Fieldworks, part 7:

As a contrast to my post two days ago, this is what most other dugouts looked like. While it might to cosy inside, the outside is serviceable and nothing more. This photo is probably from the later half of 1943, showing a dugout on the Eastern Front. The writing on the back says it’s in a place called “Botchkari”, which probably is Bochkary in Belarus (about halfway between Vitebsk and Minsk), and which was in German hands until the massive Red Army offensive known as Operation Bagration in the summer of 1944. The soldiers in the photo were lucky if they managed to escape the Soviet onslaught.

As already noted, this dugout isn’t as tidy as the previous one. A two-man saw lies behind the man on the left. A stovepipe leans out of the dugout, and a field telephone wire spool holds the last meters of the phone wire leading to company headquarters. Some spruce boughs serve as camouflage, but the overturned sandy soil makes spotting the position from a reconnaisance airplane easy. Today, there’s probably just an overgrown mound with some rotting logs and whatever items the soldiers had to leave behind.


Fieldworks, part 6: “In a hole in the ground…

…there lived a Nazi.” Of the many photos of dugouts and other temporary accommodations used by German soldiers that I own, this is the only one where a swastika is used. Most others have simple signs with unit designations or slightly ironic names like “Villa Bellevue”. Several are almost excessively tidy, though, with little fences and other features more commonly associated with summer houses. It was probably a way of making life on the frontline a little more bearable. Also, if there wasn’t much combat, improving your dugout and making it look less like a hole in the ground gave you something to do.

Fieldworks, part 5: Can you dig it?

When taking up static positions, a good dugout is a must. The Red Army artillery was feared for the heavy barrages it delivered, so it was prudent to dig in as soon as possible. The Germans were known for well-built, cosy (relatively) dugouts, a craft that appears to have originated in WW1. A half-squad dugout was 3.1 x 3.9 meters, with 2 meters from floor to ceiling. Walls and floor were covered with boards like in the photo above or built from logs (like a loghouse), while the roof consisted of c. 30 cms thick logs in two layers (one single layer and a double layer with the logs crosswise) with 40-50 cms of earth between them, and then a meter of dirt on top of it all. That gave decent protection against most artillery shells.

Inside, there were bunk beds, a table, chairs or stools, a stove for heating and simple cooking, a weapons rack, and a radio (if available). Candles and kerosene lanterns provided lighting, and in some cases electrical lighting. Dugouts varied in size and layout depending on what they were used for, like headquarters, cooking, etc. Soldiers tended to add personal items like photos of girlfriends in order to make the dugout more like a home. If they were to spend time living underground, they wanted to do the best of it.

On my radio

Before the Internet, before television, it was broadcast radio that connected the world. People got news and entertainment through radio, but it was also a powerful propaganda tool. Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda saw to it that the Nazi party and government were the only to transmit their “truth” on the airwaves. Listening to foreign stations such as the BBC became a criminal offence in when the war began, while in some occupied territories, all radio listening by non-German citizens was prohibited. Penalties ranged from fines and confiscation of radios to sentencing to a concentration camp or even capital punishment. Nevertheless, people being people and channels of information other than Nazi propaganda so few, such clandestine listening was widespread in many Nazi-occupied countries and (particularly later in the war) in Germany itself.

There were moments when enemies could listen to the same programs and share something. After the capture of Belgrade in Yugoslavia in 1941, Radio Belgrade became the German forces’ radio station under the name of Soldatensender Belgrad (Soldiers’ Radio Belgrade), with transmissions heard throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. While on leave in Vienna, a lieutenant working at the station was asked to collect a pile of second-hand records from the Reich radio station. Among them was “Lili Marleen” sung by Lale Andersen, which up till then had sold around 700 copies. For lack of other recordings, Radio Belgrade played the song frequently.

“Lili Marleen” was a sentimental, romantic song with the words written in 1915 as a poem of three verses by Hans Leip, a school teacher from Hamburg who had been conscripted into the Imperial German Army. The poem was later published in 1937 as “Das Lied eines jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht” (“The Song of a Young Soldier on Watch”), with two further verses added. It was set to music by Norbert Schultze in 1938 and recorded for the first time by Lale Andersen in 1939.

The previously obscure song became a hit with German soldiers all over Europe and North Africa, and not only them, but with Allied soldiers, too. At one point Joseph Goebbels ordered broadcasting of the song to stop. Radio Belgrade received letters from Axis soldiers all over Europe asking them to play “Lili Marleen” again. Goebbels reluctantly changed his mind, and from then on the tune was used to sign-off the broadcast at 9:55 PM. A recording in English was made both by Lale Andersen and Marlene Dietrich (who had permanently left her native Germany for the US in 1939), the latter as a move by the Allies to make Allied Soldiers less prone to tune in German propaganda channels in order to listen to the song.

“Lili Marleen” became one of the signature songs of WW2, and unique because it was loved by both sides.

A good start to a good day

The men of what appears to be a mobile field workshop having breakfast. A big pot of ersatz coffee, sandwiches with spreads like jam, liver paste or canned cheese make for a good start of a hopefully productive day. A hammer rests on an anvil. The car is probably a 1939 Horch 830 BL Pullman saloon, a little worse for wear since it joined the Army. The photo is stamped 7 April 1943 on the back, but I suspect it was taken the year before. The chevron painted on the door might be a unit marking, but I haven’t found out which one.

The men sport haircuts typical of the German Army at the time. The skinhead look of the German soldiers in Saving Private Ryan was rather ahistorical. Some soldiers even wore their hair longer than American GIs, something that surprised the Yanks.

The second guy from the left is sitting on a 20 liter gas can. It’s made from stamped sheet steel, and the design has been essentially unchanged to this day. The Allies copied the design, calling it “Jerry can” as in “Jerries” = Germans. The British in particular picked up any they could lay their hands on, as their equivalents were known as “flimsies”, the name indicating their sturdiness (or rather lack thereof). If the cans had a white cross painted on them, they held water instead. Otherwise the morning coffee might be a bit stronger than intended by accident…

Hanging out at the bar

Two Landser from an antitank unit on the “Donnerbalken” (“thunder beam”), or in plain parlance: the latrine. As a soldier, whenever you go into a more or less permanent position, it is of utmost importance that a good latrine is built. It should be away from the tents or bunkers, as it will attract flies you don’t want around where you sleep and eat, yet not too far away, as you need to be able to find it in the dark.

Good hygiene must be observed, or disease might spread. When reading German soldiers’ memoirs, it isn’t uncommon that there’s mention of the author catching dysentery, especially among those serving on the Eastern Front. Dysentery is a type of gastroenteritis that results in bloody diarrhea. Other symptoms may include fever, abdominal pain, and a feeling of incomplete defecation. It is caused by several types of infections such as bacteria, viruses, parasitic worms, or protozoa. The mechanism is an inflammatory disorder of the intestine, especially of the colon.

Symptoms normally present themselves after one to three days, and are usually no longer present after a week. Anyone who has experienced a stomach flu will recognize the problem with what’s basically the running shits. Dysentery is worse; imagine suffering from it, especially during the winter, where one will have to struggle with the uniform, find a spot – any spot – to squat and let loose, and not having any paper to wipe yourself with. Do this for week, and you’ll hardly to be in any condition to fight.

So, if the soldiers in the photo above observe basic hygiene and wash their hands, they might avoid catching a nasty stomach bug. Remember that, kids!

“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.