Achtung…Panzer! The German Tank Badge of WWII

By Martin Spohn

 

The Panzerkampfabzeichen in silver was one of the earliest war
badges to be instituted by the Germans. It’s difficult to determine
how many were issued during the war, but the new collector can
still find examples readily available. Note the traditional oak leaf
design wreath common in many German combat badges.

A person needs only to look inside the local hobby store to gauge the level of interest that exists for WWII German tanks. Invariably, one can find a model kit of nearly every type of German tank that saw service during the war. The range was amazing. Add to this measure the numbers of documentaries that have been made on the great armor battles of the war. The Internet, too, provides numerous Web sites with enough information on German Panzers to keep any enthusiast busy for days.

Militaria collectors who are familiar with the genuine relics of the WWII Panzertruppen will know that many of its items can command high prices in the market place. Yet, the badge that many of these German tank soldiers wore so proudly on their uniforms is still available and affordable for most collectors today.

The Panzer-Kampfabzeichen
Of the many combat badges of the Third Reich, the Panzer-Kampfabzeichen (literally, “tank battle badge”) best symbolizes the early tactics of Blitzkrieg (“lightning warfare”). The words “Blitzkrieg” and “Panzer” are synonymous with the early German victories over Poland and France as well as  the early successes in Russia.

The German tank badge was instituted by an order from Colonel-General von Brauchitsch dated 20 December 1939. Designed by the well-known artist Ernst Peekhaus, the production of the badge was given initially to the firm C.E. Juncker. But as the war progressed and many many other German awards were produced, manufacture was distributed to other firms as well. There were at least 18 manufacturers of this award. Many companies did not apply any sort of marking or hallmark. Therefore, the collector will encounter a number of variations (see www.wehrmacht-awards.com for examples). Added to this, a version of the award in bronze was instituted on 1 June 1940. Thus, the German tank badge comes in two forms, silver and bronze.

The award was open to all Panzer officers, NCOs and other ranks, who had been engaged in at least three assaults on three separate occasions. The bronze version extended the award to other affiliated units such as Panzer grenadiers, armored car personnel, medical and signals units. It was worn on the lower left breast of the uniform.

It’s interesting to note that in the original decree for the award, the design is simply described as being an oval, oak-leaf wreath with a Panzerkampfwagen (tank) in the center, surmounted by an eagle with swastika. No specific tank type is mentioned, yet curiously, some references either say nothing about it or are at odds as to whether it is a Panzer Mk. III or a Panzer Mk. IV, though it would appear that it is a stylized Mk. IV. There are two plausible reasons for this. First, the Panzer Mk. IV was, at the time the badge was designed, the most modern tank the Germans had. It would seem plausible to have made it the subject of this new award. Secondly, the gun appears to have the heavier appearance of 75mm caliber as opposed to the lighter 37mm or 57mm of the Mk. IIIs. For real tank enthusiasts, this detail can add an extra dimension to the badge.

The Panzer-Kampfabzeichen did not stop there. In June 1943, numbered versions of the badge were instituted to recognize the increasing number of engagements in which troops were involved. Although similar in design, they are different enough to recognize easily . Because of the premium values assigned to the numbered versions, they fall outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, they are more rare and hence, much more expensive to obtain.

An early Panzer Mk. IV (model E) being welcomed into a village in
Poland near the German border in 1939. Despite the impression of
propaganda films of the time, these types of tanks were in relatively
small numbers during the Polish and French campaigns.
Approximately 200 (only 10% of the tank force) were in service at
the time of the invasion of Poland.

Blitzkrieg
The German Panzers were an integral part of the Blitzkrieg tactics of WWII, but their success was the result of years of military thinking and planning. The origins of Blitzkrieg can be traced back to the last years of WWI. At that time, the Germans developed a tactic that was designed to break a deadlock—a common symptom of trench warfare. Special units of heavily armed assault troops (Sturmtruppen) would break through weak points in the enemy’s defensive line. Through superior and rapidly deployed firepower, they could wreak havoc among enemy lines. Unfortunately for the Germans, the strategy came too late to make much of a difference. It did, however, give post-war theorists something to consider.

Ironically, it was the British who saw the potential of this tactic when combined with  tanks. During the 1920s, they established an “Experimental Mechanized Force,” but the political and economic climate of the time severely limited its development. However, across the channel, the Germans were watching with interest.

During this time, Colonel Heinz Guderian was one of a number of German officers examining the British theories on armored forces. Despite opposition from some of his own countrymen, Guderian was fortunate enough to receive Hitler’s enthusiastic endorsement. Guderian’s ideas were to become instrumental in the formation of a German tank force.

While Blitzkrieg may be simple in theory, it was difficult in practice because a high level of cooperation between the participating forces of both army and Luftwaffe was paramount to its success. By sheer weight of numbers and bombardment, an attack would be launched against the enemy’s weakest point. The tanks, in conjunction with infantry, artillery, and Luftwaffe units, would break through and rush behind enemy lines to interrupt supply lines, communications, and affect the enemy’s ability to fight an “organized” battle.

The strategy and tactics proved successful for the Germans in the early part of the war. The distances they faced in Russia, though, were to be their undoing. Blitzkrieg would work well enough as long as the forces kept moving forward. But once they stopped for rest and re-supply, the whole show would have to be reorganized all over again. The Russian campaign demonstrated both the strengths and weaknesses of Blitzkrieg.



An armored column photographed during the Polish campaign.
These smaller tanks (Mk. Is and Mk. IIs) made up the bulk of the
Panzerkorps in the early years. The uniforms these soldiers wore
changed little during the war with only the black berets being
replaced by more practical soft caps.

The Panzerkampfwagen IV
Of all the dozens of armored vehicles the Germans deployed during WWII, only one main battle tank was there throughout the entire period of the war—the Panzerkampfwagen (IV). First built in 1936, it was still rolling off the production lines in 1945.

The “Panzer IV” (or “Mk. IV” as it is known to enthusiasts) evolved in models from “A” through to “J.” Even by the time of the Polish and French campaigns of 1939 and 1940, it was the model “E” that was seen rolling forward into battle.

 As the war progressed, both weight and armament increased. The short 75mm howitzer of the early versions was lengthened. Armor skirting was added for greater protection. The Mk. IV chassis can be seen in other hybrid types of tanks that carried interesting names like Nashorn (Rhino), Hummel (bumble bee), and Brummbär (grizzly bear). These carried armament up to 150mm caliber.

The tank was operated by a crew of five, comprised of the driver (left side), the machine gunner/radio operator (right side), and the commander, gunner, and loader all sitting in the turret. The crews enjoyed good communication not only among themselves but also with other tanks. This was a major advantage upon the battlefield.

The Panzer IV saw action in all the major theaters of war and despite the problems encountered in both the desert conditions of Africa and sub-zero climate of Russia, it remained a very effective and reliable workhorse for the German army. Indeed, the Panzer IV even had a longer post-war career serving in the Syrian Army, taking part in border clashes with Israeli forces up to the late 1960s.

Collecting the Panzer-Kampfabzeichen
The tank battle badge was awarded to both Army and Waffen SS personnel—from privates to general field marshals. Wartime photos show such personalities such as Rommel, Manstein, and Guderian all wearing this badge.

To the uninitiated, the variance in prices that one is likely to encounter for what is ostensibly the same badge, can be mystifying. Twenty to thirty years ago, a badge was sold for what it was, and that was pretty much it. Now, differences of tens, sometimes hundreds of dollars can be seen between the same types of badges. This can be the case with the tank badge. Understandably, this can lead some collectors to believe that dealers who charge the higher prices are rip-off merchants. This is not necessarily the case. In fact, the varying prices reflect a greater discernment about the item.

The amount of literature dealing with WWII German combat badges available nowadays has substantially increased knowledge and awareness about them. In many ways, this has greatly reduced the risk of collecting fakes, although it hasn’t eradicated it entirely. Magazines and books on the subject abound that use numerous photos of the same type of badge to compare subtle differences. Collectors can now identify a number of makers, know of their manufacturing techniques, and appreciate the quality (or lack thereof) of the badges.

One needs to understand that with a number of firms manufacturing quantities of badges over a number of years, 100% consistency was not achieved. In many collector circles, “lively debates” often occurred in the past when someone challenged the authenticity of an item on the basis of a single picture in a book. Thankfully, we now know that conditions and materials varied, and, consequently, so too did the quality.

Demand and quality are what ultimately determine an item’s price. Because both of these factors can fluctuate and vary, a budding collector shouldn’t be too surprised by price variations.  Price range reflects condition, quality, type (silver or bronze version), and manufacturer marks and thus caters to a range of tastes and budgets. There is still a respectable number of authentic tank battle badges on the market—opportunities for collectors to obtain a true relic of Blitzkrieg.

CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS
The materials used in the manufacture of original Third Reich badges can be broken down into three categories: High, medium, and low quality.

High quality: Materials include brass, bronze, tombak, and “German” silver. Genuine silver was rarely used in the manufacture of Third Reich badges.

Medium quality: Materials include various white metal and refined zinc alloys. These materials are generally lighter and cheaper feeling than their high quality counterparts. Unlike pieces made with high quality materials, however, medium quality materials were not designed to stand the test of time. Badges in this category are often found with a dark discoloration and lifted or bubbled plating.

Low quality: Materials consist primarily of rough, dark zinc based alloys. This material was unsuited to the plating process. As a result, these pieces were finished with lacquer washes and paints that deteriorated rapidly. Badges made of low quality materials are often encountered without a finish of any kind, the exposed “Kriegsmetal” having a rough, gray appearance.       —courtesy of www.wehrmacht-awards.com

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More Images:

featuredImage
A modest collection of relics representing the German Panzer arm of WWII. A "Wehrmacht" magazine from July 1940 ($15-$25), an original photo of a German soldier ($20-$40) and a well-worn Panzer badge in silver (about $100+). One doesn't need to acquire a great amount of material in order to tell an interesting story.
featuredImage
A photo portrait of a young tank soldier wearing a number of badges including the tank battle badge (partly obscured). These soldiers were also nicknamed the "Black Hussars" by virtue of the death’s head insignia on their collar patches.

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