Nazis Built Biggest Artillery Piece of World War Two


Dora, heaviest cannon of World War Two fired 48 times

Before the German attack on Sevastopol, Hitler sent his commander on the scene, Erich von Manstein, the heaviest cannon in all of World War Two which they Germans called “Dora”. She fired an 80cm caliber shell and her barrel was thirty-two meters long. Moving Dora to her specially prepared location thirty kilometers (18 miles) outside of Sevastopol required sixty railway cars.

Once in place and reassembled, the cannon sat on a double set of railroad tracks. Dora could fire a high explosive shell weighing five metric tonnes (five and 1/2 US short tons) a distance of forty-seven kilometers.

The cannon fired forty-eight shells during its existence. Toward the end of the war Dora and other heavy cannon’s under construction or never completed were destroyed by the Wehrmacht.



The 800mm (31.5 inch) Heavy Gustav Cannon Railway Gun nicknamed “Dora” prepares to fire on Soviet positions at Sevastopol… The gun had two types of shells. The armor/concrete-piercing shell weighed 7.1 tons (7,100 kilograms) and could pierce 22.9 feet (7 meters) of reinforced concrete or 3.3 feet (1 meter) of rolled steel armor. The high-explosive shell weighed 4.8 tons (4,800 kilograms) and left a 30 foot (10 meter) wide crater…Dora rolled forward to the Crimea for the attack on Sebastopol on four trains, complete with anti-aircraft gun cars.

Some 450 men crewed the gun. Four parallel rail tracks had to be laid for Dora to be mobile once in place. With anti-aircraft crews and guards, 5,000 men were attached to the gun. Two giant cranes, shipped by Krupp from Essen, helped assemble the gun and then served her with ammunition. The curve of the tracks seen here would allow the gun to be placed by three diesel-electric locomotives.

Photo above and caption courtesy of


Zentralbild Generalfeldmarschall Erich EGE von Lewinski genannt von Manstein, geb. 24.11.1887 in Berlin Oberbefehlshaber der Heeresgruppe S¸d im II. Weltkrieg. Ritterkreuz mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern. Von einem britischen Milit‰rgericht zu 18 Jahren Haft verurteilt, 1953 jedoch bereits freigelassen. UBz.: von Manstein als Generalmajor im Jahre 1938

Herr Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein

Erich von Manstein remains an enigmatic figure decades after the end of World War Two and of his death in 1973. The only scholarly biography of von Manstein is titled Janus Face.  The most revealing and fascinating book about him continues to be: Bounden Duty: Memoirs of a German Officer, 1932-1945 by Alexander Stahlberg.

I’ve read this book five or six times over the years and I give it five stars because it is the only one of its kind. Stahlberg served from 1942 until the end of the war as von Manstein’s adjutant or personal orderly officer as it translates from German. His memoir is the best and only primary source about von Manstein since von Manstein’s family will not release his papers.

Unquestionably, Field Marshal von Manstein was a military genius and the best German commander of World War Two if not the best ground commander in any army in World War Two. Had Hitler put him in overall command of the Eastern Front the Russians would have paid even a higher price than they did pushing the Germans out of their country.

According to Stahlberg, von Manstein had several opportunities to murder Hitler but chose not to. Before Hitler visited von Manstein’s forward headquarters in Russia, a small group of his staff officers entreated von Manstein to allow them to kill Hitler but he refused permission. “Prussian Field Marshal’s do not mutiny.”

While he was acknowledged by the other Field Marshals as “first among equals” and they would have followed his lead had he murdered Hitler and seized power he would not do it.  Von Manstein was a great general, perhaps one of the great captains of history. But he could have been a great man and he threw that chance away to the detriment of the world.

One of the more curious aspects of the 20 July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler was how many of the Field Marshals knew that many officers were working on the plot yet they did nothing to help or hinder. Stahlberg says he told von Manstein a week before the attempt.


Sources: Stopped at Stalingrad: The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat in the East, 1942-1943 by Joel S. A. Hayward &

License Plates and Vehicle Identification Marks of the Wehrmacht

License Plates and Vehicle Identification Marks of the Wehrmacht


Charles McCain

copyright (c) 2017

author of An Honorable German published in hardback 2009 by GCP/Hachette & paperback 2010. Available on Kindle and Nook.


the first two letters on the number plate identify this as a Luftwaffe truck. This is a Mercedes “type LG3000”. This guy was probably stuck in Russia which isn’t a place you wanted to be stuck. Note the relatively narrow tires.

WL is the abbreviation of Wehrmacht Luftwaffe (that is W=Wehrmacht [which translates as ‘Defense Forces’ or ‘Armed Forces’] L=Luftwaffe –Air Force)

It may seem odd that German military vehicles – not tanks but other vehicles – had license plates or number plates as the Brits call them. But they did. One sees them in lots of photographs of German vehicles although as the war goes on one notices the plates are either missing or have been painted over or smeared with oil since the back color of the plates was white and stood out.

Tank 411 fires its flamethrower

The markings on tanks were normally a large three digit number painted on each side of their turret and often on the back of the turret. This was their radio call sign so their squadron commander could identify and direct specific tanks under his command to do specific things instead of just saying over his radio, “hey you, the tank under the tree…”

Tiger tank in Russia identified as Number 323 (German National Archive)

Soviet tanks did not have radios so once a battle started they could not be controlled by a superior officer which is why they normally attacked in waves. This was a major issue for their tank forces. At the same time, I should point out that radios in American and British tanks often didn’t work because of battery problems or having their antennas ripped off or having wires come loose after repeated firings of the main battery.


Sd.Kfz.250 German Army halftrack. The first two letters of the number plate identify this as an army vehicle. (W=Wehrmacht H=Heer (Army)

German military police constantly set up checkpoints and the number plate was one of the key issues they checked. Did the number plate correspond to the registration which was required to be carried in every vehicle? To drive a German Army vehicle, you had to have a license to drive that specific type of vehicle. That is, you had to have a license to drive a passenger car, a license to drive various classes or trucks, etc.

One can imagine the Feldgendarmarie knocking on one’s vehicle window and demanding, “license and registration.”

German Navy truck. You can see the first two letters on the number plate are WM. (W=Wehrmacht  M=Marine (navy)

On German vehicles, the number plates were coded in the following way: WH (Wehrmacht, Heer (army)), WL (Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe), WM (Wehrmacht, Marine (navy)), or SS. Each license plate began with one set of these letters. These two letter combinations were followed by five to six numerals, usually divided into a group of two numerals followed by a group of three or four numerals.

The first two numerals indicated which command the vehicle belonged to such as Army District, 10th U-Boot Flotilla, etc. and specifically what type of vehicle it was. The last three or four numerals comprised the actual code letters of the vehicle.

Each type of vehicle would have its own code. So each type of truck made by Mercedes or Ford would have had a different designation. Ford’s German subsidiary, as well as GM’s Opel subsidiary, continued to manufacture trucks for the German Army all through the war. German units tended to prefer Fords over Mercedes because the Fords were more durable and and easier to maintain.

WH on the license plate identifies this as a German Army truck. This happens to be a Ford. Ford-Werke in the Third Reich manufactured trucks for the German Armed forces. This continues to be a subject of great controversy as you might imagine. Henry Ford himself was a notorious anti-Semite.


This is a restored German Army Ford truck. You will note the ‘WH’ on the left front fender. The marking above the number plate indicates this truck belongs a specific company. The number of the company is hidden by the headlamp. On the right front fender is the divisional symbol of the Großdeutschland division. (This photo appears on so many websites that I was unable to determine who I should credit)

So a license plate on a German Armed Forces truck which began WH, belonged to the Army. The next two numerals would indicate what specific model of truck and to which type of unit such as a panzer or infantry division or Armee Korps it belonged to and the last three numerals would indicate which specific truck of a specific model it was. It was a bit more complex than this but this will give you a sense of what the number plates mean.

Note the numeral ‘3’ as the first numeral on the license plate of both trucks pictured above. Since these are both the same model of Ford truck they have the same letter designation.


A Luftwaffe (WL) Ford V3000 truck in Italy, 1943. photo courtesy of German National Archive.

Each type of vehicle would have its own code. So each type of truck made by Mercedes or Ford would have had a different designation. Ford’s German subsidiary continued to manufacture trucks for the German Army all through the war. German units tended to prefer Fords over Mercedes because the Fords were more durable and and easier to maintain.


In this photograph you can clearly see the silhouette of the German Army helmet used to mark vehicles of the Großdeutschland division. The mark below that indicates this vehicle is assigned to a reconnaissance unit.

All German Army divisions had a distinctive symbol which they put on signs, equipment, vehicles, etc. Example: the elite Großdeutschland (Greater Germany) division had as its symbol a white silhouette of a German Army helmet (1935 pattern). A tank or other vehicle of GD (as it was abbreviated) would also have had a tactical symbol indicating which type of unit the vehicle belonged to: infantry, armor, medical, engineers, etc.

Additionally, vehicles were marked with the insignia of the division and/or higher formation or ad hoc formation they were assigned to. Example: vehicles assigned to the 4 Armee during the invasion of France in 1940, had a ‘K’ on their vehicles which stood for ‘Kluge’. Günther von Kluge commanded 4 Armee during the attack on France.


You can see the Balkenkreuz clearly on this German dive bomber Ju 87 Stuka. The Luftwaffe was the first of the German Armed Forces to use the symbol.


German Luftwaffe Tornado attack jet with post-war design of the Balkenkreuz

Every German military vehicle, tank, or plane was also, then and now, marked with a version of the Balkenkreuz, which is said to be the symbol of the Teutonic Knights, a Germanic Catholic military/religious Order which conquered and ruled parts of Prussia and Eastern Europe in medieval times.

Sources: Wehrmacht Camouflage and Markings 1939-1945 by W.J.K. Davies and Wehrmacht Divisional Signs 1938-1945 by Theodor Hartmann. If you have a deep interest in this subject I would purchase one or both of these books. A lot of information on the internet is wrong.

Information on the Teutonic Knights can be found here:





Charles McCain

copyright (c) 2017

author of An Honorable German available from any online bookstore as well as Kindle and Nook.


A Shocking Family Secret Revealed

Family Secret Revealed: Your grandfather was a vicious German soldier inspired by Nazi ideology

This would be a shock to most people. Quite an interesting story of how this diary came to light and was published. If you like memoirs by common soldiers, this is a good one however evil the opinions of the diarist are.
winter fritz2
Commonly used to represent a common German soldier on the Eastern Front, this candid shot was taken by a fellow SS soldier in the France in the winter of 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, the largest engagement ever fought by the US Army.



famous Soviet war correspondent and later novelist, Vasilii Grossman (on left) at the Brandenburg Gate, 1945 with other Soviet war correspondents.




“Now we see them coming, those Red bastards, that Asian mob.”

“Now we see them coming, those Red bastards, that Asian mob. Night attacks are a particular specialty of this gang… We receive orders to retreat to our baseline positions. The entire front line must be pulled back to its original position. Damn it, it is unbelievable that we must retreat — we, the 299th Infantry Division, have to run; German soldiers have to abandon the field to those Russian schweine!”- From: Eastern Inferno: the Journals of a German Panzerjäger on the Eastern Front, 1941-1943

Imagine this: you are a grown American man living in 21st Century America. One day, out of the blue, your mother gives you a set of journals kept by her father, your grandfather, during World War Two. She never knew him. He was killed in action when she was a toddler. The above quote is taken from his first journal and the entry is dated 11 July 1941 — three weeks into the German invasion of the Soviet Union which commenced on 21 June 1941.

This is the first you have ever heard of these documents. Your mother had never mentioned them. She actually did not know about them for many years since her father’s brother had them. Eventually he gave them to her mother, who gave them to her.

You knew your mother had been born in Germany during the war, one of the kinder krieg, but of that time she knew little and said less. Now she tells you a secret. A secret she has kept from you and your sister for much of your lives. Your grandfather fought in World War Two — just like the grandfather’s of many of your friends. Only your grandfather wore feldgrau and served in the Wehrmacht. And he fought, and died, in Russia.

What has your grandfather written about in his journals? Your mother can’t tell you. Not because she is being difficult and won’t tell you. She can’t tell you because she has never read the journals. The emotional pain would be overwhelming. Unfortunately, you can’t read them either — not because reading them would overload your emotional circuits. You can’t read them because they’re in German. And neither you nor your sister can speak or read German.

From your mother and from flipping through the three journals you learn this of your grandfather: his name was Hans Roth. He served as an enlisted soldier in the 299th Infantry Division of the German Army. Until he was killed, all of his time in the army he spent on the Eastern Front. Most of that time he was in combat. Not easy duty for anyone. Especially not for a panzerjäger. A “tank hunter.”

Yet you and your sister realize these journals are a gift. They are a gift both to you and to history; for sixty years after your grandfather went missing in action in June/July of 1944, he reaches across those decades and speaks. And what he writes are those rarest of historical documents: a contemporaneous diary meant to be read only for him and perhaps one day his family. He records his thoughts raw, without censorship, never holding back.

Often he writes just after a vicious battle with the Reds. He is glad he killed a lot of them. He despises them. Yet not one of us would think differently. Why? Because he is living in a situation when human existence is at its most elemental: kill or be killed. That is the only choice you have. And since we are programmed by nature to live and survive, we kill.

That’s what your grandfather did from June of 1941 — when he crossed into the Soviet Union as part of the 299th Infantry Division of the German Army — until he went missing in late June of 1944.

Infantrie Division 299 was the first German division hit by the massive Soviet offensive which began on the night of June 21/22 1944. This offensive, which made D-Day just a few weeks before look like a skirmish, was an attack of unprecedented violence against the Germans. The battle has a name which is fully descriptive: The Destruction of Army Group Center. (Heers Gruppe Mitte).

Twenty-seven German divisions and their higher echelon commands, disappeared in five days. Over 300,000 men simply gone missing in just five days…never to be found. Hans Roth is one of them. In fact, he is still listed as missing in action as are over three million German soldiers from World War Two. Most lie in unmarked graves in the former Soviet Union as does, undoubtedly, Hans Roth.


nazsol (1)
This famous photograph of a German soldier is often used to depict a German soldat in action on the Eastern Front. His face expresses the weary hopelessness of the German landser, or common soldier. However, it is one a series of photographs taken in France in the winter of 1944 a fellow member of his SS division. The film and camera were later captured by American troops. He was probably killed in battle against the Anglo-Americans. I hope so.
winter fritz1
But he did make it into Life Magazine.

Five Years, Four Fronts: The War Years of Georg Grossjohann – A Solid Memoir Lacking Introspection


Book Review of Five Years, Four Fronts: the War Years of Georg Grossjohann by Georg Grossjohann.

Despite the lack of introspection in this memoir such as “what am I fighting for,” it is a very solid three star memoir by a German soldier. Of particular note, this is the only memoir I have read in which the author had been an enlisted man in the Reichswehr, the 100,000 man army allowed to Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. With the economic uncertainty present in Germany in the 1920s, the army had far more applicants than vacancies and recruiting officers could take their pick of the best men. These men had to sign on for a twelve year hitch. They were intensively trained and highly experienced. Unfortunately, it was these very men who formed the backbone of the Wehrmacht during World War Two. While almost all officers in the German Army began their careers as non-officers, that was just temporary since they were officer-cadets. Few came from the ranks and rose to Major.


Georg Grossjohann didn’t particularly like being a soldier. He didn’t particularly even want to be a soldier. But he was from Prussia, times were hard, and the natural place for a strong and intelligent lad was the army and so he went. Just before his twelve year hitch was up, and he was itching to get away from the military, Hitler came along and no one could leave the army so he got stuck.


Experienced NCOs like Grossjohann are worth their weight in gold in any army and because of both his natural intelligence and rational bravery under fire, Grossjohann rose to the rank of Major during the war, winning the Knights Cross. This is very unusual. He didn’t even want to be an officer. Even though he kept his head down and never tooted his own horn, his abilities were clearly recognized and up he went. This is the equivalent of starting in the mail room and becoming a senior vice president of a major corporation.

The memoir has a disarming honesty in many places since the author sees the absurdity of so many things in military life.

Most of the German officers’ memoirs have, in my experience, one thing in common: I rarely discover admission of errors.

In a frank admission about himself he says:

…I do not possess the necessary flexibility of character or intellect to imagine that I saw things in, say, 1940, with the knowledge that I have today. I also cannot bring myself to say that I opposed the Hitler regime, or that I knew it was doomed all along. I was amazed how the number of persons counting themselves as part of the German resistance reached astronomical heights after 1945.

Yet every time one sort of likes the guy, one comes across a passage such as this which is his response to witnessing tens of thousands of Russian POWs standing up to their knees in mud in one of the outdoor enclosures into which they had been herded like cattle to die. They had no shelter from rain or snow or cold. No sanitation. No potable water. No food.


He says that although these soldiers were enemies he felt their situation was shocking and unspeakably depressing. Here’s the kicker:

Most certainly Army Group (South) headquarters could not be blamed for their misery. We simply lacked the capabilities of sheltering them, and especially lacked the equipment necessary to transport the POWs quickly to better facilities. But I don’t want to conceal that in some places, the treatment of Russian POWs proceeded incompetently!

Well, Major Grossjohann, since almost 3 and 1/2 million Russian POWs died in German captivity, I think we can agree that “the treatment of Russian POWs proceeded incompetently!” Actually, they were intentionally starved to death. The German Army knew all about it since they were the ones who had custody of the POWs before they were shipped off to slave labor camps to die – that is if they lived long enough to be sent to a slave labor camp to die.

And if Army Group South can’t be blamed for their murder by neglect, who can? If there had been the will, Army Group South and the two other Army Groups (Center and North) which controlled German Army formations in the Soviet Union, could have done something. This is why there were honorable German soldiers but there was no such thing as an honorable German Army.


Confusion: The Organization of the German High Command On D-Day



Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, seen here wearing the five stars of General of the Army, a wartime rank specially authorized by Congress.

There was one person in charge of the Allied invasion of Europe and subsequent campaign to defeat Nazi Germany: General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces. All Allied military forces came under his command with an occasional exception. Most important, Eisenhower was backed by three key men: Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, US President Franklin Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. When he had to flex his muscles to bring subordinates into line, he had a lot of muscle behind him.

The Germans, who have a reputation as organized and efficient, had a command structure resembling a bowl of spaghetti thrown against a wall. In a report written for the Allies after the war and published in a fascinating volume, Fighting the Invasion: the German Army at D-Day, General Günther Blumentritt, who served as Chief of Staff to Herr General Feldmarschal Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefehlshaber West or ‘OB West’ (C-in-C West), wrote about the command structure which I have summarized below.

OB West reported to OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or German Armed Forces High Command), which had operational responsibility for war on the Western Front. OKH, or German Army High Command, had responsibility for the war in the east or the Ost Kreig against the Soviets. While co-located at Zossen, twenty kilometers outside of Berlin, neither organization was allowed to communicate with the other. They had completely separate compounds and bunkers and were known as Maybach 1 (OKH) and Maybach 2 (OKW).

Under the nominal command of OB West were Army Groups B and G which controlled all subordinate German Army forces in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. (The Military Governor of France and the Military Governor of N.France/Belgium, which had their own special units and security troops, reported directly to OKW by-passing OB West and often not even informing OB West of what they were doing).

+ Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel (left)
and Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt

However, there was a caveat here which caused the Germans to react slowly on D-Day and it is this:  only coastal defense units of German troops in France, Belgium and the Netherlands were directly subordinated to OB West.

Only if an actual invasion occurred, would the German Army commanders in Belgium and France become fully subordinated to OB West. The German Army commander in the Netherlands did not come under the authority of OB West in the event of invasion. He reported directly to OKW. However, the majority of front line German Army combat units in Holland came under the command of Army Group B and not the German Army commander in Holland. Got it?

If this wasn’t confusing enough, the Germans had a shortage of troops but not of Field Marshals. Rommel (seen above on right), the not-so-unbeatable Desert Fox, was sitting around in Germany while the unbeatable German Afrika Korps was being beaten – and later surrendered to the British 8th Army. (Eventually, the entire Deutsche Afrika Korps ended up as POWs in the United States.)

So Hitler sent Herr General Feldmarschal Rommel to France to assume command of Army Group B, which already reported to Herr General Feldmarschal von Rundstedt (seen above on left) in his capacity as OB West. So theoretically Rommel was subordinated to von Rundstedt but all German Field Marshals had the right to contact Hitler directly so it wasn’t clear that Rommel really was subordinate to von Rundstedt and both of them gave orders to Army Group B and these orders often conflicted.

A meeting in Paris in December of 1943 between  Generalleutnant (equivalent to Major-General or two star general in US Army) Alfred Gause (who looks to be wearing an AfrikaKorps cuff title), Rommel’s Chief of Staff (at right, pointing at map), with Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel (left) and Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, OB West or Commander-in-Chief, West (center). Oberst (Colonel) Bodo Zimmermann (senior staff officer to von Rundstedt is in the background).

The Luftwaffe’s Third Air Force, responsible for air operations in the West as well as anti-aircraft defense, did not come under the authority of OB West except for matters of coastal defense. Otherwise, they reported to the Luftwaffe commander for France who was in Paris and he reported to OKL (Oberkommando der Luftwaffe in Berlin) which came under the drug-addicated Reichsmarschal Göring who reported, theoretically, to OKW (Armed Forces High Command) but in actuality reported to Hitler.

Even in the event of the actual invasion, Luftwaffe units would not (and did not) come under the command of OB West. That anti-aircraft units came under Luftwaffe command is important to note since these units, often of division strength, were heavily armed with the awesome German 88s as well as all sorts of other heavy weapons. Most of the time, these anti-aircraft units provided direct fire support to German Army troops but this required good relations between local unit commanders since the Luftwaffe didn’t have to take orders from the army or vice-versa.

Marinegruppen Kommando West, (Naval Group West), reported to OKM (Oberkommando der Kreigsmarine), which came under Grand Admiral Dönitz who theoretically reported to OKW (German Armed Forces High Command) but actually reported directly to Hitler. As with the Luftwaffe, Herr General Feldmarschal Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefehlshaber West, could only give orders to Naval Group West on matters regarding coastal defense and even in the event of the actual invasion, OB West could not give orders to Naval Group West. What makes this even more screwed up than it looks is that the Kriegsmarine controlled all coastal artillery units since they were part of the navy.



The Waffen SS, which literally translates as ‘Armed SS’, meaning SS combat troops as opposed to SS concentration camp guards and organized murderers, came under the tactical control of local army commands in the event of invasion. Otherwise, they reported to that weak chinned killer, Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler. (After the war was over, men who had served in the Waffen SS tried to claim they were simply soldiering and had nothing to do with the death camp guards, those men being in a separate unit. The concentration camp guards and murder squad SS men were in a separate unit but men transferred between these units on a regular basis.)

In the event of an Allied landing, the German strategy was to launch their reserve panzer divisions against the Allied beachhead. But, as you might imagine, the reserve panzer divisions came under the authority of the OKW, not OB West, and could only be released to OB West if he asked – which he did when the invasion began – but he was rebuffed.

Oberquartiermeister West, (Chief of Supply and Logistics), who was responsible for supplying the units which would come under OB West in the event of an invasion, reported simultaneously to three different commands, OB West, the Military Governor of France, and the Generalquartiermeister of OKH (Oberkommando das Heer or German Army High Command), all of whom could – and did – issue orders to him. Since OB West had no transport of its own, it had to borrow transport from subordinate army commands. Incredibly, these supply trucks were driven by hired French civilians who were supposed to keep driving while being attacked by Allied aircraft.

If this seems confusing, it is and it was. Herr General FeldMarschall von Rundstedt, OB West, said he had but the authority to change the guard in front of his headquarters, located in a magnificent chateaux northwest of Paris, later occupied by General Eisenhower as his headquarters.

Curiously, when von Rundstedt was dining with his senior staff officers in his personal mess, they all spoke to each other in French.

A Nazi in Prussian Clothing: Herr General Feldmarschal Gerd von Rundstedt


Herr General Feldmarschal and devoted Nazi Gerd von Rundstedt in France, April 1944. He is carrying the standard issue field marshal’s baton for everyday use and not the ceremonial baton carried when in full dress uniform.


Let us first dismiss the myth that there was something honorable about Gerd von Rundstedt or that he represented in any way the hard working Protestant morality of Prussia. The only biography of him, The Last Prussian: A Biography of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt 1875-1953 by Charles Messenger is hagiography, not history, and isn’t worth reading.

That von Rundstedt is often described as ‘The Last Prussian’ makes a mockery of the values associated over the centuries with the Prussian aristocracy from whence came almost all Prussian Army officers. Were these officers often arrogant – particularly in the late 19th century after their thrashing by Napoleon earlier in the century had been forgotten? Yes. Dedicated to war – hoping for war? Yes. Narrowly educated? Yes. All those things. But they were not men who would permit wholesale murder of innocent civilians or genocide. And if someone under them had been doing it, they would put a stop to it. And if someone above them ordered such an action, they would have refused to carry out such an order.


Left to Right: General Gerd von Rundstedt, General Werner von Fritsch (Commander-in-Chief of the German Army) and Colonel General Generaloberst Werner von Blomberg, Berlin, 1934. The Nazis had only recently come to power (1933).  Blomberg (right) had been appointed as Minister of Defence in Chancellor Hitler’s new government. Blomberg was a boot licking toady to Hitler to the point of revulsion.

Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt
Gerd von Rundstedt in 1940 after being promotoed to Generalfeldmarschall. He had actually retired as the senior serving officer of the German Army in 1938 after being in the army for almost forty-six years. He was recalled when World War Two broke out.


Was their strong anti-Semitism in Prussia? Yes, there was. Yet long before other European countries took such actions, Frederick the Great of Prussia removed many restrictions against Jews in his kingdom and thus arose a flourishing German-Jewish culture in Berlin in the mid to late 1700s. One of the great intellectuals of the age, Moses Mendelssohn, was the leader of what many scholars refer to as the Jewish Renaissance, which created the school of thought and of specific belief we call Reform Judaism. As the leading intellectual of the age, Mendelssohn made Berlin the cultural capital of Europe.

I mention this great man to illustrate the complexity of the relationship between largely Christian Germany and its Jewish citizens. There was a great deal of intermarriage, far more than people realize, and this furthered the complexity of the German/Jewish relationship to the broader society. While a very strong feeling of anti-Semitism was present in Prussia and the other states which would eventually comprise the actual nation state of Germany, this anti-Semitism did not include the idea of murdering some, or all, of the Jews of Europe.

By the time the Nazis came to power, much of the Prussian aristocracy had become morally and financially bankrupt and most Prussian officers served Hitler zealously. Von Rundstedt was such a man. Like many high ranking officers, he had accepted large amounts of money, bribes, from Hitler, the first check coming in December of 1941 in the amount of 250,000 Reichsmarks. The yearly pay of a German Army captain was approximately 8,000 Reichsmarks which will give you a point of comparison.


von Rundstedt, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler, Russia, 1941. Von Runstedt is carrying his everyday field marshal’s baton and not the gaudy ceremonial baton.

Says Anthony Beevor in his very good (I rate it four stars) history of D-Day: “The British regarded ‘the Last Prussian’ (that is, Rundstedt) as nothing more sinister than a reactionary (Prussian Imperial) Guards officer and failed to appreciate that he shared many of the Nazis’ murderous prejudices. Rundstedt had never objected to the mass murders of Jews by the SS Einsatzgruppen on the eastern front. He had spoken of the advantages of using the Russian slave labourer in France. ‘If he does not do as he is told,’ he said, ‘he can quite simply be shot.'”


To those who defend von Rundstedt, and there are many, I recommend Beevor’s book on D-Day. Yet far more important as an indictment of von Rundstedt and what he knew about the Holocaust and the behavior of his troops on the Eastern Front, is the organization known as Fremde Heere Ost, which translates as Foreign Armies East. (It’s other unit was Fremde Heere West). While most students of German military history are familiar with the Abwehr, a sort of German CIA, and with RSHA, the SS controlled Reich Main Security Office which included the notorious Gestapo, not so many are familiar with Foreign Armies East and that is unfortunate.

This organization was directly subordinated to OKH, German Army High Command – not, I stress, OKW, German Armed Forces High Command. Thus the German general staff and high ranking German Army field officers received their own undiluted intelligence from an organization in their own chain of command. It beggars the imagination to suggest that Fremde Heere Ost failed to learn about the Holocaust, about the actions of SS murder squads, about the starvation of Russian POWs and the general horrendous treatment of Soviet civilians. It beggars the imagination even more to suggest this information was not reported to the highest levels of the German Army.

No Bathing Facilities on U-Boats Led to Constant Outbreaks of Skin Diseases and Horrible Smells Inside of the Boats

“It stinks in here!”


This still photo from the German film “Das Boot” gives you an idea of how cramped was the interior of a U-boat. This particular shot is of the engine room with the two 12 cylinder MAN diesels usually found in German U-Boats of the era. “Das Boot” translates as “The Boat.” In German, “boot” is pronounced “boat.”

Because they were unable to bathe, most U-Boat crewmen developed skin rashes, boils, and all other manner of skin diseases. The UBootwaffe had a special medical department which did nothing but study the skin diseases of Uboot crewmen. (Tuberculosis was also a major problem due to the constant damp.)

Also contributing to skin diseases among the men was the sickening miasma of air inside the uboat which clung to their skin and often infected their lungs. When boats returned from patrol and the flotilla engineers went aboard to make an inspection, they usually vomited because of the horrible smell.

U-boats were not well ventilated so when they were on the surface, the only way to get fresh air into the boat was to keep the bridge hatches open, close the outboard air intakes to the diesels, open the e-motor interior hatch and interior engine room hatch. This allowed the diesel engines to draw air from the outside through the open hatchways.

This arrangement didn’t help as much as one might think since there was no way to vent the bad air except by opening the engine room deck hatch or the forward hatch to the deck in the crew compartment. This was never, ever done at sea except in an emergency.

So the fresh air coming in helped but it did not expel the bad air. The author of every U-Boat memoir I have ever read remarks on the horrible fugue of noxious air and the the disgusting smell which no one ever completely adjusted to.

This smell was a combination of the body odor of 45 or more unwashed men, their exhalations, rotting food, diesel oil, cooking odors, and worst of all, the smell of urine and excrement in the bilges.

While the most common types of uboat, the type VII and type IX had two toilets or water closets, one was always used for storage and wasn’t available. So one toilet had to suffice for more than 45 men. The controls were so difficult to operate that each boat had one man especially trained in how to work the controls and he was known as “the toilet fuhrer”). Below 25 meters the toilet did not work because the water pressure was such that one could not open the outboard toilet valve to discharge the contents of the toilet.

Even if you could manage to open it, doing so was forbidden since it would create a weak spot and comprise the water-tight integrity of the boat. So the men used cans or buckets to urinate or defecate. As you might imagine, in the heat of action or action drills, these containers were often kicked over or in an emergency dive tipped over, spilling their contents.

Being in a Uboat was like serving time in a public latrine that was never sanitized in spite of constant efforts by the crew to keep the interior of the boat clean.


As an aside, the founder of the U-Boot Archiv in Cuxhaven, the late Horst Bredow, an officer in the UBootwaffe, had made one war patrol in the last months of World War Two. He had to be hospitalized upon returning to port because he had developed a skin rash covering his entire body. Another officer replaced him on his Uboat. The boat was sunk with all hands on her next war patrol. (The Archiv has changed its name from “U-Boot Archiv” to Deutsches U-Boot Museum.)

The link to their site is here: