Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
Teaser Image

Rank Structures, Selected World War II Belligerents

All modern armies have two primary classes of soldiers: officers and enlisted men. This distinction originated in the armies of ancient times. In the medieval period, the distinction was between knights and men at arms, that is, between nobility and commoners. Through the beginning of the twentieth century, the distinction between military officers and enlisted soldiers reflected the social class distinctions of society as a whole. An officer was, by definition, a gentleman. The breakdown in the old social orders that started during World War I was likewise reflected in the world's armies. By the end of World War II, the distinction between officers and enlisted men had become far more a professional one than a social one.

Officers, who comprise 10 to 15 percent of modern armies, are further divided into three basic groups. Company-grade officers (lieutenants and captains) are responsible for the leadership of platoons and companies. Field-grade officers (majors and colonels) lead battalions and regiments. General officers command the higher military echelons and also coordinate the overall direction of an army and its military activities. It is the generals who answer directly to the political leadership of modern democracies. In some armies, the highest-level general officers hold the title of marshal. Navies also recognize three broad groups of officers, without necessarily using the army terms. In most militaries, generals and admirals are collectively called flag officers because each one has a personal flag bearing the insignia of his rank. (Although women flag officers are relatively common today, colonel was the highest rank held by female officers in World War II.)

Enlisted soldiers, sailors, and airmen are divided into two basic categories: enlisted men and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). The term used for the NCO varies from army to army—for example, Unteroffizier in German or sous officier in French—but the meaning is universal. In any army, NCOs are the backbone of the organization. They are the ones responsible for training individual soldiers and for training and leading fire teams and squads. They hold key leadership positions in platoons and companies. At the higher levels, they assist staff officers in the planning and execution of operations. In all armies, the larger majority of the enlisted ranks denote the distinctions within the NCO corps. The British and the Americans had the best NCO corps of World War II; the Soviets had the weakest.

NCOs include corporals, sergeants, and, in some armies, warrant officers. In most navies, the NCOs are called petty officers and, in some cases, warrant officers. The category of warrant officer is the most difficult to classify because the individual's exact status varies from army to army. Most armies of World War II followed the British model, in which warrant officers were the highest category of NCOs. In the U.S. military, by contrast, warrant officers were a distinct personnel class between officers and enlisted men. They were and still are considered to be specialist officers highly skilled in a certain functional area (such as pilots), receiving pay equivalent to company-grade officers but without the full range of command authority and responsibilities.

In the U.S. military, warrant officers were and are much closer to commissioned officers. In the British military, they are clearly the most senior of the NCOs. Contrary to the widely held popular belief, the rank of sergeant major does not exist in the British military. Rather, it is a position title—or an appointment, as the British call it—such as squad leader or company commander. The rank of the NCO holding the sergeant major position is always warrant officer, but he is always addressed by his position title of sergeant major. There is, then, no direct comparison between British and American warrant officers, which partially explains the difficulty in correlating World War II military ranks.

The confusion between American and British warrant officers causes problems to this day in many North American Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters. Most armies of World War II had warrant officers on the British model. Italy had warrant officers on the American model, and China, Japan, and Finland most likely did as well. In the latter part of World War II, the British navy (but not the British army) established a rank called commissioned warrant officer, which it considered to be the lowest of its officer ranks. At the same time, warrant officer (without the commission) remained the highest enlisted rank.

As in the British army, the U.S. Army of World War II did not have a distinct rank for sergeant major. The top NCO in an American company was the first sergeant, who had the unique insignia of a diamond between the three upper and three lower stripes of the rank chevron. The top NCO at the battalion and regimental level was the sergeant major, who wore the rank chevron of a master sergeant—the same insignia as a first sergeant but without the diamond. Ironically, the actual rank of sergeant major had existed in the U.S. Army since at least the Civil War, but it disappeared immediately after World War I—only to be reestablished in the U.S. Army in 1958. The British did not have company first sergeants. The senior NCO in British companies was called the company sergeant major.

Establishing rank equivalency among armies is an inexact science at best, as the confusion over warrant officers and sergeants major illustrates. Common sense would seem to dictate that two soldiers in different armies with the exact same rank titles would be essentially equivalent. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The rank of major general provides one of the best examples. A British and a U.S. major general are essentially equivalent, but they are not the same as a German Generalmajor. In the U.S Army, major general was and is the second of the general officer ranks, whereas in the German army, it was the first. Consequently, rather than simply accepting rank titles at face value, a reasonably approximate rank equivalency can only be established by considering what the holder of that rank actually did. In the American and British armies, divisions were commanded by major generals. In the German army, however, a Generalleutnant was the prescribed rank for a divisional commander. Generalleutnant was also the second of the German general officer ranks. Thus, a German lieutenant general and a British or American major general were clearly at the same level.

The problem of rank equivalency is further compounded by the fact that all armies did not have the same number of ranks, whether for officers or enlisted personnel. Most armies had three ranks of company-grade officer, but the Soviet army had four, and the Italian army had five. The Royal Navy had two grades of commodore; the rank of commodore did not exist in the U.S. Navy at the start of the war but was established in 1943. Both France and Britain had only one grade of marshal, but Germany and Italy had two, and the Soviet Union had three. The U.S. Army had none, but the rank of General of the Army (five-star general) is the equivalent of a British field marshal or a German Generalfeldmarschall. In some cases, the various military organizations of the same country did not even have the same rank structures. The British army had three grades of warrant officer. The Royal Air Force (RAF) had only one, but the Royal Canadian Air Force had two. As noted, the Royal Navy had two, but one was an NCO and the other actually an officer.

All air forces grew from their respective armies. By World War II, some of those air forces were independent organizations, such as the RAF and the Luftwaffe, but most were still part of their respective armies, albeit operationally autonomous. The RAF had an officer rank structure parallel to the British army's but with completely different rank titles and insignia. Most air forces retained the rank structures and titles of their respective armies. In many cases, however, the air force general officer ranks peaked one or two ranks below the top army rank. The Luftwaffe was a notable exception. The highest German military rank, Reichsmarschall, existed only in the German air force.

Officer candidates had their own separate rank structures in most armies. But the ranks of cadet, midshipman, aspirant, Fahnrich (in the German army), and so on were essentially temporary training ranks. With the exception of those in Germany and a few other countries, officer candidates in most armies did not take part in combat operations until they had received their commissions—or had failed the course of instruction and were returned to the ranks.

Many German organizations outside the Wehrmacht wore uniforms and had military-like rank structures. For all intents and purposes, the Waffen-SS was, of course, another of Germany's armed forces. The German police used the same ranks as the army, up to Generaloberst, the highest police rank. The Sturmabteilungen (SA), the brown-shirted paramilitary of the Nazi Party, wore uniforms and had military-like ranks, as did the Nazi Party itself.

David T. Zabecki with Christopher A Muller

Further Reading
Identification: The World’s Military, Naval, and Air Uniforms, Insignia, and Flags. Harrisburg, PA: Military Service Publishing, 1943.; Soviet Army Uniforms and Insignia 1945-75. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1976.; Davis, Brian L. Badges and Insignia of the Third Reich, 1933-1945. Poole, UK: Blandford Press, 1983; Davis, Brian L. British Army Uniforms and Insignia of World War Two. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1992.; Emerson, William K. Chevrons: Illustrated History and Catalog of U.S. Army Insignia. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.; Grosvenor, Gilbert, et al. Insignia and Decorations of the U.S. Armed Forces. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1944.; Mollo, Andrew. The Armed Forces of World War II: Uniforms, Insignia, and Organization. New York: Crown Publishers, 1981.; Rosignoli, Guido. Air Force Badges and Insignia of World War 2. New York: Arco Publishing, 1977.; Rosignoli, Guido. Army Badges and Insignia of World War 2: Book One. New York: Macmillan, 1972.; Rosignoli, Guido. Army Badges and Insignia of World War 2: Book Two. New York: Macmillan, 1975.; Rosignoli, Guido. Naval and Marine Badges and Insignia of World War 2. Poole, UK: Blandford Press, 1980.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
  Documents Prior to 1938
  1939 Documents
  1940 Documents
  1941 Documents
  1942 Documents
  1943 Documents
  1944 Documents
  1945 Documents
ABC-cLIO Footer