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.

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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.

Signs of the time

At a road crossing near Bolkhov in Russia stands a Schilderbaum, a “sign tree”. Obscure signs with symbols, numbers and abbreviations point to the left or the right. I had to check the photo with a magnifying glass, and a couple of signs give a hint about the time. One shows the symbol of the 3. Panzer-Division as used in the summer of 1943, and the other that of the 17. Panzer-Division. Both were in the area for the Battle of Kursk, which dates the photo to June or July, 1943. Another sign shows the field post number of Field Bakery Company 665, a slightly less well-known unit. At least they had fresh bread.

Scout camp (WW2 style)

Officers and soldiers of the Stabskompanie – headquarters company – of the 12. Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung (armored reconnaisance battalion), 12. Panzer-Division enjoying a game of cards in a forest, probably outside Orel, Russia, summer of 1943. The recon unit was responsible for scouting ahead of the main units, using armored cars and gathering intelligence. The division spent most of the year there, participating in the Battle of Kursk in July. By the end of the year, it transferred to Army Group North, where it eventually became trapped in the Courland Pocket, surrendering in May, 1945.

This photo has just a name scribbled on the back, but the license plate of the car to the left is legible (WH 430495), and an identification request on the Axis History Forum resulted in a reply where the vehicle’s unit was identified. There are many ways of researching photos, unit symbols, field post numbers, and license plates being useful identifiers.