Uniforms of the German Army 1939 - 1945

Part 1: Wehrmacht 1939 - 1942

By Jay Moffatt

The ground forces of Nazi Germany wore a greater variety of uniforms than any of the other major combatants of World War II. One reason for this was the rivalry between the chiefs of the various branches of the Armed Forces -- Goering’s Luftwaffe, Himmler’s SS, Raeder’s Kriegsmarine and the Wehrmacht generals. Unlike Allied leaders, Hitler encouraged inter-service rivalry, playing one branch off against the other as a means of maintaining power. This meant there was no coherent, nation-wide plan developed to link Germany’s arms buildup to her economic capacity, and to allocate resources where they were needed most. Each branch of Germany’s armed forces had to compete for Hitler’s favor in order to secure the necessary capital and raw materials. But unlike the Allies, Germany could not sustain this division of resources. It was short of almost all of the critical natural resources (oil, steel, etc.) needed to fight a protracted war.

There were other reasons as well: Hitler had decreed prior to the war that the military effort would not depress civilian living standards, a position he maintained until 1942. This meant that only a fraction of Germany’s industrial capacity was geared to war production, a situation not fully remedied until mid- 1944. He also had an ideological prejudice against women working in munitions factories. This led to an acute labor shortage within Germany, which was filled (as the movie Schindler’s List showed) by the import of foreign labor, both willing and unwilling, or by using manufacturing resources in the occupied countries. What this meant for the ordinary Landser was a chaotic supply system and shortages that only got worse as the war progressed.

Service Dress

All enlisted ranks of the Wehrmacht began the war wearing the M1936 service uniform: thigh-length field-grey tunic, straight stone-grey trousers with slash side pockets closed by buttons and a right hip pocket, and black leather hobnailed marching boots. When not in action, soldiers wore the field-grey sidecap. Members of the cavalry branch wore flared riding breeches and knee-length black leather riding boots with spurs.

The tunic had a dark green stand-and-fall collar, and four patch pockets with box pleats and three-point flaps. There were five large metal buttons on the front, with two buttons on the shoulders beside the neck for the attachment of shoulder straps. There was a 5 7/8 inch (150 mm) rear central vent in the skirt of the jacket, and the arms were split up the rear seam for about 3 inches (75 mm). On each side of the collar was a patch of dark green cloth bearing double litzen -- the traditional Prussian "collar bars" -- in light grey cloth with a dark grey line down the center of each, the two bars being divided by an area of dark grey. Above the right breast pocket was sewn the national emblem: a straight-winged eagle with a wreathed swastika in its talons. This was woven in white on a dark green backing slightly larger than the emblem. The shoulder straps, worn by all ranks, were also in dark green cloth, the sides and rounded ends piped in Waffenfarbe or the branch-of-service colour. (See illustration page for colors.)

From 1942, a lightweight denim version of the tunic was often observed in warm weather. It was a dull reed-green colour, had six front buttons on the tunic rather than five, and no pleats in the pockets.

A broad black leather belt was worn with the tunic at all times, with a rectangular belt plate. Like the dimple-finish buttons, this was made in dull white metal but usually overpainted field-grey. (Combat equipment will be covered in detail in a later article.)

The normal headgear in the field was the sidecap or feldmutze. This was of field-grey with a turn-up all round, the upper edge of the turn-up being "scooped" at the front. On the front of the crown was a small version of the breast eagle in white on green. Below this was a roundel or cockade in (from the outside in) red, white and black, woven on a dark green diamond-shaped backing. Usually an inverted-V (^) of piping in the Waffenfarbe was sewn to the turn-up, enclosing the diamond and butting its upper edges; the lower "legs" of the (^) extended down to the bottom edge of the cap. NCO’s wore the same sidecap as the rank and file. They were also sometimes to be seen wearing the Schirmmutze. This was a conventional peaked cap with a black leather peak and chinstrap. The crown was field-grey, the band dark green. Waffenfarbe piping followed the crown seam and both top and bottom edges of the band. A white metal straight-winged spread eagle and swastika emblem was pinned to the front of the crown; below it on the band was a white metal oak leaf wreath surrounding a raised, painted metal cockade.

The combat headgear for all ranks was the M1935 steel helmet of the familiar "coal-scuttle" shape, with dark leather fittings and strap. The shape originates from the German sallets of the fifteenth century and was revived during the First World War. Initially painted grey-green, in 1939-40 it was worn with two decals on the sides: on the left, a silver-grey eagle with folded wings and swastika on a black shield; on the right, a tricolor shield of black above white above red, the stripes sloping from top right to bottom left. From 21 March 1940 the helmet was finished in matt dark grey and the tricolor shield removed with the eagle disappearing in 1942-43 -- they made convenient aiming points for snipers! Shades of paint, and presence or absence of decals, varied widely throughout the war. Helmets were camouflaged with paint, mud, hessian camouflage netting and with foliage tucked into a cruciform strap harness hooked over the helmet.

Officers’ field uniforms

Officers began the war wearing the M1933 officers’ field tunic. It was very similar to that of the enlisted man’s, though of much finer quality (often of private purchase). The main difference was a set of turned- back cuffs, which reached to mid-forearm. The collar also bore more elaborate litzen than those of the men. These were in heavy silk thread, and the dark green backing showed through between the two bars. On the center of each of the two bars appeared a short strip of narrow piping in the appropriate Waffenfarbe (commonly called "lights"). The same national emblem was worn as enlisted men, above the right pocket. The tunic was worn with flared riding breeches and black riding boots.

Officers were required to wear the M1934 belt with "Sam Browne"-type shoulder strap. Both were a light reddish brown, with a thin line or groove pressed around the edge of the belt and shoulder strap. The buckle was open-faced with two prongs, in matt aluminum. The two-piece shoulder strap was 1 inch (25 mm) wide and fitted with a hook at both ends; these attached to two stud-secured leather belt loops with "D" rings positioned on the belt at the left front and the right rear, with the strap running over the right shoulder. Though principally ornamental, the belt did serve to support any attached equipment, usually a sidearm (pistol, dagger or sabre) and map case in either black or reddish brown leather.

Apart from the steel helmet, officers had three types of headgear to choose from; they seem to have been worn indiscriminately in the front lines. The most common was the sidecap, similar in cut to the enlisted men’s, but with silver piping round the edge of the crown and along the edge of the cut-out "scoop" in front of the turn-up section. The peaked service cap or Schirmmutze was also widely worn. The NCO’s chinstrap was replaced by a double cord in heavy plaited silver cord. Insignia was the same as on the NCO version.

There was also the Offizierfeldmutze alterer Art -- the "old style officer’s cap". It was of similar shape to the Schirmmutze, but noticeably smaller in outline. This soft and battered-looking cap was quite popular. It had no chinstrap or cords, though officers occasionally added the silver cords. The peak was either of unstiffened black leather or --less commonly-- covered in field-grey cloth.

From 31 October 1939 regimental commanders and below in combat units of the Field Army were ordered to wear the M1935 other ranks" field tunic, trousers and marching boots with black leather belt. This order was seldom obeyed, however, due to the status German officers placed on the traditional uniform as a sign of authority. Many officers continued to wear the M1933 officers tunic, or modified the M1935 tunic by adding officers’ roll-back cuffs, collar patches and the sharper-pointed, higher officers’ collar.


Between the ranks of private (Schutze) and Stabsgefreiter the ranking appeared only in the form of insignia on the upper left arm; the shoulder-straps remained plain, apart from the coloured branch piping. (In 1942 the title Schutze was changed to Grenadier). An Obergefreiter with less than six years’ service wore a double chevron, and the same rank with six years’ service wore a single chevron with a pip in the center of the triangle. A Stabsgefreiter wore a double chevron with a pip. In 1942 the rank of Stabsgefreiter was discontinued. From that point on, the Obergefreiter with six years’ service wore a double chevron with a pip. From the rank of Unteroffizier upwards rank was worn on collar and shoulder-straps only. All grades above Stabsgefreiter wore a strip of broad silver lace -- Tresse -- around the bottom edge of the collar and up its front edges. Within the individual unit, the senior NCO -- equivalent to a Regimental Sergeant- Major -- was identified by the term Hauptfeldwebel ( colloquially, "Der Speiss"). He was identified by two stripes of silver Tresse around each forearm 3 15/16 inches (100 mm) above the bottom of the sleeve. Der Speiss might be either an Oberfeldwebel or Stabsfeldwebel, and would also wear the shoulder straps of his rank .

Officers’ ranking appeared only on the shoulder-straps. These were constructed of dull silver cord on a backing of Waffenfarbe which showed at the long and rounded edges; the straight outer edge of the strap was sewn down into the shoulder seam of the tunic.

The straps of company officers of were of ribbed "Russia braid"; two double strips were led along the backing, round the button-hole and back along the strap, giving the effect of eight widths of cord. The junior commissioned rank, Leutnant, worn no additional insignia. The Oberleutnant wore a single gold pip near the outer end; the Hauptmann, two pips equally spaced. Field officers wore more elaborate shoulder-straps of interlaced cord, giving a plaited effect. Majors wore them without additional insignia; the Oberstleutnant was marked by a single gold pip, the Oberst by two.

Unit insignia was worn on the shoulder straps, between any pips. From 1 September 1939 these were ordered removed or concealed -- but this was widely ignored. Those that took the trouble to conceal the unit insignia did so by either covering them with a loop of field-grey cloth, or wore their shoulder straps reversed. One of the exceptions to this rule was the Grossdeutschland Division. Its personnel not only retained their unit insignias, but also wore a dark green cuff title on the right cuff, embroidered with the unit title.

Protective Clothing

The Army greatcoat was worn throughout the war. At the beginning of hostilities it was of field-grey cloth with a dark green falling collar. It was double-breasted, had two rows of six metal buttons, and reached to the mid-calf at least. There was a cloth half-belt with two buttons in the rear of the waist, and a central rear vent, hidden in an inverted pleat, which reached from hem to waist. (Officers’ coats had the pleat from collar to hem.) There were two slanted slash pockets just below the waist, with rounded flaps. The cuffs had deep turn-backs. Uniform shoulder-straps and rank chevrons were the only insignia worn. Shortly after the beginning of the war a second pattern appeared, with a field-grey instead of green collar. The two were worn indiscriminately.

During the terrible winter of 1941-42, German soldiers pressed into service any civilian or improvised protective clothing they could lay their hands on. Quilted Russian jackets, fur waistcoats, and fur- or pile- lined ear-flap caps were much prized. Thin cotton snow-camouflage capes and over-suits were improvised from sheets, their details varying with the skill or taste of the maker. A wide variety of fur- and fleece-lined and trimmed coats, and civilian fur clothing were also to be seen. Stories abound of soldiers wearing women’s fur coats or fox furs, or with their greatcoats being stuffed with paper or straw.

Mountain Troops and Jägers

Mountain troops wore certain special uniform and insignia items. Instead of the field service cap, all ranks wore the Bergmutze. This was a field grey cloth hat of "ski-cap" shape, with a turn up, slightly scooped at the front and fastened by two small buttons at the center front. A single cloth badge was worn on the front of the crown. This comprised the eagle-and-swastika above the cockade, the whole thing on a green background. In October 1942 officers were ordered to add silver piping round the crown seam. A special white metal badge was worn on the left side of the mountain cap by all ranks; it was in the shape of an Edelweiss, with stem and leaves, the stem "leaning backwards" at 45 degrees.

On the tunic’s upper right arm, all ranks wore a dark green oval patch with a white, yellow and pale green Edelweiss, edged with white twisted "rope". The mountain units wore looser trousers than other infantry, and ankle-length climbing boots. The trousers were held at the ankle either by short field-grey puttees or by being tucked into thick socks, the tips of which folded down over the boot. Sometimes "plus-four" trousers were worn, with puttees to the knee.

Late in 1942 special insignia were issued for the Jäger regiments, whose light infantry status was traditional but had no practical significance on the modern battlefield. They wore the Bergmutze in place of the sidecap, with a white metal badge in the shape of an oakleaf spray pinned to the left side. An arm badge was also issued, a dark green oval bearing three green oakleaves and edged with light green "rope".


German troops made a point of wearing certain honourable awards on their combat dress at all times. Chief among these was the Knight’s Cross, always worn at the throat on a ribbon passing under the collar. It was of the Maltese Cross shape in black metal edged with silver, worn on a ribbon with black edges, white inner stripes and a red centre. The slightly smaller Iron Cross 1st Class was worn pinned to the left breast. The ribbon of the Iron Cross 2nd Class, in the same colour sequence as the Knight’s Cross ribbon, was often worn in a downwards diagonal strip, sewn between the second tunic buttonhole and the edge of the front closure of the tunic.

A frequent decoration was the Wound Badge, a solid oval badge about 1 1/2 inches (38 mm) high worn in three classes: black, for one or two wounds; silver, for three or four wounds; and gold, for five or more wounds. The badge was pinned low on the left breast pocket. Various Assault Badges were also worn, marking participation in a certain number of engagements, ranging from 25 actions to 100. They usually took the form of an open oval wreath about 2 inches (51 mm) deep with some kind of pierced design (i.e., a Kar98k rifle for the infantry).

Awards were also given for an individual’s skill and bravery. The earliest was the marksmanship lanyard, instituted in 1936, and consisted of an aluminum-thread braided cord attached to a small aluminum- coloured plaque, which differed for infantry, artillery, and armor, and between Wehrmacht, SS, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. It was worn suspended from the right shoulder strap and attached to the second button on the tunic. As well, a Sniper’s Badge was instituted in August 1944, and was similar to the marksman’s lanyard, but had an eagle’s head above oak leaves on the shield. It came in three classes, each class marked by the addition of an acorn to the ends of the lanyard. Third class (no acorn) was for 20 kills, Second Class for 40 and First Class for 60 kills.

The Tank Destruction Badge was awarded to the soldier who single-handedly knocked out a tank. The badge was worn on the right sleeve and consisted of a black metal silhouette of a PzKpfw III on a silver lace strip with black borders. For every fifth kill, a soldier received a gold-backed badge. The badge was introduced in March 1942, and made retroactive to the beginning of the war in Russia. (The record- holder was Oberstleutnant Gunter Viezenz, who had four gold and one silver -- a total of 21 kills!!)

A similar type of badge was introduced in January 1945 for shooting down an enemy aircraft using a weapon of calibre smaller than 12 mm--in effect, a standard rifle or machine gun using 7.92 mm ammunition. In place of the tank, there was an aircraft silhouette.

A wide variety of trade badges were also worn. Medical officers, veterinary officers, etc. wore metal insignia in either gold or silver on their shoulder straps, either above or between the pips. Badges for enlisted personnel took the form of dark green circular patches bearing a symbol of the trade in (usually) yellow, and edged with yellow cord for higher grades (usually NCOs). There are too many to go into in this article, but some of the common ones are:

Medical personnel in a non-medical unit (Sanitatsunterpersonal) -- yellow serpent-and-staff on dark green circle Signalers in a non-signals unit (Nachrichtenpersonal) -- lightning flash point down, in unit Waffenfarbe on dark green circle Artillery gun-layer (Richtkanonier) -- yellow shell, upright, with flaming nose, in yellow oak wreath on dark green oval Motor or armoured mechanic, 2nd class (Kraftzeug o.Panzer Warte II) -- cogwheel, in unit Waffenfarbe on field-grey circle

Badges usually appeared on the right forearm of the tunic; two exceptions were the signaler’s badge, on the upper left sleeve, and the artillery gun-layer, worn on the lower left sleeve.