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NIGEL THOMAS, colour plates by STEPHEN ANDREW
The rank structure of the German Army used a system established on 6 December 1920. Officers were divided into four groups: general-officers, field officers, captains and subalterns. By tradition the lieutenant-general rank indicated the officer's original branch of service, but in the case of officers of combat branches there was no differentiation in the insignia.
The first and second gunners of the section LMG team in field uniform operating their LMG34 machine gun in France in May 1940. Both soldiers have rubbed mud on their helmets as makeshift camouflage. Their M1935 field tunics have M1938 rounded shoulder-straps with unit numbers removed as per regulation. (Brian Davis Collection)
From 31 March 1936 Bandmaster Officers were grouped as a separate rank-class as Music Directors, Senior and Junior Bandmasters. Lacking power of command, they wore officers' uniforms and insignia, enjoyed officer status and were the equivalents of officers in the British and United States Armies. Music Directors, based at the OKH, were regarded as staff officers, while the Bandmasters supervised infantry, light infantry, cavalry, artillery regimental and engineer battalion bands.
NCOs were divided into three groups. Technical NCOs, established 23 September 1937, for senior instructors in the Fortress Engineers and later the Veterinäry Corps; Senior NCOs, called 'sword-knot NCOs'; and Junior NCOs, or 'NCOs without the sword-knot'. The Stabsfeldwebel rank, introduced 14 September 1938 for NCOs re-enlisting after 12 years service, was initially held by First World War veterans. Hauptfeldwebel was not a rank, but an appointment, introduced 28 September 1938. He was the senior NCO in a company based at the company HQ and nicknamed der Spieβ - 'the spear'. Usually an Oberfeldwebel, he outranked a Stabsfeldwebel (who could also be promoted to this appointment). Other NCOs receiving this appointment were designated Hauptfeldwebeldiensttuer (acting CSMs), but usually received rapid promotion to Oberfeldwebel.
The rank-class of 'Men' included all privates and lance-corporals, the latter, as experienced privates, constituting a larger proportion of this rank class than would be found in other armies.
Most ranks had alternative rank titles. Some, as in the Medical Corps, differentiated specialist officers without the power of field command. Others, such as Rittmeister or Oberjäger, preserved traditional titles.
Almost all officers held substantive ranks - the British system of acting ranks did not exist - so that German officers and NCOs often held higher commands than their British equivalent. It was therefore not uncommon for a Leutnant to be a company commander. While the first platoon of a typical rifle company was under a second leutnant, the second and third were often commanded by an Oberfeldwebel or Feldwebel. Promotions to the infantry ranks of Unteroffizier, Feldwebel and Oberfeldwebel depended on a unit's table of organisation, and were the normal progression for a capable NCO. All other NCO and lower ranks were awarded on seniority. The rank of Obersoldat was held by a soldier lacking even the qualities for promotion to Gefreiter, while a Stabsgefreiter was an 'old sweat' unfitted for NCO rank. The ranks of officer candidates will be covered in Volume 2.
France, June 1940. A Hauptfeldwebel in service uniform, displaying the double cuff braids and report book of his appointment. He has reversed his shoulder-straps to conceal his unit insignia. Note his Wehrmacht long-service ribbon. His relaxed attitude and lack of equipment suggest that the Battle of France is over. (Friedrich Herrmann)
Most rank insignia was manufactured in two versions - dress-quality for the Waffenrock, dress greatcoat and piped field tunic, and field-quality for the field tunic and field greatcoat.
For all uniforms general-officers wore dress-quality plaited shoulder-boards formed from two 4mm gold bullion (or, from 15 July 1938, golden-yellow 'celleon' thread) cords with one 4mm bright flat aluminium braid central cord on a bright-red branch colour facing-cloth backing. A Generalfeldmarschall had silver crossed stylised marshal's batons, other general-officers had 3-0 German silver or white aluminium pips 2.8-3.8cm wide. Branch insignia was in silver-plated aluminium. From 3 April 1941 all three cords of the Generalfeldmarschall were in bright gold or golden-yellow 'celleon' with miniature silver marshal's batons.
Dress-quality plaited shoulder-boards for field officers consisted of two 5mm wide bright flat aluminium braids on a branch colour facing-cloth backing and 2-0 pips 1.5cm, 2.0cm or 2.4cm wide, made of galvanically brassed aluminium, from 7 November 1935 gilt aluminium. During wartime they were made from golden galvanised or lacquered grey aluminium. Field-quality boards had matt aluminium, later feldgrau braid. M1935 branch insignia, introduced 10 September 1935, was, from 7 November 1935, made of brass-plated or gilt aluminium, and, during the war, of gold-coloured galvanised or lacquered grey aluminium or zinc alloy.
A tank-driver Gefreiter, exhausted by the Panzers' 'drive to the sea' through France in May 1940, enjoys a cigarette by his tank. He has not opted to wear his M1935 feldgrau field greatcoat over his M1934 special tank-crew uniform to protect it from the grime of battle. Note the drivers' goggles, civilian shirt and M1936 pullover. (Brian Davis Collection)
A classic view of a tank commander, wearing the 1934 special tank-crew uniform and the 1934 padded beret with tank commander's earphones. This officer is wearing the aluminium wire aiguillettes of a General Staff officer. France, May 1940. (Friedrich Herrmann)