Five men from an antitank gun platoon posing for their buddy with the camera, taking a break from cutting wood, somewhere on the Eastern Front, spring of 1942. All of them enjoy a pipe of tobacco, using pipes with small bowls typical of the time. The daily ration was seven cigarettes or two cigars, and as the war had stopped trade with the US, the smoother Virginia tobacco was replaced with the stronger Turkish equivalent. The pipes had wooden bowls, or bowls made from bakelite with a clay lining, with room for a cigarette’s worth of tobacco. Many soldiers eked out their tobacco rations with tobacco sent from home, or the rougher Russian makhorka, which is usually described as particularly vile.

Using a pipe had some advantages. It was less susceptible to rain, didn’t need rolling paper, and the glow was far less conspicuous when standing guard (a good sniper could spot the glow from a cigarette and aim five centimeters higher…). While smoking was officially discouraged in the Third Reich, reality called for a steady supply of tobacco, not least for frontline morale reasons. Non-smokers used to trade their cigarettes for chocolate, biscuits and other goodies. If a soldier got hold on American cigarettes, like Lucky Strikes, he had some hard currency in his hands. Ah, the many aspects of nicotine addiction!


Leave checklist

Every once in a while, a soldier might be lucky enough to get leave for a week or two. He couldn’t just jump on the first train, though. No, as this placard indicates, there was much to think of.

(My German is pretty poor, and Google Translate isn’t as precise as one could wish for, so any corrections are welcome. The translation is as close as I can make it. “Heimat” is hard to translate, though, as the German meaning is deeper than just “home”.)

Preparation for going to the home country
1. Turn in ammunition.
2. Delousing.
3. Check documents, train assignment and stamps at the command post.
4. Pick up travel rations.
5. Exchange money.
6. Visit the barber if you wish.
7. Message home through the camp post office: “Mommy, I’m coming!”
8. Go to the trains about 1½ hours in advance before entraining and assignment [of seat?].
9. All with good humor, proper behavior and enjoyment of the homeland.

If I’m not mistaken, German soldiers brought their personal weapons while on leave, but they couldn’t bring any ammunition. Delousing was important, as no soldier wanted to bring any vermin home to their families (or suffer them at all). Having the travel documents in order was of utmost importance, as the military police could check the papers any time. If the papers weren’t in order, the soldier could be in for a hard time. Travel rations were needed, and soldiers on leave were issued rationing coupons to ensure that they got what they were entitled to. Getting a haircut and a shave was always nice after the delousing. Alerting the family back home that one was coming was common courtesy, while going to the train with a good margin was just common sense. Finally, not making an embarrassment of yourself while on leave and in uniform is still good advice.

Eggstra rations

These German soldiers, perhaps from a field workshop unit, fry up some eggs to be enjoyed on slices of bread. Adding whatever you can get hold on to your allotted rations could give you those extra calories to make it through the day, a truth as old as soldiering. Hidden behind the word “foraging”, it usually meant grabbing whatever you could from suffering peasants, and meant severe problems in wars like the Thirty Years War, where armies were like swarms of locusts. A consequence of an insufficient supply chain, it would be wrong to accuse the individual soldiers of doing whatever they could to survive, though. The guys in the photo don’t look particularily starving, and perhaps they bought the eggs from a farmer for a pack of cigarettes. Barter was a common way of getting extra rations without upsetting civilians, and in occupied zones both sides benefited from a flourishing black market. Now pass me the salt and pepper, please.


Attentive readers might’ve noticed that I don’t post every day, like I did in December. That’s for three reasons: 1) I made a point of making a post for each day in December, counting down to Christmas and New Year’s, 2) I’ve been fairly busy this month, and 3)I’m thinking about making an experiment. As this blog has only a dozen followers, and attract less than ten vistors per day, I’ll start a Facebook page where the posts will appear, and hopefully generate both discussions and traffic to this blog. Some might think that I’m an attention seeker, and that’s actually pretty true – after all, I want to share my photos and receive feedback. The Facebook page is already created, but it hasn’t gone public yet. Watch this space for more news.

Well ventilated

After the Christmas food, a visit to the field latrine might be needed. This rather sketchy outhouse doesn’t offer much in the way of privacy or protection from the elements, but on the flip side is that the stink is whisked away by the wind. Judging by the felt boots worn by the soldiers, this photo is probably from the winter of 1942-43.

Going to the crapper in the middle of winter can be an experience. One cannot wear too much, as bulky winter pants and coats tend to get in the way. Then there’s the temperature. I remember the last day of our winter exercise in early January, 1987. After several days in -27º C (-17º F), I had to relieve myself in the morning. I left the tent and went to the “fold-and-crap”, a sturdy cardboard box over a bucket, wearing my woolen uniform pants and a sweater. I thought the temperature was rather pleasant after those days in Arctic conditions. Half an hour later I learned that the temperature was a sweltering -16º C (3º F). How easily one gets accustomed to extreme conditions…

Logged in

Three signals troops soldiers outside their rather substantial log cabin on the Eastern Front, the time probably the winter of 1942-43. Telephone wires and at least one antenna tells us that this is likely a command post for a company, perhaps for an artillery battalion. The fact that the log cabin isn’t dug in could indicate that it’s a way back from the frontline, or built after the ground froze. With some more snow, it will be camouflaged for the rest of the winter.

The soldiers show a variety of uniforms. The guy on the left wears the reversible snow jacket, which arrived during the autumn of 1942. Together with the reversible pants, it was a warm and practical snow suit to be worn over the regular uniform. It had a mouse-grey side (later changed to a greyish green) and a white side (obviously). The Unteroffizier in the center wears a 1936 pattern uniform, the silver-white edging on the collar and shoulderboards indicating his rank. By this time, silver-grey trim had been introduced, as it made the NCOs stand out less – an advantage in environments with snipers and other dangers. The Obergefreiter on the right wears a 1940 pattern uniform with subdued collar patches and rank chevrons. The lightning sleeve patch confirms that he belongs to the signals troops, the lightning itself probably the red of soldiers in artillery units. His cap appears to be non-regulation.

“Reading” a photo like this provides some information, even if there are no notes on the back of it. It would’ve been nice to know the identity of the unit and the location, but this is a common problem with many photos. Unless there are notes or they are mounted in an annotated album, the photo collector can’t get much further than this.

Tucked in for the winter

In my series of posts on fieldworks and dugouts, you could see dugouts both neat and rough. This one, probably from the winter of 1941-42, belongs to the “neat” category. Partially dug under a big, stout barn and heated by a woodburning stove, it provides a nice shelter for the soldiers. Having a warm, safe place to stay in meant the difference between life and death during that harsh winter. Tens of thousands of soldiers suffered frostbite, and thousands more froze to death. Those not fortunate enough to be dug in like the soldiers in the photo had to find winter quarters that kept them out of the worst cold. That usually meant cramming themselves into a Russian farmhouse, sharing it with the peasant family, their livestock, fleas and lice. In worst case, the owners were thrown out and left to fend for themselves in the snow. War is cruel, and war in wintertime doubly so.