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Imperial German Flight Insignia
Prussian Army Observer's Badge
World War 1 Uniform Insignia on eBay are Probably Fake
The Internet and eBay have complicated collecting historical aviation artifacts such as Imperial German flight badges. It used to be that obvious errors and imperfections made most fakes easy to identify. Real collectors, knowing the difference, would not offer good prices, so most fakes were suspiciously low-priced. But now, people put items up for auction not knowing anything about them, and buyers drive up the price, just in case. That tempts counterfeiters to make money with better fakes, using tools that weren’t available a century ago.
This article is here to help, with some interesting historical details about these badges to help Internet bidders stay away from the counterfeit and appreciate the genuine. Most of the information in this article comes from Imperial German Flight Badges by Robert S. Pandis, and there is much more information for serious collectors in the book.
Even museums can and have been fooled, unless they know exactly where a piece came from. One museum (where I learned of the above book) with excellent credentials for its German flight badges is the Vintage Aero Flying Museum (VAFM). The VAFM’s collection was mostly donated directly to the Parks family by pilots and their families. (How that happened is its own interesting story.) Director Andy Parks says that “99.99%” of German flight badges for sale on eBay are fake.
World War 1 Aviation Uniform Items are Rare
The real badges from World War 1 varied a lot, depending on what year it was and what firm produced a badge. To distinguish fake from authentic, a good collector has to be well educated in history and a good researcher. The differences between real and fake may not be what one would think; one tipoff of a fake badge could be being too heavy. Real badges were hollow, and having a solid fake seems backwards - except that in a time when saving metal is patriotic, a hollow badge would make more sense than a solid one.
In evaluating aircrew badges, keep in mind that, at least to begin with, there were few aircrew to receive them, compared to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers dying on the ground. In 1914 the German Air Service had 254 pilots and 271 observers. How many of those pilots survived? How many of their badges are likely to be out there now?
Commemorative Airship Badge
World War 1 Airship Crews: Army vs. Navy
Airship crews were respected but never became celebrities as pilots did, though it was a hazardous job. Of 90 Zeppelins built during World War 1, one third were lost to accidents and one third to combat action. There were Zeppelins in both the army (tactical missions over land) and navy (bombing England - weather permitting).
Army and Navy airship badges could be different, or could be the same badge. In wartime the Kaiser had command of both army and navy, so badges had the imperial crown, but in peacetime, when some armies were commanded by local princes, army badges might have the local crown. Anti-imperialist movements in the navy meant some navy airmen preferred to wear the army badge - without the imperial crown.
Prussian Army Commemorative Flyer's Badge
How Did Aircrew Earn the Flight Badges?
Just 10-15 years after powered flight began, there wasn't necessarily a standard path to becoming a pilot. "Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen had to learn to fly and pass pilot examinations. Hermann Goering (the same one who became infamous in the next war), succeeded the Red Baron when he was shot down, and had also started as an observer, but learned to fly elsewhere.
Even in 1918, orientation flights could be more of an initiation than an introduction. Flight training included students doing guard duty and attending the funerals of other students. Pilot Joseph Doerflinger tells of a non-military flight school which produced better pilots than the military ones, motivated by both the bonus for a completed student, and each student being assigned to one instructor, whose reputation depended on the student's performance.
Training included how to control the aircraft, aerodynamics, navigation, meteorology, and a bit about how the aircraft and engine were made. Pilots were not taught about aircraft systems (most of today's aircraft systems did not exist then); that was for the mechanics. After four weeks of instruction, students spent four weeks flying solo. For a first solo, everything stopped on the airfield and aircraft were cleared from the runway!
Keep in mind that instrument flying then meant flying by the clock, compass, altimeter, and airspeed indicator. None of them was known for reliability. After 1917 there were wireless transmitters used to communicate air-to-air and air-to-ground. There were also experimental parachutes available to the students, but they weren't usually worn.
Silver Hallmarks on Imperial German Flight Badges
A lot of what is known about which badges were produced by whom when comes from badges from families of flyers who were killed at a known time. For instance, the badge of a pilot killed in 1917 may be a bit different from a badge struck in 1918.
There was a basic stamped ("cliché" - did you know that's what cliched means?) design, believed to be what the German state issued qualified aircrew, and there are higher quality two-piece badges (with 800 or higher silver content) that seem to be made for private purchase or presented on special occasions.
In 1886 the Imperial Reich ordered that hallmarks for gold and silver should have the Imperial crown, with a sun sign for gold and a moon sign for silver, as well as the parts per thousand of precious metal, and the firm's trademark. Not every firm (especially those outside Prussia) followed the law, and the imperial crown ended with the monarchy in 1918, so many genuine badges do not have this hallmark. Still, it is a way to start evaluating a piece, since hallmarks at least used to be serious business - at one time in England, forging hallmarks brought the death penalty!
Prussian Pilot's Badge
Juncker, Deumer, Meybauer, Poellath: German Firms that Manufactured Flight Badges
Flight badges were for flying personnel, meaning not only (to begin with, not even primarily) pilots, but observers, gunners, and airship crew. Some collectors consider badges valid only through World War 1. Others consider them genuine if they were made up through World War 2, because they were still being made as replacements or upgrades for those who had earned them during the first war. After World War 2, many of the firms that made the badges were destroyed anyway. Most badges were made by four firms, which each had some distinctives a collector should be familiar with (watch out for a mix of styles!) The four firms were:
The Four Major Flight Badge Manufacturers
Name of firm
C. E. Juncker
What happened after WW2
Firm's records destroyed in WW2.
Still in operation.
Firm was in Berlin; factory was dismantled and shipped to Russia.
Picked up contracts for US insignia after WW2. Still in operation.
Die sets were expensive, so observer, gunner, and commemorative flyer variations seem to have been just variations of basic design.
Also known as Karl Pollath (umlaut over o). 225 years of history and international trade; still owned by same family.
What this means for collectors
Little minting or catalog information. All the badges from this firm should have a standard crown, wreath, and landscape. Hallmark should have crisp detail of a mark struck with a tool (as opposed to hand engraved, laser etched, or cast).
Ongoing operation means information about die sets, dates, and records is easier to find than with most.
Anything (records, original die sets, etc.) that survived the bombing probably did not survive trip to Russia.
Ongoing operation means information about die sets, dates, and records is easier to find than with most.
Prussian Army Air Gunner's Badge
Major Types of Imperial German Flight Badges
The 1913 Prussian Pilot Badge was for those who had proved they could land, take off, and fly cross-country. (Remember, nobody had more than 10 years' experience in powered flight in 1913.)
The 1913 Prussian Army Observer's Badge was more impressive than the pilot badge, because in 1913 the observer was the important role; pilots were just drivers. (The Red Baron himself started out as an observer trying to shoot down enemy aircraft; eventually he realized having the control stick would help in making kills.) Observers had to understand aerodynamics, engine theory, charts and navigation, bombing, shooting machine guns, finding enemy troops, signaling, and Morse code.
The 1919 Prussian Army Air Gunner's Badge was for gunners with similar qualifications to the observer.
Other Imperial German Flight Badges
The above badges were for active flyers, but in 1916 a Prussian Army Commemorative Flyer's Badge was made for flyers who weren't flying anymore (of course, any flyers not flying in 1916 were probably injured, imprisoned, or dead.)
Originally this badge and the three above were issued only through January 31, 1921.
The 1920 Commemorative Airship Badge was struck to remember airship crews who served at least one year on operational combat airships during the war, or were injured or captured.
A 1914 Air Service Commemorative Badge came before the 1916 Prussian Army Commemorative Flyer's badge, but it is not known whether it was ever really used.
Collector Information: Imperial German Flight Badges vs. Counterfeits
Here are some things to watch for:
- Silver content not matching the hallmark (for instance, says 800 parts silver but is plated)
- Good story about an engraving made for a sweetheart (story telling is a proven way to distract collectors from serious examination!)
- Group of items mixing genuine and counterfeit (even in a museum - don't assume all museum employees are honest.)
- Laser etching, which can make a very good reproduction. Check patina on solder, which is hard (but not impossible) to fake.
- Pin and hinge style not fitting documented styles.
- Badge cases, which add value to the badges, so there is a motivation to fake cases too. Badge cases made before the days of artificial whiteners will not glow under blacklight.
- Cast badges from a firm which is known to have coined or die-struck badges. Die-struck badges should have fine detail, and edges should have vertical shear marks. Don't confuse file marks and shear marks - lines should be straight and smooth, not uneven and filed. Hallmarks should be deep, crisp, and appear to be struck rather than cast.
There are original dies still out there, but remember that dies wear out and get rusty. An original die still making badges today would have to have been very well protected from the elements, and wars, of the past century!
If you get the chance to see or handle provably authentic museum pieces, use this opportunity to learn the distinctive feel and look of old silver.
Generally, there are so many fakes out there that buying non-standard or undocumented badges is a bad idea.