Special Epic Blog looking at the infamous 1939 Iron Cross
Arguably the most iconic and recognisable award of the second world war. The Iron Cross was reintroduced in 1939 in three classes (1st class, 2nd class, and Knights Cross). Coveted as a mark of bravery and honour, even in the years following the end of the war; its recipients commanded a certain amount of respect and admiration from both sides.
The history of the Iron Cross
Adhering to the original three-part Maltese cross design of silver with a black Iron core (as introduced in 1813 under Prussian King Frederick William III and inspired by the symbol of the Teutonic Knights of the Northern Crusades); the 1939 issues were incorporated with a ‘marching’ swastika and the year ‘1939’ emboldened on the front. The traditional black ribbon with white stripes was replaced by a menacing ribbon of red with black and white stripes; to match the colours of the 3rd Reich flag. The design echoed a proud legacy of empire whilst underlining Hitler’s bold ambitions for a new German order.
Why was the Iron Cross awarded?
The criterion for the three classes was such that any solider of any rank could be awarded. Initially one would have to earn the second class (for a single act of bravery above & beyond the call of duty), before earning the first class (for multiple acts), and finally the Knights Cross (for outstanding leadership and valour). As the highest order of merit in the Wehrmacht, only around 7,500 Knights Crosses were awarded; its status is equivalent to the Victoria Cross or the Congressional Medal of Honour awarded by the Allies.
The sheer scale of 1st and 2nd class Iron Crosses that were awarded during WWII is notably vast – it is estimated to be around 5,000,000 for 2nd class, and 450,000 for 1st class. There were over 140 manufacturers mass producing them across the Reich. As the end of the war drew nearer, Iron Crosses were granted in greater volumes to increase morale and motivation among the increasingly desperate and battle weary troops.
How was the Iron Cross displayed?
The 2nd class was worn from a 30mm ribbon either around the second button hole of the tunic, or mounted alongside other decorations. Soldiers in combat would wear the ribbon without the medal itself. The 1st class was the same size as the 2nd class (44x44mm) but worn upon the breast. For this reason they had either a pin and catch on the rear-side, or a screw back (on privately purchased models). Knights Crosses were worn from a larger 45mm ribbon around the neck; sometimes upgraded with Oak Leaves and swords (in instances where recipients had already received a Knights Cross previously).
Here at Epic we have some fine reproductions that exhibit the characteristic traits of 2nd and 1st class Iron Crosses as well as the Knights Cross: