If You Survived: Campaign Shields of the German Army

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The Third Reich had a lot of decorations and medals. Some days back I did a post on cuff titles and wanted to follow it with a post on campaign shields. Shields took up lots of space on uniforms which is one of the reasons the German army introduced cuff titles for battles.

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If one participated in what the Führer and the High Command decided was a decisive battle, then one was awarded a small campaign shield to wear on one’s uniform.

There are five battles for which shields were approved, manufactured, and issued under the auspices of OKW – Armed Forces High Command. Those battles are Narvik, the key battle in the German victory over Norway, Cholm, an important siege on the Eastern Front, Krim (Crimea), Demjansk, another long siege on the Eastern Front, and Kuban, another long defensive battle in the Soviet Union.

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There are two campaign shields which were approved but never manufactured and thus not issued: Warschau, for the German troops who fought the Polish Home army in Warsaw in 1944 and Lappland. This last was only given official approval on 1 May 1945, the day after Hitler did the world a favor and killed himself.

Other shields were instituted by local commanders but never received formal recognition.

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One wore the shield on the upper left sleeve of one’s service tunic. If a soldier had the correct documentation, he could go to a private supplier and buy additional shields to wear on his dress uniform and/or overcoat. Having survived one shield battle, one certainly didn’t want to be in another. But if you were so unfortunate as to be in more than one shield battle and you survived each one, then you wore the second shield just below the first.

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And should you have been unlucky enough to have both been engaged in and survived three shield battles, then you wore one shield on the upper left sleeve as already noted but you wore your two other shields side by side below the first one.

One of the reasons there are so many fake German decorations from WW II in the marketplace is that the companies who made the original decorations still have the original dies, Wehrmacht specifications, etc. When the market for German decorations became so big, the original companies simply started to make the decorations they had made during the war using the same material. They are hard to distinguish from the ‘real’ decoration – that is one issued during the war to a soldier. Yet, being made by the same company with the original dies and materials, these decorations are sort of ‘real’ as well. Since all decorations made to fighting men in the Third Reich were accompanied by a scroll and other paperwork, that is one of the few ways to gauge the authenticity of the decoration although the papers can be forged as well. That’s why buying a medal or other decoration from the Third Reich from a family or someone who can provide a documented chain of continuous possession, is a most desirable step.

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Unlike Allied troops, German Army soldiers wore their decorations in battle although the officers would remove the more distinctive ones. Wearing your Knight’s Cross around your neck during a battle was to invite a sniper shot. German soldiers were wary of green officers who showed an over eagerness for dangerous actions since that was the only way they could win the Knight’s Cross. Such officers were said to “have a sore throat.” Since you wore your iron cross Knight’s Cross around your neck, the landsers referred to it as “the tin necktie.” It was hard to keep the Knight’s Cross in place with just the ribbon attached to the medal so most recipients substituted a leather shoelace instead which was hidden by the collar of their tunic.

In his memoirs Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters, Major Richard Winter of Band of Brothers fame, says one of the reasons he survived was he never wore anything or carried anything which identified him as an officer when on the front line. He never carried a pistol for instance since that was a mark of status among officers. Nor did he carry the light officer’s carbine which was smaller than the M-1 and didn’t pack the same punch. He always carried a standard issue M-1. His memoirs are quite worth reading, I give them three stars. If you watched the series once or ten times like I have and then you read Major Winter’s memoirs, he isn’t as nearly as warm and fuzzy as portrayed in the series.

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia, FeldGrau.com, and The History Bunker Ltd.]

[UPDATEI originally switched “Iron Cross” and “Knight’s Cross” in the post and they are not interchangeable terms since they are two different awards. The Iron Cross First Class was worn on the upper left pocket of one’s tunic. The Iron Cross Second Class is actually a ribbon although you received an Iron Cross. However, you did not wear it. You only wore the ribbon in a buttonhole on your tunic.]

Which Sleeve Was That? Cuff Titles In The German Army

Because of its elite status, Panzer-Grenadier-Division Großdeutschland had a cuff title which was worn on the RIGHT sleeve of one’s tunic about six inches above the cuff. This was very important because GD was an elite German Army division and not an SS division and did not want to be taken for an SS division. All cuff titles of whatever sort and whichever sleeve were all worn six inches (15 centimeters) above the cuff with certain exceptions.

Almost all Waffen SS Divisions had names and almost all wore cuff titles with those names but on the LEFT sleeve. This causes endless confusion among historians. A good rule of thumb is this: all SS Divisions had names but not all named divisions were SS. Compounding the confusion, German Army panzer crews wore special black uniforms on active operations. Except in combat, Waffen SS men wore black uniforms all the time including when going about their “security” duties which usually took the form of murdering lots of innocent people. So you can see why this would be confusing. Since both the Allies and the Soviets often shot SS prisoners, many German Army panzer crews got shot when they surrendered because they were mistaken for SS.

By the way, the incorrect placement of his cuff title is one of the key criticisms leveled at Guy Sajer, author of The Forgotten Soldier who was in the GD. He said the cuff was on the LEFT sleeve. I never thought this was a big deal. He was 17 years old for Pete’s sake and didn’t write his book until much later in life.

This isn’t a great example but it will do: I am 54. I was in the Boy Scouts of America from the time I was 12 until I was 18. I earned my Eagle Scout and had all the standard patches on my uniform shirt such as my troop number, hometown, state, and the patrol within the troop I was assigned to. I also had special award patches including the patch of the scout camp I went to, three honor troop patches, an Order of the Arrow medal, Senior Patrol Leader patch, American flag patch, my Eagle Scout medal, and other insignia I don’t even remember.

Each of these patches and medals had to be worn in a specific position on one’s uniform shirt as stipulated by the Boy Scout manual. I had 35 or so merit badges which had to be worn on a separate sash along with a sash for being a member of the Order of the Arrow. And believe me, I thought all of these things were really, really cool. I can tell you that if you gave me a Boy Scout uniform shirt today and a box of the patches and medals which had been on my uniform shirt, I would have a hard time figuring out where they were all supposed to go. Fortunately, since I still have my Boy Scout uniform shirt somewhere, I could dig it out and look at it.

One more confusing item about German cuff titles. For certain campaigns, the Fuhrer awarded a cuff title with the name of that campaign to each soldier, sailor, or airman who participated in the campaign. There were just a handful of these including Kreta (Crete), Afrika, for anyone who fought in that theater (not to be confused with the Afrika Korps cuff title), Metz 1944, and a few more. One wore a “battle cuff title” on the LEFT sleeve. So it is possible that a soldier who fought in the battle of Crete and was later sent to Russia to fill out the ranks of the GD, could have a battle title on his left cuff and his divisional title on his right cuff.

Confused? I am. I always have to look this stuff up to make sure I have it right. And I haven’t even gotten into the functional cuff titles such as those worn by the Army Field Post. (Feldpost – worn on the right sleeve.) That is for another day.

My main source for these details is German Army Uniforms and Insignia 1935-1945 by Brian L. Davis. I rate this book four stars. It is the most comprehensive work on this subject I have found. I still have my copy I bought in 1976 when I was in college.

[Norman Rockwell Painting courtesy of Scouters’ Pages and the Metz 1944 cuff title is from the author’s personal collection.]