In the US, the highest award for valor is the Medal of Honor. The British have the Victora Cross. For Germany, the highest award that they could get, in terms of valor, is the Iron Cross. During World War II, it was the most awarded medal in comparison to all other countries that were part of the war. As German fighter pilot ace Gunther Rall said, “It was either the Iron Cross or the wooden cross.”

While achievements and bravery usually merit this medal, it was also automatically given to servicemen who completed a challenging act or two.

Adolf Hitler himself was an Iron Cross recipient in World War I. He loved dealing with and reviewing possible award cases, all while ensuring that the award criteria would always remain fair and objective. This is so that all men would be recognized for their bravery and achievements as fairly as possible regardless of their ranks and branches.

Adolf Hitler, The dictator of Germany and leader of the Nazi party 1934–1945. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H1216-0500-002 /CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually, levels of both the Iron Cross and Knights Cross were introduced, usually by having to be rewarded of the previous level first before qualifying for the next one. There were Iron Cross 1st and 2nd class. The Knights Cross can be further decorated to Knights Cross with oak leaves, Knights Cross with oak leaves and swords, Knights Cross with oak leaves swords and diamonds, and lastly, Knights Cross with golden oak leaves swords and diamonds, which was the highest medal of all.

If you were a German soldier of World War II, here’s what you can do to qualify as an Iron Cross awardee automatically:

Take Out Enemy Tanks

Take Kurt Knispel, who was considered the world’s greatest tank ace and was considered the Red Baron of tanks. He received his Iron Cross after destroying his 50th enemy tank. While taking down 50 of these vehicles is not a breeze, it is considered one of the easiest ways for a German to earn an Iron Cross. And although 50 was not the absolute quota to qualify, most tankers got their medals on their 50th kill.

Shoot Down Allied Planes

As it turned out, German fighter pilots had a points system and could accrue an increasing number of points every time they killed enemy planes. One point for downing a single-engine aircraft, two points if it were a twin-engine plane, they would get three for taking down a four-engine aircraft, which was commonly a heavy bomber, and the points even doubled if they were able to score night fighter kills. They would also be eligible for the Iron Cross second class once they become an ace and shoot down five Allied aircraft.

Down  a “Night Witch”

The 588th Night Bombardment Regiment, before flying on a mission. (Sergey GCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The all-female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment were nicknamed “Night Witches” of the Germans. They would glide their engine to the bomb-release point with nothing but wind noise left as a sign of their presence; thus, the Germans compared them to the woosh that the witch’s broomsticks supposedly made. Surprisingly, downing even just one of these frail old planes flown by Soviet women to break up German attacks could get you an Iron Cross. These planes were pretty hard to find, catch, and fight, so the Germans promised that a single kill of these rickety planes would get them an Iron Cross.

Sink Enemy Ships

The Iron Cross second class was usually awarded for sinking tons of Allied forces’ supplies. Commonly, you’d need to sink at least 50,000 tons of shipping to get the award, while those who sank 100,000 tons or more would be granted the higher level of the same award called Knight’s Cross.

Precise numbers are hard to come by but it is believed that over 3.5 Million awards of the Iron Cross 2nd Class were made in WWII which would mean about one-quarter of the standing strength of the German armed forces were awarded the medal.  About 300 thousand of the 1st Class medals were also awarded.  when it was believed to have been introduced by the Prussians for whom the military was a way of life. It was once said of Prussia that while most countries have armies, only in Prussia did an army have a country. When it came to the Knights Cross of the Iron cross the Germans were pretty loose in handing those out as well with nearly 7,200 being pinned on soldiers.  The awards with Oak Leaves, and then Swords, Diamonds and Gold Oak leaves were even more rare.

In contrast, the US awarded the Medal of Honor just 473 times during WWII.

Only one Knights Cross with Gold Oak leaves, Diamonds and Swords was ever awarded, to Skuka pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel who certainly earned it. Rudel was credited with destroying over 800 vehicles including 519 tanks.  He also destroyed 150 artillery emplacements, 70 landing craft and claimed 51 kills on enemy aircraft as well as sinking a battleship and cruiser.