An NCO puts four Luftwaffe soldiers (one is obscured by him) through some physical training. The second guy from the right, a Gefreiter, holds an MP 40 submachine gun, the rest Kar 98k rifles. The photo appears to have been taken in the Netherlands in 1940, but with no note on the back or any real telltale signs, it’s impossible to really know. Still, it’s a fun photo.
Vehicles of the leichte Flak-Abteilung 74 (mot) (74th light motorised anti-aircraft battalion) roll forward in the central sector of the Eastern Front in the dust and heat of the summer of 1941. The unit is equipped with Flak 30 2 cm caliber automatic AA guns. The unit symbol, an oakleaf and two acorns within a rectangle, can be seen on the right fender of the nearest gun.
The leichte Flak-Abteilung 74 (mot) was raised on 15 November 1938 in Essen-Kupferdreh from the II/Flak-Regiment 44. During the campaign in France, the battalion was suborned to the staff of Flak-Regiment 202. When the campaign in France was over, the battalion was deployed in the Dunkirk area. It was assigned to Panzer-Gruppe 1 in April 1941 and deployed in the Balkans. From June 1941, it fought in the USSR as part of Panzer-Gruppe 4, attached to the 20. Panzer-Division, and saw heavy action during the series of advances on Minsk and Smolensk, and took part in Operation Typhoon, the failed attack on Moscow. In 1942/43 the battalion was assigned to the staff of the 18. Flak-Division and from February 1944 to the staff of the Flak-Regiment 134. In November 1944, the battalion was deployed was in the Eifel mountains on the western border of Germany. There’s no information on the final fate of the unit, but it probably surrendered to Allied forces in the spring of 1945.
Not much in the way of a Caturday picture, but I guess it counts. The tall Luftwaffe soldier appears to be the father of the little boy. Did the boy get the pull along cat as a present when his father came visiting? Too small for Elastolin toy soldiers or wind up toy tanks, the boy has taken his beloved toy cat for a walk together with Daddy and his soldier friends. If he’s lucky, his dad will return from the war. He’ll grow up during the uneasy peace known as the Cold War, and who knows – he might still be alive, 80 years old or more.
Three Schwarzer Männer (“black men”) atop the starboard Junkers Jumo 211 engine of a Heinkel He 111 medium bomber. Luftwaffe ground crews serviced the aircraft between missions, and were usually wearing the black overalls that earned them their nickname. Just like their colleagues in other airforces, they worked hard to keep their designated aircraft in flying condition. Given the deteriorating supply situation and the use of provisional airfields on the Eastern Front, they had to work wonders. Each Geschwader (equivalent to a wing or group) had a Fliegerhorstkompanie (air station company) divided into three platoons of about 30 men each. Those were airframe, engine and safety equipment fitters, armorers (ordnance and small arms), and instrument and radio mechanics. A fourth platoon with engine fitters, sheet metal workers, painters, harness repairers, carpenters, and electricians formed the Werkstattzug – the workshop platoon.
The pilots and aircrews and ground crews often developed close relationships, and there are many examples of pilots cramming ground crew into every available space when forced to evacuate an airfield in the face of an advancing enemy. Some ground crew volunteered as air crew, serving as gunners or flight engineers. As the war progressed and the Luftwaffe had more personnel than there were planes to take care of, excess ground crew were transferred to ground combat units, like the Luftwaffe Field Divisions. With just basic infantry training, the soldiers didn’t fare well in contact with the enemy. Still, being picked to serve as a “black man” offered a greater chance of surviving the war than many other branches of service.
A Panzer soldier and his Fallschirmjäger friend in tropical uniforms, perhaps on their way to the movies. The photo is probably taken in 1942, location unknown.
There’s been many hundreds of movies made about World War 2, both during the war and after it. Most of them feature American and/or British good guys fighting evil Nazis, but in recent years there’s also been an increase in Russian-made war movies. It’s easy to tire of Brad Pitt fight half the Third Reich, or Russian movies that only make Putin happy. Those of us who like a more varied fare look for other perspectives. As the theme for this blog is the German Wehrmacht, I’ll take a look at some of the best movies from a German viewpoint. I’m afraid the list won’t be terribly original, but that’s a consequence of the lack of good movies about the German wartime experience. So, in chronological order as the events unfolded in the war, here’s my list of five war movies with a German point of view that are worth (re-)watching.
First out is “Das Boot“ from 1981. Regarded as the best submarine movie of all time, it tells the story of a combat tour with U-96. Set in 1941, it covers the successes and terrors experienced by the young crew. Based on the novel by former war correspondent Lothar-Günther Buchheim, who in turn based it on a combat tour with the real U-96, the movie became an international success, paving the way for the Hollywood careers of director Wolfgang Petersen and leading man Jürgen Prochnow. While some of the special effects are dated (the destroyer model wasn’t convincing even in 1981), it’s still a powerful movie. Long periods of tedium are interrupted by moments of terror, when the U-96 has to dodge attacks by enemy ships and aircraft. It has been released in three versions: the theatrical cut at 149 minutes, the director’s cut at 209 minutes, and the full mini-series at 293 minutes. The longer versions allow for more character development and exposition, and I recommend either of them. The theatrical cut isn’t available, anyway. A new mini-series based on the same story will be released in 2018.
Avoid: “U-571″, a sub-standard (pun intended) Hollywood movie that managed to insult the British by claiming that Americans captured an Enigma code machine before the Brits did.
The producers of “Das Boot” wanted to make another movie/mini-series about the German war experience, and opted for the Battle of Stalingrad. For some reason, the plans for the mini-series were scrapped, and a 134-minute movie was released in 1993. It tells the story of a combat engineer company which is sent to Stalingrad after a stint in North Africa. We follow some soldiers in a platoon commanded by Lieutenant von Witzleben (Thomas Kretschmann in his second role as a German officer; he’s played officers in at least ten movies). They descend into the hell known as Stalingrad, and the losses mount in the fierce fighting in the ruins. Things take a turn for the (even) worse when the men are sent to a penal battalion. A memorable fight against T-34 tanks sees them rehabilitated, but not without losses. As the 6th Army is surrounded, the winter growing harsher and supplies dwindle, the situation gets desperate, and one by one the soldiers meet their untimely ends. The last two try to break out of the encirclement, leading to one of the most depressing movie endings ever. While “Stalingrad” isn’t perfect, it’s still one of the best Eastern Front movies.
Avoid: the Russian “Stalingrad” (2013), which is so bad that even Russians didn’t like it.
Before “Stalingrad” there was “Cross of Iron” (1977). Based on the novel “The Willing Flesh” by Eastern Front veteran Willi Heinrich, it was one of the first non-German post-war movies to show an entirely German perspective. It was directed by Sam Peckinpah and featured a cast of American, German, British and Yugoslavian actors. Set in 1943, it tells the story of a squad led by Sergeant Steiner (James Coburn; almost twice as old as one would expect, but still great in that role). Their new company commander, Captain Stransky, arrives to the front. He’s a martinet and glory-hound, out for an Iron Cross, which he couldn’t get in his previous cushy posting in France. The two men clash, and as the Soviets assault their positions, things come to a head. Cynical and realistic, “Cross of Iron” still stands out. Peckinpah’s trademark bloody slow motion scenes have been parodied, but they work in this context. The ending, which was rewritten due to budget constraints, might not be to everyone’s taste, but it works.
Avoid: “Breakthrough”, the sequel to “Cross of Iron”, which was just an attempt to cash in on the first movie. Steiner and Stransky aren’t even played by the same actors.
How do you manage to make an exciting thriller about an event with an ending just slightly less predictable than that of “Titanic“? You let Bryan Singer direct it. “Valkyrie” from 2008 works. Even though you know Hitler will survive and the conspirators fail, Singer managed to create a movie that moves along at a steady clip, somehow managing to make it feel like the bomb plot will work. There was much criticism when Tom Cruise was picked to play Stauffenberg, but I think he did a really good job, working together with a great cast without hogging the limelight. While this movie is about officers in the highest echelons, plotting away in headquarters, there are some scenes from the front in North Africa that puts Stauffenberg in the line of fire, and not just as a smartly dressed staff officer. The art direction is great, presenting a time and place in a rich, convincing manner. It also reminds us of the other failed attempts on Hitler’s life, showing that there was opposition to him even before the war was about to be lost.
See also: “Operation Valkyrie“, a German TV movie from 2004. It covers most of the same events, but differently and in my opinion not as exciting. Appreciated by people with a fetish for dialogue in German.
“Valkyrie” sort of sets the stage for “Downfall” (2004), the excellent retelling of the last weeks of the Thousand-Years Reich. Bruno Ganz delivers the best and most convincing movie Hitler ever, and it’s a pity that most people are only familiar with the movie through the innumerable “Hitler rant” clips on YouTube. It could easily have become a set piece in the bunker, but by following some of the defenders of Berlin, it recreates the final battle through the eyes of the kids and old men tasked with the defense. The desperation and sense of doom pervades the movie, and there are some strong scenes that will hit people who are parents especially hard. Told from the perspective of one of Hitler’s secretaries, Traudl Junge, it is probably the definite retelling of those final days.
For laughs: “Fall of Berlin“, a Soviet propaganda movie from 1949. It turns Hitler’s bunker into a freakshow, and features the perhaps most over-acting movie Hitler ever.
Somehow, this list doesn’t feel complete. While the movies are among the best war movies of all time, none of them really tells about the German war experience in a broader context, in part because a movie rarely can tell a story about a subject in depth over a longer period of time. In 2013, a German mini-series caused much discussion as it was the first real attempt in years to tell about the effect of the war on young Germans. In three 90-minutes episodes, “Generation War” (original title: “Unsere Mutter, unsere Väter“), we follow brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm and their friends Charlotte, Greta and Viktor during the years 1941-45. Wilhelm is a lieutenant whose patriotism and idealism is put to the test, while his younger brother Friedhelm goes from being an unwilling soldier to hardened cynic. Charlotte serves as a nurse on the Eastern Front, while Greta is a singer, using her connections with a Gestapo officer to further her career while protecting her secret boyfriend Viktor, who is a Jew. While the mini-series drew some criticism for simplifying some events, as well as portraying the Polish resistance as anti-Semitic, it’s still the best treatment of the subject I’ve seen. It doesn’t shy away from the brutalization of the war on the Eastern Front, or the moral challenge of living in the Third Reich. If you haven’t watched “Generation War“, do yourself a service and do that.
A machinegun team somewhere on the Eastern Front, their MG34 ready to fire. At first glance, they can be mistaken for Heer (Army) soldiers, but had this photo been in color, it would be apparent that they aren’t. Instead of the regular Army feldgrau (field grey) uniforms, their uniforms are blue-grey, and in place of the Army Litzen collar patches, there are green Luftwaffe-style patches with rank gulls. They serve in a Luftwaffen-Feld-Division (LwFD).
So why would an airforce get itself what in the end became 22 infantry divisions? The divisions were originally authorized in October 1942, following suggestions that the Heer could be bolstered by transferring personnel from other services. The head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, formulated an alternative plan to raise his own infantry formations under the command of Luftwaffe officers; this was at least partly due to political differences with the Heer, which Göring considered too “conservative”. In the jockeying for power in the Nazi state, Göring probably saw an advantage in having an army of his own, considering that Heinrich Himmler had his Waffen-SS. It was typical of the fragmentization in the supposedly totalitarian Nazi state.
The plan was approved, and the divisions were raised from 200,000–250,000 Luftwaffe ground, support and other excess personnel. So, instead of transferring Luftwaffe personnel to the Heer, rebuilding existing units that already had a cadre of experienced officers, NCOs and soldiers, the LwFD were built from scratch, and became smaller copies of the equivalent Heer divisions. By Göring’s personal order, the LwFD were to be deployed for defensive duties in quieter sectors. Most of the units spent much of their existence on the Eastern Front, which was hardly quiet.
The Luftwaffe Field Divisions initially remained under Luftwaffe command, but late in 1943 those that had not already been disbanded were transferred to the Heer and were reorganized as standard infantry divisions (retaining their numbering, but with Luftwaffe attached to distinguish them from similarly numbered Heer divisions) and any Luftwaffe officers replaced with Army officers. In post-war literature, they are referred to as, for example, “16. Feld-Division (L)”.
Until taken over by the Heer, these units were issued with standard Luftwaffe feldblau uniforms (and even some time after), and being so easily identifiable were said to often be singled out by the enemy. They had a poor reputation as combat troops (despite the high standard of Luftwaffe recruits), at least in part from being required to perform roles (ground warfare) for which they as airmen had little training. They were frequently used for rear echelon duties to free up front line troops
Field Marshal Erich von Manstein blamed the decline of the Wehrmacht in 1943 to the creation of these divisions. Von Manstein argued that they recruited some of the most able young men into these divisions, when they would’ve made adequate NCOs and replacements to the decimated Army divisions. In his memoirs he later blamed their poor training and coordination as the cause for several notable defeats.
In the end, the creation of the Luftwaffen-Feld-Divisione had a negative impact on Germany’s ability to wage war. Not that it mattered much in the end, but hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers might have survived the war if they had been in stronger and better led units.
Luftwaffe Flak personnel using a Kommandogerät 36 (Kdo. Gr. 36) rangefinder, which is part of a battery of four 8.8 cm anti aircraft guns. Using trigonometry, the 4-meter base stereoscopic range finder has a magnification of 12x and 24x, and a range scale reading from 500 meters (550 yards) to 50,000 meters (55,000 yards). It is clamped by two rings to the mount, and kept in a chest while in transit. The instrument is manufactured by the famous Carl Zeiss optics company in Jena, and displays excellent workmanship.
The Kommandogerät 36 measures target course and speed. Ballistic data are obtained from graphical drums; varying heights are accepted, and corrections can be applied for wind, drift, displacement, dead time, and variations in muzzle velocity. Readings must be called out to the operator on the director. Information is passed from one operator to another by voice and via a telephone system. The target data are used to set the fuses of the grenades and to provide aiming points for the guns.
Period photos of this particular piece of equipment are relatively scarce on the Internet, so I’m happy to own this photograph.