By Eric J. Johansson, Archivist
The German navy was one of the oldest branches of the military forces of the German states that someday would be unified first under Prussia’s hegemony and then, later under Hitler’s Third Reich. As early as the 16th century there were organized fleets operating under the patrimony of a German prince or kurfuerst. By the 19th century the navy was largely organized as the ‘Kaiserliche Marine,’ or Imperial Navy, nominally under the leadership of Prussia though, after 1871, it was a distinct organism as opposed to a purely Prussian manifestation of power.
During the course of two World Wars, a special element of the German navy was created to satisfy a specific need that could not be addressed by capital ships or attendant vessels—commerce raiding. Of course one must note that no undue odium must be applied to the principle of commerce raiding—this had long been a semi-legal tradition going back centuries. Indeed under its licensed privateers, the British had raided the rich galleys of the Spanish empire for untold years. The exploits of men such as Sir Francis Drake and his like had long been glorified by the British. A legal fiction separated the commerce raider from the pirate in early days—a commerce raider or, as he was then known, a ‘privateer’-- operated under a letter of marque or ‘marquis’ which gave him quasi-legal status to destroy, plunder or otherwise cause ‘vexatious’ damage to those who were considered “enemies of the State.” In other words, he had a legal right to his activities and if being captured, was protected under nascent articles of war from being executed as a common thief or murderer. Many pirates who ravaged the southern coasts of the American colonies in the late 17th and early years of the 18th century had formerly been privateers who found more loot and booty in acting on their own as opposed to sharing with a Crown partner. Commerce raiders continued on into the American Civil War, the CSS Alabama being the most famous.
When the Germans instituted commerce raiding against the British in the opening days of the First World War they were continuing a very venerable tradition, given sanction by all belligerent maritime nations of the Earth in spite of the British press who called them “bloody pirates” and worse.
Lacking a world-wide network of coaling stations and colonies that could support a massive, well structured naval effort determined to destroy British commercial shipping, the Germans created auxiliary cruisers—clever ships disguised outwardly as tramp steamers of some neutral country. Internally they were armed with Krupp Quick Firing naval rifles that could easily take on an unarmed enemy or even an enemy light cruiser. The legends of these ships, among whom we find the famous ‘Mowe,’ Graf Luckner’s famous vessels—the ‘Sea Eagle’ and the ‘Sea Devil’-- and the most famous, the ‘Emden,’ fill the annals of naval history. Enemy and friend alike, in retrospect, admired the daring of these ships and their crews who cruised the oceans of the world, creating fear and panic in allied shipping. Oddly enough, in spite of their ardent valor and sure contributions to the war effort, the Imperial German state never officially recognized them with a war badge of their own though they certainly had naval zeppelin and submarine badges. It would not be until the Second World War that the commerce raider would be fully recognized.
In 1939 the German navy faced many of the problems of 1914: no colonial ports, no coaling stations and certainly no world-wide support for a far flung fleet. The answer, as always, was to rely on the ubiquitous commerce raider. Ships such as ‘Pinguin,’ Orion,’ ‘Thor’ and ‘Atlantis’ were sent out to scour the oceans, creating havoc with the commercial fleets of the British Empire and its allies. Every sea appeared to be infested with these deadly ‘vipers’ who destroyed untold tons of war supplies destined for the allied war machine. By and large the men who commanded these ships were gallant, brave and at all times, gentlemen. They warned their prey (sometimes having to silence a pesky marconi that was giving away their position in the doomed ship), took on survivors and lived off of what they could find on the ships soon to join Davey Jones’ locker. No one hears tales of barbarism and murder from these spunky cruisers and it is both right and fitting that their war badge be adorned with the honor and wreathes that so richly bedeck it.
Recognizing the deeds of the Auxiliary Cruisers (‘Hilfskreuzer’ in German) came through an order of 24 April 1941, under the hand of the ‘Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine,’ Grossadmiral Dr. h.c. Raeder. Noting the granting of this unique badge to honor the deeds of the crews of the auxiliary cruisers, Dr. Raeder noted (quoted from his address), ‘Im kampf gegen England haben unsere Hilfskreuzer auf allen Weltmeeren, fern der Heimat, hevorragende Kriegstaten vollbracht und auf kuehnen Fahrten dem Gegner empfindliche Verluste an Schiffsraum zugefuegt. In Anerkennung dieser Taten ordne ich die Einfuehrung an.’
In other words, Dr. Raeder specifically refers to the unique contribution of the Auxiliary Cruisers on the high seas of the world to protect the interests of the Homeland through their outstanding deeds and the imposition of losses upon the forces of the enemy.
As with many of the war badges of the Third Reich, this badge was created by the craftsmen of the firm of Ernst Peekaus of Berlin. The final issue of the badge to which the men of the Auxiliary Cruisers were entitled, showed an oval oak wreath surmounted by an eagle with its wings outstretched, resting on a swastika. In the lower center of the badge there appears an Earth orb with a Viking ship cleaving a bow wave across the top of the world. A warrior clasping a spear stands to the port side of the bow while behind him are visible a row of shields. A ‘gonfalon’ or sail is filled with wind, impelling the vessel forward at a high rate of speed. The wreath, eagle and Viking ship are in a gilt finish: the orb is in matte silver wash.
The badge was authorized for all personnel, irrespective of rank, who took part in a cruise; it could also be issued as a badge to recognize those wounded in pursuit of actions involving an auxiliary cruiser or for outstanding leadership in operations involving such ships.. Many companies besides Peekhaus made them but it is this firm that is most closely associated with the badge.
As Dr. Klietmann notes in ‘Deutsche Auszeichnungen,’ it was first issued in tombak bronze finish but, as the war progressed, was also produced in wartime fine zinc. The finish on the latter has of course oxidized with age, creating a uniform grey appearance.
The badge is 44mm wide, 57mm tall and the width of the eagle’s wings measures 27.5 mm.
Variants in construction do appear: the most common form of the badge is in one piece though some variants exist with a single rivet securing the upper portion of the Earth. It should be noted that many of the reproductions of this badge appear with the single rivet construction. However, in some copies it is quite easy to see that the rivet has been ‘cast’ with the rest of the badge and is not a true rivet at all! If this is the case, the badge should be considered bad or a collector copy.
There is a unique one-of-a-kind variant to this Auxiliary Cruiser badge and it was given to Kapitaen zur See Bernhard Rogge, captain of the ‘Atlantis,’ the most famous of the cruisers. He certainly was the epitome of the naval gentleman officer and following the bestowal of the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves to him on 31 December 1941, a special variant of the Auxiliary War badge was presented to him in January, 1942. This was authorized by the Supreme Commander of the Kriegsmarine (Ob. d.M.). The badge was 45mm wide, 57mm tall, with a weight of 35.1 gr. It incorporated 15 small diamonds in the swastika: the fittings or furniture are in silver gilt and the globe is in silver. The badge is hallmarked .900 silver purity.
Dr. Klietmann notes that a badge surfaced in the United States circa 1967 that had some minor differences in construction from the authorized examples. Reportedly this was issued to the crewmembers of the Auxiliary Cruiser ‘Thor’ who were refitting at Yokohama on Nov. 30, 1942 though no further information on the badge has appeared with significant provenance to establish its ‘bona fides.’
Needless to say, the Auxiliary Cruiser badge reflects upon a centuries long tradition of extraordinary service to the State. In its long line of predecessor crews and captains, from the swashbuckling heroes of Elizabethan England, from Drake to Morgan, one wonders at the men who sailed their vessels “into harm’s way” to wrest control of the sea from the enemy.
In its scope and execution, the design created by Wilhelm Ernst Peekhaus brings to mind the daring exploits of the 8-10th century Vikings who roved Europe from Scandinavia to the gates of Constantinope itself, leaving a magnificent tapestry of high adventures and exploration behind.
Bibliography: Angolia, Ltc. John R. ‘For Fuhrer and Fatherland: Military Awards of the Third Reich.’
Klietmann, Dr. Kurt-Gerhard. ‘Deutsche Auszeichnungen.’
Littlejohn, David & Col. C.M. Dodkins. ‘Orders, Decorations. Medals & Badges of the Third Reich.’
Von Hessenthal, Dr. Waldemar & George Schreiber. ‘Die tragbaren Ehrenzeichen des Deutschen Reiches.’