The German Army of the Third Reich era inherited the uniforms and rank structure from the Reichsheer of the Weimar Republic, 1921–1935, many of whose traditions went back to the Imperial Army of the German Empire and earlier. The Reichsheer was renamed Wehrmacht Heer in May 1935. There were few alterations and adjustments made as the Army grew from a limited peacetime defense force of 100,000 men to a war-fighting force of several million men.
These ranks and insignia were peculiar to the Heer and in special cases to senior Wehrmacht officers in the independent services; the SS, Luftwaffe, and Navy uniforms and rank system were different. The Nazi Party also had its own series of paramilitary uniforms and insignia.
German Army Ranks and Insignia
Generals – Generäle
|Heer Rank||Shoulderboard||Collar Patch||Sleeve Rank|
|Generalfeldmarschall before 1941||Same As Above.||Same As Above.|
|General der Infanterie*|
Officers – Offiziere
|HEER RANK||SHOULDERBOARD||COLLAR PATCH||SLEEVE RANK|
Non-commissioned Officers – Unteroffiziere
|HEER RANK||SHOULDERBOARD||COLLAR PATCH||SLEEVE RANK|
Enlisted personnel – Mannschaften
|HEER RANK||SHOULDER BOARD||COLLAR PATCH||SLEEVE RANK|
|Obersoldat - This is a general term for a Senior Private. Every Branch had a different name for the soldat.|
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The Reichsheer’s shoulder straps were very similar to those of World War I, made of feldgrau uniform cloth with pointed or gable button ends. In December 1934, the material was changed to grey badge-cloth (Abzeichentuch) and in September 1935, changed again to dark bottle-green (flaschengrün). These first pattern shoulder-straps were not edged in Waffenfarbe piping.
In 1938, simultaneous with the removal of Waffenfarbe from field-uniform collar patches, new shoulder-straps were issued. These second pattern straps had round rather than pointed ends and were edged on three sides with wool (later rayon) piping in Waffenfarbe. This pattern would be used through the end of the war, although in 1940 manufacture reverted to field-grey uniform cloth, and as usual alternate versions were made to go with the Panzer uniform (black), tropical uniform (olive cotton) and HBT summer uniform (reed-green twill). Schulterklappen were not worn with the fatigue uniform, nor with camouflage smocks and parkas which used an alternate system of rank insignia.
For junior enlisted men (Mannschaften), rank insignia if any was worn on the left sleeve. However, the epaulettes did indicate the wearer’s unit (usually regiment or independent battalion) together with his sub-branch if any, machine-embroidered in branch-color. For example, a Schulterklappe with rose-pink piping and number 4 would indicate the 4th Panzer Regiment; but if it carried a pink number 4 and letter A it would indicate the 4th Armored Reconnaissance (Aufklärungs) Battalion. The German Army used a very large assortment of Latin initials, Gothic initials, Script ciphers, Arabic numerals, Roman numerals, and symbols to designate all its various service branches and installations. Before the war, shoulder-buttons were embossed with the number of the wearer’s company as well, this practice was discontinued for the duration.
Beginning in January 1940, shoulder-straps with unit insignia were supposed to be phased out as a security measure, and removable fabric loops with devices were issued instead. In May 1944, the embroidery was changed from waffenfarbe to light gray.
Non-commissioned officers wore their rank insignia on their shoulder-straps, consisting of braid and pips (pyramidal stars). An Unteroffizier’s (corporal’s) epaulet was edged with Tresse on three sides and an Unterfeldwebel’s (sergeant’s) on all four. Senior NCO’s (Unteroffiziere mit Portepee) added one to three pips; in addition, their unit identifiers took the form of white-metal pins rather than embroidery.
Shoulder straps were made in both a standard width (4.5 cm, 1¾”) and a wider one for three-digit unit numbers (5.3cm, 2″), and in three lengths depending on the size of the man. There was, in addition, an extra-large size for the overcoat (Mantel).
Officers’ shoulder boards were constructed from Russia braid, aluminum-thread double piping. Company-grade officers (Leutnant through Hauptmann/Rittmeister) wore epaulets constructed by wrapping two side-by-side lengths of braid around the buttonhole and back, giving the appearance of eight parallel cords; the whole was sewn to an underlay (Unterlagen) of Waffenfarbe badge-cloth. Until 1938, the underlay was of the same outer dimensions as the braid, and only visible edge-on; in that year the underlay was made wider, so as to create the impression of edge piping like the enlisted shoulder-strap. Rank was indicated by zero to two gilt-metal pips; unit designators were also of gilt metal.
Field-grade officer (Stabsoffizier) shoulder boards were made by plaiting together double widths of Russia braid and looping them to form a buttonhole, sewn to a Waffenfarbe underlay; rank again was displayed by zero to two gilt pips.
Once the war began, dull grey aluminum braid appeared, but bright aluminum continued in use.
Generals’ shoulder boards were constructed similarly to those of field-grade officers but comprised a length of silver Russia braid between two braided cords of gold bullion or Celleon. Since the resulting combination was wider, generals’ boards were plaited in four loops rather than five. Their buttons were gilt, and the rank was indicated by zero to three silver pips, or crossed batons in the case of field marshals. The underlay was scarlet, except from 1944 for generals of staff corps, who were instructed to wear Waffenfarbe instead.
In April 1941, Generalfeldmarschall epaulettes were changed to incorporate a central gold cord instead of silver.
Colonels-in-chief wearing that uniform wore gold generals’ shoulder boards underlaid with the Waffenfarbe of the regiment rather than scarlet. Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt sometimes simply pinned his crossed batons to an infantry colonel’s epaulets.
By order of Marshal Hindenburg in March 1932, soldiers who retired after 15 years of service received the right to wear the uniform of the unit they left. The shoulder boards and shoulder straps of retired soldiers had a bridle 1.5 cm wide attached under the middle.
In 19th century German armies, Guard and other elite regiments wore lengths of the double braid (Doppellitze) encircling all or most of the collar as a mark of distinction. By the middle of World War I these ornate collars had been reduced to an embroidered representation of short lengths of braid joined at the ends, sewn to patches worn at the front of the collar. When the Reichsheer was established in 1921 as Germany’s first national army. Litzen were prescribed as the universal collar device for all personnel other than generals, and the Third Reich continued the practice.
However, for clarification, it has to be distinguished between collar patch, and NCO braid. The status symbol of all German NCO ranks encircling the collar of the uniform tunic. An NCO wore both, collar patches, and the collar encircling braid. Officers wore only collar patches.
Design and Versions
On both collar points of any uniform jacket, there was a collar patch. Each patch consisted of the padding, and two parallel facings, the so-called Litzenspiegel, symbolizing the double braid of the 19th century.
The padding of full-dress collar patches showed the wearer’s Waffenfarbe (Branch Color). The dress tunic version was embroidered in a fine aluminum thread on a patch of badge cloth. The backing also showed through in the space between the two parallel facings of the collar patch and formed so a color center stripe.
In-Field and service uniforms, beginning in late 1935, the collar patch was dark bottle-green to match the collar; the Waffenfarbe showed through with the colored cord sewn into the center strip of each braid, the Litzenspiegel.
For enlisted men, service collar patches were machine-woven in silver-grey rayon. Officers were embroidered more elaborately in white silk or aluminum thread and were somewhat larger to match their higher collars.
Universal Design After 1937
By 1938, the fast-growing Heer had found that it was impractical, for the enlisted field uniform, to manufacture and stock a multitude of collar patches in assorted colors including the sewing on and frequently changing by unit tailors. Accordingly, new universal collar patches were introduced with the Litzenspiegel and Mittlestreife woven in dark green to match the backing patch, and which could be applied at the factory. Waffenfarbe was now displayed on the shoulder-straps, which simply buttoned on and were easily switched when a soldat changed his branch.
With the wartime change to lower-visibility insignia enlisted collar patches were woven in matte mouse-grey with field-grey stripes, which were at first sewn to green collar patches as before but increasingly directly to the collar, which beginning in 1940 was made in feldgrau like the uniform. Grey collar patches were never produced. The troops however preferred the green patches and collars if they had or could get them, especially on clean uniforms for walking-out and long-service veterans took particular pride in pre-38 versions.
In contrast, the officers’ service uniform collar patches never changed. While most officers in the front lines wore the enlisted field uniform as per wartime regulations, many opted to have their green-and-silver collar patches added instead of or on top of the factory versions.
|Enlisted Version with Branch Color||Enlisted Field - 1938||Enlisted Field - 1940||Enlisted Desert |
|Enlisted Dress||NCO Field 1935||NCO Field 1938||NCO Field 1940||NCO Dress||Officer Service & Field||Officer Dress|
On olive tropical uniforms, the collar patches were tan with dull grey-blue Litzenspiegel for all personnel officers again sometimes added their green-collar patches. Tropical NCO collar Tressen were copper-brown, or sometimes olive drab.
A major exception to the wearing of strands what the panzer wrap (armored jacket ), the double-breasted jacket worn by crews of tanks and other armored vehicles. When the armored force were established in 1935, they were issued a distinctive black uniform and as a badge, the skull or Death’s-head versions had formerly been worn by the Imperial tank corps and various cavalry units. These skulls took the form of white-metal pins attached to black Kragenpatten which were edged in pink Waffenfarbe piping.
In mid-1940 crews of assault guns (Sturmgeschützen) received a uniform of their own, identical in cut to the Panzerjacket but in standard field-grey, which they wore with red artillery piping. Over the course of the war, a bewildering and changing series of regulations governed the uniforms and insignia for assault guns, tank destroyers, armored cars, and self-propelled guns. Depending on the unit and the date either the black or grey wrap or the standard Feldbluse might be authorized, and on the grey assault gun jacket the regulation collar patches could be black with skulls, or grey with skulls, Litzen, or no device at all. The result in practice was chaos. Wartime photos show a mix of uniforms and insignia worn not only in the same battalion but even in the same vehicle.
Officially both colors of panzer wrap were working and field uniforms to be worn only in or around the vehicle. This regulation was universally ignored. Panzertruppen were issued standard uniforms for service-dress and walking out but rarely wore them, much preferring their unique jackets.
In North Africa, panzer crews wore the same tropical uniform as the other branches, including collar patches. Many of the panzer crews however pinned their Totenkopf badges to their lapels.
|Panzer Shoulder Boards||Panzer Lapel Insignia||Imperial Deaths Head Insignia||Assault Gun Lapel Insignia|
General Staff Corps Officers
Generalstaboffiziere were officers carefully selected and trained to represent the German General Staff Corps in both command and staff functions. They ranked from Hauptmann im Generalstab (captain) through Oberst (colonel). All were before 1939, graduates of the Military Academy, the Kriegsakademie. On division staffs, they held the position of Ia (operational chief of staff) or Ib (chief of the rear echelon). In the higher echelons, the intelligence and training staff sections were most of the time in the personal charge of General Staff Corps officers. The General Staff Officers had their own distinctive Litzen called alt-Preußische (old Prussian), or Kolbenstickerei (lobe-embroidery). These were the same whether on carmine dress Kragenpatten or green service patches; colored Litzenspiegel were unnecessary. General Staff officers assigned to the supreme headquarters (the Reichskriegsministerium, later the OKH and the OKW), the Kriegsakademie, and military attaches were further distinguished by having their Litzen in gold rather than silver. These Generalstaboffiziere were called “des Generalstabs”, Oberst d.G., etc. The special golden Litzen were abolished in November 1942. Only Military attaches kept their Litzen as long as they were in their present position. The Führer wanted a closer union between the front and the OKW and OKH.
In addition to their collar patches, General Staff Officers wore trouser-stripes, of the same design as generals’ but in carmine rather than scarlet.
From 1900, Prussian generals had worn ornate collar patches embroidered in a style called alt-Larisch, which had first been worn in the 18th century by the 26th (älterer von Larisch) Infantry Regiment. The Reichsheer and the Wehrmacht continued the tradition. These devices, sometimes called Arabesken (arabesques), were embroidered in gold bullion or golden synthetic Celleon on Hochrot (scarlet) backing. Field Marshals wore the same Arabesken as generals until April 1941, when they were authorized a longer variant with three rather than two iterations of the repeating pattern, for a total of six prongs. In some cases, General Field Marshalls did not bother to replace their generals’ tabs or did so only on their dress uniforms.
General officers of the Special Troop Service (Truppensonderdienst) and of the specialist careers such as the medical, veterinary, ordnance, and motor park wore the same insignia until April 1944, when they were ordered to exchange their scarlet Kragenpatten for alt-Larisch tabs backed in their respective Waffenfarbe:
- Medical – Cornflower Blue Waffenfarbe.
- Veterinary – Carmine Waffenfarbe.
- Ordnance – Orange Waffenfarbe.
- Motor Park – Pink Waffenfarbe.
- TDS Administrative – Bright Blue Waffenfarbe.
- TDS Judiciary – Wine Red Waffenfarbe.
In October 1944, the wear-out period of the scarlet backing color for Generals of the specialist careers was extended for an undetermined period.
In the Wehrmacht Heer, upon retirement, certain senior German generals were awarded the honorary post of Chef (Chief) of a regiment, much like the Honorary Colonel in the British Army. It was a German custom dating from the late 18th century. These generals were authorized to wear the tunic and insignia of an officer of the regiment, including ordinary officers’ Litzen. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Chef of the 18th Infanterie Regiment, wore a big 18 on his shoulder boards, and for everyday wear favored the ornamented tunic of an infantry officer with white piping rather than a general’s uniform.
Hitler appointed first Generaloberst Hans von Seeckt, ancient Chef der Heeresleitung, to be Chef of the 67th Infanterie Regiment on his 70th birthday in April 1936, a few months before he died.
Only seven German generals were appointed Chefs:
- Generaloberst Hans von Seeckt – 67th Infanterie Regiment.
- Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt – 18th Infanterie Regiment.
- General der Infanterie Ritter von Epp – 61st Infanterie Regiment.
- Generalfeldmarschall von Mackensen – 5th Kavallerie Regiment.
- Generaloberst von Fritsch – 12th Artillerie Regiment in
- Generalfeldmarschall von Böhm-Ermolli – 28th Infanterie Regiment.
- Generalfeldmarschall von Blomberg – 73rd Infanterie Regiment and wore a big 73 superimposed over the crossed batons of his shoulder board, but on 4 February 1938 he was dismissed and his name was deleted from the seniority list.
Infanterie Regiment Großdeutschland
In June 1939, the Wehrmacht Heer wanted to renew its ties with the Old Army tradition by introducing a new uniform for its most prestigious unit: Wachregiment Berlin which was renamed Infantry Regiment Großdeutschland. The new dress uniform for Großdeutschland had an elongated collar patch with single Litzenspiegel. Although shown to the press, this new uniform was not provided to the unit due to the outbreak of WWII and was placed in depot storage.
National Emblem Chest Insignia – Wehrmachtsadler
The Reichswehr’s visual acknowledgment of the new National Socialist reality came on 17 February 1934, when the Defense Ministry ordered the Nazi Party eagle-and-swastika, now Germany’s National Emblem, to be worn on uniform blouses and headgear effective May 1. The design adopted, in silver for the Heer (Army) and in gold for the Reichsmarine (Navy), was a stylized eagle with outstretched, beveled wings clutching a wreathed mobile Hakenkreuz, later to be called the Wehrmachtsadler (Armed Forces Eagle). On tunics, this took the form of a cloth patch about 9 cm (3⅝”) wide worn on the right breast, above the pocket. For enlisted uniforms, it was jacquard-woven (BeVo) or sometimes machine-embroidered in silver-grey rayon, for officers machine- or hand-embroidered in white silk or bright aluminum wire, and for generals hand-embroidered in gold bullion. The backing was badge-cloth (Abzeichentuch), a close-woven velvet feeling fabric; this was originally Reichsheer grey, but in late 1935 the renamed Wehrmacht Heer changed its Abzeichentuch color to a dark blue-green called flaschengrün (bottle-green).
The war brought several variations to the breast eagle, although it should be kept in mind that none of them was replaced or de-authorized, and all were being worn side-by-side at war’s end. When hostilities began in 1939, on the enlisted Feldbluse or field blouse the eagle was changed from silver-white to matte grey for reduced visibility; and in 1940 backings began to be produced in field-grey (feldgrau). Another version appeared with the advent of the Model 1944 Field Blouse, which used a triangular backing for speed and simplicity of manufacture. Very late in the war, some Hoheitszeichen were simply printed on thin fabric.
There were also versions for other uniforms: both white and grey variants on black for the Panzer uniform, and in dull grey-blue on tan backing for the tropical (Afrikakorps) uniform. A stamped metal pin-on breast eagle was worn with the officers’ white summer tunic.
|1935||1939||1940||1944||Tropical - Desert Style|
Caps and helmets bore two common insignia elements, in various forms: the National Emblem (eagle and swastika) and the national colors. World War I caps had carried dual cockades or roundels, one in Imperial black-white-red and one in the colors of the particular State within the Empire. The Reichsheer changed this to a single cockade in the Weimar Republic’s black, red and gold; almost as soon as Hitler took power he restored the pre-1919 tricolor flag, and ordered the Army to return to black-white-red.
|Peaked Cap||Crusher Cap||Panzer Beret||Garrison Cap||Mountain, Tropical, & M43 Field Caps||Steel Helmet - Stahlhelm||Pith Helmet -Tropenhelm|
Belt Buckles – Koppelschlösser
Belt buckles for enlisted men were of box type, made of aluminum or stamped steel with a pebbled surface, and bearing a circular device with a version of the Hoheitszeichen called the Army eagle or Heeresadler which was an eagle with down swept wings clutching an unwreathed swastika surmounted by the motto Gott mit uns, or God with us. For field wear, these were usually painted field-grey to reduce visibility while the dress buckles were silver-washed.
Officers’ field and service buckles were of a two-pronged frame type. With dress uniform, officers wore a belt of silver braid with a circular silver-washed or plated aluminum buckle, in the form of an oakleaf wreath surrounding a Heeresadler. Generals’ were the same but gilt or gold-plated.
With the tropical uniform and its belt of cotton webbing, officers wore a buckle identical to the dress buckle but painted olive-drab.