Ready to march

The better part of an infantry battalion is visible in this photo, which gives us an idea of the number of men, horses and wagons in such a unit. I believe the machine gun (heavy weapons) company isn’t in view, which would add another 200 men or so. A German infantry battalion had one commander, usually a lieutenant colonel or major, but later in the war often a captain, 13 officers, 1 official, and 846 non-commissioned officers and enlisted men, plus 131 horses. There was the battalion staff unit, a signals unit, an engineer platoon, three rifle companies, a machine gun/heavy weapons company, combat supply troop, and a pack train.

german-infantry-battalion

The table above is from a 1944 US manual on the German infantry battalion, found on the excellent Lone Sentry online collection of WW2-era information and documents.

The table of organization was one thing, reality another. Combat meant losses, and it wasn’t unusual for battalions to shrink to company size. That was true for most armies, where units in the front line often suffered many casualties. When a battalion was too weak to function as a unit, it was usually pulled from the front line and sent for rest and refit in the rear. Reinforcements from the regiment’s replacement battalion brought the battalion back up to strength, and it was sent into the fray again. I’ve read memoirs by soldiers from both the German and the Allied side, and it was apparently common for some battalions to have just a handful of its original soldiers left after a year of combat. There are many accounts where the veterans don’t bother with learning the names of the new guys until they have survived the first fight or two. Life in the frontline was hard and unforgiving.

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Labor Day

1 May – the Nationaler Feiertag des Deutschen Volkes (“National Holiday of the German People”) – celebrated with an eagle-and-swastika-adorned May pole. The date was deliberately chosen, as it used to be the International Workers’ Day. In line with the nazification of all aspects of life, the previous holiday of the trade unions and leftist parties was renamed in 1933, shortly after Nazi rise to power. The trade unions (which were to be replaced by the regime-friendly Nazi equivalents) and leftist parties (soon to be disbanded) were banned to celebrate the day, and from 1937, Jews weren’t allowed to show themselves in the streets during public holidays. Just like the Christian church took over pagan holidays, the NSDAP put its own crooked cross on national holidays in order to indoctrinate the people even further.

20 April

It’s 20 April, 1941, which is the Führergeburtstag – Hitler’s birthday (his 52nd). Soldiers – probably wagon-drivers – are all dressed up with little bouquets in their chest pockets. The guy in the center wears the SA sports badge and the Reiterabzeichen (horse rider’s badge). It isn’t clear whether the flowers are to celebrate der Führer, or if the troops are about to depart on a journey (the back of the photo says something about “abreise”), and have received flowers from locals.

There’s a subtle hint that things aren’t all good in Hitler’s Reich, though… The soldiers wear laced boots and old-style Wickelgamaschen (puttees or leg-wraps). The German soldiers were known for their traditional, black, hobnailed jackboots (or Marschstiefel), but by this time leather had been scarce for a year. First the boots were shortened, then they were only issued to combat troops. By 1941, new recruits weren’t issued jackboots, and in late 1943 production ceased altogether. However, as late as fall 1944 depots were encouraged to issue Marschstiefel to infantry and artillery, to the extent they were available. The boots became a sign of experienced combat troops. Instead, low, laced boots were issued together with short canvas gaiters (Gamaschen), and became increasingly common from 1941 onwards.

The soldiers in the photo wear a different kind of Gamaschen, which I think must’ve been a stop-gap solution while the canvas gaiters were in production. The leather shortage was a minor problem, though, compared to the shortages in fuel that hampered operations and was one of the reasons Hitler wanted to take the oil fields in the southern part of the USSR.

Bread and circuses

Part of living in a militarized state is the martial pageantry, and Nazi Germany excelled at that. Parades served several purposes: they showed off the might of the military forces, they established the power of the state, and they served as a focus for displays of patriotism. By the heavy use of the swastika, which was a party symbol turned into a national emblem, the NSDAP was effectively telling the people that – to paraphrase Louis XIV – “the state is us”.

The photo above shows a parade in some major German city. I haven’t been able to identify the building, but none of my Berlin maps and guidebooks from 1923 – 1936 show a stately building like the one in the picture. A company of sailors march past the tribune, which is full of military top brass and Party functionaries. Men in Sturmabteilung uniforms salute the troops, as do the civilians out in the streets to gawk at the display.

The initial victories were celebrated with parades through Berlin, but as the war progressed and the victories dried up, the parades were more Party business than military. The enthusiasm shown in the newsreels shouldn’t be interpreted as the Germans were 100 % Nazi, but that many years of hardship and humiliation were exchanged for successes that promised a brighter future.

Carefully orchestrated propaganda reinforced national pride, and laid the credit for the victories at the feet of the Führer. As in all 20th century dictatorships, the image of the strong leader was a priority. The fact that the “true believers” were convinced that miracle weapons and the genius of Hitler would turn the fortunes of war even as the Allies crossed the German borders in 1945, just goes on to show how effective the propaganda was.

General Respect

General der Infanterie Viktor von Schwedeler, commander of the IV. Armeekorps, honoring Prussian soldiers killed in the Battle of Waterloo (1815) at the monument at La Belle Alliance, Belgium, June 1940. The photo was taken by an officer in Infanterie-Regiment 503, 290. Infanterie-Division.

He was born in St. Goarshausen in western Germany on 18 January 1885, and became a career officer from his teenage years, serving in various general staffs during WW1. He remained a staff officer during the lean years before the Nazi acquisition of power, and headed the Army Personnel Office 1933-38, eventually becoming a full general in 1938. Schwedeler was made commanding general of the IV. Army Corps following the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair of 1938, and remained with it during the campaigns in Poland, France, and the Soviet Union (Army Group South). He received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 29 June 1940.

He was transferred to the Führerreserve in October 1942. On 1 March 1943 he was appointed commanding general of the 4th Military District in Dresden, a position he held until 31 January 1945. Nevertheless, he was still responsible for the measures after the bombing of Dresden on 13 February and 15 February 1945. He held no command during the last months of the war, and died in Freiburg on 30 October 1954.

 

I don’t know about you, but to me he sounds to have been a bit boring. Certainly not like the stereotypical German generals of American and British movies, like in this sketch by British comedians Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones:

 

150 posts!

That deserves a medal, I think. This photo was most likely taken in France, 1940. A Feldwebel (Staff sergeant) receives a medal, most likely an Iron Cross. It all seems a little improptu, which makes me believe that this was right after the sergeant had done something brave.

So, 150 posts… That’s about 50 posts a month, but as some of you might’ve noticed, I have cut it back to about one post a day. Almost half of the posts were in July alone, but then I wanted to create something for people to browse as the rate would inevitably drop. I still have a lot of photos to talk about, so I won’t run out of material any time soon. What I would like to see is more people following this blog, and especially to see more comments. It’s not like I’m attention-seeking, but it would be nice to have a two-way communication with visitors and followers.

Anyway, those of you who return here to read what I post about World War 2 and the men of the Wehrmacht, I thank you, and hope you’ll continue to follow this blog.

“Gott mit uns”

A field service, the Kriegspfarrer (military chaplain) holding a sermon while the pulpit is wrapped in the Nazi war flag. The attending soldiers all wear belts with the motto “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”) embossed on the buckles. The motto had been a rallying cry from the Medieval crusades, through the Thirty Years War, to the Prussian kingdom of the 18th Century. It had been on the belt buckles worn by those soldiers’ fathers in World War One, and now they wore it while expanding the Lebensraum.

Military chaplains in German armies wasn’t something new; they had been around since the 18th century, and during WW1, the German Imperial Army fielded both Lutheran and Catholic priests, as well as 30 rabbis. The practice of having military chaplains was continued by the Wehrmacht, as 95 % of all Germans belonged to some Christian denomination, mainly evangelical Lutheran or Catholic. While there were clergymen opposed to Hitler and the Nazis, enough priests were willing to serve as military chaplains. Hitler, himself a believer in a Creator and who was never excommunicated by the Catholic church, wanted the church(es) tamed and to be a tool of the Nazi state. The men of cloth approved to serve as military chaplains had been cleared by the Gestapo.

While German military chaplains weren’t part of the ordinary military rank system, a Kriegspfarrer held the rank of captain, and after a year of service he was promoted to major. The chaplains wore a plain uniform without rank insignia, the Catholic military chaplains also had a crucifix in a neck chain. If there was risk of enemy fire, chaplains wore a red cross armband with a purple stripe (the color of the clergy). The Waffen-SS didn’t have any chaplains, expect for a few “ethnic” divisions, among them those with Muslim soldiers.

German Kriegspfarrer who served in the Wehrmacht were part of the German mainstream and lent the Nazi war effort legitimacy. The military chaplains mostly wanted to bring the word of the Christian God to men in the field and to deliver the sacraments, make their families proud and serve their country. According to the memorandum on field service, the Kriegspfarrer had the task of strengthening the fighting power of the soldiers. To this end they carried out services, general absolution, confession, communion and prayer. In addition, they took up wills or sent consoling letters to the families of fallen soldiers. They also contributed to the execution of burials and funerals. They were able to carry out their tasks independently and largely without problems. 

Their pastoral care and close contact with ordinary soldiers made them held in high esteem, which Hitler and Goebbels increasingly dreaded. From 1944 on, National Socialist leadership officers (NSFO, similar to the Red Army commissars) were introduced in the Wehrmacht in order to boost morale and promote the Nazi agenda. In the end, none of that mattered. Their God wasn’t with them.