Germany’s highest awards for valor, the Iron Cross, was the most awarded of the top tier medals of any nation in World War II. But Germany awarded more top-tier valor awards than any other country for two very good reasons. First, most German troops fought for the duration or the war unless they were crippled.
As German ace Gunther Rall put it, that meant Third Reich troops’ destiny “was either the Iron Cross or the wooden cross.” They would be heroes or they would die in the attempt.
Second, German troops could earn the Iron Cross with a series of events, like succeeding in enough aerial battles, rather than for just a single act of extreme valor like in most militaries. While the medal was awarded for singular military achievements and bravery, it was also automatically warranted after a service member completed a challenging act.
Here are four things that would get a World War II German soldier an automatic Iron Cross:
1. Destroying a set number of enemy tanks
For German tankers, the “easiest” way to earn an Iron Cross was to achieve enough tank victories to qualify. While the number required increased as the war ground on, 50 was the magic number for a few years. That’s 50 Allied tank kills before a single tank managed to kill them.
2. Killing a set number of Allied planes
German Luftwaffe pilots could net an Iron Cross by accruing an ever-increasing number of points. Single-engine aircraft were worth one point, dual-engines netted two points, and four engines were worth three points. Fighters could get the Iron Cross second class for becoming an ace (downing five enemy aircraft).
3. Sinking a set amount of Allied shipping
For submariners, the Iron Cross was usually awarded for sinking tons of Allied supplies. The Iron Cross second class usually required sinking 50,000 tons of shipping, while the Knight’s Cross, a higher level of the same award, would be granted to those who sank 100,000 or more tons.
4. Downing a “Night Witch”
Oddly enough, pilots could earn an Iron Cross for downing a single wooden biplane, as long as it was being flown by the Night Witches.
These were older, frail planes piloted by Soviet women who would carry a few bombs at a time and drop them on Nazi massed forces, breaking up German attacks on Soviet positions. But the planes were so slow and quiet that they were hard to find and harder to fight, so the Luftwaffe promised an Iron Cross for a single kill.