By Mike Glaeser
I will start with a caveat by saying that I am not a WWII historian. My specialties lie in the early Tudor period and the Swedish involvement in the Great Northern War. Thanks to my wargaming hobby and family history, I do have familiarity with the conflict, the armies, and the battles but I am more than happy to be contradicted on any suggestions I make below.
As part of my New Year’s resolutions, I decided that I would put some serious work into finding the final resting place of my great uncle who died of wounds in Stalino, modern day Donetsk, in 1943. This got me involved with the Volksbund Deutscher Kriegsgräberfürsorge, the organization that cares for German war graves. As I rifled through family paperwork and old photos, I remembered four particular photographs once in my grandfather’s possession that captured the burial of British servicemen. Unfortunately, the four images are accompanied by one very short handwritten note that does not provide any further clues. The mind wonders- Where were these men buried? What was their cause of death? Does the Commonwealth War Graves Commission know?
In an effort to solve this picture mystery, I put my findings to the internet. Perhaps those who read the Helion blog are able to lend their own expertise or might know someone or some entity that can take the next steps in research. Please share this post as you see fit and by all means notify me if any observations, ideas, or leads come of it. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let us look at what we have:
My grandfather served during WWII as an officer in the German Luftwaffe (flak artillery). He survived the war having earned the Iron Cross (first class), Luftwaffe Ground Assault badge, Anti-Aircraft Flak Battle badge and Wound badge (black). His service record is mostly intact and gives me a solid timeline of his locations and promotions during the war years.
Next, we have the images which I have numbered:
- My grandfather leading an honor guard of Luftwaffe troops. This is also the only image with a note on the back that simply reads: “On the march to the burial of the ‘Tommies’ ”.
- The honor guard at what appears to be a cemetery. The Royal Navy officer that I hope to identify is standing to the right facing away from the camera. While I can make out “Marie” on the black gravestone on the left of the image, the last name is frustratingly blurred.
- A view of the chaplains/ clergy, German soldiers, and Royal Navy officers. The large mound of overturned earth leads me to suspect that this was a larger burial.
- The key image, in my opinion. From what I can tell, the officer saluting in the middle is from the Royal Navy with the rank of captain.
With the pictures now presented, let us look at some context clues:
- Based on my grandfather’s uniform in images 1 and 2, the rank on his collar indicates he is a Leutnant (2nd Lt). When consulting his service record, he was promoted to Leutnant on April 1, 1940 and received his next promotion in October 1941. That must place the event depicted in the early years of the war.
- The point above is reinforced by the national insignia on the helmet. The Luftwaffe was ordered to remove the national emblem from helmets in July 1940 and a rough texture was to replace the smooth metal surface on new helmets coming from the factories. All decals were ordered to be done away with in 1943 (with exceptions). In images 1 and 3, we can see smooth helmets with decals on both sides. While it is tempting to deduce that points a and b narrow the burial to a timeframe between April and July 1940, the helmets worn by the honor guard could have been ceremonial and thus not need to immediately comply with the order.
- If point a is 100% correct (i.e. my eyes not deceiving me looking at his rank) and my grandfather was a Leutnant at the time, he would have served in four locations: Großenbrode, Swinemünde, Nienburg, and Hesedorf. The first two are coastal locations which would make sense with a Royal Navy presence/ burial. That does not necessarily mean that the burials took place there. Perhaps nearby? His time at these two coastal locations ranged from February 1, 1940 to May 25, 1940.
- In terms of the terrain, there is not much I can make out. It looks like there is a lot of tall pine and in image 4, it looks like oak leaves are in the foreground. I cannot determine if image 4 has a body of water in in the top left corner (to the right of the clergyman’s head) or if that is a rooftop.
- The final observation that I can make is regarding the British officer in image 4. Based on the uniform and sleeve insignia, I believe he is a Captain in the Royal Navy. I am aware of databases that list all the officers in the Royal Navy by name but this image is all I have to go off of. Obviously putting a name to the face can help identify who he was, who the men were he led, and what fate befell them.
I have already submitted an inquiry to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but it may be some time before I hear back. Discovering any additional information in the meantime, especially a name or location, can help tremendously in determining if the British dead are in marked graves or otherwise suitably honored and remembered.
The work of recovering war dead and maintaining their graves is never ending. It is also costly and relies heavily on volunteer engagement. COVID and other world events make the work even more challenging. Please consider visiting the websites of the organizations doing this great work and learn more. Support or donate if you can. To borrow the slogan of the Volksbund: “Together, for Peace”.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission www.cwcg.org