In the United States and Germany, all decorations were open to all ranks. In Britain and, to a lesser degree, in France and the Soviet Union, certain decorations were only for officers, and others were only for enlisted personnel. In most countries with a dual system, the highest combat decoration could be awarded to both officers and enlisted soldiers. Some countries, including France, had a system of decorations that could be awarded to civilians as well as to military personnel. Others, such as Britain, generally had separate awards for civilians. The United States had a mixed system, in which certain military decorations could be awarded to civilians, and some could not. For example, Virginia Hall, an Office of Strategic Services operative (and technically a civilian), became the only woman ever awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest combat decoration of the United States.
Prior to the nineteenth century, military awards were few in number and usually reserved for the most senior officers. In the majority of the European monarchies, these tended to be members of military classes of the country's various orders of knighthood. Decorations began to be awarded to the enlisted ranks when Napoleon Bonaparte established the Legion of Honor in 1802 to recognize distinguished military and civilian service. In practice, however, this honor was awarded to privates and noncommissioned officers, which led to the establishment in 1852 of the Medaille Militaire. In 1813, Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia established the Iron Cross, available to all ranks. In 1856, during the last year of the Crimean War, the British established the Victoria Cross (VC) as their highest military decoration. Unlike virtually every other British decoration through the end of World War II, the VC was open to all ranks.
The United States established the Medal of Honor (often erroneously called the Congressional Medal of Honor) at the start of the Civil War. The navy version was authorized on 12 December 1861 and the army version on 12 July 1862. Originally, it was awarded to enlisted men. Officers became eligible for the Army Medal of Honor in 1863 and for the Navy Medal of Honor in 1915. The Army and Navy Medals of Honor also differed in that, from the start, the former could be awarded for acts of combat valor only. The Navy Medal of Honor could be awarded for peacetime acts of heroism until 1942. Between 1917 and 1942, the navy even had two different designs for the medal, one for combat and one for noncombat.
Probably the first campaign medal in the modern sense was the British Military General Service Medal, established in 1847 and awarded to all soldiers who had participated in the Peninsular Campaign against Napoleon more than 30 years earlier. By the time of World War II, most of the belligerent nations had well-established systems of medals and decorations, with a clearly delineated hierarchy to the decorations. Starting in 1939, all sides established campaign medals to recognize participation in the major campaigns or battles.
American campaign and service medals indicated a soldier's geographic participation. The three primary medals were the European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal, and the American Campaign Medal. The latter medal was awarded for 30 days of service outside the continental United States but within the theater of operations (such as coastal patrol) or for a total of one year within the continental United States. A small bronze star device affixed to the medal ribbon indicated each individual campaign in which a soldier participated. One silver star device represented five bronze star devices. At the end of the war, all U.S. soldiers also received the World War II Victory Medal.
Great Britain's World War II campaign medals deviated from normal practice in that they were in the shape of a six-pointed star, rather than round. They included the Atlantic Star, Air Crew Europe Star, Africa Star, Pacific Star, Burma Star, Italy Star, France and Germany Star, and 1939–1945 Star for six months of service in an operational area. Soldiers from the Commonwealth nations also received the British campaign stars, but in many cases, those countries also augmented the British awards with their own service medals. Such countries (and, in some cases, provinces) included India, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Southern Rhodesia, and Newfoundland.
The Soviet Union had the widest array of campaign medals, which fell into five broad categories: (1) Defense Medals, awarded to both soldiers and civilians who actively participated in the defense of certain cities and areas—Leningrad, Moscow, Odessa, Sevastopol, Stalingrad, Kiev, the Caucasus, and the Soviet Arctic; (2) Capture Medals, awarded to soldiers who participated directly in the attacks on certain enemy cities—Budapest, Königsberg, Vienna, and Berlin; (3) Liberation Medals, awarded to soldiers for the capture of east European cities occupied by the Germans—Belgrade, Warsaw, and Prague; (4) Victory Medals, awarded for both Germany and Japan, despite the fact that the Soviet Union was at war with Japan for only 21 days; and (5) Anniversary Medals, awarded starting with the twentieth anniversary in 1965. The Russian Federation continued the practice, issuing a fiftieth Anniversary Medal in 1995.
Although France fell on 17 June 1940, its government-in-exile under General Charles de Gaulle awarded a number of medals, and the newly formed Fourth Republic instituted several others after the war. The limited nature of France's participation in the war also limited the scope of its campaign and service medals, which focused on resistance activities and combat service as part of larger Allied formations. The primary French decoration of the war was the Croix de Guerre (1939–1945). It was established in September 1939 as a continuation of the Croix de Guerre first established during World War I and was awarded to both individuals and entire units. French campaign medals included the Free French Forces Medal, War Medal (1939–1945), Medal for Those Deported or Interned for Acts of Resistance, Medal for Those Deported or Interned for Political Reasons, Cross for Combat Volunteers, Italian Campaign Medal, Cross for Combatant Volunteers in the Resistance, and Medal for Patriots in Forced Labor.
Germany had an enormous array of awards, decorations, and qualification badges during World War II, although it did not establish a system of campaign medals. The Germans had only one real campaign medal, the Medal for the Winter Campaign in the East (1941–1942), widely known among the soldiers as "the Order of the Frozen Flesh." Instead of using campaign medals, the Germans recognized participation in some (but by no means all) battles with either cuff titles or small metal shields that were also worn on the cuff of the uniform. The cuff titles included Spanien (Spain), Kreta (Crete), Afrika, Metz, and Kurland. The cuff shields included Narvik, Cholm, Krim (Crimea), Kuban, and Demjansk.
The premier German decoration of World War II was the Iron Cross, which had been a purely Prussian award before World War I. Under Adolf Hitler, the Iron Cross was reinstated on 1 September 1939. But whereas the Iron Cross prior to World War II came in only two classes plus a Grand Cross, Hitler also initiated a Knight's Cross between the First Class and the Grand Cross. As the war progressed, four more levels of the Knight's Cross were added. Reichsmarschall (Reich Marshal) Hermann Göring was the only recipient of the Grand Cross, and Stuka pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel was the only recipient of the Knight's Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Diamonds, and Swords, an award created specifically for him.
Italy's medals and decorations were a complex mixture, reflecting the country's changing status during the war. Italian awards were issued first by the Kingdom of Italy and then by the Republic of Italy and the Social Republic of Italy simultaneously. Instituted in 1833, the Medal for Military Valor was awarded in Gold, Silver, and Bronze Classes. The Medal for Naval Valor was instituted in 1836, and the Medal for Aeronautical Valor was introduced in 1927. Lesser Italian decorations included the War Cross for Military Valor and the War Cross for Military Merit.
Italy awarded campaign medals for the Ethiopian Campaign, the Spanish Campaign, the Spanish Civil War, the French Campaign, the Albanian Campaign, and the African Campaign, as well as the Cross of the Italian Expeditionary Corps in the Soviet Union. Italy also issued a commemorative War Medal for service between 1940 and 1943 and a Liberation Campaign Medal for the 1943–1945 period. After the war, an unofficial campaign ribbon also appeared to commemorate service in the military forces of the Italian Social Republic.
The Republic of China had a vast and bewildering array of decorations and orders, and it is very difficult to establish their relative order of precedence with any real precision. The most important military decorations included: the Order of the Precious Tripod, the Order of National Glory, the Order of the Blue Sky and White Sun, the Order of Loyalty and Bravery, the Order of the Cloud and Banner, and the Order of Loyalty and Diligence. The Order of the Precious Tripod came in eight classes, the Order of the Cloud and Banner came in nine, and all the rest came in one class. The Order of Loyalty and Bravery was awarded only for acts of great valor while wounded. No other country had such an award.
The fascination of Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) with his fledgling air force was reflected in the group of Chinese air decorations established in the late 1930s. The premier flying award was the Order of Rejuvenation, which came in three classes. To qualify for the First Class, an airman had to shoot down at least nine enemy aircraft, fly 300 combat missions, and have 900 hours of flight time. The Second Class required six enemy aircraft downed, 250 missions, and 750 hours. The Third Class required three aerial victories, 200 missions, and 600 hours. The requirement for aerial victories effectively meant only fighter pilots could qualify for the order. Thus, the Chinese also had three additional aviation orders, all of a single class, that did not require shooting down enemy aircraft. The Air Force Order of Ho-T'u was awarded for 600 combat missions, the Air Force Order of Ancient Symbols for 500 missions, and the Air Force Order of Ch'ien Yuan for 400 missions. The number of required missions for each order was exactly double the numbers of missions for the three respective classes of the Order of Rejuvenation. Finally, the Chinese also awarded the Air Force Order of Great Unity to distinguished air commanders.
During the war, the Chinese government had offered to present a special campaign medal to American servicemen serving in China. The U.S. government demurred, but the government of Taiwan resurrected the idea in the late 1970s and awarded the medal to all American veterans who could prove they had served in China. Most of those who received the World War II China War Memorial Medal were veterans of the U.S. Fourteenth Air Force and its predecessor organizations, the China Air Task Force and the American Volunteer Group (the Flying Tigers).
Most Japanese decorations and orders were instituted in the late nineteenth century. Japan's premier decoration was the Order of the Chrysanthemum, which was only awarded to members of the royal family and foreign heads of state. The Order of the Rising Sun came in eight classes and was awarded for exceptional civil or military service. The Order of the Sacred Treasure, also in eight classes, was conferred for distinguished civil or military service. The primary Japanese award for combat heroism was the Order of the Golden Kite, which came in seven classes.
During the war, Japan established several awards for the various occupation and puppet regimes it set up in China. In 1936, Emperor Aixinjueluo Puyi of Manchukuo initiated the Order of the Pillars of State and the Order of the Auspicious Cloud, both for Japanese officers and Chinese officials who cooperated with the Japanese occupation. When the Japanese invaded China proper, they established another puppet regime called the Reorganized National Government of China. In 1943, that government instituted the Order of United Glory, also for Japanese officers and Chinese collaborators. David T. Zabecki
Hall, Donald, and Christopher Wingate. British Orders, Decorations, and Medals. Saint Ives, UK: Balfour Publications, 1973.; Hieronymussen, Paul. Orders and Decorations of Europe. New York: Macmillan, 1967.; Kerrigan, Evans E. American Medals and Decorations. New York: Mallard Press, 1990.; Littlejohn, David, and C. M. Dodkins. Orders, Decorations, Medals, Badges of the Third Reich. Mountain View, CA: R. J. Bender, 1968.; Rosignoli, Guido. Ribbons of Orders, Decorations, and Medals. New York: Arco Publishing, 1977.; Werlich, Robert. Russian Orders, Decorations, and Medals. Washington, DC: Quaker Press, 1981.; Williamson, Gordon. The Iron Cross: A History, 1813–1957. New York: Blandford Press, 1984.
David T. Zabecki