Spätlese

“Spätlese” – a German term for wine made from ripe grapes – could also be applied to this quartet of mature gentlemen. The photo is from 1943 or later, as evident from the “M42” uniforms worn the first three soldiers (the Germans themselves didn’t use any model years for the uniforms; that’s a post-war distinction to differentiate between the variants of the same field uniform). The boots and gaiters also indicate a date of 1941 or later, and finally the caps are of the new 1943 pattern. The guy on the right wears an “M36” uniform, distinguished by the dark collar and pleats on the pockets, and still issued late in the war. Perhaps his girth made the depot issue a uniform that was still in storage, the smaller sizes already taken.

They are all in their 40’s, and most likely belonging to a second line or rear area unit. Of the year classes born around 1900, 4-9 % of the men died during the war, which was far better than those a generation younger, of which more than a third were killed. They were probably taken prisoner by the end of the war – by the Western Allies, if they were lucky. If so, they were probably held in a PoW camp for short while before sent home. If, on the other hand, they ended up in Soviet captivity, they weren’t released until 1953, if they had survived for that long. Small wonder German troops tried to surrender to the Western Allies as the Third Reich collapsed.

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Death cards

This isn’t a photo as such, but a card given to family members and other attendees at the funeral (or funeral service) of a soldier killed in battle. Giving away Sterbebilder (“death cards”) as mementos of the deceased is an old tradition, mainly in the Catholic parts of Germany and in Austria, and one that has continued to this day. It isn’t a military tradition as such, but as there were millions of Wehrmacht soldiers killed during WW2, there are countless cards with soldiers around, and they are a special interest for some collectors. They measure about 65 x 105 mm, and can be a single page or two (130 x 105 mm unfolded).

The card above was part of a lot of five cards I bought off eBay for 15 Euros. As the cards don’t mention the units the deceased belonged to or where they fell (except in very general terms; I guess the reason for that was operational secrecy), they present a puzzle to anyone trying to research them. Of the five cards I got, I’m fairly certain that I’ve managed to identify the unit of the young soldier above. Further research might help me figure out the units of the other four.

I made a search on Volksbund, the German war graves commission, where soldiers killed or missing during WW1 and WW2 are listed. Looking for “Michael Riedler” drew a blank, so I entered his first name, place of birth, and month and year of his death. This is what I found:

ridler.jpg

It appears like Volksbund got his surname wrong, which is known to happen sometimes due to the amount of records handled. Anyway, the place of death was listed as “Sanko. 1/82” in Nikolskoje. There are dozens of places named “Nikolskoje” (or rather “Nikolskoye”) in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union, so that wasn’t any help. There wasn’t any location of his grave listed, so the next best thing was to identify the field hospital where he died. I went to Lexikon der Wehrmacht and looked up Sanitätskompanien (field hospital units), abbreviated “Sanko”, and found Sanitätskompanie 82. It was part of the 2. Panzer-Division. Looking up the Division in question, I noticed that the Panzergrenadier-Regiment 304 had been formed from the Schützen-Regiment 304, which had been raised in Wehrkreis XVII in 1940. That military district was one of two in Austria, and the one were Ridler’s place of birth was located. Bingo!

In July, the 2. Panzer-Division took part in Operation Citadel. Also known as “the Battle of Kursk” or “the Battle of Prochorovka”, the battle was a strategic loss for the Germans. They went on the defensive, and the Division fought off attacks in the Orel – Bryansk area, and from 8 August in the vicinity of Yelnya. It was probably here that Michael Riedler was mortally wounded, leading to his death in the field hospital. Due to the heavy fighting in the area, there was probably little time to bury him properly, which is why there’s no known location of his grave.

His card reads (with somewhat gnarly syntax):

riedlerobitThere follows a verse: “I have to die far from my home, the enemy’s bullet brought death to me, I fell in the midst of my comrades and moved with them to the dear God. Dear parents and siblings do not weep, comfort yourself in your deep hurt. It will only be a little while before I see you all again.” Under his photo, there’s another poem: “Mother, dry your tears! When the cold ore struck me, my last thoughts were with you. Do not break, do not break, mother-heart! Grant me the death of the hero, wear as heroine your pain! One could call you more beautiful! Do not break, do not break, mother-heart!”
riedler1
On the front and back, the card says: “His faith was called Germany!”, and “Death is conquered in victory”.

The verses and quotes sums up the hero worship and cultish admiration of death so often seen in Nazi thinking, mixed with German sentimentality. Michael Riedler was one of millions of soldiers who didn’t return to his family, and this is one of the few memories he left behind.

The destruction of Dortmund

The Hansaplatz in Dortmund, 10 May, 1943. Some of the city’s more than 530,000 inhabitants walk past the ruins after the British bombing raid during the night of 4-5 May. The arcade with its shops and cafés lining one side of the square is in ruins, and the 14th century Probsteikirche behind it has met the same fate. Dortmund, an industrial and administrative center in the Ruhr area in western Germany, was a prime target for the Royal Air Force, beginning with a couple of raids in April, 1942. The attack in May 1943, coupled with another attack 19 nights later, claimed the lives of some 1,400 people and made more than a quarter of the population homeless. The final attack took place on 12 March 1945, when 1,108 RAF aircraft dropped 4,851 tons of bombs on Dortmund, the heaviest single bombing of any European city in WW2.

It was the RAF that flew most of the bombing missions against the about 260 German cities and towns that had been targeted for destruction. The British leadership under Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris (a man who would’ve ended up accused of war crimes if he had been in another uniform) thought, largely erroneously, that the war production would cease and the will of the German people would be broken by heavy area bombing of industrial and residential areas. Part of it was revenge for the Luftwaffe attacks on British cities, and the destruction of Hamburg and Dresden alone were enough to get even when it came to the death count. Poor precision (in many cases, the raids completely failed to hit the intended targets) and the dehousing strategy called for area bombing, most of it conducted at night. One tactic deployed was to drop incendiary bombs mixed with high explosive bombs with time fuses. When the rescue workers and fire-fighters were out, trying to put out the fires and helping people trapped in the ruins, the HE bombs went off, killing the rescue personnel.

A Luftwaffe officer can be seen in the photo. His boss, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, claimed in a speech to his Luftwaffe in September 1939 that “No enemy bomber can reach the Ruhr. If one reaches the Ruhr, my name is not Göring. You can call me Meyer.” The Luftwaffe had a cap that the pilots and other personnel came to call the “Hermann Meyer cap” in a sarcastic nod to his boast…

When American troops captured Dortmund on 13 April 1945, 98 % of the city center was in ruins after 106 bomb raids, the final raid making Dortmund the most heavily bombed city in Germany. Few of Dortmund’s historical buildings were rebuilt, and the neo-gothic arcade in the photo was replaced with an ugly, functionalist counterpart. The Probsteikirche was restored, but the face of Dortmund had been changed forever. Thanks to extensive construction of air raid shelters, the number of killed was relatively low at 6,341 people in total. A further 15,520 Dortmund men who served in the Wehrmacht never returned home. About 5,000 Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” had been deported to concentration camps in the east, and it can be surmised that very few of them survived.

Unexploded bombs are still found buried in the ground in German cities, and Dortmund is no exception. In November 2013, a 1.8 ton British bomb was found, and 20,000 people had to be evacuated while experts defused and removed it. The war is still present, and the last victims of the bombs haven’t been claimed yet.

Operation Zitadelle

Sturmgeschütz III self-propelled gun rumbles past an Sd.Kfz. 252 halftrack ammunition resupply vehicle, most likely in the summer of 1943, prior to the Battle of Kursk. The StuG is probably belonging to an independent self-propelled artillery battalion, while the half-track tows an ammunition trailer with the sign of the 19. Panzer-Division (two vertical bars, introduced in 1943).

The 19. Panzer-Division was formed from the 19. Infanterie-Division in November 1940. It saw action on the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1945. It took part in the battles of Moscow in 1941 and Kursk in 1943, and in the crushing of the Warsaw uprising in 1944. When the Red Army launched Operation Bagration in the summer of 1944, the 19. Panzer-Division was in the Netherlands for rest and refit, thus escaping potential annihilation in the destruction of Army Group Center. It was engaged in defensive battles until its surrender to Soviet forces in Czechoslovakia in May 1945.

Codenamed “Operation Zitadelle” by the Germans, the Battle of Kursk is considered the biggest tank battles ever. A total of some 8,000 tanks and 1.7 million men clashed, beginning on 5 July, 1943. The Soviets had the advantage, both in numbers and defensive positions; the German build-up had been rather slow, and the Red Army had had ample time to shift troops and build defensive positions prior to the attack. The Germans had hoped to encircle Soviet troops in the Kursk salient and thus weakening the Red Army, but success failed to materialize. Instead, the initiative passed to the Soviets, and from then on the Wehrmacht was unable to regain it.

“Dammit Karl, you had one job!”

The Germans developed the Tauchpanzer III, a tank capable to drive underwater to a depth of up to 6 meters (20′). It was intended for the invasion of Britain, which, as we all know, never happened. They saw some use in the invasion of the USSR, where they negated rivers where the bridges had been blown up. The tank in the photo, however, isn’t a Tauchpanzer

I don’t know what they tried to do here, but the PzKpfw IV (probably an Ausf. F2/G) ended up as a potential bridge support instead of fording the river. The photo is from the spring of 1943, and the Germans could ill afford to lose any of the up-gunned Panzer IVs, which was the first tank that could truly take on the Soviet T-34s. I suppose a recovery crew pulled it out of the river, but the engine and the electrical system needed a thorough check before it was ready to take to the battlefield again.

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!