Target acquisition

Two second lieutenants practicing with a Maschinengewehr 34 light machine gun, the two junior officers having the dubious pleasure of lying down in the snow. The weapon isn’t loaded yet; the loader rests his arms on two ammo drum carriers, each holding a pair of drums with a 75-round belt each. The drums were used while assaulting, whereas an ammo can with 250 belted rounds was used for more sustained fire. The loader holds a pair of Zeiss 6×30 binoculars for observation of the target.

The development of the MG 34 began in 1930, as there was a need for a machine gun that was lighter than e.g. the MG 08/15. While named “MG 34”, the weapon wasn’t adopted by the Wehrmacht until January 1939. It was a multi-purpose MG, which could be used with the integral bipod in the light mode, or with a sturdy tripod in the heavy mode. There was also a tripod for anti-aircraft use, and it was the standard machine gun for the majority of the armored vehicles

The MG 34 weighed 12.1 kg with its bipod, with a fire rate of 900 rounds per minute, using the standard 7.92 x 57 mm rifle round. The practical rate of fire was 300-400 rounds per minute, as the barrel would get too hot otherwise. The barrel could be changed in seconds, though. The effective range of the weapon was 2,000 m, but in theory it could be used for indirect fire at up to 3,500 meters. Germany entered the war in 1939 with 84,078 MG 34, and it remained the principal MG until 1943.

The problem with the MG 34 was that it was too well made. In the harsh winters on the Eastern Front, the finely machined parts were susceptible to jamming if the temperature got too low. Dirt and mud were other causes of jamming. The production of the weapon used a lot of raw materials (49 kg), and it took 150 hours to make. The Army saw the need for an MG that was cheaper and easier to produce (using stamped metal parts), and with tolerances that allowed for greater reliability in battlefield conditions. The answer was the iconic MG 42, which used 27.5 kilos of raw materials and took 75 hours to produce. This increased the output from 3,000 MGs per month in the fall of 1941 to 24,000 MGs in early 1944.

The MG 42 is still used in many armies of the world, only marginally updated, while the MG 34 is found in museums. Well, perhaps not just museums… Next time you watch a Star Wars movie, you can see that the DLT-19 heavy blaster rifles used by the Imperial stormtroopers are modified MG 34s.

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Hermann Göring’s Workout Book

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.

B(r)oomsticks

There’s nothing odd about this photo until one looks a bit closer at the machineguns lined up on the ground. While the one furtherst from the camera is clearly an MG 34, the two other are wooden mock-ups. It’s my guess that the photo is taken in 1935 or 1936, right after the Wehrmacht began to expand. When the Treaty of Versailles was renounced in 1935, the Army grew from the allowed 100,000 men to some 300,000 in one big leap. Germany had been hobbled by the Treaty, which prohibited weapons like tanks, and placed a cap on the maximum number of machineguns that the Germans were allowed to have. It was set at less than 2,000 machineguns (756 heavy and 1,134 light MGs) for the whole Army, and it took time to equip all the new units. So it seems like wooden “weapons” were used for training purposes during the first year or so of the newly-minted Wehrmacht. Soon every infantry squad in the Army had its own new MG, and the mock-ups could be turned into firewood.

You’re in the army now

Columns of conscripts lug their suitcases as they are about to enter military life. Soon they’ll wear the same field-grey uniforms, learning to march and shoot. After Germany re-introduced conscription in 1935 in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, a total of about 18.2 million men served in the Wehrmacht until the defeat in 1945. The Wehrmacht suffered about 10 million casualties during WW2, a combination of about 2 million killed in action, 3 million missing in action (most likely dead), and 5 million wounded in action. As WW2 intensified, Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe personnel were increasingly transferred to the Army, and “voluntary” enlistments in the SS were stepped up as well. Following the defeat in Battle of Stalingrad in early 1943, fitness standards for Wehrmacht recruits were drastically lowered, with the regime going so far as to create “special diet” battalions for men with severe stomach ailments. Rear-echelon personnel were sent to front-line duty wherever possible, especially during the last two years of the war.

With the introduction of military conscription in 1935, the 1914 class of 21 year olds were called up. Each conscripted annual intake (in peacetime) could be expected to bring in around 300,000 men, reduced to 250,000 for the 1916-18 classes due to the lower birth rate during WW1. Those who had experienced no military training (the so called ‘white years’ classes of 1901 to 1913, due to the reduction of the Army after WW1) were available as a untrained reserve, listed as Class 2 reservists. General Fretter-Pico complained in 1944 that after the Waffen-SS, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Heer technical services had combed through and picked out the best of recruits, the poor bloody infantry was left with whatever recruits there was. The same complaint could be heard in the US Army, though.

By May 1940 the call-up classes for 1919 and 1920 (that is to say those 21 and 20) were entering the Ersatzheer to begin training, while the earlier classes of 1915-18 were already in the Field Army. Generally someone born in 1919 or 1920 wouldn’t have participated in the French campaign of 1940, but would’ve been readily trained and deployed for Operation Barbarossa in 1941. By early June 1941, after only 3 months of training, 80,000 men of the 1921 Class were formed into reinforcement Marschbataillone for the upcoming campaign in USSR.

The conscription age was lowered as the war progressed, and the losses had to be replaced. Before the outbreak of the war, it was 21, but was lowered to 20 in the later part of 1939. It was lowered yet again after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, calling up 19-years olds. In late 1942, it was the 18-years olds turn, and a year later the 17-years olds. By the end of 1944, the conscription age was lowered a final time, calling up the 16-years olds of the 1928 and 1929 classes. Of those, about 12,000 were killed in action. It isn’t just a cliché in movies and books when combat veterans comment that new reinforcements are just kids – “milk-beards”.

Of the men born in 1914-1924 and called up for service, about 35 % (on average) of each year class didn’t survive the war. Worst hit was the class of 1921, of which 38.95 % died (286,380 out of 735,206 men born that year). Most of them had been called up in 1941, and I guess the majority of them went to the meat grinder on the Eastern Front.

Basic training

A platoon of Luftwaffe conscripts, wearing fatigue uniforms, are drilled in the field during their basic training.

The Versailles Treaty stipulated that Germany couldn’t have an army larger than 115,000 men, the navy included. The treaty forbade Germany to have heavy artillery, airplanes and tanks. The Reichswehr was a professional army, forming a cadre which became the backbone of the future Wehrmacht. After the Nazis came to power, the limitations of the Versailles Treaty were ignored, and the Wehrmacht expanded rapidly. Compulsory military service was reintroduced in 1935. A conscript served for two years, and only a few limited categories (e.g. married men) were discharged after one year’s service.

The conscripts had usually been members of the Hitlerjugend, were they had been drilled in marching and fieldcraft, as well as having served for six months in the Reichsarbeitsdienst (National Labor service), resulting in fit young men used to life in the field and in barracks. All of them went through the same training, which included the following for the Heer (Army; there were some variations for the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine): eight to twelve weeks of basic training, learning to use the Kar98k rifle, and possibly also the pistol and handgrenade. Training in the basics of combat, defense of positions, and marching, as well as guard duty and protection against chemical agents.

There were also theoretical classes and sports education. When the basic training was completed, the soldiers were trained for their future positions, like machinegunners or artillery or tank crews. This was supplemented with training in other specialist skills, like driving, signals, reconnaisance, etc. The soldiers were trained to function in increasingly larger units, culminating in the annual autumn field manoeuver. This could go on for two to four weeks, and usually by the end of the first and second year of service, respectively.

The conscripts in the German Army didn’t receive training that differed greatly from that of other nations, but there were a few differences. Soldiers were trained to assume the duties of the rank directly above them, which meant that a unit that lost its commanding officer wouldn’t be leaderless. German doctrine also stressed Auftragstaktik, were NCOs and officers were trained to solve situations with the resources assigned them, and where personal initiative was encouraged, it being said that it was more important to do something which might turn out to not be optimal, than to wait for orders while letting the initiative pass to the enemy.

The recruits were trained in replacement batallions directly connected to their future regiments, which meant that they knew which units they would serve in, and that they would do it together with comrades from basic training. This was in sharp contrast to the US Army system, where replacements were trained back in the States, then split up and shipped overseas, ending up in units they had no prior connection with, resulting in poor unit cohesion and an unnecessarily high rate of casulties among the replacements. Still, the German replacements were often in need of additional training upon arrival to their frontline units, and this was conducted (if possible) behind the front under the supervision of experienced NCOs.

As the war progressed and the losses mounted, the conscripts received shorter training, which affected the quality of the soldiers as well as their life expectancy. By 1945, the manpower reserves were exhausted, and together with fuel and matériel shortages, the collapse of the Wehrmacht was inevitable.

This is my rifle, this is my gun…

Recruits cleaning their Mauser Karabiner 98 kurz rifles, probably before 1939 as the rifles have neither the sight hoods, nor the cupped butt-plates adopted in 1939 and 1940, respectively. The Kar98k was the standard rifle of the Wehrmacht, with a staggering 14.6 million made between 1935 and 1945. It was a is a bolt-action rifle chambered for the 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridge, and was adopted in 1935 as the standard service rifle by the Wehrmacht. It was one of the final developments in the long line of Mauser military rifles, and is regarded as one of the best bolt-action rifles of all time. Although supplemented by semi- and fully automatic rifles during WW2, it remained the primary service rifle until the end of the war.

It was in February 1934 that the Heereswaffenamt (Army Weapons Agency) ordered the adoption of a new military rifle. The Karabiner 98k was derived from earlier rifles, namely the Mauser Kar98b, which in turn had been developed from the Gewehr 98, the standard German rifle in WW1. Just like its predecessors, the rifle was noted for its reliability, great accuracy and an effective range of up to 500 metres with iron sights. Its internal magazine could be loaded with five 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridges from a stripper clip or one-by-one. The straight bolt handle found on the Gewehr 98 bolt was replaced by a turned-down bolt handle. This change made it easier to rapidly operate the bolt, and reduced the amount the handle projected beyond the receiver.

While the Americans had standardized the semi-automatic M1 Garand in 1936, the Germans kept to the bolt-action Kar98k due to their tactical doctrine of basing a squad’s firepower on the machine gun. The role of the rifleman was largely to carry ammunition and provide covering fire for the machine gunners. All German soldiers trained on the Kar98k in basic training, and while they didn’t stress markmanship like the British, or rate of fire like the Americans, the Kar98k served them well throughout the war. While they introduced their own semi-automatic rifle (the Gewehr 43) and the world’s first successful assault rifle (the Sturmgewehr 44), those were produced in less than 900,000 units total, the Kar98k was the mainstay of the German Army.

Sweden adopted the Mauser system in 1896, and the “Swedish Mausers” are held in high regard for their high standard of manufacture and precision. Using a 6.5 mm caliber round, it differs in some minor ways from the German Mausers, but it is a prominent member of the Mauser legacy.

Dating tips for those too shy to ask

Many photos one can get hold on have no dates or other information that gives an idea about when or where they were taken. Most of the less expensive ones are from 1939 to 1941, mostly taken in France and the Soviet Union, or during training before or during the first years of the war. On auction sites like eBay, they are often sold in lots of half a dozen to several hundred. Most are depicting Heer (Army), but a sizeable part are Luftwaffe subjects and some Reichsarbeitsdienst thrown in. The really attractive photos, with tanks, airplanes, Fallschirmjäger, Waffen-SS, etc, are sold separately and at much higher prices.

Identifying and dating photos can make your collection more interesting and sometimes even more valuable, at least in your own eyes. The photo above isn’t that expensive. It’s 9×14 cms, and thus slightly larger than most photos from the period. It might be worth a couple of Euros or US dollars at most if bought separately. What it makes it interesting, though, is that it describes a step in the story of the Heer. It is most likely taken during exercises back in Germany. The soldiers don’t wear the Y-straps (combat suspenders) which were introduced in April 1939, but not in common use until late in 1940, after the campaign in the West. This narrows down the period of the photo, but not enough, and it could still be from, say, 1938 or 1941.

Another pointer is the decals on the helmets. The national tricolor decal was discontinued in early 1940. Still, with plenty of M1935 double-decal helmets around, the photo could be of a later date, but together with the lack of Y-straps, it makes it more likely that the photo was taken before 1941. Now, some of the soldiers carry an interesting piece of equipment that gives yet another clue. Three guys in the center-left part of the photo carry the long magazine pouches for the MG 26(t), which was the German designation for the Czech ZB vz. 26 light machinegun. 31,200 ZB vz. 26 MGs were captured when Nazi Germany occupied the Czech regions Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. Now, this narrows down the window of the photo, setting the earliest date at the spring of 1939.

A look at the trees in the background shows them to be without leaves. This makes me think that the photo was taken in either the fall of 1939, or the spring of 1940 at the latest. It’s my guess that the soldiers in the photo belong to one of the nine infantry divisions raised in the fall of 1939, and which were issued some captured Czech equipment. That would fit in with the estimate above, and make it more likely that the photo was taken in March or April, 1940. Most of those divisions saw action in France in May and June that year. So there we have it: I’m fairly certain that it was taken during those two months.

To make an analysis and identification like this demands knowledge of uniforms, medals and insignia, weaponry, history, and so on. Good reference literature and reliable Internet sites are needed, and being a member of discussion groups and forums with knowledge of the subject at hand can be a great resource, too. It’s a learning process, so don’t expect to get everything right from the start, or that it’s even possible to get that much information from a photo. As long as you derive enjoyment from it, you are doing it right!