In my collection, I have several photos of prisoners of war captured by Germans. Most of them are either columns of PoWs marching off to captivity, or of a few individuals who often even smiles at the camera. The photos express no ill will towards the captured enemies, and in some cases even curiosity and a certain respect. I know I might be projecting here, and that much is in the eye of the beholder, but then there are a handful of photos that make me ill at ease, as they seem to convey the photographer’s racism and sense of superiority.

People back in the first half of the 20th century were more racist then most of us are today. The British and French had their colonies, and had no qualms about using Indians and Africans in battles far away from their home countries. The US Army was segregated, Afro-Americans thought to be too stupid to operate machinery like tanks. The Japanese perpetrated horrible war crimes against anyone they thought racially inferior, which was pretty much anyone not from Japan. The Germans, fed propaganda extolling the superiority of the “Aryan race” for years, went to war with the idea that they were the race that was entitled to Lebensraum – living space – that “lesser races” were unfit to occupy. This ideology was practiced in the East, starting with the idea that the Slavic peoples by and large were less worthy and in many cases Untermenschen (subhumans).

Coupled with unexpected successes in the beginning of Operation Barbarossa and the lack of planning to handle the enormous numbers of prisoners of war captured, this thinking resulted in the death of several million Soviet PoWs. What I find troubling with this photo is that in my mind, it expresses the German soldier’s view of this Russian. With his slightly crooked teeth, somewhat Asian features, dirty cap and rumpled uniform, as well as the perspective, this is pretty much the Nazi propaganda view of the Soviet subhuman that doesn’t have a place in the Thousand Year Reich. This soldier’s chance of surviving past the first year of captivity was minimal. No one knows his name, but now you’ve seen his face.

Something good to read

An officer, probably a Leutnant or Oberleutnant, his shoulderboards obscured by slip-on covers in order to make him a less obvious target, sits by the big oven in a Russian izba (peasant house), probably in 1941 or 1942. A man after my own heart, he has brought a book. Back when I did my military service, I was probably the only one in our company bringing a book to read when we were in the field.

There are many memoirs by German soldiers and officers that give an insight in what it was like to fight. I’ve read several, some of the best I’ll list here. For those of you who have only read Sven Hassel’s war novels, these books are the real stuff, in contrast to Hassel’s made-up stories. Here goes…

Gottlob Biedermann: In Deadly Combat   Biedermann rose from from private to lieutenant, serving in an infantry division on the Eastern Front. He survived four years of war; of his original squad of 13 men, only three did. His memoir provides an insight in the life as an NCO and junior officer. A particularily striking chapter is when the academic-looking Biedermann went berzerk during a Red Army assault.

Otto Carius: Tigers in the Mud   Slight of stature, Carius went from being a gunner in a PzKpfw 38(t) in 1941 to becoming the third highest-scoring tank ace of all time. He served for the largest part of the war  on the Eastern Front, but ended the was on the Western Front, fighting the Americans. Carius was an incredibly lucky soldier, and one memorable episode proves that smoking can actually save one’s life…

Siegfried Knappe: Soldat   A lieutenant during the invasion of France in 1940, Knappe was decorated for his bravery. He served on the Eastern Front and in Italy. Towards the end of the war, he served on General Wiedling’s staff during the fighting for Berlin, reporting to the Führerbunker. He became a prisoner of war, and spent five years in the USSR before being released. Knappe emigrated to the USA in the 1950’s.

Günther Koschorrek: Blood Red Snow   A simple soldier and machinegunner, Koschorrek was lucky to escape the hell in Stalingrad before it was too late. His account tells the tale of years of hard combat on the Eastern Front, and it rarely gets more intense and brutal than this. This is the story of a regular Frontschwein who was fortunate to survive it all, unlike most of his comrades.

Hans von Luck: Panzer Commander   A colonel by the end of WW2, Hans von Luck served on almost all fronts from the invasion of Poland in 1939, France 1940, the Soviet Union in 1941, North Africa, and Normandy, to the fall of Germany in 1945. His account is full of exciting and sometimes amusing stories. Few officers saw more action, and he even served under the legendary Field Marshal Rommel.

Kurt Meyer: Grenadiers   The youngest general in the German armed forces, the controversial “Panzer-Meyer” was in the thick of combat from the invasion of Poland to his capture in September 1944. Serving first in the elite Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler, then the 12. SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend”, he made a name for himself as an aggressive commander. He was tried for war crimes and sentenced to death, but managed to escape the hangman’s noose.

Martin Pöppel: Heaven & Hell   A rare account by one of the elite German Fallschirmjäger, Pöppel was a paratrooper who fought in Poland, Norway, Holland, Crete, Russia, Sicily and southern Italy, Normandy and Holland/Lower Rhine. He ended up as a prisoner of war in 1944, and spent some time in a PoW camp in Britain. The chapters on the fighting in Normandy are an interesting counterpoint to “Band of Brothers”, as his unit fought the 101st Airborne.

Guy Sajer: The Forgotten Soldier   Guy Sajer was an Alsacian who served in the elite Groβdeutschland Division (GD). He was just in his teens, and his story is one of a young man caught up in momentous events. There have been grave doubts whether he served in the German Army at all, as his book has many flaws and inaccuracies, but research has shown that he did serve in GD. Don’t read the book as a 100 % factual account of events, but as very personal story.

Johann Voss: Black Edelweiss   The 17 years old Voss joined the 6. SS-Gebirgs-Divsion in 1943 because a friend served there. The division was posted to the front in Finland, and in contrast to the other accounts listed here, he saw relatively little action to begin with. In 1944, the division fought rearguard actions in the Lapland War, and was deployed in the Vosges Mountains for Operation Nordwind, the little-known later phase of the Battle of the Bulge. Still, his book offers an insight into the mind of a young, idealistic soldier who had to deal with the fact that he had fought for an evil regime. In 2004, I managed to contact the author (“Johann Voss” isn’t his real name), and learned that he was still angry with how his youthful idealism had been exploited by Hitler and Himmler.

Final stop

Go home Ivan, you’re drunk… A Soviet BT-7-2 has crashed into a phone pole, the driver having trouble controlling it after losing the track on the right side. The BT-7 was introduced in 1935, and got its baptism of fire against the Japanese at Khalkin Gol in 1939. It saw action in Poland and Finland later that year, the Finns capturing 56 of them and adding them to their small tank force.

Armed with a 45 mm gun, the tank was a so called “cavalry tank”, which sacrificed armor protection for speed. The Christie suspension (later seen on its successor, the T-34) gave it good cross-country characteristics. The tank in the photo is the 1937 upgrade with the T-26 model 1937 conical turret, the two round hatches making the Germans nickname it “Mickey Mouse”. A pair of headlights above the main gun were used for night fighting. The tank had a crew of three (commander/gunner, loader, and driver), which together with the lack of a commander’s cupola and radio made the commander’s task hard and dangerous.

About 2000 tanks – 40 % of the total number built – were lost in the first 12 months after the launch of Operation Barbarossa. Still, the BT-7 was still active on all fronts by the end of the war in 1945.

A ditched gun and a puzzle

Near the Desna River in eastern Ukraine, July 1941, a couple of soldiers belonging to Army Group Center take a look at a ditched Soviet 152 mm howitzer-gun M1937 (ML-20). The ML-20 was one of the most successful Soviet artillery pieces of WW2. Its characteristics positioned it between classical short-range howitzers and special long-range guns. Like so many other Red Army guns left behind, this one will probably be pressed into German service, designated as 15,2-cm Kanonenhaubitze 433/1(r).

The photo is interesting as it makes me wonder who the guy who took it was. On the back of it is pencilled: “Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum” (“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”), a line from psalm 133. The combination of education and irony appeals to me. Did his erudition and wit see him through the war, or did he end up beneath a birch cross somewhere in the depths of Russia? If so, which psalm was sung over him in the church back in his home town? Or did he return after the war to pick up his civilian career? So many questions, so little answers…

“Heia Safari!”

Gefreiter wearing the tropical uniform used in North Africa and some parts of the Mediterranian Theater of Operations. While I cannot say for sure that he belongs to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, it is likely that the photo was shot either in southern Italy while waiting to be shipped over, or shortly after the arrival to Africa. Troops who had served in Africa for two months got the right to wear the “Afrikakorps” cuff title on the left sleeve.

Still, the young soldier in the photo has some experience. He has the ribbons for the Iron Cross, 2nd class (button hole) and the Kriegsverdienstkreuz (War Merit Cross, over left breast pocket). The War Merit Cross, which was often awarded to non-combatants and rear-area troops, was called das Feldküchensturmabzeichen (the Field Kitchen Assault Badge) by cynical frontline troops… The Infanterie-Sturmabzeichen in silver shows that he has participated in three separate assaults while serving in an infantry unit (as opposed to a motorized Panzer unit), and the Verwundeteabzeichen (Wound Badge), probably in black (paint rubbed off to reveal the brass underneath), for one or two combat wounds.

He’s wearing the tropical uniform, with the early high-laced canvas-and-leather boots, and the peaked cap. The tunic sleeves are too short, which is odd, as the Germans were pretty intent on having well-fitted uniforms (at least in the early years of the war). At least he hasn’t been issued the pith helmet (tropical helmet, which would make him look like an explorer), as the early versions of the tropical uniform was inspired by British styles.



After the battle

Tallinn, Estonia: a set of photos, contrasting 1941 with 2017. Some years ago, I acquired a series of photos taken by a German soldier in the summer of 1941. He probably served in the 291. Infanterie-Division, judging by other photos indicating the approach to Tallinn. A few of the photos were taken in the city after the occupying Red Army had been thrown out, and were probably from early September that year. I searched for the locations where the photographer had stood almost 76 years ago and took new photos.

Top: view of Vabaduse väljak (“Freedom Square”), from outside Hotel Palace. In Soviet times, this was the “Victory Square”, before that there were city blocks.

Center: the 15th century artillery tower Kiek in de Kök, which is Low German: Peep into the Kitchen, alluding to the view it offers of the neighbors…

Bottom: view from the northern part of the Toompea (“Cathedral Mountain”, Tallinn’s “high town”, facing north-east. Here, I couldn’t access the exact spot the soldier stood in, but this was close enough.

I hope you’ll enjoy these then-and-now photos. Those of you who would like to take a closer look at Tallinn: do it! It’s a beautiful city, well worth a visit.


The bodies of Soviet soldiers dot the battle-stained snow after a failed assault. One of the tires of a 3.7 cm Pak 36 (Panzerabwehrkanone 36) has caught fire, as the German position was almost overrun and the house on the right started burning. According to the notes on the back of the photo, more than 100 Red Army soldiers were killed. Attacking across an open field, especially when the opponent is armed with machineguns, is a surefire way of getting your soldiers slaughtered.

While we don’t know the specifics of this particular battle and the units involved, the Red Army was poorly led after the great purges of 1936-38, and another round of purges in 1941. Professional officers were executed, in the absolute majority of cases after summary court hearings based on false accusations. Instead, inexperienced but politically reliable officers filled the gaps. substandard leadership was one of the reasons why the Red Army fared so poorly against the Finns in the Winter War 1939-40. Ironically, the weak performance in Finland convinced Hitler that the USSR would be easy to defeat. When weather and the vastness of the Soviet Union slowed down the German advance, the Red Army could begin to slowly rebuild the competence lost.