Both Germany and Italy took pride in their stylish uniforms, but as warfare became more sophisticated and varied, there arose a corresponding need for innovations in clothing and equipment.
Under the Treaty of Versailles, which brought an end to World War I, Germany had to get rid of most of her armed forces. Then, in March 1935, Hitler announced that he was reintroducing conscription. His new army needed to be equipped and clothed, and, unlike its Allied counterparts, its uniforms were to be new and up-to-date.
The block uniform on the officer (left) has the pink piping and skull-and-crossbones collar patches of the panzer, or armored troops; the German eagle shows that he is army not SS. The soldier (far right) has the cuff band of the elite Herman Goring Division.
Certainly, at the beginning of the war between the Axis and Allied countries, German uniforms were the most stylish and best-cut in the world, but as the war dragged on, new versions were brought out that were increasingly badly cut and made of poorer material. Troops were soon issued with whatever uniforms were available, including Italian-issue clothing, so that men of the same unit were often dressed in a whole range of uniform styles and colors.
These German paratroopers are wearing a typical uniform—light-gray air force side caps, baggy khaki trousers, and air force ground-personnel field coat in splinter camouflage. A paratrooper helmet, center, has a netting cover.
Hitler is shown with paratroopers in 1940. They are wearing the early para-smock and para-helmet, with camouflage cover. There is a selection of iron crosses, including the Knight's Cross, around the neck.
The uniform blouse was still a long, four-pocket tunic in field gray, but lightweight and better tailored. It still had a dark stand-and-fall collar (one that could be worn either buttoned to the neck or open, like a sports jacket) on which regimental badges were worn, with noncommissioned officers' ranks shown on the sleeve, as well as trade badges, such as driver. Epaulets showed officers' ranks and, in some cases, the wearer's unit. The one big difference in insignia from 1918 on was the Nazi eagle and swastika worn above the right breast pocket.
For cold weather, a greatcoat was issued. This was double-breasted, calf-length, and waisted. Like the tunic, the greatcoat was in field gray with a darker collar. Unlike many other armies, it was not issued with a belt. If one was required, the normal-service leather belt was worn. No insignia, other than rank badges, was worn on the greatcoat. An alternative, worn almost exclusively by officers, was a long leather overcoat in green, gray, or black. Once again, rank epaulets were worn with it.
New helmets, introduced in 1935, were a smaller version of the original 1917 coal scuttle. Painted green or black, they usually had shield-shaped insignia on the sides: a red, white, and black tricolor on the left, and an eagle and swastika on the right. There were variations. The SS had its own symbol on the right and a swastika on the left. Helmets might be covered with a camouflaged cloth cover or chicken wire, to which could be attached pieces of greenery or other similar items for camouflage. The pork-pie cap was replaced by either a side cap or a ski cap for enlisted men and noncommissioned officers. Officers also wore these, but more commonly, a peaked cap.
There are SS collar patches on the tunics, worn under the camouflage smocks, of these SS infantry troops. Between them they are wearing at least four different camouflage variations on smocks, pants, or helmet covers.
All troops continued to wear leather webbing, the main difference in the belt being the buckle, which in World War I had been brass. These new steel buckles were painted green or gray, so they would not reflect the light. Officers were issued with a circular buckle, but as these came undone easily, many officers opted to wear the ordinary version, especially in combat. Leather was also used for the other ranks' calf-length leather boots, known as dice shakers.
One easily recognizable piece of equipment was the gas mask, which had a cylindrical, corrugated-steel case, unlike most other armies, which used cloth bags. One of the most innovative pieces of equipment was the poncho, or zeltbahn—a triangle of camouflaged, waterproof material. Four of these ponchos could be secured together to form a four-man tent, provided one soldier could find three others.
This Italian tank man, in North Africa in 1941, is wearing a functional tank uniform. It includes a leather crash helmet with neck protector, leather overcoat, and loose-fitting pants.
German panzer (armored) units had a distinctive uniform. The blouson top—suitable for sitting in a cramped tank— was double-breasted with concealed buttons. The trousers were baggy, for coolness and comfort, and worn with short ankle boots. They also wore a padded beret to protect the head. Alternatives to the beret were the side cap, the ski cap, or, for officers, the peaked cap. Particularly distinctive was the fact that the whole uniform was in black, which, with the panzer regiments' skull-and-crossbones collar patches, often led to confusion between them and the SS. The main distinguishing point was that the panzer regiments wore the normal army eagle and swastika on their right breast. To finish off the uniform, they wore a gray shirt and black tie and the army-style belt in black. Panzer grenadier assault gun units wore a uniform of similar cut, but in field gray. They did not, however, wear the beret.
The German Afrika Korps wore a tunic based on the pattern of the normal uniform, but in lightweight khaki, almost always worn open-necked. Trousers were loose and straight, or else breeches were worn. Shorts were also used, but less often than among the British. The normal leather belt, usually in brown, completed the outfit, although there were woven-cloth versions. Originally, they were issued with high, suede, lace-up boots, but in the arid heat of the desert, these proved unpopular and were soon rejected in favor of ankle boots.
As with the Allied troops, desert heat meant that uniform rules were more relaxed. Panzer troops wore "normal" tropical uniforms, while most officers wore the tropical ski cap. Soon, most soldiers on both sides looked similar, with an open-necked shirt or singlet with shorts or loose trousers. One of the few ways to distinguish between them was the steel helmet. The German version was painted sand-colored, often with the Afrika Korps insignia stenciled on—a palm tree on top of a swastika. Pith helmets were also worn, bearing metal versions of the tricolor and eagle and swastika shields.
German paratroop regiments were first used in combat for the invasion of Crete in 1941. Due to their extremely high casualty rate, however, they were never used again in a mass drop, but Winston Churchill was so impressed by them that Britain set up its own parachute regiments.
Paratroopers' helmets had to be compact to avoid snagging on the supporting ropes of the parachute, yet give protection in case of a heavy landing. The jackets also needed to be simple, while providing good insulation against the cold encountered at high altitudes. German paratroopers were issued with a special, pot-shaped helmet bearing the German tricolor and the special air force eagle and swastika. They wore normal combat uniforms, over which they wore a jump smock with a zipper for easy removal. Early versions were in khaki, but these were soon replaced by a field-gray version, which was, in turn, replaced by a camouflage version in 1941.
To protect their knees when landing, they wore special, kapok-filled knee pads over their trousers. The outfit was completed with rubber-soled ankle boots and a Luftwaffe belt, whose buckle was longer than the army version and bore the air force eagle and swastika.
After Crete, paratroopers were used almost exclusively as ground troops, so their special equipment was increasingly replaced by normal combat uniforms. They continued to wear the paratrooper helmet, often with the smock replaced by the knee-length Luftwaffe camouflaged field coat.
German mountain troops wore normal combat uniforms, almost exclusively with ski caps, upon the side of which they wore the Alpine edelweiss badge in metal. A similar cloth badge was worn on the right arm. The basic outfit was finished off with heavy ankle-length boots, and these were usually worn with a pair of short gaiters to give extra protection to the ankles.
In winter, they would wear a hooded anorak over the uniform, often with matching trousers. Both of these were reversible, often with field gray or normal camouflage on one side and plain white on the other. These were widely used by units on the Russian front, but conditions there were so bad that all sorts of clothing were worn to try to keep out the extreme cold. This included civilian fur coats, Russian felt boots, and straw boot covers.
This Blackshirt corporal is wearing the standard gray-green Italian uniform, but with fascist black shirt and tie, Blackshirt collar patches and helmet badge, and the specially designed Blackshirt dagger.
The Schutzstaffel, or SS—the Nazi party militia—grew to such huge proportions that it formed its own fighting regiment: the Waffen SS. They wore standard combat uniforms, but with SS badges instead of army ones. These mainly took the form of rectangular black collar patches, the right one bearing the SS insignia and the left, the wearer's rank. The other main difference from the army uniform was a special eagle and swastika worn on the upper-left sleeve instead of on the right breast. The SS had its own armored grenadier, and mountain troops, who all wore the particular uniforms of those forces, but with SS badges.
The SS pioneered the use of camouflaged clothing. Several outfits were designed to be worn over the normal uniform, usually with smock tops, but a waist-length version was also provided for tank crews. Camouflage design became more of an art form, and several different patterns were produced for different conditions, including the early "splinter," "palm tree," "plane tree," "pea," and "oak leaf" patterns.
German women were supposed to devote themselves to kinder, kirche, kuche (children, church, and kitchen), yet some single women were allowed into uniform as nurses or for administrative or clerical duties. Nazi ideology meant that they were never allowed to become as directly involved in the war as the British ATS, or even the U.S. WAACs. Nazi uniforms were stylish in cut and design: a long, tailored tunic and skirt in field gray, worn open-necked over a white shirt and gray tie, and finished with a side cap.
Italian uniforms were designed to glorify the military, and even nonmilitary organizations were dressed in martial outfits. Under Mussolini, uniforms—
both military and civilian—proliferated in Italy. Flamboyant outfits were made for high civil officials, or, in the military, for dress uniforms, yet in fascist Italy, this love of uniform was often combined with classic Italian style.
Combat uniforms were far less flashy, yet—at least during the first half of the war—were designed and well tailored. The principal color of Italian army uniforms was gray-green. The coat was a long, four-pocket tunic, similar to that of the Germans, worn open-necked with a gray-green shirt and tie. If conditions warranted, a loose blue sweater could be worn instead of (or sometimes over) the tunic. Officers' tunics were of a similar style, but made of a lighter-colored material of a far superior quality and tailoring, worn with a white shirt and gray tie.
Other ranks' trousers were lighter in color than the tunic, cut loosely and worn with long gaiters or puttees. Broader, thicker trousers, called pantaloons, were also worn. Officers wore breeches with long black leather boots, in contrast to other ranks' boots, which were ankle-length in brown or black.
Webbing was of leather or woven material, usually in black or gray, although officers' Sam Browne-style belts were usually brown. The helmet was a cross between the American and Russian styles, in dark gray. Caps came in a range of styles. Some officers wore peaked caps, but the most common style for both officers and men was the side cap, often with a tassel at the front.
Italian tropical uniform was designed for comfort in the extreme heat: either khaki shorts with long socks, or loose trousers with suede ankle-boots. As usual, officers mostly wore khaki breeches and riding boots. All ranks wore a tunic called the sahariana, which was extremely well-made of a light drill material in the style of the normal tunic. This was a popular item, and not only with the Italians— they would be seen on any German or British troops who could manage to get hold of them. For the colder nights, a khaki version of the sweater was produced.
Like Allied tank crews, Italian armored units wore clothes adapted for comfort in the hot, narrow confines of a tank, instead of for style. A light, loose tunic and trousers, worn without gaiters or puttees, were the main items of uniform. These were worn with a special tank-crew helmet, similar to the army motorcycle crash helmet: pot-shaped and made of leather, with a padded strip around the edge for added protection. To this could be added a leather neck protector, like the curtain worn by members of the French Foreign Legion. For cold or wet weather, a knee-length leather overcoat was issued, usually in black or dark gray.
Italy was one of the pioneers in the use of parachute forces. Its first paratroopers began training in the late 1920s. Their uniforms were similar to the British and German equivalents: a knee-length camouflaged smock, with loose, comfortable trousers, over which was worn padded knee protectors. The helmet was the familiar pot-shaped paratroop style, usually painted in a camouflage pattern, with the normal heavy-duty chin strap used by paratroopers and motorcycle dispatch riders.
This corporal is of the Italian North African colonial forces. He is wearing a white-dress version of the sahariana jacket with baggy khaki pants.
The Italian fascist party had its own militia, the Milizia per la Sicurezza. Because this name was quite a mouthful, they soon picked up a nickname based on their peculiar uniform: the Blackshirts. Formed in 1922, the Blackshirts were the foot soldiers of the party. Blackshirt numbers grew to the point that at the beginning of the war, almost 40 legions of them were attached to the Italian army. Unlike many ordinary Italian troops, who showed little desire to fight, some Blackshirt regiments proved to be formidable opponents.
Blackshirt troops wore standard Italian army uniforms, but with black shirts and ties. Black collar patches bore the fasces badge of ancient Rome—a bundle of rods with the ax head—from which the fascists derived their name. They also carried a special dagger.
There were a few smaller members of the Axis powers, notably Romania, Hungary, and Finland, whose troops mainly saw action on the Russian front. Finnish troops wore a light gray uniform similar in style to the Germans', including the helmet, dice-shaker boots, leather webbing, and ski caps. The most obvious differences were badges, rank insignia, and the absence of the eagle and swastika. Hungarian uniform was also similar, but in khaki. Earlier in the
This Japanese infantryman is wearing a tropical uniform, without his single-breasted tunic, as often happened in the jungle heat. The field cap was common to all ranks.
Unusually, this Romanian infantryman, in 1945, seems to be wearing no badges or insignia. In a throwback to earlier wars, he is carrying a rolled blanket over his shoulder.
conflict, tall, dice-shaker boots were used, but ankle boots later became common. These showed the pantaloons, which were fitted with buttons that enabled them to be worn close to the calf. A side cap, large greatcoat, and brown leather webbing completed the outfit. Once again, their main distinguishing marks, apart from the color, were their insignia.
Romanian dress was the most distinctive. Other ranks' uniforms were in khaki, and comprised a short tunic and pantaloons worn with puttees, or trousers worn with anklets. The anklets were in brown leather, as were the webbing and ankle boots. The uniform was finished off with a ski cap and greatcoat. The greatcoat, being unpadded, gave little protection against the extreme cold of the Eastern front, and many Romanian troops literally froze to death. The most distinctive piece of their uniform was the large Dutch steel helmet, which looked like a metal pith helmet.
Romanian officers were better dressed, similar to the style of U.S. officers, with khaki breeches, a deeper brown, single-breasted, four-pocket tunic, worn with a Sam Browne-style belt over a light khaki shirt and darker brown tie. Tall leather riding boots might be worn, or puttees and ankle boots. The cap would be the normal officers' peaked cap.
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