The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross (German language: Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes), or simply the Knight’s Cross (Ritterkreuz), and its variants were the highest awards in the military and paramilitary forces of Nazi Germany during World War II.
The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross was awarded for a wide range of reasons and across all ranks, from a senior commander for skilled leadership of his troops in battle to a low-ranking soldier for a single act of extreme battlefield bravery. Presentations were made to members of the three military branches of the Wehrmacht (the Heer (army), the Kriegsmarine (navy) and the Luftwaffe), as well as the Waffen-SS, the Reichsarbeitsdienst (RAD—Reich Labour Service) and the Volkssturm (German national militia), along with personnel from other Axis powers.
The award was instituted on 1 September 1939, at the onset of the German Invasion of Poland. A higher grade, the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross, was instituted in 1940. In 1941, two higher grades of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves were instituted: the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords and the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds). At the end of 1944, the final grade, the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds, was created.
Over 7,000 awards were made since its first presentation on 30 September 1939. Analysis of the German Federal Archives revealed evidence for 7,161 officially bestowed recipients. The German Federal Archives substantiate 863 awards of the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross, along with the 147 Swords and 27 Diamonds awards. The Golden Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross was verifiably awarded only once, to Hans-Ulrich Rudel on 29 December 1944.
The Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm III established the Iron Cross at the beginning of the German campaign as part of the Napoleonic Wars. The design was a silver-framed cast iron cross on 13 March 1813. Iron was a material which symbolized defiance and reflected the spirit of the age. The Prussian state had mounted a campaign steeped in patriotic rhetoric to rally their citizens to repulse the French occupation. To finance the army, the king implored wealthy Prussians to turn in their jewels in exchange for a men’s cast-iron ring or a ladies’ brooch, each bearing the legend “Gold I gave for iron” (Gold gab ich für Eisen).
With the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939, Adolf Hitler in his role as commander in chief of the German armed forces decreed the renewal of the Iron Cross of 1939. A new grade of the Iron Cross series was introduced, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, without distinction, was awarded to officers and soldiers alike, conforming with the National Socialist slogan: “One people, one nation, one leader”.
The Knight’s Cross Grades
The legal grounds for this decree had been established in 1937 with the German law of Titles, Orders and Honorary Signs (Gesetz über Titel, Orden und Ehrenzeichen) that made the Führer and Reichskanzler the only person who was allowed to award orders or honorary signs. The re-institution of the Iron Cross was therefore a Führer decree, which had political implication since the Treaty of Versailles had explicitly prohibited the creation of a military decoration, order or medal. The renewal for the first time had created an honorary sign of the entire German state.
As the war progressed four additional grades were introduced to further distinguish those who had already won the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross or one of the higher grades and who continued to show merit in combat bravery or military success. The Knight’s Cross was eventually awarded in five grades:
- Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross
- Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves
- Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords
- Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds
- Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.
The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross instituted on 1 September 1939. Its appearance was very similar to the Iron Cross. Its shape was that of a cross pattée, a cross that has arms which are narrow at the center and broader at the perimeter. The most common Knight’s Crosses were produced by the manufacturer Steinhauer & Lück in Lüdenscheid. The Steinhauer & Lück crosses are stamped with the digits “800”, indicating 800 grade silver, on the reverse side.
Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves
The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub) was instituted on of 3 June 1940. Before the introduction of the Oak Leaves, only 124 members of the Wehrmacht had received the Knight’s Cross. Prior to Case Yellow (Fall Gelb), the attack on the Netherlands, Belgium and France, just 52 Knight’s Crosses had been awarded. In May 1940, the number of presentations peaked. The timing for the introduction of the Oak Leaves is closely linked to Case Red (Fall Rot), the second and decisive phase of the Battle of France.
Like the Knight’s Cross to which it was added, the Oak Leaves clasp could be awarded for leadership, distinguished service or personal gallantry. The Oak Leaves, just like the 1813 Iron Cross and Grand Cross of the Iron Cross, was not a National Socialist invention. They originally appeared in conjunction with the Golden Oak Leaves of the Red Eagle Order, which was the second highest Prussian order after the Black Eagle Order. The king also awarded the Oak Leaves together with the Pour le Mérite since 9 October 1813 for gallantry.
Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords
The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern) was instituted on of 28 September 1941. The Oak Leaves with Swords clasp was similar in appearance to the Oak Leaves clasp with the exception that a pair of crossed swords were soldered to the base of the Oak Leaves.
Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds
The Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillianten) was instituted on 28 September 1941. The clasp was drilled out to accept the diamonds. The first recipients were Werner Mölders and Adolf Galland. Presentation of the Diamonds came as a set and included the more elaborate A-piece and a second clasp with rhinestones for everyday wear, the B-piece. The Diamonds were awarded 27 times during World War II. However three individuals never received a set of Diamonds. Hans-Joachim Marseille, the fourth recipient, was killed in an aircraft crash prior to its presentation. The deteriorating situation and the end of the war prevented its presentation to Karl Mauss, the 26th recipient and Dietrich von Saucken, the 27th and final recipient.
Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds
The Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Goldenem Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillianten) was instituted on 29 December 1944. Six sets of Golden Oak Leaves were manufactured, each consisting of an A-piece, made of 18 Carat gold with 58 real diamonds and a B-piece, made of 14 Carat with 68 real sapphires. One of these sets was presented to Hans-Ulrich Rudel on 1 January 1945, the remaining five sets were taken to Schloss Klessheim, where they were captured by the US forces.
At first, the recipient of the Knight’s Cross, or one of its higher grades, received a brief telegram informing him of the award of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Thereafter he received a Vorläufiges Besitzzeugnis (Preliminary Testimonial of Ownership). The award was also noted in the recipients Soldbuch (Soldiers Pay Book), his Wehrpass (Military Identification) and personnel records.
The preliminary testimonial of ownership was followed by a more elaborate award document, the Ritterkreuzurkunde (Knight’s Cross Certificate). Sometimes, Hitler’s signature was a facsimile, but when time allowed, he did sign them. These documents for the Knight’s Cross were used between 1939 and 1942, when the number of recipients made it possible only for documents of this type to be made for the higher grades of the order.