“I’m happy I’m not wearing my pink thong today” is probably not the thought going through that NCO’s head while a comrade sews on a button. It’s somewhere on the Eastern Front, probably in 1941, and the soldiers belong to a motorized unit with light all-terrain cars among its vehicles. A brief moment with something very ordinary, while the war rages in the largest military engagement in history.
There are some signs that this photo was taken in the West, probably France. The bread is baked from wheat, and isn’t the dark rye Kommissbrot that was a part of the daily ration. The cheese looks to be more than the daily 120 grams, too. I have no idea what the mash in the mess tins could be. Butter? But butter, margarine or lard was usually kept in a separate bakelite container. Semolina porridge? Possibly. Anyway, the M31 Feldflasche and M31 Kochgeschirr (field bottle and mess tin) are standard issue, but the knife is not. Did I say France? The knife with it’s horse head top is of a type more common in Finland, so that makes the location of the photo more likely to be the northern part of the Eastern Front. Well, whatever the location, the soldiers had good eating that day.
A couple of German soldiers kicking back and enjoying the quiet during a summer day. It appears like they have built the cottage, as it doesn’t look as permanent as the dachas the Russians used as summer homes, but it could’ve been appropriated. They certainly have some creature comforts, like the deck chair made from birch branches. The pot with flowers on the table is another touch to make life in the field more home-like. The Feldwebel on the right appears to be dozing, while his friend reads a newspaper, perhaps one that has come all the way from the Fatherland. There are no clues as to when or where the photo is taken, but the Feldwebel‘s Iron Cross, 1st class, indicates that it’s at least a couple of years into the war. They might belong to a rear area unit, as I doubt that soldiers on the frontline would have access to a place like this.
Taking a break, an Obergefreiter, a Gefreiter, and a Frettchen (ferret) pose for the camera. Armed with shotguns, the soldiers will hunt for rabbits, the ferret… well, ferreting out the rabbits from their warrens. Ferrets have been used for hunting since ancient times, their sleek build ideal for going down tunnels and driving out rabbits, rats and other rodents. Another photo shows the hunters with a dozen rabbits, so the ferret did a good job. Rabbit meat was an important part of the diet all over Europe during WW2, as meat from larger animals was rationed. Many families bred rabbits for food, keeping them in hutches in the back yard. Butchers kept the feet on the otherwise skinned rabbits, proving that they actually were rabbits and not cats. In wartime Europe, you couldn’t be picky about what meat you got…
It’s not the best photo, but one that’s relatively rare. What we see is a military mail sorting room, where sacks full with letters and parcels wait to be distributed to the addressees. The staff is hard at work processing in- and outgoing mail, the letters to the soldiers only identified by a field post number and the name of the soldier. The field post numbers were five-digit codes that made it impossible for anyone intercepting a letter to tell which unit the soldier served in, or the location of it.
A staggering 30-40 billion letters, postcards, and parcels were sent between the front and Germany 1939-45 using the Feldpost system, and it’s possible that there were even more. Back when people had to rely on letters for communication, it wasn’t unusual for soldiers to write several letters each day, much like modern people firing off text messages. The postage was 20 Reichspfennig (a soldier earned 35 Reichsmark a month) for a parcel up to 1000 grams, while postcards and letters up to 250 grams were free of charge. Being able to stay in touch with friends and family was important for morale.
Here’s an example of a Feldpost postcard I own. The Feldpost number is that of the Kfz.-Instandsetzungs-Kompanie 178 (178th motor vehicle repair company), and sent by Franz Hofmann to his parents on 25 August, 1942.
There are several Franz Hofmann listed as killed or missing in action, so it’s impossible to tell whether this particular soldier made it through the war alive, but as a soldier in a rear-area unit, his chances were better than average.
A soldier tending to his Knobelbecher (“dice-shakers”), the classic German Marschstiefel (marching boot), while wearing checkered felt slippers. The sole of the boot is clearly visible, with its toe and heel irons and 33 hobnails. There were 35-45 hobnails per boot, depending on size, but earlier boots had toe irons, which might account for the lower hobnail count. The jackboot was an iconic piece of the German uniform, with roots in the 19th century. The calf part of the boot was originally 35 cm high, but it was shortened to 29 cm in order to save leather. In 1941, the laced low boot was introduced as another measure to make leather stocks last, and the jackboot was reserved for infantry and other front-line units.
Marching 40-50 km a day resulted in many soldiers developing varicose veins, something veterans blamed the boots for. Still, by the latter half of the war, the jackboots were the sign of an Alte Hase (“old hare” – a veteran), and worn with pride. The hobnails – intended to make the soles last longer and to improve footing – had the unfortunate effect of leading the icy cold through the sole, which added to the frostbite problem during the cold Russian winters. If I’m not mistaken, the boots issued to armored vehicle crews lacked the hobnails, as they would increase the risk of slipping when stepping on metal plates of the hull otherwise.
In war movies produced well after the war, hobnail-counters can often spot German troops wearing Russian jackboots (no hobnails) or post-war boots (modern rubber soles). Finding well-made reproduction boots can be hard; expect to pay about 150 USD/Euro for a decent pair.
Troops of a cavalry unit advancing during the Campaign in the West, 1940. An Obergefreiter and an Oberfeldwebel naps on the back of a wagon. They were probably up early, and now the advance along French country roads lulls them to sleep. War can be tiring, with odd hours, long days, great physical exertion, and “months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror”, to use a phrase coined during WW1. There was a need to have troops alert and ready for action, and the solution was… methamphetamine! Yup, the Third Reich wasn’t just bad, but breaking bad!
Amphetamine was invented in 1887, but it took a few decades before the medical industry found a use for it. In the early 1930s, it was a component of the asthma drug Benzedrine. Soon the effects of amphetamine became apparent: it raised awareness, made the user awake, dulled hunger and pain, and alleviated boredom. It was soon modified into methamphetamine. In 1938, it was marketed under the name Pervitin in Germany, and sold over the counter at chemists. It attracted the attention of the German Army, but it was already used by some troops as early as the invasion of Poland in 1939. Pilots and tank and truck drivers were among those who found most use of the drug. The authorities made so it wasn’t sold over the counter anymore, but the Army is said to have distributed 35 million Pervitin and the similar Isophan pills during the campaigns of April – July 1940 alone!
Drug addiction wasn’t unknown; drugs of choice in the first half of the 20th century were cocaine and morphine. “Meth” wasn’t an exception, and as it was increasingly abused, the Army became very restrictive in its use from the spring of 1941. Historian Lukasz Kamienski says “A soldier going to battle on Pervitin usually found himself unable to perform effectively for the next day or two. Suffering from a drug hangover and looking more like a zombie than a great warrior, he had to recover from the side effects.” Some soldiers turned very violent, committing war crimes against civilians; others attacked their own officers. Still, it was issued throughout the war, and one can only wonder what it did to its users.
The Allies used meth, too, in the shape of Benzedrine, also known as “wakey-wakey pills”. The British used it primarily to keep bomber pilots alert, but also aircrew on submarine-hunting missions, which demanded sharpened wits for hours at an end. Ground troops, too, were issued Benzedrine, and it is said that large quantities were ordered before the showdown at el-Alamein. After some initial skepticism, the Americans followed suit and issued Benzedrine to the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps. The drawbacks of the drug became apparent, though, and it was a known fact that the self-confidence felt by the users wasn’t reflected in actual performance, where all sorts of mistakes were made. After the war, amphetamine-based drugs were sold to truck drivers and as a weight-loss drug to housewives, but abuse called for restrictions and legislation.