Life at the front

A young Gefreiter, probably on the Eastern Front and probably around the time Operation Barbarossa had started. He’s armed with a pistol, possibly a Pistole 08, more commonly known as a Luger, and has a pair of 6×30 Zeiss binoculars. The other men in the background carry pistols, too, as well as field equipment, which makes me think that they belong to a heavy weapons company.

The photo made me think what it would’ve been like serving as a German soldier in 1941. I did my military service when I was 21-22 years old (I got a one year stay due to studies, thus entering service a year older than most other guys in our company). Back in 1941, I would’ve been called up if I was 20 years old. The major conflict was the war on the Eastern Front, while North Africa was but a sideshow, and most other fronts were mostly a question of occupation duty. Many divisions raised in 1941 went to those secondary fronts, while the replaced divisions were sent east, but several ended up on the Eastern Front eventually. Considering that 39 % of all men born in 1921 were killed in the war, one’s chances of survival were pretty slim. That risk rose to 50 % or more if one was sent to the Eastern Front, while it sunk to perhaps 25 % or less if one ended up on the Western Front, and even less if sent to Norway or the Balkans. Either way, what you could hope for – unless you ended up somewhere not too detrimental to your health – was a Heimatsschuss – literally “home shot”, or in American parlance a “million dollar wound” – meaning a wound serious enough to have you sent home for a longer period of time or even better: getting you released from army service – but not serious enough to cripple you for life. Then there was the risk of ending up as a prisoner of war…

There was always an inital risk that one would be shot outright after surrendering. It wasn’t uncommon for the Western Allies to shoot German prisoners of war while marching them back to the rear. While not officially sanctioned, there’s ample evidence and eyewitness accounts that American, British, French and Canadian soldiers gunned down unarmed Germans. Still, as a German, you stood a much better chance of surviving if you surrendered to the Allies than the Soviets. Then there was the prisoner of war camps, which will be the subject of next post.

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An eagle in Africa

A Luftwaffe pilot talks to a soldier, standing next to a car of the make Adler (“Eagle”). The location is probably Libya or perhaps Tunisia, and it could be in 1942, give or take a few months. The air war over Northern Africa was intense at times. The premier ace was Hans-Joachim Marseille, a Luftwaffe pilot who scored 158 “kills”, earning the nickname “the Star of Africa”. Marseille was born in 1919, and joined the Luftwaffe in 1938. He participated in the Battle of Britain, with unremarkable results. There were disciplinary problems, and he was seen as a playboy who would either become a troublemaker or a great pilot. He not only stayed out late with girlfriends, but he also loved American jazz music, which was seen as “degenerate” by the Nazis. Marseille was transferred to Jagdgeschwader 27, which was deployed to Northern Africa.

It was here he came into his own as a pilot. In air combat, he was fearless, taking on superior numbers of enemies. He was an expert shot, scoring kills with a minimum of ammunition spent. Marseille was a natural pilot, employing unorthodox techniques. His disdain for the Nazi party came as a shock to his superiors, all the way up to Hitler. He befriended a black Southern African prisoner of war, who became his driver and personal assistant. The number of kills mounted. In one day, he claimed 17 kills, a record that is disputed. Even the sky was hardly a limit for Hans-Joachim Marseille, until the fateful day in 1942 when he flew his Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2 fighter and his cockpit began to fill up with smoke. He had to bail out, but apparently he hit the tail section of his plane and was killed or knocked unconscious. Marseille plummeted to the ground, his parachute never deployed. He was 22 years old when he died.

Ramping up

A German motorcycle rider makes a jump with his Zündapp K 500 W before a crowd of soldiers and civilians. I guess the boys in Lederhosen are especially impressed. It seems like the event is an “open garrison day”, where families of soldiers are welcome to watch military displays and to see their sons and brothers. This is probably right before the war. The boys won’t be of an age to be conscripted before it ends, but the war will affect everyone in the photo. Some will die, some will be injured, some will lose family members or partners. That’s not on the minds of the assembled people this day. Instead, many feel pride over that Germany is reasserting its position among the other nations, and that the growing Wehrmacht will deter any enemy. Sure, there might be a conflict or two with the neighbors, but how bad could it be? A few years later they knew exactly how bad it could be, and even then the cynics joked: “Enjoy the war. The peace will be terrible!” In retrospect, that depended very much on where you ended up. For some, life got back to normal, for others it was a life as a displaced person in a new country. Like the bike rider, they had to make a leap, but unlike him, they didn’t know where they would end up.

Roadside repair

“I’m happy I’m not wearing my pink thong today” is probably not the thought going through that NCO’s head while a comrade sews on a button. It’s somewhere on the Eastern Front, probably in 1941, and the soldiers belong to a motorized unit with light all-terrain cars among its vehicles. A brief moment with something very ordinary, while the war rages in the largest military engagement in history.

Into the great wide open

A column of Panzerkampfwagen IV tanks make its way across a featureless Soviet landscape. The dusty road is rutted by the passing of numerous cars and tanks. This photo is probably from 1941 or the early summer of 1942, and the vehicle on the left could be a Horch all-terrain car with a 2 cm anti-aircraft gun, towing an ammunition trailer. The markings appear to be those of Beobachtungs-Abteilung 27 (right side of trailer), combined with the symbol of Panzergruppe 3 (the “Hh”-like symbol) and the H-in-a-circle for an independent army unit. This poses a bit of a problem, though, as records show that Beo.Abt.27 was assigned to the 17th Army in 1941. Something doesn’t add up, but then the records are incomplete for many units during the war.

The Beobachtungs-Abteilung 27 was one of 40 artillery observation battalions, which used several means of locating enemy artillery for counter-battery fire, like observation of muzzle flashes and gun sound, and from balloons. They initially had an anti-aircraft platoon, which was removed after 1942. The battalion was transferred to the West in 1944, and surrendered to the Allies in the Netherlands in May 1945.

The problem with properly identifying the unit puzzled several of the members of an Eastern Front-themed FaceBook group. As many of them are very knowledgeable and accomplished researchers and authors, I’ll have to be content with that we might never know the exact circumstances regarding that photo. As it had been mounted in an album, it’s a prime example of what happens when a photo is removed from its context.

Edit: In a comment to my request about information, Axis History Forum member Werter posted a photo of a vehicle just like the one in my photo, and where the sign of the 12. Panzer-Division is in place of the H-in-a-circle. It’s interesting, as there’s no mention that the Beo.Abt.27 was ever attached to the 12. PD.

Off to an uncertain fate

A long column of Soviet prisoners of war march to the rear in the hot summer weather of 1941. They have surrendered to the 10. Panzer-Division, and don’t know what fate they’ll meet when handed over to security units in the rear. The Wehrmacht treated the Soviet PoWs like the subhumans the Nazis regarded them as. The death rate was horrible, and was the result of part a murderous ideology, part insufficient logistics as the Germans weren’t prepared to deal with hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

The war on the Eastern Front took on a brutal character from the very beginning. Both sides committed massacres and killed prisoners. The ideological aspect aggravated it, as Nazism and Communism were competing for domination. Nazi Germany was worse by a few degrees, as it had a genocidal streak, but the USSR wasn’t exactly a shining example of humanism, either. The purges and terror against its own people began under Lenin, and Stalin cranked it up even more. Couple that with a tendency to view soldiers as a faceless resource, where millions of them were wasted because of orders not to retreat despite hopeless situations, and one can understand why the Eastern Front was such a horrible place. Hitler wasted the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, too, with “no retreat” orders. Add to this the plight of the civilian Soviet citizens and the Jews, and the result is the bloodiest war in history. Let’s hope it stays that.

Operation Barbarossa, day 3

Men and vehicles of the 35. Infanterie-Division advance eastwards on 24 June 1941, on the third day of the invasion of the Soviet Union. They move through the part of Poland that was occupied by the USSR in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin divided the country between them. The Division is heading towards Bialystok, where it will take part in the capture of the city three days later.

The 35. Infanterie-Division was raised in Karlsruhe on 1 October 1936, as part of the remilitarization of Germany. It was kept on the western border during the first months of the war, and got its baptism of fire in May 1940, when it broke through the fortifications in the Dutch-Belgian border area. It was kept in reserve for the second part of the campaign, and was later stationed on the Belgian coast, slated for participation in an eventual invasion of Britain. In April 1941, it was moved to the German-Soviet border in preparation for operation Barbarossa.

After the capture of Bialystok, it advanced with the rest of the 9th Army towards Smolensk, where it suffered heavy losses in a Soviet counterattack near the small town Dukhovshchina (northeast of Smolensk). The Division was part of Operation Typhoon, the advance on Moscow, but worsening weather and the Red Army counteroffensive saw it retreat to the area of Gzhatsk (renamed in 1968 as Gagarin), where it remained for all of 1942. 1943 and 1944 were spent in defensive battles, and when the Soviet offensive on the second anniversary of Operation Barbarossa hit the German frontlines, the 35. Infanterie-Division had to be pulled back for rest and refit after having had to break out of the Bobruisk encirclement.

More defensive battles ensued, and from mid-January 1945, the Division defended German soil in West Prussia. Part of the Division was evacuated west to Schleswig-Holstein, while the rest went into Soviet captivity.