WWII Heer Tropical Caps - An Overview.
This article can in no way be exhaustive due to the scarcity of the subject matter. This will, hopefully, go some way to give an overview of the many differing types of issued tropical caps seen in German service in World War II.
The most distinguishable issue item of the WWII German soldier in North Africa & Mediterranean theatre of Operations was his field cap. This was simply termed Afrikamutze by the troops, but in todays collecting terminology it is the m40 Tropical Field Cap.
Along with his tropical issue service uniform and specially designed fieldgear, this simple but useful item set him aside from his Continental comrades and added to the mystique of his image as a serving member of the famous Deutches Afrika Korps (DAK). The caps distinctly modern silouette and ‘rakish’ appearance lent an air of adventure to those who wore it by connection to the army they served in, and ultimately it’s commander, General der Panzertruppe Erwin Rommel, who’s professionalism, charisma and personality drew almost universal admiration from civilian and soldier alike – including those in the opposing forces.
A posting to North Africa was seen as an adventure – a chance to see exotic desert lands filled with rolling sand dunes, hot sunny days, camel trains, palm trees & oasis. Even though the reality was very different, the conduct and shared hardships for those involved while serving in that foreign land earned them a reputation and respect that has remained to this day.
The collecting of the tropical field cap reflects the admiration that today’s generation maintains for those far distant times and individuals.
In the field soldiers replaced their equipment, uniforms and vehicles when they could, scrounging clothing and transport from their rivals when supplies failed to materialize – which at times was a commonplace problem due to Allied interference along the long Axis supply route. But one item was retained – carefully repaired or altered to the very end while in field service or in POW camps, or taken back home on repatriation – the Afrikamutze.
Pride was placed in this soldiers constant companion. The cap was the outward show of a soldiers ‘veteran’ status – or not. A brand new, dark olive cap in stiff condition was the sign of a fresh faced new addition to a unit. To counter this the new member would often take pains to artificially age his cap as soon as possible to both blend in, and add prestige to his appearance by chemically bleaching the cap in disolved anti-gas tablets (Losantin).
The instant effect was to evenly whiten the whole cap, quite a drastic contrast to their newly issued uniform – which often received the same treatment. Many period photos commonly show caps with a nearly all white appearance. These are clearly chemically bleached, whereas naturally sunfaded caps retained a more worn, darker look quite dicernable even in black and white photographs. A true sunfaded cap was prized for the service time it took to achieve it’s naturally worn, faded finish.
Today, few sun-faded m40 caps exist in collections world-wide and they generally represent the surviving examples of early manufactured and issued pieces. Most caps were worn-out in field service, or in POW camps, so they are valued for their rarity. Later manufactured caps (post 1943) are comparitively more common, and can be found in worn-out to completely un-issued condition. BUT – all m40 caps should be considered as rare and historically valuable items to be cherished and cared for.
The initial design for the tropical issue cap took shape in conjunction with the service uniform at The Tropical Institute of the University of Hamburg in mid-1940 as soon as it became apparent that German involvement in North Africa to help it’s Italian allies was unavoidable.
The caps design was practical, initially utilizing the same cotton twill as used to fabricate the tropical service tunic. The shape was loosely based on the Austro/Hungarian woollen mountain jagers cap which had seen use since WWI. The visors length was extended compared to it’s Austrian cousin, and bore a similarity to the American baseball cap of the period. The visor was shaped over a stiff cardboard form, the size of which did a good job of shielding the wearer’s eyes from harsh direct sunlight. The caps outer shell was made up from five separate panels in addition to the visor’s two. These consisted of top, upper side left/right, false turn-up, left and right. The false turn-up was again reminicent of the jagers cap turn down, with a pleasing scallop accentuating the caps front. The top panel was crimped into the lining layer lengthwise and sewn in a crease to add a small measure of stiffness which maintained the caps attractive silhouette. This panel appears to be made up from two parts, but it is in fact one piece.
Due to variations in twill supplies used by manufacturers, early caps were produced in colours that ranged from olive brown through to a reed green, which over time faded from near bone white to subtle tans and olive greens – depending on how often a cap was washed, (and in what) or how much sunlight it was exposed to. Caps produced during 1941 began to show a more consistant base colour, as cotton mills collectively dyed their twill a more uniform olive/green.
Heer caps were lined with a much more loosely woven red material. This was based on the research at the Tropical Institute which found that the heat from the head required, logically, to pass up through a loose woven lining, while the sun’s UV rays were deflected more effectively by the colour red, after passing through the outer cotton twill shell. The heat build-up in the area between the scalp and lining was vented out by two 9mm grommets placed on either side of the cap, allowing that space to ‘breath’. These grommets had a brown enamel baked onto the outer face, while retaining a raw inner surface. Over time and wear the enamel would eventually chip and flake off, exposing the alloy underneath. If a cap grommet shows abrasion wear down to the surface without chipping to the paint, it should be viewed with extreme caution. There are several types of split-washers used to secure the two part grommets, so a study of period cap types should be undertaken as reproduction and replaced grommets are signs that a cap is suspect.
The insignia were generally applied before the visor and lining were sewn in place. The application of insignia after a lining was added has, however, been noted occasionally on completely original caps. This would tend to indicate a mis-step in the production line process, and not a standard procedure of that manufacturer. Depending on who made the cap, insignia could be all machine sewn, all hand sewn, or a combination of both. Knowing what style of insignia application was used by which maker (and when) is most important in determining if the insignia has been re-attached to a stripped cap.
The insignia consisted of the national eagle. (Hoheitszeichen) which was basically a scaled down version of the tunic’s pattern eagle in sky-blue detail on a ochre/tan backing measuring aproximately 65mm x 30mm. The other main difference was in the number of ‘feathers’ used to construct the wings. The first eagles were machine woven in cotton. Later examples were woven in rayon, the sheen and colour tones between both being quite different when placed side by side for comparison.
Below the eagle was placed the national colours of red, white and black in circular form, (rondel) again on an ochre/tan backing cut and sewn in a diamond form measuring approximately 25mm square.
Framing the rondel was the waffenfarbe, or arm of service colour in the form of an inverted ‘V’ soutache of 3mm wide braided cotton. Manufacturers sewed this in place (by hand or machine) before the visor was attached to the body of the cap, hiding the ends of the braid by tucking them up and under the seam join. Others inserted the ends into a small hole cut into the caps outer shell to hide the ends.
A brief outline of the waffenfarbe colour system at this point is worth a description due to the colour variations that can be found on caps manufactured up until mid/late 1942.
Pink (rosa) Armour (Panzer)
Pink (rosa) Anti Tank (Panzerjager)
Light Green (hellgrun) Rifle Regiments – 1940 (Schutzenregimenter)
& Lime Green (resedagrun) then Panzer Grenadiers – 1942 (Panzergrenadiere)
grass Green (weisengrun)
Grass Green (weisengrun) Motorcycle Battalions – 1941 (Kraftradschutzen Bat.)
( The light green used by rifle regiments early on in 1941 was superceded by lime green later that year and remained the colour for all Panzergrenadiere for the remainder of the war.)
Copper brown (kupfer-braun) Motorcycle Battalions 1941/42
White (weiss) Army Anti-Aircraft Battalions (Heeres-Fla Bat.)
Light Green (hellgrun) Machine Gun Battalions – 1941 (Maschinengewehr-Bat.)
White (weiss) Infantry Regiments (Infanterie-Regimenter)
Gold-Yellow (goldgelb) Reconnaissance Units – 1941 (Aufklarungs Abteilungen)
Copper-brown (kupfer-braun) Reconnaissance Units 1941/42
( Aufklarungs-Abteilungen 33, 15th Panzer Div. retained gold-yellow waffenfarbe as a proud reminder of their original formation, Cavalry Regiment 6.)
Light Green (hellgrun) Alpine Regiments (Gebirgsjager-Reg.)
Bright Red (hochrot) Artillery Regiments (Artillerie-Reg.)
Black (schwarz) Engineer Battalions (Pionier-Bat.)
Lemon Yellow (zitronengelb) Signals Units (Nachrichten-Abt.)
Light Blue (hellblau) Motorized Supply & Transport (Fahr-und Kraftfahr-Abt.)
Dark Blue (kornblumenblau) Medical Units (Sanitats-Abt.)
Bordeaux Red (bordorot) Smoke Units (Nebel.Abt.)
Orange Red (orangerot) Field Police (Feldgendarmerie)
Carmine (karmesin) Vetinary Service (Veterinareinheiten)
Violet (violett) Field Chaplains (Heeresgeistlichen)
Bright Red (hochrot) General (rank) Officers (Generale)
Light Grey (hellgrau) Propaganda Troops (Propagandatruppe)
Grey Blue (grau-blau) Specialist Officers (Sonderfuhrer)
Dark Green (dunkelgrun) Army Administration Officers (Wehrmachtbeamten)
To differentiate between enlisted-men’s and officer’s caps, a 3mm silver cord was added at factory level to the top-edge seamline running round the cap, and the front scallop. Officers of General rank used gold wire instead of silver. The ratio of officers caps produced to enlisted men’s appears to have been around 1 in 90 – but this is supposition. Over time and wear the wire would tarnish and become a grey colour as it lost it’s sheen, as well as unravelling due to abbrasion. In the field caps were up-graded to officer status with the addition of locally aquired materials, and sewn in place with varying degrees of skill. Another alteration seen on officers caps was the removal of the factory applied eagle and replacement with a continental wool version. The effect was to instantly advertise the soldier as that of officer rank due to the much more prominent insignia – an affectation usually not seen on frontline officers who usually tried to remain as inconspicious as possible due to survival instincts. As the proportion of officers to enlisted men’s caps are now so low, original examples are naturally even harder to find on today’s market than enlisted-men’s caps.
M40 caps produced up until April 1942 did not leave the factory with sweatbands. In the field, modifications by the servicemen saw panels of leather or cloth sewn in place to reduce the moisture built-up in the cloth about the forehead due to perspiration, which tended to rot the cotton, trap dust which was more than a little uncomfortable, and worst of all, attract flies. The necessity of a sweatband forced manufacturers to develope, firstly, a basic cloth band that ran about the base of the cap. This was superceded by the ersatz leather and oilcloth version that is predominantly seen in todays collections, as far more caps of this type were produced than any other, and due to the fact that more survived the war due to their later manufacture. Caps may be found with the sewing lines for the sweatband passing over the cockade and soutache, again showing that the insignia was applied before the caps body was constructed, and the sweatband sewn in place.
From July of 1942 it was ordered that caps should no longer be produced with soutache. This was due simply to the problem of supplying the appropriate coloured soutached caps to specific troop units in the field. It had been found that troops were having to use caps that had the wrong waffenfarbe because, due to supply shortages and re-allocation of troops between units, incorrectly soutached caps were all they could get in some cases – if supplies arrived at all. Some removed the factory soutache and sewed the appropriate colour in place using scrounged materials – and in a not too pretty fashion either, at times. So, logic came to the rescue at the administrative level and caps were then more easily obtained by the troops who then only had to concern themselves with finding a cap with the correct fit. In some cases caps were found to be too small, so the individual had to make the slight alteration of opening out the rear seam and sewing a small triangle of material in place. Period photos show this was not an uncommon occurance, and in some cases soldiers just left the split rear seam open.
The July/August order to remove the soutache from their caps was seemingly ignored on a large scale,as period photos show troops even as late as 1944 with heavily worn soutached caps in Italy. Of course, supplies of pre-existing stocks were issued with soutache to the appropriate units until stocks were used up – but on issue the waffenfarbe was still supposed to be removed.
From 1943 onwards m40 caps can be found with the eagle sewn in it’s usual position on a triangular backing, machine sewn in place, so as to speed up the manfacturing process. This has a less attractive appearance than the earlier trimmed style of application, and seems less popular with collectors because of the workmanlike finish.
A very little known, but documented variation exists of the Heer m40. This exceptionally rare cap differed from the standard model due to the complete lack of false turn-up. The cotton drill which the outer shell was made from is of a slightly lighter weight from earlier produced caps. It was made with a cloth sweatband, initially not using ersatz leather/oilcloth in any way, but later caps had an added leatherette band running about the lower edge. No soutache was ever applied, so conjecture for a time of manufacture is 1942. Other examples known to the author are stamped with the maker mark of Ernst Kern. Due to almost identical manufacturing details it is assumed at this point that the cap used in this article was also made by that same maker.
So - to sumarize there are five distinct pattern of m40 caps (NOT including Officer's Caps)
Soutached - No Sweatband
Soutached - With Sweatband
No Soutache - No Sweatband
No Soutache - With Sweatband
m40 Variant - No False Turndowns
The next most predominant item of heer tropical soft headgear was the model fundamentaly based on the m38 overeas cap, nicknamed in German army slang as Schiffchen, or literally ‘little ship’ as it resembled an up-turned row-boat. It lacked a peak or visor, and was made in the same cotton as the m40 cap. The production of these also started in 1940, but never had a sweatband added at a later date as did the m40 Afrikamutze. The schiffchen had one eyelet per side as opposed to two, but utilized the same brown enamelled stock as the m40.
Just like the wool version, the tropical overseas cap had turn-down sides, but these could not be folded down to cover the ears for cold weather protection.
The cap was also lined with red cotton, the sides being the last to be sewn in place. The insignia was also sewn to the shell before the lining was added, and used exactly the same eagle, rondel and soutache as the m40. From 1943 onwards, as with the m40 billed cap, the eagle can be seen to be sewn on some examples on a triangular backing, This was a simple measure to speed up production, although it tended to lend the cap with a less atrractive appearance.
The overseas cap was reportedly popular with armoured vehicle crews due to the lack of a visor, which would get in the way of using optical equipment and continual banging against hatches and be obstructive in confined work spaces.
Due to their very utilitarian and somewhat unflattering appearance the overseas cap never gained the affection that the m40 evoked from those who wore them. Even today in collecting circles the schiffchen has a lower sale value in respect to it’s more popular m40 cousin, which is a pity as these have an important place in any tropical collection.