WW2 Medals: American
Medal of Honor
The highest military decoration in the U.S. armed forces, and among the most famous of WW2 medals, is the Medal of Honor, sometimes called the Congressional Medal of Honor, because it is presented in the name of Congress. Established during the Civil War, it has been awarded more than three thousand times, including some 450 for World War II actions. The number of retroactive awards frequently changes, as regulations regarding the statute of limitations are being waived with increasing frequency. Based on the total 16,112,000 Americans under arms in World War II, one Medal of Honor was presented for every thirty-five thousand personnel. That figure is 65 percent higher than the British Empire ratio for Victoria Crosses.
Four Medals of Honor were awarded for D-Day actions. The most senior recipient was Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., assistant commander of the Fourth Infantry Division and son of the late president, who himself had been nominated for leading the First Volunteer Cavalry in Cuba in 1898. The younger Roosevelt’s leadership under fire on Utah Beach was judged beyond that normally expected of a general officer. His father received the medal a century after the Spanish-American War.
Three Medals of Honor went to men of the First Division. First Lt. Jimmie W. Montieth and Tech. 5 John J. Pinder, Jr., both of the Sixteenth Infantry, received posthumous awards for combat around Colleville-surMer on 6 June. Another Big Red One soldier, Pvt. Carlton W. Barrett of the Eighteenth Regiment, repeatedly braved enemy fire to rescue wounded comrades at St. Laurent-sur-Mer.
Six other soldiers received the Medal of Honor in the twelve days following D-Day; eight of the ten total awards were posthumous.
Distinguished Service Cross
In the U.S. Army the Distinguished Service Cross ranks second only to the Medal of Honor in prestige. It was authorized in July 1918, during the First World War, because prior to that time the Medal of Honor had been the only American decoration for military heroism. The criteria established by President Woodrow Wilson and Congress held that the DSC could be presented to army officers and enlisted men for actions that did not merit the Medal of Honor but reflected extraordinary heroism in military operations against an armed enemy of the United States. During the Great War, 6,068 DSCs were awarded, as well as 111 Oak Leaf Clusters for subsequent acts by initial recipients.
Approximately 280 men won DSCs for D-Day actions, including noncommissioned officers and enlisted men. The distinction between Medal of Honor and DSC awards is often difficult to discern, as some DSC recipients probably deserved the greater honor. Among many examples was Brig. Gen. Norman D. Cota of the Twenty-ninth Infantry Division, who directly supervised automatic weapons and placement of explosive charges and otherwise exercised a type of combat leadership seldom expected of a general officer.
The naval equivalent of the DSC was the Navy Cross, awarded to members of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, and occasionally to Army personnel for operations under naval control. It was established in February 1919 and remained third highest of the navy decorations until August 1942, when it was elevated beyond the Distinguished Service Medal.
The number of D-Day Navy Crosses is unknown, but apparently most recipients were beachmasters and combat engineers. Naval demolition units at Omaha Beach received seven Navy Crosses. More than 3,600 were presented in World War II, including 2,661 to navy personnel, 946 to marines, and six to Coast Guardsmen, with the balance to individuals of the U.S. Army and the Allies.
The third-ranking combat decoration was established in 1932 to replace the Citation Star, which often went to Distinguished Service Cross nominees who did not receive the DSC. Approximately eighty thousand Silver Stars were awarded during World War II. A lesser decoration was the Bronze Star, a ground combat or support award roughly equivalent to the Air Medal.
WW2 Medals: British
The highest military decoration of the British Empire and best known of its WW2 medals is the Victoria Cross; the first, presented by Queen Victoria in 1856, were cast from Russian cannon captured in the Crimean War. At of the end of the twentieth century, only 1,354 VCs had been awarded in the previous 144 years. Almost half had been presented for actions in the First World War.
Of the 182 VCs awarded during World War II, just one was earned on D-Day. Company Sgt. Maj. Stanley Elton Hollis belonged to the Sixth Battalion of the Green Howards, which landed with the Fiftieth Division on Gold Beach. During the day Hollis cleared two German bunkers largely singlehanded, using automatic weapons. He was seriously wounded in September but remained in the territorial (regional) army until 1949. Hollis died in 1972.
The Commonwealth total included twenty-seven VC recipients from India (eight Ghurkas), twenty Australians, sixteen Canadians, eight New Zealanders, three South Africans, a Rhodesian, and a Fijian. During World War II the British Commonwealth had some 10,570,000 personnel on active duty; the 182 VCs represented one in fifty-eight thousand individuals, compared to one in about thirty-five thousand Americans awarded the Medal of Honor. Proportionately the highest ratio of VCs in World War II went to New Zealanders (one in twenty-four thousand troops) and Australians (one in fifty thousand).
Distinguished Service Order
The Distinguished Service Order was established in 1886 and became the British Empire’s second-ranking military decoration, after the Victoria Cross. Awarded to officers, the DSO is an extraordinarily attractive medal— a white cross with gold crown and green laurel wreath in the center, suspended from a red ribbon with blue borders. It was chartered for officers mentioned in dispatches for actions ‘‘in the face of the enemy.’’ The DSO was first awarded in significant numbers when more than 1,100 were presented during the Boer War (1899–1902). About 9,900 British or Allied officers received the decoration during the First World War, with another 850 ‘‘bars’’ for subsequent awards.
In World War II some 4,900 DSOs were presented in addition to 560 second or third awards. It was roughly reckoned that a DSO and two bars equaled a Victoria Cross. The number of D-Day-related DSOs is unknown but probably did not exceed a few dozen. The equivalent Distinguished Conduct Medal (1854), for enlisted and noncommissioned officers of any branch, ranked just below the VC.
Lesser awards established in World War I were the Military Cross for junior army officers and the Military Medal for noncoms and enlisted men. The Distinguished Service Cross was awarded junior naval officers. Britain realigned its military decorations in 1993, removing the distinctions between officers and enlisted men.
The Knight’s Cross (Ritterkreuz) was Germany’s top military decoration with nearly seven thousand recipients from 1939 to 1945, including some 1,600 noncoms and other enlisted men. It is the most known of its WW2 medals. Worn on a ribbon about the neck, it was called a ‘‘tin collar,’’ while those aspiring to the award were said to suffer from ‘‘sore throats.’’
Three higher orders of the Knight’s Cross were established for sustained excellence in combat. In sequence, were some 850 Oak Leaves (Eichenlaub), 150 Swords (Schwerten), and twenty-seven Diamonds (Brillanten), the latter presented by Hitler in person. Diamonds went to twelve Luftwaffe officers (including paratroopers), eleven army men, and two each from the SS and navy. The Führer reportedly had a dozen Golden Oak Leaves struck, but only Col. Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a Stuka pilot, received one. The ultimate award was the Great Cross of the Iron Cross, awarded to Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göering when he was promoted to Reichsmarshal in July 1940.
It is unknown how many Ritterkreuze were presented in whole or in part for actions in the Normandy campaign. Most of the notable German commanders already held at least the Knight’s Cross, including von Rundstedt and Rommel.
War Order of the German Cross
Standing between the Iron Cross and Knight’s Cross, the German Cross was an eight-pointed star with a swastika in the center, worn on the uniform blouse. Established in September 1941, it was presented in gold for direct combat action and in silver for leadership behind the lines.
Germany’s pyramid of honor began with the Iron Cross (Eisernekreuz) II Class, which dated from 1813. Designated by a red, white, and black ribbon worn in a uniform buttonhole, it normally required a combat action and was earned by some 2,500,000 men during World War II. The Iron Cross I Class was a black Maltese cross worn on the left breast, usually awarded for three or more notable actions. Perhaps three hundred thousand (figures vary widely) were presented throughout the war. Award of the ‘‘EK I’’ was nearly always a prerequisite to the German Cross or Knight’s Cross.
This article is part of our larger educational resource on World War Two. For a comprehensive list of World War 2 facts, including the primary actors in the war, causes, a comprehensive timeline, and bibliography, click here.
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