Category Archives: Europe

Wordcatcher Tales: Tobruk, Feldwebel

I learned two new German military terms from my recent reading about how D-Day was experienced by the German military.

Tobruk – Several of the soldiers interviewed in D DAY Through German Eyes – Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944, by Holger Eckhertz (DTZ History, 2015) referred to their bunkers as Tobruks. I could guess its etymology—from Tobruk in Libya, the site of famous battles during World War II—but couldn’t visualize what kind of bunker it might be. Fortunately there are lots of images of tobruk bunkers in Wikimedia Commons, and a very informative site about the Regelbau architecture of German fortifications from the World War II era. Here’s how the latter source defines a Tobruk:

The Tobruk or “ringstellung” is basically a reinforced foxhole, some with a small, two-man habitat attached to it. The simplest version is named Bauform 201 or 58c, but a a variety of bunkers emerged from it. Tobruks are also an integral part of many larger bunkers, where they serve as observation posts and machinegun positions.

Feldwebel – None of the German military ranks are translated in The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006). Perhaps the author simply wanted to avoid having to choose between, say, private first class and lance corporal to translate Gefreiter or Sturmmann (‘stormtrooper’, the SS paramilitary equivalent). There is lots of variation across anglophone militaries, and especially across various service branches. But perhaps the author also wanted an easy way to signal the distinction between Wehrmacht (regular army) ranks and their Waffen-SS equivalents. For instance, an SS-Hauptsturmführer is equivalent to a Wehrmacht Hauptmann (Army captain).

One of the Wehrmacht ranks I was surprised not to recognize was Feldwebel ‘sergeant’. (The same term has been borrowed by several other European armies, including those of Russia and Sweden.) It dates back to the early days of massed infantry tactics that required careful alignment of troops wielding pikes or firing muskets. The Feldwebel was the person who kept the troops in the field properly aligned.

German Wikipedia says Feldwebel derives from Old High German weibôn ‘sich hin und her bewegen’ (‘to go back and forth’) but doesn’t cite a source, and translates Webel as Gerichtsdiener (‘court usher’). The Swiss German rank is Feldweibel, related to Weibel (also Amtsweibel or Amtsdiener), the officer in charge of protocol in various official gatherings.

English Wikipedia cites the same Old High German etymology but translates Webel too simply as ‘usher’ (as in court usher, Gentleman Usher of the Royal Household and of various anglophone parliaments, or White House Chief Usher). If I had to put a contemporary label on all these formal order-keeping roles, I would lump them into the category of sergeant-at-arms, rather than usher. (It’s ironic that “sergeant-at-arms” now distinguishes various sorts of civilian order-keepers from military order-keeping sergeants.)

French Wikipedia gives Feldwebel a slightly different etymology (also without citing a source): “vieil allemand waibel, pièce de métier à tisser servant à ramener tous les fils sur la ligne (peigne)” (‘Old German waibel, the loom piece serving to keep all the threads aligned [comb]’).

The last etymology seems to me to get closer to the source of the term Webel, a Middle High German cognate of English weft, according to Guus Kroonen’s The Proto-Germanic n-stems.: A study in diachronic morphophonology (Rodopi, 2011). The weft threads are those that go back and forth (‘sich hin und her bewegen’) across the warp threads to weave fabrics on a loom.

This reminds me of the first line of the first dialog I had to memorize when I took the Romanian language course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in 1969: “Bună ziua, Domnule Locotenent!” (“Guten Tag, Herr Leutnant!”)

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German Military Changes after 20 July 1944

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 3557-59, 3575-95:

The purge of the Wehrmacht began immediately [the attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July]. On 22 July, centuries of tradition were brushed aside. The military salute was abolished, replaced by the deutsche Gruss – the Hitler salute – ‘as an outward token of gratitude for his miraculous escape’….

And then came the final act of surrender. On 29 July, Heinz Guderian abandoned centuries of impartiality at a stroke. The German Army would no longer remain aloof from politics. In future, the German Army would be Hitler’s Army. That day he ordered:

Every General Staff officer must be a National Socialist Leadership Officer, namely he must demonstrate that he is one of the ‘best of the best’ not merely in the realms of strategy and tactics, but also in the political realm through his exemplary attitude and active guidance and instruction of younger comrades in the Führer’s ideas.

I expect every General Staff officer to accept and convert to my views immediately – and to do so publicly. Anyone who cannot do so should ask to leave the General Staff.

The humiliation continued. Staff officers attending situation conferences before Hitler were forcibly searched to see if they were carrying weapons or explosives. Political commissars – National Socialist Leadership Officers – began appearing at front-line units in increasing numbers to imbue the German Army with the spirit of National Socialism. ‘If a commander failed to follow orders to fight to the last man, his political officer would report this to the Nazi Party,’ infantry officer Siegfried Knappe wrote. The Party, in turn, ‘would take action to have the commander relieved of his command’. On 1 August, Himmler introduced the Sippenhaftung – the arrest not merely of all the suspected conspirators, but their entire families, their homes, all their worldly possessions. ‘This man is a traitor, the blood is bad,’ the Reichsführer SS declared, ‘there is bad blood in them, that will be eradicated.’ The Stauffenberg family would be eliminated ‘to the last member’. Three days later, a specially convened ‘Court of Honour’ was set up to expel members of the Wehrmacht from military service so they could be tried in civilian courts for their involvement in the putsch. It was a formality. Each man was dismissed in ‘only a few minutes’. Gerd von Rundstedt was wheeled out of retirement to preside over affairs. The elderly field marshal had his doubts, but passed judgment anyway. The leading conspirators, including Hoepner and Witzleben, were led before the People’s Court set up to try them on 7 August. The verdict was swiftly delivered: guilty; the penalty, death by hanging the following day at Plötzensee prison in Berlin’s north-western suburbs.

The Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine fared no better as a National Socialist broom swept through all three branches of the Wehrmacht in the aftermath of 20 July.

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Useless German Navy and Air Force on D-Day

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 4146-67:

Frustration on land was mirrored by frustration at sea and in the skies. Across France in the first week of August there was a growing realization in the mind of the Landser [soldier], Matrose [sailor] and Flieger [airman] that the house of cards was about to collapse, that the efforts of the summer of 1944 had been in vain. The Kriegsmarine’s campaign against the invasion armada had been an unmitigated disaster, despite Karl Dönitz’s attempt to hide the fact with his continued exhortations:

Two years ago it was fair to say that Norway had to be defended in American waters where we could sink the most shipping. Such a concept is no longer applicable. Today it is more important to sink one landing ship in the invasion area than it is to sink one Liberty ship in the Atlantic, for example.

The problem was that Dönitz’s U-boats could get nowhere near the invasion fleet. The Allied defensive blockade was impenetrable. ‘The very strong defences encountered in the Seine Bay are striking,’ the admiral complained. ‘U309 had to return after only six days’ operations in the invasion area because of the utter exhaustion of her crew.’ Herbert Werner’s U415 too lasted just six days, another victim of enemy counter-measures – an aerial mine dropped outside the imposing U-boat pens at Brest. Werner had sunk no enemy vessels. In return, he lost his boat and two of his crew. Its loss, Werner bemoaned, ‘became just another statistic in the dismal obliteration of our U-boat force’. In the first fortnight of July, thirteen U-boats had been lost, leaving just six submarines to challenge the invasion fleet. ‘During these disastrous two weeks, no more than three or four U-boats at a time were attacking the convoys ferrying invasion supplies,’ Werner wrote. ‘New Allied divisions, fully equipped and with thousands of tanks and vehicles, poured ashore.’ As he buried his dead in the cemetery of a Brest suburb, Werner found himself pondering his fate. ‘What could I say to parents who, if their sons must die, wanted them to die as heroes in combat?’ he asked himself. ‘I was still struggling with my sentences long after midnight.’

Karl Dönitz had made no rash promises on behalf of his navy in the event of invasion. His men would do their duty, but he had never assured Hitler they could halt an enemy armada. Hermann Goering, on the other hand, had pledged his Luftwaffe would give its all, that it would fight itself to death in achieving victory in the west. And now, two months after the invasion, the Allies had a firm foothold on French soil while the German air force was heading for oblivion. It could not make good its leader’s promises.

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Axis vs. Allied Casualties on D-Day

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 1390-96:

The rapid success of the invasion, particularly at Utah, Gold and Sword, prompted taunts from the British propaganda machine. The German Army in the west had been taken by surprise, radio reports boasted. ‘The English reported that German soldiers had to be hauled out of their beds in their bedclothes.’ The price of the Allies’ precarious foothold on French soil was fewer than 5,000 casualties. ‘Bloody’ Omaha cost the Americans 2,400 dead, wounded and missing, but the invading forces at Utah suffered fewer than 200 dead. The British lost 400 men at Gold, a further 630 troops were casualties at Sword, and the Canadians at Juno suffered 1,200 casualties. The German Army lost at least as many men defending the beaches and landing grounds that Tuesday.

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Eastern Troops Defending Normandy, 1944

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 388-405:

Germany had suffered casualties nearing four million, three out of four of them on the Eastern Front. 1943 had been a punishing year in Russia. Since July alone, Germany had lost more than 1,200,000 men. The losses could not be made good. Even after stripping Italy and especially France, even after sending more than a quarter of a million men from the training schools, even after sending wounded men back to the front, the German Army in Russia still found itself more than 300,000 short.

Short of men in the east, short of men in the west, Germany turned to desperate measures to fill its thinning ranks. Hitler was convinced the rear areas, supply depots, offices and administrations would prove to be a rich source of untapped manhood. He ordered every division, every naval and Luftwaffe unit to comb out men who could be spared duties behind the lines so they could be sent to the front. But combing out the Wehrmacht could not solve all its ills. The losses had simply been too great. In 1943, the German military machine began calling up seventeen and eighteen year olds and relying more and more heavily on foreign ‘volunteers’: Volksdeutsche – ethnic Germans, born outside the Fatherland; Freiwillige – foreign volunteers sympathetic to the Nazi cause – and Hilfswillige or ‘Hiwis’ – auxiliaries, usually Russians or Poles pressed into military service from the occupied territories or recruited from the millions of prisoners of war wasting away in German camps. With the war turning against the Wehrmacht in the east, it was no longer safe to use anti-Bolshevik Russians on the Eastern Front. From the autumn of 1943 onwards, the High Command steadily began swapping German troops behind the Atlantic Wall for these so-called Osttruppen – eastern troops. By the spring of 1944, one in six infantry battalions along the Atlantic Coast was composed of Osttruppen and foreign volunteers – Russians, Poles, Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Ukrainians among them. On the eastern coast of the Cotentin peninsula, 709th Infantry Division was typical of the second-rate divisions defending the west in 1944. One in five in its ranks was a volunteer from the east. Its commander, Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben, was sceptical. ‘We are asking rather a lot if we expect Russians to fight in France for Germany against Americans.’

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D-Day Surprise: No Horses!

From D DAY Through German Eyes – Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944, by Holger Eckhertz (DTZ History, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1399-1420:

In the afternoon, the English, I recall, insisted for some reason on sending a German-speaking English army priest in among us [German prisoners] to listen to any spiritual concerns we had; this was met with derision. I still recall the face of the army priest, who was very angry at his reception. We heard explosions and detonations from inland and from the beach throughout the day, and naval bombardments from offshore, the shells of which travelled over us with a sound like an express train going past, and always the sound of engines: planes, tanks and trucks, never stopping for a moment.

In the evening, we were taken out of the square and led to the beach. The guards made no attempt to blindfold us or to prevent us seeing the situation. The scale of the operation then became clear to us all, and most of us fell completely silent at what we witnessed.

The sea wall area was being worked on with armoured bulldozers, creating a huge ramp for vehicles to drive up. There were many destroyed vehicles and tanks, some still burning. I saw my bunker, which was collapsed in the frontal part, over the 88mm embrasures; there was smoke drifting from the rubble.

The beach was completely full of transports, including many vehicles we had not seen and we did not even know how to describe: amphibious trucks, tanks with flotation screens, enormous landing craft that were unloading whole columns of jeeps and tanks, directly onto the sand. The English had already cleared a wide lane through the beach obstacles – how they did that so quickly, I have never understood, perhaps with linked explosive charges – and this lane was an absolute highway on the wet sand and out into the sea itself. There were still many bodies, which were lined in large groups on the sand and partly covered with tarpaulins; despite our lack of religion, many of our men crossed themselves as we passed these.

One thing in particular struck many of us as amazing: all along the beach, there were no horses!

This was a surprise for you?

Yes, we found it astonishing. This huge army had brought with it not one single horse or pack-mule! All their transport was mechanised. It may sound bizarre today, but this impressed us greatly, showing that the Allies had no need of horses anymore, as they had such huge oil resources and production capacity. Because, of course, the German armies used horses for transport on quite a large scale right up until the end of the war, due to limited fuel and constraints on mechanised vehicle production. Every German unit had its stables and veterinarian officer, and here were these English without that need at all. For us, this symbolised the Allied capabilities.

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Defending “United Europe” on D-Day

From D DAY Through German Eyes – Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944, by Holger Eckhertz (DTZ History, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1032-49:

Did you have any personal animosity towards the Anglo-Americans?

My brother and cousin had both been killed in the East, at Kharkov, so my animosity lay more in that direction. Ironically, we had a large contingent of Russian troops with us on the Atlantic wall, who were defectors now serving in the German forces, but I had no real contact with them.

As for the English, my father had been in France in 1917 to 1918, and he confided to me that the English were surprisingly similar to us Germans in personal character, but that as a fighting force they were inconsistent, with many brave men but also a big element of shirkers and black market operators. Regarding the Americans, I think that most of us soldiers made a distinction in our minds between the American government, which we believed was a pawn of international finance, and the Americans as individuals. After all, we had all seen US films and magazines before the war, we had read about cowboys and heard jazz music, and all this was exciting and very attractive to us. But despite all this, we knew that the Americans too were intent on attacking France and destroying the unification of Europe under German protection that our leadership had achieved.

This is interesting. The phrase ‘Fortress Europe’ is still widely remembered today, I think, as part of Reich propaganda at the time, but you have reminded me that the phrase ‘United Europe’ was equally common.

Of course it was. Of course. ‘United Europe’ was a universal slogan. We should remember that both the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS had huge recruitment campaigns in all the countries under Reich control, with the emphasis that people from all the countries of Europe should unite under arms and defend European unification. If we look at the Waffen SS, we see these very effective non-German units from all over Europe: the French, the famous Belgian-Walloon people under Leon Degrelle, the Dutch, Norwegians, the Croat Muslims with their ‘SS’ emblems on their fez hats, and so on and so on. There was a definite sense that Europe was united under the Reich, and an attack on France would be an attack on the whole structure.

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