They denoted both skill and valor
by Chris William
When Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime began their war of European conquest, one of the Wehrmacht’s (military) sections that was to play a key role in the new form of “lightning” warfare was Hermann Göring’s state-of-the-art Luftwaffe (air force). As the Luftwaffe grew from a loose-knit, clandestinely formed, marginal power to that of a well-trained and equipped fighting force, specialty badges were developed to demonstrate the wearer’s skill in a particular field and accomplishments in combat.
Luftwaffe badges can be divided into either qualification or combat merit badges. Most were awarded with an accompanying certificate in either elaborate, or less-official ceremonies, depending on the location and circumstances.
Qualification badges included the Flugzeugfuhrerabzeichen (Pilot’s badge), Beobachterabzeichen (Observer’s badge), Gemeinsames Flugzeugfuhrer und Beobachter Abzeichen (Combined pilot/observer’s badge), Fliegerschutzenabzeichen für Bordfunker (Radio operator and air gunner’s badge), Segelflugzeugführerabzeichen (Glider badge), and Fallschirmschutzenabzeichen (Paratrooper’s badge). These were worn on the left breast of both military and political uniforms, positioned below an Iron Cross (if previously awarded).
Combat badges included the Flak Kampfabzeichen Der Luftwaffe (Anti-aircraft badge), Erdkampfabzeichen Der Luftwaffe (Ground combat badge), along with the later-issued (late 1944), Nahkampfspange Der Luftwaffe (Luftwaffe Close combat badge) and Panzerkampfabzeichen Der Luftwaffe (Air Force tank badge). Combat badges were worn on the left breast of military and political uniforms, positioned above qualifying awards, if present.
Göring introduced the pilot’s badge in 1935 for soldiers who had earned the military pilot’s license. The badge consisted of a silver-plated wreath (53 mm by 42 mm) of one half oak and one half laurel leaves onto which was riveted an oxidized, silver eagle with outstretched wings (65mm, wing tip to tip) positioned in flight while clutching a rotated swastika. The reverse of the badge was fitted with a vertically mounted hinged pin with a “C” hook soldered on the bottom.
The observer’s badge was issued beginning in 1936 for soldiers completing 2 months service or 5 combat flights as aircraft observers, navigators or bombardiers. The construction was similar to that of the pilot’s badge (the wreath being the same materials, design and dimensions) but the eagle differed in that it had a more downward observing posture and a shorter, bent (53mm) wing span. As with the pilot’s badge, the award was supported while in wear by a vertically mounted pin and catch assembly.
The pilot/observer badge was awarded to crew members who earned both the pilot’s and observer’s certificates. These badges had the same form as the pilot’s badge with the exception that the wreath was finished in gold instead of silver plating.
The radio operator/gunner’s badge was awarded to gunners, radio operators or mechanics who completed two months training or five combat flights. The oval wreath (52mm by 40mm ) was silver plated and constructed of equal shares of oak and laurel leaves, with a canted swastika molded into the base. A down-soaring eagle clutching twin lightning bolts in its talons was riveted to the front..
The glider badge was awarded to soldiers who had completed the required training and who had received a pilot’s certificate for operating military gliders. This award consisted of an oval silver plated wreath (55mm by 42mm)with a canted swastika attached to the base. Across the front of the wreath was riveted a soaring eagle with outstretched wings measuring 53mm from tip to tip.
In 1936, the paratrooper’s badge was awarded to soldiers who had fulfilled a series of related tests, and who had completed 6 parachute jumps. This award took the form of a silver-plated, oak/laurel leaf wreath (53mm by 41.5 mm) supporting a gold-plated diving, closed-wing eagle clutching a canted swastika in its talons. As with the other awards, the badge was attached to the wearer’s clothing with a vertical hinged pin and “C” catch on the reverse. Some qualification badges contained maker’s names, marks, or numbers on the reverse, while many did not.
Though quite rare, some special issue qualification badges were produced and awarded to select individuals for outstanding achievements or for political gain. These were typically of the finest quality, made of solid gold and inset with dozens of cut diamonds. An example of these are the estimated 40 special pilot/observer awards given by Göring from 1935 to 1944.
Combat badges, unlike the qualification badges, were awarded to soldiers for valor in actual combat engagements.
The anti-aircraft badge, instituted in 1941, was awarded on a numeric system with various point quantities scored for each action participated in, and/or victorious result. In addition, soldiers could earn the badge for single outstanding acts of bravery, while commanding officers could earn the badges if the groups they were responsible for acquired a large number of the awards.
The oak leaf oval wreath (56mm by 45mm) supported a raised “88” anti-aircraft gun with the barrel projecting past the leaf border on the upper right. An eagle in flight carrying a large canted swastika was mounted on the wreath top above the cannon. The reverse of the award contained a hinged pin assembly for attachment to the recipient’s clothing.
The ground combat badge was awarded for 3 separate ground actions (or posthumously, if a soldier was killed in action). These distinctive badges were constructed of a silver-plated oak leaf wreath with a silver, flying eagle clutching a canted swastika riveted to the top. Darkened clouds behind the eagle release a lightning bolt downward to the wreath’s inner base. A pin and catch attachment secured the badge to the wearer’s clothing.
The close combat clasp was first awarded in December 1944, for gallantry in combat. This award took the form of a small oval wreath with equal length boughs of oak leaves projecting horizontally on each side. The center of the wreath supported a silver flying eagle clutching a canted swastika superimposed above a crossed grenade and bayonet. A horizontal pin and catch assembly was secured on the reverse.
The tank badge was another award which was not released until late in the war (November, 1944). It was given on a recipient’s meeting the requirement of having experienced 3 engagements on 3 separate days. This silver (tank commander/ crewmen) or blackened (armored/support personnel) oak leaf oval surrounded the front profile of a tank under a flying eagle holding a canted swastika. Advanced issues featured numbers on the bottom rim of 25, 50, 75, or 100, designating days of combat.
In cases of both the qualification or combat badges, most were originally constructed of quality materials, such as nickel silver, but as the war progressed, this changed to aluminum or lower grade, zinc alloys with poorer detail. Surfaces were polished rather than plated.
In addition to the metal badges, cloth copies were made in both bullion thread (for officers) and cotton materials (for NCO’s and enlisted men). These were for wear on the service uniforms.
The typical award case for each of the badges consisted of a dark blue or black leatherette case, hinged at the back with a push button release, and a velveteen slotted interior. The name of the award was often printed across the case lid. In some instances, an envelope was substituted for the box in order to save materials and manufacturing time.
When Hitler and the Nazi party ceased to exist, and the war had depleted Germany’s human, capital and supply resources, the beaten Luftwaffe finally laid down its arms. Those surviving soldiers who had once worn their badges with great pride now either hid them away or cast them into the pit of history, allowing themselves to put their defeat behind them and move forward to rebuild the democratic Germany of today.