The good old times?

An officer, probably in an artillery unit, takes a swig from a bottle of booze in France, summer of 1940. Despite losses of some 45,000 soldiers killed or missing in action, it was still nothing compared to the casualties in a single battle 25 years earlier. The campaign was a smashing success, and the public back home in Germany was in a patriotic fervor. Surely this meant that Germany would be great again?

Looking back on World War 2, it’s easy to see which side to pick if one had been alive back then and of age to serve. There’s some nostalgic notion that people showed more solidarity, and that they weathered the hard times with cheer and a hope for a better tomorrow. Life seemed simpler, the choices clearer, the world more black and white. Some people caught up in the complex world of today look back at those years with a certain longing. Movies feed the romantic view that WW2 was a rough time, but also a great time to be alive, and anyone playing WW2 computer games can be heroes who, if killed, just need to load the latest save and have another go at that machine gun position. It was the time of the Greatest Generation.

Or was it? Sure, many of the soldiers who volunteered to fight for their beliefs were brave, and those who had little choice, being conscripted, showed great courage in many situations, too. Opposing the Axis powers was the right thing to do, regardless of personal reasons to fight. On the other hand, the world in the 1930s and 40s wasn’t a nice place. Some aspects were good and deserve to be revived, but in general it’s clear that most people are better off today, especially women and minorities. It was a time that would be exciting to visit as a time traveler, but also one that most of us would be happy to return from. Besides, the 1940s didn’t have wifi.

Followers of my blog may be excused if they think that I would’ve liked to fight on the German side, at least if you haven’t read what I write. It’s a mistake to believe that just because one has an interest in a certain nation at a certain time in history, one would like to live in it during that time. While I have some equipment that allows me to reenact a German soldier if I wanted to (not that I have done it), I think that given the choice and a time machine, I would like to serve in the US Navy in the Pacific. I don’t know why I have a soft spot for that particular setting, but there it is. My father served in the Swedish Navy in the mid-1950s, and my father-in-law served in the US Navy in the Pacific right after the war had ended (I had my preferences long before I married, though). I guess there’s something about warships and the tropical setting, coupled with the epic nature of the whole campaign in the Pacific.

So there you have it – perhaps I should get a bunch of US photos and blog about them instead. That might be a future project, but for now I’ll stick with the Germans.


The Light Side of the Armored Force

France or Belgium, summer of 1940. Two German soldiers inspect a captured Vickers Light Tank Mk. VIC. Of about 400 Vickers Mk. VIs deployed by the British Expeditionary Force, only six made it back to England. The British had a penchant for light tanks, just like many other countries in the 1930s. They were intended as support for infantry attacks (especially in the colonies), as well as for reconnaissance. They were armed with machineguns and had thin armor, and weren’t intended to combat other tanks. As the expert says in the video below, they were pretty rubbish when it came to combat.

The Germans, true to form, adopted almost all captured equipment they thought they had use for. Designated “Leichter Panzerkampfwagen Mk.VIC 736(e)”, they were used (in addition to the original tasks) for policing rear areas and as training vehicles, and were issued to second rank divisions. Some were converted to 105mm light howitzer carriers designated as 10.5cm leFH 16 auf Geschutzwagen Mk.VI(e), and ammunition carriers designated as Munitionspanzer auf Fahrgestell Mk.VI(e). As reconnaissance tanks, they got the designation Beobachtungspanzer auf Fahrgestell Mk.VI(e).

The tank weighed about five tons depending on version, and was capable of a road speed of 55 km/h (40 km/h in terrain). Production ceased in 1940 after 1682 vehicles had been built (all versions). It saw action in the Arab-Israeli War in 1948 before being retired for good. The video below is about the Mk. VIB, but the comments applies to the Mk. VIC, too.


Thanks to Axis History Forum member peeved for help in identifying the tank.


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.

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.

A long way from Tipperary…

Late May, 1940. British prisoners of war are being marched to Germany, guarded by German soldiers with mounted bayonets. They are close to the IJzer Canal near Ypres, where their fathers and uncles fought each other 25 years earlier. This time the German advance isn’t halted, and the British Expeditionary Force is forced to retreat towards Dunkirk. The gefangene Tommy, as the back of the photo calls them, don’t know that five years of captivity awaits them. The ordinary soldiers were put to argicultural or industrial work, and they were generally treated well, all but 3.5 % surviving the war.

Their captors are from the 13th company of Infanterie-Regiment 59 in the 19-Infanterie-Division. The Regiment was raised in October 1935 as the Wehrmacht was expanded. The Division took part in the attack on Poland in 1939, and then as part of the 6th Army in the invasion of Belgium, returning to Germany in September 1940 to be converted to the 19. Panzer-Division. It fought the rest of the war on the Eastern Front, eventually surrendering to the Soviets in Moravia in May 1945.

Treasure ship

German troops embark the Norwegian coastal steamer DS Driva, likely in the second half of 1940 or 1941. The ship might look unremarkable, but she played a part in some of the dramatic events following the German invasion of Norway in April 1940.

The 145-foot, 285 grt Driva was built in Trondheim in 1909, and carried passengers (up to 343), cargo and mail along the Norwegian west coast on the Trondheim-Batnfjordsøra route. Her service life was uneventful until 1940. When the Germans invaded, the Norwegian gold reserve was brought from Oslo to the coastal town Molde for loading on the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Glasgow, to be transported together with the King and members of the government to Britain. The transport by road was very dramatic, but not all gold could be loaded on Glasgow, as Molde was attacked by German bombers and the cruiser had to leave. The remaining gold was loaded on DS Driva, and the aging steamer set course north for Tromsø on 29 April 1940. She didn’t get far, though, as she was attacked by German aircraft the next day, and subsequently damaged and beached. The gold was transferred to other boats, and eventually reached Britain.

DS Driva was recovered and repaired, and – as evident in the photo – used for transport of the new masters. She sailed for another five years after the war, but was laid up as a reserve in 1950. The steamer, which had enjoyed a brief adventure in 1940, was scrapped in 1956.

Three friends of mine

Berck-sur-Mer, France, summer of 1940. Three combat engineers from the 10. Panzer-Division take a look at a defused British Mk XIV (or possibly the upgrade, Mk XVII) naval mine, the contact horns removed and the 145 kg TNT charge lying next to it.

Mine warfare was very much a thing during WW2, all nations with coasts using naval mines both to protect their territory, to disrupt enemy shipping (as part of a blockade), and to sink enemy warships and merchant ships. There were several types of mines, the most common being the contact mine like the one above. That type was moored and submerged just under the surface, a mechanism adjusting the length of the mooring wire as the tide rose and fell. The mine had a number of horns, and when one of those was struck by a ship, the main charge exploded, the resulting damage crippling or sinking the ship. Other types of mines reacted to the magnetic field of a ship, or the sound of its propellers. Naval mines were the cause of loss of ships and lives long after the war, as unswept mines continued to be a danger to shipping.

Berck-sur-Mer was a small fishing town in the Pas-de-Calais region which had become a resort in the mid-19th century, when a hosptial for the treatment of tuberculosis was built there, the sea air thought to be beneficial for the patients. The town was damaged in 1944, as Allied air raids in preparation of D-Day hit German coastal installations, mainly as a diversion in order to draw German attention from the landing beaches in Normandy. The town recovered, and is now a holiday resort.