The life of a German soldier

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19 March 2021
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Jonny Bay looks at the Soldbuch – the official documentation carried by every serving German soldier in WWII.

The Soldbuch, meaning Paybook in German, was a small, pocket-sized robust book carried by every serving German soldier or officer as a means of record and identification. The Soldbuch was presented on request; it not only acted as proof of identity but served a multifaceted role within the German armed forces during World War II. It was seen as essential item, issued to soldiers at the start of their military career, and was carried throughout the full duration of the soldier’s service. It would have been presented many times for identification, security checks, for updating details such as awards, payments, issued equipment, injections, eye tests and hospital stays; thus keeping a clear record of his career. The use of the Soldbuch was governed by strict rules and regulations covering such things as tampering or falsifying entries. In spite of the strict regulations, however, it is not uncommon to find Soldbücher with small mistakes, corrections and even non-regulation style photos.  

For many years Soldbücher were ignored on the collectors’ market, but thanks to the internet and the wealth of information available online Soldbuch identities are easy to decipher, thus the full stories of the former owners can be pieced together. They are stories that relate the reality of war, leaving nothing to the imagination. The Soldbuch, unlike most other German militaria, is rich in detail. Knowing everything about a particular soldier has become a passion for many collectors; Soldbücher and Wehrpässe (service record books) have filled this gap. Through the prism of units, awards and other entries, finding a soldier’s individual story has become the hobby of many collectors, military historians and authors. The Soldbuch today is a treasured item in many collections, providing a firsthand account of a specific battle or unit, a unique item giving a real glimpse into the life of its former owner.

A close look at the main items to consider in a Soldbuch is essential to trace the owner’s career and to assess its monetary value.

SS Soldbuch and a Wehrmacht Soldbuch, with details written on the cover

Soldbücher come in various editions for each branch of service and this can be quickly deciphered by looking at the cover. They can be broken down into the Waffen SS, Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. Some soldiers even bought leather covers for their Soldbuch to protect it from damage, as it would be carried in harsh conditions and even on the battlefield. The Soldbuch pictured is for a member of the Wehrmacht, and the issue is an early example. The owner moved through the ranks from being a simple soldier to become an Assistant Doctor, fighting in the final days of the war and earning the Iron Cross. During the battle of Berlin in 1945 he was killed in action, and today he rests in a marked war grave in Berlin.
 
When buying a Soldbuch check closely that the stamps are crisp over the picture and book, and that it has not been tampered with or even ripped out.

On the inside of the cover you’re usually presented with a picture. Regulations stated that it should be without headgear but it is not uncommon to see headgear in some pictures. Usually, the picture is attached by two staples, but ring-style staples are also common. Opposite should be two stamps to the according unit and the time the picture was entered. By April 1944 it was required that the Soldbuch have the owner’s picture attached to the front cover and stamped accordingly. Be sure to check the cover pages carefully for a red crossed-out page, which can indicate that the soldier has been killed in action. On page 1 you will find the soldier’s details, Dienstgrad (rank), name, Erkennungsmarke (identification tag), and Blutgruppe (blood group). Check carefully for any sign indicating it is a second-issue or replacement Soldbuch; usually this is shown at the top with extra writing such as Zweitschrift (Second edition) or Ersatz (replacement).

 

Here you will find the soldier’s personal details, and the issuing unit of the SoldbuchOn page 2 you can find the soldier’s place and date of birth, religion and civilian occupation. Here is also his height, face shape, if he has a beard, body type, hair colour, eye colour, shoe size, if he has any unusual markings or if he wears glasses. The soldier had to confirm that these details were correct and sign it. Underneath is the unit that issued the Soldbuch, and place and date of issue, signed off by an officer of the issuing unit. Page 3 was used to keep a record of what and why the Soldbuch was amended or corrected; usually seen here are rank changes.

 

Note that one of his front units was the Stabsquartier – Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKWOn page 4 the most important section is Section C – his feldtruppenteil (field unit). Training and replacement units make up Sections B and D: normally this page is continued if needed later in the Soldbuch. You can easily search the history of the units using an internet browser, or by asking on a Soldbuch forum. Page 5 concerns the next of kin, displaying the details of the person, including the address and the relationship to the owner. The first section is for his wife and the second for his parents. This soldier moved through an array of training and frontline units, and the details are continued on page 17.

Issued kit, showing the variety of items issuedExtra kit: seen here, for example, is a Wolldecke (woollen blanket) among other items such as a gas mask and chemical protection items

 

 

 

 

 

Pages 6 and 7 are a log of issued kit, and page 8 shows extra, special-issue items: blankets, iron rations or even a personal pistol can be entered here. In some Soldbücher page 8a will cover what types of weapons were issued – check closely for interesting weapons or munition entries. Page 9 covers the soldier’s injection record.

 

Expect to see his glasses’ strength, eye conditions or if he is fit for service in tropical climatesDetails of an eye test, and sometimes here you can find other medical entries such as the dates of other tests, and also if he was fit for tropical service.

 

 

 

 

 

This particular example is 19, denoting breathing complaintsThese two pages serve as a record of injury and time spent in hospital, and if the soldier has been found fit to serve again. On the left-hand side is the name of the hospital, and the date he arrived there. Next is usually a numbered code, each one corresponding to an illness or injury; these can be decoded easily and the most common are 31a, an infantry bullet wound, and/or 31b, a shrapnel wound. The entries here will give an idea of why a wounds’ badge would have been awarded. A full list of medical conditions and injuries can be found online.

 

Security checks can be seen here throughout the warPages 14 and 15 are usually only for items given to the soldier when he was in hospital, but security checks are more commonly found on these pages. From these you can tell which unit he was with at the date noted and usually where he was at that time.

 

 

 

This Assistant Doctor would serve lastly with Panzer Grenadier Regiment 1 ‘Schlesien’ in the Stab (Head) companyPage 16 serves as the soldier’s dental record during his service. Page 17 is a continuation of page 4, and displays the most recent unit the soldier served with.

 

 

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This soldier’s pay groups correspond with his rank on the given dates, also note an iron ration was entered here in 1941Pages 18 and 19 cover payments or any extra allowances made to the soldier and the pay group corresponding to the soldiers rank. Sometimes soldiers received payments for cleaning or extra duties. A list of pay groups can be found online.
 
 

 

 

 

This soldier was awarded the War Merit Cross with Swords and the Iron Cross Second Class in March 1945Pages 20 and 21 are important pages as they form a record of the soldier’s awards. Pay close attention to the style of writing, the name of the award and the signature and stamp of the officer who entered the award, and be sure to check through the Soldbuch for obscure award entries, as it is not uncommon to find them in other pages or added pages if space has run out. If the soldier was captured this page was often removed or damaged in order to hide his heroic deeds, thus some Soldbücher are missing these pages. Today some Soldbücher have been tampered with and awards added to make it worth more. But this doesn’t fool the seasoned collector; if you’re in doubt, always ask on a Soldbuch forum.

Pages 23 and 24 are a record of the soldier’s leave, including a reason for the leave to be taken. These entries should be checked thoroughly as sometimes unusual entries can be found. For instance, he may have been sent home because his house was destroyed in a bombing raid, or his wife was killed in a bombing raid. What is astounding about these pages is the fact that, right up until the end of the war, the German soldier still had leave granted. This information also helps to work out when and where he was at a given time.

At the rear of most Soldbücher is a pouch. Be sure to check it for extra paperwork, such as award certificates, letters or photos. It’s not uncommon to find extra information in the form of notice papers or POW papers. Commonly the collector will find official notices for the Soldbuch owner (Merkblatt) on a wide range of topics such as gas and chemical protection, edible plants in winter, how to behave as a prisoner and as prisoners’ rights.

Other extras in Soldbücher can include combat entries, such as a collection of close combat or assault days – a meticulous record was kept of the days and exact locations of the combat. Common added items found with Soldbücher today are military drivers’ licences, award certificates, passes to get on special bases, the soldier’s identification tag or his POW release documents. All these personal items make up the ‘pocket litter’ of a German soldier both during the war and in captivity.

There are points to remember when researching. If you can’t read an entry, ask for help. Never forget to check signatures, as some signatures can be from holders of prestigious awards like the Knight’s Cross or German Cross in Gold. Also, if the soldier or whom you are searching was killed in action, the online database grave search is available on the Volksbund website, which will reveal if he has a marked grave or if he was reported killed in action and has still not been found. If you’re searching for a missing soldier, check the German Red Cross missing soldier database online.


The Soldbuch market today
Each Soldbuch tells a unique story, and some of them demand top dollar on the collectors’ market, due to the uniqueness of each item, and the range is limitless. Most advanced Soldbuch collectors focus on a specific area – for instance, one division or one battle, even an elite unit or a place where they fought, such as Normandy or the Ardennes.

Many fakes exist, and online forums and auction sites have been plagued in recent years with Ukrainian-made fantasy items, but these do not fool the serious collector. Good fakes of Soldbücher are not common but they do exist, mainly showing falsely entered awards or units, or adding to an already existing original in order to raise the asking price; once found, these pieces are sadly destroyed. Always be suspicious of strange entries. If you’re in doubt, ask on some of the excellent forums available, such as Historical War Militaria Forum or the Facebook Group at Soldbuch, Wehrpass & Documents – WW2 Research.

As for prices to expect, there is no catalogue price, but the more eventful, tragic or heroic the story the bigger the price tag. But for a normal Wehrmacht soldier with only a few entries expect to pay around £80-£120. If you’re after award entries, a rare unit or a link to a famous battle, expect to pay quite a bit more, from £30-£1,700. Many interesting Soldbücher can be found with an array of battle experience, complete with interesting careers and awards. An example of extreme bravery and price comparison can be found on the eMedals website, in the Soldbuch and documents of Günther Viezenz, who single-handedly destroyed 21 enemy tanks with hand-held explosives. It has a fitting price tag of £25,000.

Soldbücher of highly decorated soldiers, SS, tank-related, pilots, submarine crew, Normandy campaign, and killed-in-action soldiers remain highly sought after in today’s market, so be prepared to see a wide range of prices. One thing is for sure, in the past 10 years they have increased in price, and more and more younger collectors are starting with paperwork due to the limitless range and online research potential. Since the Soldbuch was carried on the individual at all times expect to see honest wear, water damage, bloodstains from wounds and battle damage from bullets or shrapnel. Usually, condition does not affect the price unless pages or photos are missing, as this would essentially mean an incomplete story. If it is a replacement or second-issue Soldbuch, or shows signs that it has had the picture removed, these factors will have an adverse effect on the price.

Here are some good places to start if you’re interested in buying a Soldbuch: Team Militaria in Germany, eMedals in Canada, Archive Militaria in the UK and finally Kurland Docs in Holland.  

www.team-militaria.de
www.emedals.com
www.kurland-docs.com
www.archivemilitaria.com


The blood-soaked SS Soldbuch of 18-year-old SS Panzer Grenadier Paul PellensThe blood-soaked SS Soldbuch of 18-year-old SS Panzer Grenadier Paul Pellens, one of the last fighters directly from the famous Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler barracks in Lichterfelde, Berlin. After a few years in the Hitler Youth, he was sent to a special Hitler Youth training camp in Eipel (Czech Republic), where his education was under direct control of the SS. At 17 he volunteered for the Waffen-SS. He had a short stint of training in a special unit equipped with half tracks, after which he was sent to Berlin to serve in the replacement battalion for the elite Leibstandarte. This placement was cut short, as the Russians were now a mere five kilometres from the barracks, so an SS group was quickly formed to try and repulse the attacking Soviets just south of Lichterfelde.

SS Kampfgruppe Hohenester (SS fighting group) was formed in Lichterfelde, made up mainly of young SS recruits, drivers and legal staff from the barracks. They were sent to meet the enemy, a baptism of fire for Pellens. One night, having being completely encircled in a small forest, a survivor described breaking out under heavy fire, stating they had to leave all their wounded soldiers behind on the forest floor. They fought again the next day and lost 90% of their men on the Teltow Canal.

Paul Pellens rests today in a marked grave in Berlin, only a few metres from where his unit was recorded to have operated in the final days of the warPulling back and retreating to the already hopeless and encircled Berlin, Pellens reached the area of the Olympic Stadium. He was now too late to break out via Spandau, as some of his unit had done; he ended up facing the men and tanks of the elite Russian 55th Guards Tank Army and was killed in action. A letter to his parents, returning the Soldbuch and notebook to them, confirmed his death, and a further letter from the German archives confirms that he is in a marked grave in the Berlin area. His notebook lists that his last letters were sent to his parents and friends. This SS Soldbuch serves as a stark reminder of the real human cost of war. Fanatical SS units made up of young and old men were thrown into battle against a far superior enemy, with little or no hope of survival in a battle already lost.

 

 

 

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