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…


Happy New Year?

It’s New Year’s Eve, or “Silvester” as the Germans call it. The soldiers enjoy smokes and drinks, celebrating the end of 1943 and hoping that 1944 will bring about a change in Germany’s fortunes. In the background is the Christmas tree, a window covered by a blackout curtain, an icon and a religious painting. Uniforms jackets, equipment and Zeltbähne hang from hooks. If it wasn’t for the Obergefreiter in the black Panzer jacket, it would be hard to tell what kind of unit they belong to. The piping around the collar patch isn’t bright enough to be the golden yellow of an armored reconnaisance unit, which makes me think it’s the pink of the Panzer troops. On his sleeve can be seen the Kraftfahrbewährungsabzeichen, a badge awarded to experienced drivers.

Whatever hopes they had for 1944, they were thoroughly squashed by the end of that year. The Reich was bombed day and night, the Battle of the Atlantic had been definitely lost, the Allies had taken large parts of Italy and landed in France, causing a retreat back to the German border. The Eastern Front had almost collapsed. The last gamble to turn the tide of the war against the Western Allies, the Ardennes Offensive, had stalled. If anything, the prospects for 1945 were even worse, and if any of the guys in the photo survived the war, they probably spent New Year’s Eve 1945 in a prisoner of war camp.

So this wraps up the first half year of this blog. Next year, I’ll probably update it every two days, as I have to attend to other projects. Rest assured that I have hundreds of photos to write about, so it isn’t like I’m running out of subjects.

Happy New Year!

Hogging it

Somewhere  on the Eastern Front, mid-february 1943. German soldiers are apparently “procuring” a pig, which runs the risk of ending up at pork chops, roasts, and sausages. A couple of months earlier, those same troops were probably looking for a goose – or in a pinch a duck – for their Christmas dinner. It wasn’t without risk, though. Those Germans who ended up as prisoners of war, and who were found out to have engaged in theft of property of the Soviet state (like the pig above), could get several years added to their involuntary stay in the USSR.

Fresh meat was an appreciated addition to the diet on the frontline. Unless it was an army horse finally giving in to the hardships, or a wild animal, it meant that some Soviet farmer (or kolhoz) lost a cow, or sheep, or brace of chickens. As the Soviet civilians fared badly under the occupation, losing the one cow that could give milk was a serious matter. Later, when the Red Army harried the collapsing Reich, German farmers got to experience what the people under German occupation had endured for years.

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.

Drive to the East

At first glance, this photo might be mistaken as being of an SS soldier.  The collar tabs and the sleeve eagle look like those of the Waffen-SS. This isn’t the case, though. In keeping with the motor transport theme set by the previous two posts, the guy in the pic is a member of the Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrkorps (National Socialist Motor Corps). The NSKK was a paramilitary organization within the Nazi Party, and served as a training organization, mainly instructing members in the operation and maintenance of motorcycles and cars, and providing drivers for Party officials. With the outbreak of WW2, NSKK members were recruited to serve in the transport corps of various German military branches, since they possessed knowledge of motorized transport, a useful skill when the bulk of German ground forces relied on horses. The NSKK was used to transport German Army troops, supplies and ammunition. By the time WW2 began, the NSKK had already trained some 200,000 men at its 21 training facilities.

The man in the photo is an NSKK-Rottenführer, which is the equivalent of a lance corporal. On the back of the photo it’s noted: “Jalta / Krim Juli 1943”. Given the Crimea location taken together with the collar tab which says “Sp”, it can be concluded that he is a member of Transportbrigade Speer, which followed Army Group South, providing infrastructural backup and supplies. It was organized in 1942, and had almost 50,000 vehicles and comprised about 70,000 men. Members of the Transportbrigade Speer wore either the gray-blue uniform of the Luftwaffe or the brown uniform of Speer’s staff (like the man in the photo). As with all other Nazi organizations, the NSKK was disbanded in May 1945.

From riches to rags

Three years after enjoying life in the French chateau, the men of Propagandakompanie 612 found themselves on the Eastern Front. Attached to the 9th Army since 1941, life was considerably less comfortable, even if they didn’t have to endure daily life in the frontline. They went on writing their stories for both army publications and for newspapers and magazines back home. With the increasingly difficult times and slow retreat, it was important to boost morale.

When reading about what many soldiers thought of the war, of their confident attitude when captured (at least by the Americans and British), sure that the wonder weapons would break the Allies or that the Western Allies and Germany would join in an alliance against the “Asian hordes”, it seems like the propaganda worked. There were very few news sources not controlled by Josef Goebbel’s Ministry of Propaganda. Daring Germans could try to tune in BBC’s world service, but for a soldier in the field, state media and military censorship kept him from learning anything but the official version. Still, rumours and letters from home revealed that the war wasn’t going Germany’s way. Added to the stress on the front was the worry for families and loved ones back home, who were subject to the increasing bombing campaign against Germany.

From August 1944, political officers were assigned to batallions and regiments to make sure that the Nazi worldview prevailed. These Nationalsozialistischer Führungsoffiziere (NSFO) were similar to the Red Army commissars, with the difference that they had no say in military decisions. Having lived in an environment steeped in propaganda for a dozen years, German prisoners of war had trouble accepting news on for example Nazi crimes against humanity, thinking that it was just more propaganda, only from different sources. The men in Propaganda Company 612 ended up in Berlin in 1945, and those who didn’t escape the encircled city went into Soviet captivity, which, if they were lucky to survive it, they wouldn’t return from until 7-8 years later.

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

A Zündapp KS750 motorcycle and sidecar combination makes its way through the slush and mud of a dismal Russian road, probably in late winter/early spring of 1943. The motorbike rider is interestingly enough wearing a Soviet tanker’s padded crash helmet, instead of the regular steel helmet. It provides better protection and more warmth than the helmet and “Oma”, the tube-shaped, knitted head covering issued with the winter uniform.

The road is marked with poles, which helped vehicles to stay on course in the deep snows and blizzards of winter. The horses and infantry further up the road probably enjoyed the road even less than the MC rider. The German way of warfare relied on good roads and short distances, which made the campaigns in Europe a success. In the USSR, the poor roads and great distances, combined with the harsh winters and mud seasons, made the German Army lose momentum.