, but late in 1943 those that had not already been disbanded were transferred to the Heer and were reorganized as standard infantry divisions (retaining their numbering, but with Luftwaffe attached to distinguish them from similarly numbered Heer divisions) and any Luftwaffe officers replaced with Army officers. In post-war literature, they are referred to as, for example, “16. Feld-Division (L)”.

Until taken over by the Heer, these units were issued with standard Luftwaffe feldblau uniforms (and even some time after), and being so easily identifiable were said to often be singled out by the enemy. They had a poor reputation as combat troops (despite the high standard of Luftwaffe recruits), at least in part from being required to perform roles (ground warfare) for which they as airmen had little training. They were frequently used for rear echelon duties to free up front line troops

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein blamed the decline of the Wehrmacht in 1943 to the creation of these divisions. Von Manstein argued that they recruited some of the most able young men into these divisions, when they would’ve made adequate NCOs and replacements to the decimated Army divisions. In his memoirs he later blamed their poor training and coordination as the cause for several notable defeats.

In the end, the creation of the Luftwaffen-Feld-Divisione had a negative impact on Germany’s ability to wage war. Not that it mattered much in the end, but hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers might have survived the war if they had been in stronger and better led units.