Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Just wear it" versus reenactment realities

     In a previous post on this blog we discussed artificial "aging" of reproduction items used for reenactment as a way to make them look more like originals. The term "aging" as used here means applying artificial means to create the appearance of something that was extensively worn and used over a period of time. It does not mean trying to replicate the appearance of something that is simply old- in fact, there is no way to achieve that, because the passage of time, alone, does not necessarily leave any trace on an object. Here is a case in point:
     Both of these packs were made within a year or two of each other, circa 1943-44. The green one is in brand new factory mint condition. The leather is smooth, straight, unblemished. The stitching and drawstring are bright white. The fabric is pristine. The metal hardware retains all of the original paint. This rucksack was never issued or used. The passage of more than 70 years has not altered the appearance of this object in any way whatsoever. Compare that to the blue pack. The leather is stretched out, the straps have curled up. The paint is worn away from the hardware and the metal has rusted. There are large and small holes and quite a few careful hand-sewn repairs. The fabric is frayed and torn, the bottom is stained. This is a pack that someone used a lot, and it shows. It is not time that makes an item look like this. It is wear and use.
     For field soldiers, war was a harsh reality. The rigors of their existence took a toll not only on the fighting men, but on their uniforms and equipment. Items worn and used in these demanding conditions very quickly took on a very obviously used look. This look became a recognizable characteristic of soldiers in the field. It's why costume designers creating wardrobes for war movies artificially distress items used as props. It's a visual thing.
     There are reenactors who believe that the best way to create an impression of a veteran field soldier is simply to wear the uniform and equipment until it appears visibly worn. Their mantra is, "Just wear it." Is that reasonable? Reenactments are usually only a weekend long and few hobbyists attend more than one event a month. Some events may include long marching, digging field positions, or other arduous activity, but others may recreate garrison tasks that incur no serious wear on gear. Soldiers in WWII were wearing their uniforms every day, sleeping in them, marching for miles, living in holes in the earth. They were fighting for their lives. Does reenactment put an equivalent amount of wear on gear? Not a chance. But even if it did, a reenactor would have to go to events each month for several years to achieve the look of something continuously worn in the field for just a few weeks. A soldier wanting to present a realistic visual impression of a soldier who has been living in the field for some time may not want to wait years to look believable. That is the purpose of aging. It's not about making something look old, but it is necessary if new items are to be used as stand-ins for objects that, in reality, were very visibly used.
     It is true that some soldiers were fortunate enough to be issued new items. Others had to make do with reissued uniforms and equipment. But even the new stuff, in those conditions, did not look new for very long at all. The visual aspect of reenacting is crucial, hobbyists strive to prevent a convincing appearance. The "just wear it" approach is great if one is portraying a recruit being trained in a garrison. But to take an impression consisting of all brand-new items, subjected to a year of reenactments, and state that the impression being portrayed is of a guy who has been living in the field for weeks or months? Frankly- I'm not convinced.
     How many years of "just wearing it" would it take before a reproduction Rucksack looks like the blue one in the photo above? How many decades?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Tactical employment of Wehrmacht security units

Excerpts from "The Soviet Partisan Movement 1941-1944" by Edgar M. Howell, Department of the Army, 1956.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Razors used by German soldiers in WWII, and current production equivalents

     What kind of razors were German soldiers issued in WWII? It's a trick question. Soldiers had to supply their own razors. They could bring them or have them sent from home, or they could buy razors- but the razors made available to them to buy were the same commercial products available to civilians. Many dealers will offer "Wehrmacht issue" razors, this is an inaccurate sales pitch as there simply never was any such thing. Purportedly original razor packaging that says "Wehrmacht Rasierapparat" or "Einheitsrasierapparate für Heereslazarette" is, simply, fake. Shaving soap was issued; razors were not. Soldiers in Germany and in occupied countries, civilians, even concentration camp inmates all used the same razors.
    Here are three razors that were actually used by German soldiers during WWII. All three were excavated from remains of former German positions. Two are brass that once had a silver-colored plating, now mostly gone after decades underground. The Bakelite razor is marked "Made in France." None are marked with a brand name.
      Here are some other period type Bakelite razors. One is also made in France, as was the excavated example; the others are German. None of the German ones are marked.
     Razors like these were available complete with Bakelite cases, but most were sold in simple cardboard boxes which would presumably be discarded.
     The "Apollo" brand razor shown is still marked with the original price- 1.50 Reichsmarks. That's about ten US dollars today.
     An interesting type of wartime-era German Bakelite razor is the "slant." The top part of the razor was not exactly perpendicular to the handle, but was set as an angle. This was advertised as a feature that supposedly yielded better results than the usual type. The degree of slant varied, as you can see. The example at left was made by Merkur.
     Just as with standard Bakelite razors, these were sold with matching Bakelite cases, or in cardboard boxes.
     I have seen it stated elsewhere that all WWII German produced razors were Bakelite as metal was reserved exclusively for strategic purposes. That's not true. Here is a selection of wartime type metal razors. Most are made from a zinc alloy sometimes referred to as "Kriegsmetall"- war metal.
     A plated zinc razor in its original box.
     Razors were also available in various types of travel kits. Shown here, a leatherette case, circa 1930s, and a collapsible razor in a tiny metal box, exact vintage unknown.
     One particular type of razor that seems to have been widely used by soldiers and civilians alike during and before WWII was the Mond-Extra, made by Rotbart. This razor was made of plated brass.
     Rotbart advertised heavily in publications intended for soldiers. Here is an ad for razor blades in a 1940 issue of the German armed forces magazine "Die Wehrmacht."
     The Rotbart Mond-Extra razor was available in a cardboard box, an enameled tin box, or a Bakelite case.
     Rotbart also made various types of travel kits for razors including the Mond-Extra.
     The leather case opens to reveal a razor, Bakelite tubes for a shaving brush and shaving soap, and a booklet about how to shave. There is even a mirror inside the lid. This kit is vintage 1930s.
     A German soldier could have used any of these types of razors depending on personal preference or availability. Double edged safety razors in the same style are still made in Germany today by Merkur, one of the companies that was making razors before and during the war. Here are two current Merkur products: the Merkur 45, made of Bakelite, and the Merkur 33c, made of plated brass.
     The similarity between the Merkur 33c and the Rotbart Mond-Extra is remarkable and certainly not a coincidence. This is a classic, useful design.
     The Merkur 45 Bakelite razor also fits in nicely with its WWII-period counterparts.
     These modern Merkur razors are still in production and widely available as of this writing. Both retail for around $30 or less and hey both are fine razors for shaving.
     Of course, a decent shave requires more than a razor alone. German soldiers were issued soap to shave with. The shaving soap sticks were rectangular and each bar was stamped with a code assigned by the "Reichsstelle für industrielle Fettversorgung." Here is an original package of 10 bars of issue type shaving soap.

     These ceramic hones were used to sharpen razor blades to prolong their life. These were excavated from former German positions on what was once the Eastern Front. These would have been private purchase rather than issue items.
     Soldiers also had to fend for themselves when it came to shaving mirrors. Here, a soldier shaves with a small, round pocket mirror.
     A selection of wartime era pocket mirrors with military themes.
     With some creativity, it is not hard to put together a convincing representation of a WWII German soldier's shaving kit using modern items, that can actually be used today. Shown below is a careful recreation of a kit that could have been used by a soldier in the field. The razor is a modern Merkur 33c, everything else is reproduction- the shaving mirror and leatherette case, the RIF-marked soap bar, the razor blade packaging. All fits inside a wooden box with a reproduction Camembert cheese label.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Field expedient stove for Zeltbahn tent

Article by Willi Graf.

Staying warm in cold weather, especially during winter nights, is a problem as old as mankind. For winter deployments, we often struggled with ways to heat our 8-panel Zelt (in a period-correct way). A short clip in a wartime German Wochenschau newsreel film provided an answer. In this clip, a Wehrmacht-issue "Jerry can" fuel container was shown inside a Kübelwagen. The can had been modified into a stove, to provide warmth. Here are screen captures from the film.

Here, the stove’s exhaust pipe, emitting smoke, can be seen sticking out of the side of the vehicle. The next photos show a soldier removing ash from the modified "Jerry can."

This was something we knew we could replicate for our 8-man zelt tent. The photos below provide a detailed explanation of our project.

-The first step was turning a Jerry can into the main body of a stove. The font of the can had to be cut out, and replaced with a fabricated hinged door. A latch was also included to keep the door shut.

-Internally, a “grill” had to be made, to allow for ash to fall away from the fire itself.  This can also be seen in the first photo above.

-On the rear side, another smaller door had to be created to allow for both ventilation/air circulation, and to provide a means of removing smaller ash that fell to the bottom. A latch was also included on this door.

-Next was creating sectional exhaust pipes, with a flue, that exited the mouth of the Jerry can.
-An obvious concern was burning the zelt where the pipe exited the tent. The pipe can get very hot, and we needed a way to prevent contact between the zelt panels, and the pipe itself. Creating a fiberglass insulator and support panel solved this problem. No part of the zelt comes in contact with the hot exhaust pipe. We needed to tie up the sides of the zelt, because we could not button it together anymore (e.g. where the pipe exited the tent).

-At the top of the pipe we added a spark arrestor (to prevent sparks from flying out), and support cables to keep the whole thing from falling over. The cables are staked into the ground. 

-The stove has to be elevated off the ground to keep any ground surface from burning. A few bricks solve that problem (as can be seen in above photos).

-Because the stove, and stove door, is small, wood must be cut up into small pieces to fit inside it. Sawing wood with our period saw provides for a great, and essential, period activity to any immersion event we do; there is indeed much more to being a field solider than just combat.

The stove is amazingly effective. Using straw and wool blankets as bedding, we have spent nights sleeping quite comfortably when outside temperatures plunged down to 20 degrees (-7 Celsius). The only down side is that because the stove is small, it very frequently requires fuel to keep it going.   

Thursday, April 14, 2016

WWII German Wehrmacht unit designations and abbreviations- a basic primer for reenactment

     WWII German unit designations can be hard for reenactors and reenactment units to fully understand. They are very different from the American military designations that many are familiar with. They are in a foreign language, and many references use English translations instead of the original German terms. Many different abbreviations were sometimes used for the same term, making it challenging to identify which form is most common or typical. It is possible to be an experienced reenactor and amateur historian and still not really have a grip on the correct designation of the unit one is portraying. To that end, I hope that this basic primer will be of some use. 
    Why is this important? Nearly every reenactment group uses a military unit designation to identify itself. This designation is part of the "brand" of a reenactment unit. Facebook pages and web sites will bear these designations, as will camp or barracks signage at reenactment events. An incorrectly rendered designation not only can be embarrassing to a unit trying its best, but it is an authenticity issue, as well.
     The good news is that identifying the correct unit designation, and abbreviating it correctly, is not terribly difficult. The Wehrmacht was a force of millions of men, in thousands and thousands of different units, so possible unit designations and abbreviations are nearly infinite. But nearly all reenactment groups portray the same types of units (largely ground combat units, mostly Heer and Waffen-SS) and the designations for these typical units are easy to identify and describe.
     Let's start at the beginning, at the most basic level. One soldier. In most units, he is in a squad- a Gruppe. Squads are grouped usually into a platoon- a Zug. These are generally really not important from a unit designation perspective. The next level, though, is important. A number of platoons would form a Kompanie (in Artillerie units, a Batterie; in Kavellerie units, a Schwadron). The Kompanie is extremely important for the reenactor. In nearly all units, this Kompanie designation would be in every soldier's Soldbuch, the identity document every soldier carried. The soldier would know what Kompanie he was in. The Kompanie is designated by an Arabic numeral, for example: 3. Kompanie, abbreviated 3. Kp. 
    The Kompanien (plural of Kompanie) would be grouped into a Bataillon. This is designated by a Roman numeral: I. Bataillon, abbreviated I. Btl. For nearly all unit designations, the Bataillon designation is not only unnecessary, but altogether superfluous and would not be used. The reason for this is that the Kompanien were numbered sequentially in a Regiment and assigned in a regular way to a Bataillon. In a regular Infanterie-Regiment, generally speaking, 1.-4. Kp. would be I. Bataillon, 5.-8. Kp. would be II. Bataillon, 9.-12. Kp. would be III. Bataillon. So if you are in 1. Kompanie you would never need to indicate that you were in I. Bataillon because 1. Kp. is always in I. Btl. and there is no 1. Kp. in any other Bataillon in the Regiment. In general, the only time Bataillon needs to be included in a unit designation is when the unit being portrayed is a Bataillon staff. Reenactors get this wrong very often. 
      With Bataillon being superfluous, the next thing that is important after Kompanie is the designation of the Regiment, Abteilung, or, sometimes, independent Bataillon (depending on unit type). This is usually a numbered unit and the number comes after the unit type: always Artillerie-Regiment 3 or Pionier-Bataillon 3, never 3. Artillerie-Regiment or 3. Pionier-Bataillon. This part of the designation is crucial. It is most important. This part of the designation is, in virtually all cases, what determines what unit insignia a reenactor wears. The Waffenfarbe branch color worn on insignia is determined by the Regiment or Abteilung. Before the use of unit numbers on insignia was abolished, the number of the Regiment or Abteilung is what would be worn on the shoulder straps.     
     The next level up from that is the Division. This aspect of structure is of almost no importance at all unless you are portraying a Divisional staff. The reason for this is that the number of the Regiment or Abteilung is unique and only used once in the entire armed forces. There was only one Panzer-Regiment 6, for example. There would be no need to say "3. Panzer-Division, Regiment 6" because there was only one Panzer-Regiment 6 in the whole Army and it happened to be in 3. Panzer-Division. In any other Panzer-Division, each Regiment also had its own unique number, used only once. The designation of the Regiment or Abteilung makes the use of the Division designation totally superfluous. It would not be included because it didn't matter. A designation like "3. Panzer Div. Nachrichten-Abteilung" for a signals unit in a Panzer division is totally wrong. It is missing the important unique number designation (39, in this particular case) and it is including the Division which is superfluous and shouldn't be included. The correct designation for this unit is, simply: Nachrichten-Abteilung 39. The fact that it happens to be attached to a Panzer-Division, not some other kind of Division, is unimportant and has no impact on the unit designation.
     With that out of the way, we can get down to the nitty-gritty of what the unit designation looks like and how it can be abbreviated. The designation of the unit we portray is:

3. Kompanie, Sicherungs-Regiment 195 
abbreviated as: 
3. Kp., Sich.-Rgt. 195 
or more simply- and more typically:
 3./Sich. Rgt. 195

     Do you see the slash in that second abbreviation? That is something that seems to trip people up all the time. It's not the Division, not the Regiment. The number before the slash is the Kompanie, or the Bataillon. How to know which is which? Kompanie is Arabic numeral, Bataillon is Roman numeral. 3./Sich.-Rgt. 195 was one Kompanie in I./Sich.-Rgt. 195. Please note also that if you are using the abbreviation "Kp." for Kompanie, you don't also use the slash. 3. Kp./Sich.-Rgt. 195 would not be correct, even if it is not inconceivable that even some wartime Germans might have made that mistake. And don't use the slash in any other way.     That's basically it. A Kompanie in a Pionier unit might be 2./Pionier-Bataillon 22, a Schwadron in an Aufklärung unit could be 2./Aufklärungs-Abteilung 207. Note that the umlaut is a really important part of spelling, it's not Aufklarung, or Jager. If you can't type the umlaut you have to put an "e" after the vowel that is supposed to have the umlaut: Jaeger. 
     Lastly, a note about Waffen-SS designations. These will always have "SS" as part of the unit designation to differentiate from Heer units, for example, SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 25, or 3./SS-Flak-Abteilung 17. And as much as reenactors love the Divisional identifier worn on the cuff title, it really doesn't belong in the unit designation. Some SS units had their own special names, for example SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 6 "Theodor Eicke" or SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 3 "Deutschland." But most units did not have these names as part of the designation. A soldier in the 5. SS-Panzer-Division "Wiking" might have worn a "Wiking"cuff title if he was not in one of the units in the division with a special name, but it would not have been part of the unit designation- the Panzer unit of "Wiking" was just plain old SS-Panzer-Regiment 5. And a designation like "1. SS" simply makes no sense.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The things one may have carried

Author: Markhard Brünner

I will begin this article by stating that I do not claim to be an expert or authority on German personal items of the second world war. I consider myself to be a guy with fairly decent attention to detail, and someone who is passionate about the material culture of the period. In this article I would like to give the reenactor a bit of a cerebral experience. Personal items are just that, personal. In this article I will share my own approach to personal kit. I invite you to comb through your things the next time you pack, and question what you are bringing, and why.

For the sake of simplicity I will restrict this article to the most common denominator- the German infantry soldier from Germany. I portray a second line infantryman. I began my service as a light towed artillery soldier whose battery was destroyed by rocket counter fire in Russia, 1942. As a disclaimer: the static nature of my impression allows more creature comforts than should be carried by a regular line infantryman. I am not going into captured items or items picked up on the battlefield. Each reenactor is the master of his own impression and may agree or disagree with my approach and conclusions.

Below is an exploded view of the contents of my trouser pockets. Among them, you will find a variety of identity documents and tags that have been issued to me, and a small field post paper chess game that has seen better days. A few Marks in pocket money, a few photos of friends from the past. Handkerchief, my pipe, tobacco pouch, a small tool for cleaning it, and a lighter.
Everything packed up in its configuration to go into my pockets. I use a handkerchief from back home, and keep the army ones with my rucksack. The army issued ones are scratchy and I don't like using them, but I will remain accountable for everything in my clothing issue.
The contents of my Feldbluse pockets. These things are items I feel important enough to have with me all the time. I have my sewing kit, some ammunition, a battery. A small flashlight that is handy for finding things in the dark, some earplugs to retain what is left of my hearing after the Russian artillery took most of it. Ointment, a comb, my knife, keys, and some writing instruments.
Rucksack contents. Everything in here is only useful to me when I am bedding down for the night or when I am need to do some maintenance/hygiene. In here you will find my hygiene kit, some bathing soap, my leather care gear, spare socks, some extra food and tobacco, my Esbit stove and some candles.
All of these items have been chosen by me to best represent a German soldier utilizing German items. There are some items that are not present. Handy civilian items that have been picked up in foreign lands are obviously a real thing, this is impression/scenario based and, if used correctly, can greatly enhance an impression. For captured/ acquired items, I focus on consumables- things that you use and throw away. Cigarettes, tobacco, matches, and food are small items that can broaden your vignette portrayal of a German soldier in foreign lands. But you can never go wrong with the German standard. 

I choose not to go overboard with carrying around food. You received your rations, you ate them, and continued with your day. Why carry around something that you could have enjoyed and not lugged around? How long will you carry that chocolate bar?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Public "battles" in living history

Sicherungs-Regiment 195 focuses mostly on immersion events, where we try to recreate the daily mundane life of WWII German security troops. We also attend living history events where we interact with the public. Although we are not educators, we try to share what we have learned with people interested in the time period. Participating in living history events allows other history enthusiasts to see and handle the equipment we use, and we try to craft interactions that have some educational value. For instance, a recreated field office can lead to a discussion about the importance of bureaucracy in a totalitarian regime. Further, as Sicherung troops, our under-equipped, stripped-down approach often serves as a stark counterpoint to other more sprawling displays which may offer plenty of "eye candy," but little sense of how field soldiers of the era actually lived.

Public battles, though, are a different story. Simply put, our unit does not participate in them. Ever. We will not perform mock battles as part of any "edutainment" scheme. It is our view that public battles can never be realistic, and that they do history a disservice by presenting a sanitized and glorified caricature of combat. Promoters who claim that the public can see what WWII looked like, by watching a public battle, are simply being dishonest. Spectators, who walk away from these spectacles believing that they have seen something realistic, have unfortunately been misled. WWII combat was not something that was suited for spectators, and can not be adapted for “edutainment” without an overwhelming vast compromise that destroys any attempt at historical integrity. The result is, at best, a clumsy cartoon; at worst, public battles put a glorious shine on mass violence and loss of life of an enormous scale. If a realistic depiction of a WWII battle could be created, any spectators would probably run away screaming, and certainly would not be offering up applause at the battle’s end. Individual members of our unit may have different personal views, and may choose to participate in public battles, with other units for their own reasons. But Sicherungs-Regiment 195 has chosen not to support public battles as a unit. Our policy is to focus on more productive, positive, realistic and educational efforts when interacting with spectators.