Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Iron Cross

Arguably the best-known military decoration in the world, the Iron Cross, more commonly termed the 'EK' (Eisernes Kreuz), was instituted by King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia in 1813 to recognise bravery during the War of Liberation. It was reinstituted with minor design changes in 1870 for the FrancoPrussian War and in 1914 for World War 1 and, as such, was the only major decoration awarded by the Nazis which had existed prior to the advent of the Third Reich in 1933. Its early history, however, falls outside the scope of this book.

On 1 September 1939 Hitler again reinstituted the EK, anticipating a major conflict as a result of his invasion of Poland. For the first time it became a German rather than a purely Prussian decoration and, initially at least, was referred to as an 'Order'. During the next six years it was awarded to Germans and their allies not only for personal bravery but also for outstanding military achievements and for successful war planning. Officers frequently received higher grades of the cross in recognition of the bravery of the men under their command. The EK was open to all branches of the Wehrmacht and members of the noncombatant civil uniformed organisations such as the police, fire service and railway service were also eligible. This should be borne in mind when considering the large numbers of the EK which were distributed. Contrary to wartime Allied propaganda, it was certainly not 'dished out with the rations': it was much-prized, and rightly so.

The EK of 1939 initially comprised four grades or classes, but these had increased in number to eight by 1945. It was necessary that a recipient hold the lesser grade(s) before a higher class could be rendered. All grades awarded were worn simultaneously.

The lowest grade was the Iron Cross Second Class, or EK2. It measured about 44mm in diameter and was suspended from a ribbon bearing the colours of the Third Reich - black, white and red. The cross itself was made of three parts; a core, an obverse rim and a reverse rim. In construction both rims were soldered together, 'sandwiching' the core between them. The core obverse displayed a mobile swastika rotated to stand on one leg, (thus giving the impression of an advancing movement) on its centre and the date 1939 on its lower arm. The reverse was plain save for the date 1813 on the lower arm. The core was normally of solid iron, either painted or chemically treated to give a matt or semi-matt black finish. Some crosses were produced with blackened brass or copper cores and these were popular with naval personnel whose iron-cored crosses tended to rust after weeks at sea. The rim of the EK2 was polished and lacquered 'German silver' (an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel) with a frosted beading. A few late-war issues had unplated zinc frames, with a greyish finish, but their quality of manufacture and crispness of detail remained consistently high. Most EK2 suspension rings were stamped with a manufacturer's code number. Like all Nazi awards, the EK2 was issued unnamed.

When presented, the EK2 was hung from the second buttonhole of the tunic in the traditional German fashion. Thereafter, the recipient usually wore the ribbon alone, either from the buttonhole or on a ribbon bar above the left breast pocket. The cross itself was worn only during parades or at other ceremonial occasions. An estimated 2,300,000 awards of the EK2 were made during World War 2. The youngest recipient was 12-year-old Hitler Youth Alfred Zeck of Goldenau who rendered first aid to 12 wounded German soldiers pinned down by enemy fire in his home town in March, 1945. A total of 27 females, mainly front-line nurses, received the cross.

The Iron Cross First Class, or EKI was the next higher grade. It had the same dimensions and obverse design as the EK2 but had a plain reverse as it was worn on the left breast pocket at all times. The EKI was normally attached to the pocket by means of a wide, tapering bar on the reverse but the recipient could, if he desired, purchase an official copy with a screw-back device. This latter type had a retaining head protruding from the rear of the cross which was pushed through a hole in the tunic pocket and was then fixed in place by a round plate and threaded pin screwed on from behind the pocket. Screw-back crosses were less likely to become detached in action and were frequently bent to a slightly convex shape to improve fit. A small hook on the reverse upper arm prevented the screw-back cross from swivelling around on the tunic pocket. A few recipients had cloth versions of the EKI made for combat wear, but these were strictly unofficial and usually very crude. Most holders preferred to buy official copies for everyday use, enabling them to keep their presentation crosses safe at home or in their barracks. Such copies were always of excellent quality and indeed some had a better finish than the issued pieces.

Construction of the EKI was much the same as that of the EK2, except that some EKls featured hollow alloy cores making them lighter to wear and easier to bend into a convex shape if desired. Again, the manufacturerer's 'L' number often appeared on the EKl, either stamped on the securing bar or on the lower reverse arm. Reproductions of the EKI tend to be made from a soft lead-based alloy which can readily be twisted out of shape by mere finger pressure. They are normally of one-piece construction (ie without a separate core) are roughly painted and feature a thinner pin bar on the reverse.

About 300,000 awards of the EKI were made between 1939 and 1945 and a few examples follow to give an idea of the wide criteria for award. U-boat commanders were usually nominated for the EKI on sinking 50,000 tons of enemy shipping, while Luftwaffe pilots might expect to receive it on downing four or five aircraft. The army or Waffen-SS soldier could be recommended for the EKI on performing three or four brave acts over and above that which gained him the EK2, or for one act of exceptional courage or daring. Indeed, on a very few rare occasions, the EKI and EK2 were conferred simultaneously, as in the case of SS-Oberfuhrer Eduard Diesenhofer who received both classes on 26 June 1940 for actions on the western front with the SS Totenkopf Division. Kapitan Reinen of the German merchant navy won the EKI for defusing bombs in the hold of a ship in Tripoli harbour and SS-Brigadefiihrer Jurgen Stroop received it for supervising the quelling of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, when 57,000 rebels were captured at a cost of only 16 German dead and 85 wounded. A mere two females were awarded the EKI - test pilot Hanna Reitsch and Red Cross Sister Else Grossmann - both for personal bravery.

Immediately above the EKI was the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross - 'das Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes' usually known as the RK. It was instituted on 1 September 1939 as an entirely new grade of the Iron Cross and was intended to fill the gap which had been left by the abolition after 1918 of the old military Order 'Pour le Merite', the famous 'Blue Max'. The Knight's Cross was therefore the highest gallantry award which Germany could bestow at the outbreak of World War 2 and as such it is always much sought after by collectors.

The RK retained the same basic design as the EK2 but was larger, measuring 48mm across. It was worn around the neck on all occasions. The frame was made of real silver, which could vary in purity from 80% to 93.5% and it was stamped accordingly on the reverse upper rim with the continental silver hallmark, ranging from 800 to 935. The suspension loop was similarly hallmarked. Makers' code numbers, if any, were normally featured on the reverse upper rim alongside the frame hallmark.

In construction, the RK followed the same general process as the EK2. The presentation piece was always of superb quality, with a high swastika and dates having sharp, well-defined edges. The obverse and reverse rims were finely soldered together so as to leave only a hairline trace of the join, with no spaces, and the core fitted perfectly between them.

Robin Limsden: :A Collector's Guide to Third Reich Militaria, 1987, Hippocrene Inc.

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