War Merit Cross (1939)

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All classes of the War Merit Medal and Cross without and with swords.

The War Merit Cross (German: Kriegsverdienstkreuz; KVK) was created by Adolf Hitler in October 1939 as a successor to the non-combatant Iron Cross which was used in earlier wars and could be awarded to military personnel and civilians during the Second World War. In fact, the War Merit Cross was the medal that was awarded for services in the rear front area, the stage and in the reserve army or at home, while the Iron Cross was reserved for services in direct combat operations. The War Merit Cross of all classes could be awarded to all ranks of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS, but also to civilians. In July 1944, Adolf Hitler donated the Golden Knight's Cross.

The War Merit Cross of World War II should not be confused with the Honour Cross of the World War donated by Reich President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934, which was awarded as a kind of commemorative medal on the 20th anniversary of the start of World War I.


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Grades (ascending)

Obermeister Franz Hahne, recipient of the Knight’s Cross of the War Merit Cross in Gold

Recipients had to have the lower grade of the award before getting the next level. Anyone who received an award without swords could later also be awarded the War Merit Cross with swords, but not the other way around. An Iron Cross that had already been awarded initially precluded the award of the corresponding class of the War Merit Cross until August 1941. In 1940, the War Merit Cross was expanded to four grades; Hitler reserved the right to award the Knight's Cross to the War Merit Cross personally.

The lowest, affiliated level, the War Merit Medal, was not intended to be awarded to soldiers if they were intended for the planned war "Memorial Medal to Commemorate the 1939/1940 War", and therefore did not have a section with swords. The remaining levels could be awarded to soldiers and civilians with or without swords

  • War Merit Medal (19 August 1940) for civilians to recognize outstanding service in the war effort
    • It was usually awarded to those workers in factories who significantly exceeded work quotas. The War Merit Medal was awarded to Germans and non-Germans, to men and women. An estimated 4.9 million medals were awarded by the end of the war in Europe. After 15 May 1943, the award of this medal to foreigners was superseded by the Medal of Merit of the Order of the German Eagle.
      • The round War Merit Medal made of bronze (designed by Richard Klein of Munich) shows an embossed eight-pointed Maltese cross. In the middle there is a small upside down swastika. On the back the inscription "For War Merits 1939".
  • War Merit Cross without Swords awarded to civilians at the home front for meritorious service in “furtherance of the war effort”
    • 2nd and 1st Class (18 October 1939)
      • The shape of the War Merit Cross is an eight-pointed Maltese cross with a round central shield, on the front of which a swastika with an oak leaf border can be seen. The year 1939 is written on the back. The second class is made of bronze and was worn on a 30 mm wide ribbon on the medal bar or in the buttonhole (25 mm). The 1st class is matt silver-plated and was worn as a cross (with pin) on the left side of the chest.
  • War Merit Cross with Swords awarded to military personnel for exceptional service “not in direct connection with combat”
    • 2nd and 1st Class (18 October 1939)
      • The ribbon of the War Merit Cross II Class and that of the Knight's Cross had the color sequence red-white-black (broad)-white-red, i.e. the colors of the German Reich, similar to the Iron Cross of 1939, but in which the color sequence was Black–White–Red(wide)–White–Black.
  • Knights Cross of the War Merit Cross (19 August 1940)
    • The Knight's Cross of the War Merit Cross is silver-plated or gold-plated and slightly larger than the War Merit Cross I./II. Class. It was worn as a neck order (Halsorden) on a 45 mm wide ribbon. The Knight's Cross with swords has grooves on the eyelet bars and the band ring, while the Knight's Cross without swords has smooth eyelet bars and a smooth band ring. The wide part of the band ring was worn upwards.
  • Knight’s Cross of the War Merit Cross in Gold (8 July 1944)

Method of wearing

The War Merit Medal, like the War Merit Cross Second Class, was only worn on the ribbon on the day of the award. Then, as with the Iron Cross 2nd Class, the ribbon was sewn to the second buttonhole of the uniform jacket and/or worn as a ribbon (ribbon bar) over the left breast pocket. It was important to note that the second class ribbon, even when awarded with swords, in the buttonhole could only be worn without swords. Two crossed bronze swords were placed on the field ribon. Holders of the 1st class always wore their cross on the left breast pocket of their uniform.

The Knight's Cross, like the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, was always worn visibly as a neck medal. When awarding a class with swords, it was important to ensure that the two equivalent classes of the War Merit Cross were not worn at the same time. An exception to this is the War Merit Medal, which could continue to be worn even if the War Merit Cross was later awarded. From 8 July 1944, the War Merit Medal was awarded in addition to all higher levels.

The initial confusion over how to wear the new War Merit Cross went so far that the various branches of the Wehrmacht (Heer, Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe) had to issue their own regulations to regulate the “wild growth” in how the War Merit Cross was worn. German Navy regulations from 22 February 1940:

“Knight’s Cross of the War Merit Cross on the neck above the binder. The Knight's Crosses must be worn visibly. When the coat is on, the top three buttons can also be left open by non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. War Merit Cross 1st Class under the Iron Cross 1st Class from 1914. War Merit Cross 2nd Class ribbons of the War Merit Cross, possibly with swords, on the ribbon bar. The ribbon of the War Merit Cross 2nd Class behind the Iron Cross 2nd Class from 1914, but before the Honour Cross of the World War 1914/1918 and other Crosses of Merit and Honor of the First World War. The ribbon bar may also be worn on the overcoats of non-commissioned officers and enlisted men during the war. Except for the ribbon bar, the War Merit Cross ribbon may be worn: On the uniform, jacket and overcoat in the top usable buttonhole, but not on the coat. For the field gray naval uniform: On the uniform or field blouse in the second buttonhole from the top, but not on the coat. Swords are not worn on the buttonhole ribbon of the War Merit Cross 2nd Class with swords.”

Award numbers and award practice

The War Merit Cross was awarded with an award certificate in a box, the lower classes were simply awarded in a decorated paper bag. The Medal for the War Merit Cross and the Second Class were mass awards, the number of awards for all classes to members of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS was:

  • War Merit Cross 2nd Class approx. 2,700,000 times
  • War Merit Cross 1st Class approx. 140,000 times
  • Knight's Cross of the KVK approx. 230 times (including 140 times without swords).
  • Golden Knight's Cross of the War Merit Cross without swords was only awarded to civilians, exactly twice on 20 April 1945:
    • Franz Hahne (chief master in the company Rheinmetall-Altmärkische Kettenwerke; Alkett)
    • Karl-Otto Saur (main department head and head of office in the Reich Ministry for Armaments)

The given award numbers are to be viewed as inaccurate as the award numbers to the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine are unknown. The War Merit Cross 2nd Class without swords was awarded for the first time on 1 May 1940 to Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach on the occasion of his 70th birthday. The oldest holder of the award was the deputy Reich guild master of the laundry tailoring trade, who received the War Merit Cross in 1944 at the age of almost 80.

A ten-year-old boy, and therefore probably the youngest recipient of the second class with swords, received his award for “brave behavior in the bombing campaign” in Dortmund in 1943, when he ran into burning buildings trying so save family members and neighbors.

War Merit Cross on Flags

It should also be noted that entire companies could be honored with a special form of the War Merit Cross. This is the so-called “War Merit Cross on Flags”. At the request of the then Reich organization leader Robert Ley from the German Labour Front (DAF) and the Reich Minister for Armaments and Ammunition Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler approved the creation of “war model companies”. The award was given in recognition of the outstanding commitment and exemplary performance of the company community in the context of the war economy.

By presenting a corresponding certificate, the company community receives the right to display the War Merit Cross (without swords) in its (DAF) flag. At the beginning of May 1942, 19 companies were awarded the “War Model Company” award for the first time for their exemplary performance of the company community in German war production.

War Merit Cross on Flags

The “War Model Operation” award was staggered:

  • First recognition,
  • Second recognition for increasing quality and quantity,
  • Silver flag of the German Labor Front with the War Merit Cross and
  • Golden flag of the German Labor Front with the War Merit Cross.

Day of the German Railwayman

On the first "Day of the German Railwayman" (Tag des deutschen Eisenbahners) in Berlin on 7 December 1943, with speeches by Joseph Goebbels and others, numerous railway workers of the Reichsbahn were awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class and the War Merit Cross 2nd Class with and without swords. 95 railway workers received the War Merit Cross, 1st Class with swords, 66 received the War Merit Cross, 1st Class without swords. The Knight's Cross of the War Merit Cross with Swords was received on this day at the suggestion of the Reich Transport Minister and General Director of the Deutsche Reichsbahn Julius Dorpmüller for ruthless commitment, exemplary courage and the highest level of devotion to duty

  • Senior locomotive driver Ernst Bierschenk,
  • Locomotive driver (Lokführer) August Kindervater (presented by guest of honor Walter Nowotny),
  • Reichsbahn Director Fritz-Wilhelm Grimm,
  • President of the Reichsbahndirektion Altona Erich Goudefroy,
  • President of the Reichsbahndirektion Essen/Ruhr Maximilian Lamertz and
  • technical chief inspector of the Reichsbahn Remigius Hellenthal.

Adolf Hitler was unable to appear; that day he was at the Führer Headquarters “Wolfsschanze”, where he received the Dutch Prime Minister Anton Adriaan Mussert for a lengthy discussion. On 7 December 1944, in the presence of Albert Speer, among others, the second German Railway Workers' Day took place in Berlin. On this occasion, eight railway workers were awarded the Knight's Cross of the War Merit Cross with Swords. The railway workers who sat at sparsely set tables on the Eastern Front, far from family and home, had to experience the hardships of the war first hand and were now not very receptive to the propagandistic speeches that the radio broadcast during the day. In the coming months, their situation continued to worsen, and many railway workers had to suffer damage to their lives and health until the end of the war, and the number of fallen continued to rise. Nevertheless, the majority of them dutifully carried out their service to the bitter end, despite all the hardships. After all, quite a few railway workers still found their usual service under much more difficult conditions more tempting than being drafted into the Wehrmacht.

Other German War Merit Crosses

A Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) WW2 police officer's dress parade uniform

Crosses for war merit or military merit existed in most German states in the 18th and 19th century and were awarded in different designs and classes. Under the formal name “War Merit Cross” there were the following awards from the individual German states:

In other individual German states there were other cross-shaped military awards, which in most cases were war or bravery awards and in other cases awards for general military merit. This includes:

  • Kingdom of Prussia:
  • Kingdom of Bavaria: Order of Military Merit
  • Grand Duchy of Hesse: Military Merit Cross 1870/71
  • Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin: Military Merit Cross (de)
  • Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz: Cross for Distinction in War (de)
  • Grand Duchy of Oldenburg: Friedrich August Cross (de)
  • Duchy of Anhalt: Friedrich Cross (de)
  • Principality of Schaumburg-Lippe: Cross for Faithful Service (de)
  • Principality of Waldeck: Military Merit Cross
  • Hanseatic cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck: Hanseatic Cross
  • Saxe-Coburg and Gotha: Carl Eduard War Cross (de)

There was also the Austrian Military Merit Cross of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (see Signum Laudis).