“Der eiserne Keller”

Generaloberst Alfred Keller stands together with new recipients of the Iron Cross, second class, probably in 1941. Alfred Keller (19 September 1882 – 11 February 1974) was a Luftwaffe general during WW2, and went on to become one of the most decorated generals of the Luftwaffe. His military career began in the Imperial German Armed Forces in 1897.  Initially a junior infantry officer, Keller became attracted to that newfangled invention: aircraft. He made his first flight at the school at Metz, becoming an observer in 1912. In the following year, Keller finished his training as a pilot and gained his pilot’s wings.

He served first in the reconnaisance, then the bomber arm of the Imperial German Air Force, where he was promoted to wing commander. Keller’s unit became the first German bombers to operate night missions, which was noted for the missions against Dunkirk and the British forces concentrated there. His sudden delivery of 100 tons of bombs on the port in the silence of the night in September 1917 caused considerable damage and forced a British retreat to Calais. For planning, organization and leadership in this attack and others he was awarded the prestigious order Pour le Mérite. It was during World War 1 that he got his nickname der eiserne Keller – “Iron Keller”.

In the years after WW1, Keller left the army and built a career in civilian aviation, offering air mail service in 1923 for the first time in Germany. During 1925 Keller operated an air traffic control school in Berlin, but in 1928 moved it to Braunschweig. Here he began, as a means of resistance to Allied conditions of Armistice the secret training of new military pilots, and he became one of the first men called by Hermann Göring to help in the construction of the Luftwaffe, as soon as the Nazis had assumed power in 1933.

In September 1939, when WW2 began, the then General Alfred Keller commanded the IV. Fliegerkorps during the invasion of Poland. The following campaigns against Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Battle of France, he commanded Luftflotte 2. Keller was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 24 June 1940, and shortly afterwards, on 19 July 1940, he was promoted Generaloberst. It is sometime after this the photo is taken, as he wears the collar tabs of that rank. On 19 August 1940, during the Battle of Britain, Alfred Keller was appointed as the commander of Luftflotte 1 and Air Force commander – East. Keller led this formation very energetically during the Balkans Campaign and later during the Operation Barbarossa, where he predominantly supported Army Group North. Keller remained with Luftflotte 1 until 12 June 1943, when he retired from active service at the age of 61.

However, he continued to perform important functions in NSFK (Nationalsozialistische Fliegerkorps – National Socialist Flying Corps), a paramilitary unit that he organised to form a civilian reserve of pilots). He was Korpsführer of the NSFK until the German surrender on May 8, 1945. Towards the end of the war, Keller was also responsible for the antitank weapons department of the Luftwaffe.

With the German capitulation on 8 May 1945, Keller became a British prisoner of war, being kept until 1947. He wasn’t charged with any war crimes. In the 1950s he became one of the first presidents of the Association of Knight’s Cross Recipients. Keller passed away in Berlin, aged 91 years.

Rare movie of Keller visiting the front.


Thanks to Axis History Forum member ttvon for identifying Keller.


Phoney War, part 1

Somewhere along the Franco-German border, 1939-40, German soldiers take a break in the digging of foxholes to pose for some fun photos. The Unteroffizier just to the left of the center is holding a Bergmann MP28 submachinegun (with mounted bayonet). The guy in front of him is brandishing an M24 stick grenade (“potato-masher”). A loudspeaker lies on the ground, probably used to blare propaganda and music at their French colleagues across the border.

The “Phoney War” was the eight-month period at the start of WW2, during which there were no major military land operations on the Western Front. It began with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and the declaration of war by the United Kingdom and France against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, and ended with the German attack on France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940. The Germans called it the Sitzkrieg, a pun on the inactivity contrasted to the Blitzkrieg.

While the British and the French had declared war, they didn’t launch any offensive to aid the Poles, despite the Alliance between the three countries. There was some aerial and naval activity, and some skirmishes along the border, but the Germans were generally left alone to finish Poland, aided by the Soviet Union. The opportunity to stop Hitler was lost, which I will write about in my next post.


A nice view of a “Gulaschkanone”, a field kitchen which was a WW1 design and the most common source of hot food for the WW2 German soldier. This groβe Feldküche Hf. 11 was pulled by a team of two horses. The nickname derived from “goulash”, the Hungarian stew that was common army food, and “cannon”, as the field kitchen looked like a field gun and its limber. It had a 200 liter cauldron and a 90 liter coffee boiler. The front half of the field kitchen held ingredients.

In the field, a German soldier was supposed to receive the following food as his daily Feldration. This was of course subject to the season and the supply situation.

Cold food:
– 750 grams of bread
– 150 grams of fat (divided into butter, lard, margarine as bread spread about 60 – 80 g,       animal or vegetable fat for the preparation of the warm food about 70 – 90 g)
– 120 grams of sausage (fresh or in cans) or fish preserves or cheese
– up to 200 grams of jam or artificial honey
– 7 cigarettes or 2 cigars

Hot food:
– 1000 grams of potatoes, which could be partially replaced by
+ 250 g fresh vegetables or
+ 150 g vegetable preserves
+ 125 g pasta, rice, grains, etc.
– up to 250 grams of fresh meat
– 15 grams of ingredients (salt, spices, etc.)
– 8 grams of bean coffee and 10 g of coffee substitute (or equivalent tea)

Eggs, fruit, chocolate, etc. depending on availability.

If there wasn’t any chance of food from the field kitchen, the soldiers could break out their “iron rations”, which consisted of hard bisquits or bread, canned food, and coffee substitute.

Hares and pigs

I have no date for this photo, but it’s my guess that it was taken somewhere in the Soviet Union in the spring of 1942. The two Unteroffiziere (sergeants) are obviously happy to have survived the harshest winter in memory. The man on the left wears a pair of what appears to be a Soviet tanker’s padded winter trousers. His friend has been awarded the Iron Cross, first class, the Infantry Assault Badge, and the Wound Badge in black. For some reason, he doesn’t wear the ribbon of the Iron Cross, second class, in the buttonhole, but in a ribbon bar instead, just like the man on the left. Despite the rather sloppy appearance of both of them, their boots have a nice shine.

They are frontline veterans, in German soldiers’ slang known as Alte Hasen (“old hares”) and Frontschweine (“frontline pigs”). Experienced NCOs were the backbone of any company, where sergeants usually led squads, but had to be prepared to lead platoons if the commanders were lost. A newly-arrived soldier had a better chance of survival – eventually becoming a Frontschwein himself – if he had an experienced sergeant to look after him and teach him the skills needed at the front.

Going where?

Sometime later in the war (1943 or later), an NCO looks out a train window. Is he going to or from the front? Is he on a two-week leave? There’s no way to tell.

Train travel was the most common mode of long-distance transport. Troops, supplies and materiel went thousands of kilometers all over Europe, and that made trains, bridges, railway hubs and marshalling yards prime targets for Allied bombers and fighter-bombers. Strafing attacks of trains destroyed many thousands of passenger and freight cars, as well as locomotives. The Allied pilots seldom had the opportunity to tell whether a train was transporting troops or civilians; if it didn’t display red cross markings, it was fair game. The attacks severely disrupted German troop movements and supply trains.

When I was a teenager, I worked together with a German, Günther, who was 15 years old when the war ended. He lived in the countryside north of Berlin, and one spring day in 1945, he was biking alongside a railway track some distance away. A train with freight cars with barbed wire across the small windows high up on the sides was chugging along, when a couple of Allied figther-bombers appeared. They began to shoot up the train. Günther threw himself in a ditch for cover, and saw hands stretched out of the openings, waving anything white. It seems like the train was carrying concentration camp prisoners. He didn’t stay around to check, and left as soon as the airplanes had run out of ammunition.

Dog of war

Something for you dog lovers this time. This Luftwaffe Unteroffizier (corporal) seems to love his (or his unit’s) dachshund. It isn’t possible to determine the branch he serves in, but at least he isn’t aircrew, as his collar patch would be lighter. The dachshund was bred to flush out badgers (German: Dachs), but this one is probably kept as a mascot and for company.

Too heavy machinegun

The crew of an MG 08 training in the use of the weapon. The Maschinengewehr 08 was the German version of Sir Hiram Maxim’s water-cooled machinegun, originally patented in 1883. The scourge of the battlefields of World War 1, the gun was relegated to second-line units in time for WW2. At 69 kilos (cooling water included), it was very heavy, and thus not practical for aggressive battlefield tactics. It was better suited for static positions, for example trenches and bunkers. Lighter machineguns, like the MG 34 and later MG 42, became the standard weapons.

The soldiers in the photo belong to a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft unit. Closest to the camera is the commander, an NCO, observing the target through a pair of Zeiss 6×30 binoculars. The loader feeds a cloth belt holding 250 rounds. The gunner fires in bursts to prevent the weapon from overheating, averaging about 600 rounds per minute. Two riflemen support the gun crew, and also act as ammunition carriers.

The British referred to the MG 08 as the “Spandau”, after the arsenal in Berlin, a name that spilled over on other German machinguns.