Large-scale development of parachuting as a sport began in the USSR in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Originating from enthusiasm of a handful of amateur skydivers, it grew into a mass government-sponsored volunteer movement embracing millions of youth, both males and females, throughout the immense territory of the Soviet Union. The early 1930s witnessed numerous breathtaking altitude and delay-opening jump records and astonishing events, and the USSR turned into the undisputable world leader in the field of parachuting as a sport. Countless competitions were held, and thousands of civilian aviation clubs and jumping stations were set up across the country under the auspices of the OSOAVIAKhIM (Society of Assistance to Defense, Aviation and Chemical Construction) – a powerful paramilitary organization which was created in 1927, and restructured in 1948 when hearts of thousands of Soviet citizens longed for the coveted recognition as a qualified paratrooper.
The first recorded deployment of paratroopers occurred in 1929, when the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (RKKA) landed a small unit to relieve a Soviet encircled garrison which was besieged by an armed group of nationalist rebels in the Tajik town of Garm. The successful landing was performed by a 15 men-strong detachment transported by three airplanes. The bandits were liquidated and the garrison was liberated.
Ever-growing training programs were initiated in 1930-1932, aimed at nurturing legions of parachutists capable of performing jumps from all types of locally produced and imported aircraft under all situations and weather conditions. It was then that Soviet military leaders started experiments with dropping entire units complete with combat vehicles and even light tanks, the most impressive action being the famous demonstration of a corps-size drop for foreign military observers from Italy, France and Czechoslovakia during Kiev Military District maneuvers held on September 12-15, 1935. General L’Oiseau, Assistant Chief of the French General Staff who witnessed the maneuvers, had extensive comments published in the Pravda newspaper: “I am full of admiration. The parachute descent of a great troop unit which I saw in Kiev was an unprecedented event. The paratroopers are qualified and organized fighters. They conduct combat just a few minutes after their landing. I find especially important that parachute units are raised on a strictly volunteer basis as this provides an excellent morale level for the whole detachment”.
It was hard to believe that such a large-scale presentation took place just a decade after the first experiments with dropping troops from airplanes in deep snow without parachutes had been practiced. Once ill-equipped and relatively unschooled in military art, plus weakened by the Civil War and post-1917 devastation, the RKKA finally emerged as feared and respected well-trained force by the mid-1930s.
Looming inevitability of a world conflict and the necessity to strengthen Army potential boosted even further the popularity of the parachute, both as indispensable military equipment and as a romantic symbol of an unbeatable defender of the Soviet skies. A decade later, with the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) those sports jumpers would form the core of the airborne troops ready to be placed behind enemy lines and be deployed within minutes with little warning.
However, due to the lack of air superiority in the early stages of World War II, the Soviet Air Force did not attempt any large-scale airborne operations. The situation changed in 1942 with mass landing of troops by air near the town of Viazma during the Moscow operations of 1942. Moreover, from the very beginning of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), special units were constantly dropped for the purpose of supporting guerilla activities behind Germany lines.
Looking at yellowed clippings from nearly century-old newspapers and magazines dedicated to Soviet skydivers, as well as at carefully preserved period photos or archival newsreels, one sees images of hundreds of men and women with different destinies, past experience and achievements. Except for bravery, courage and self-sacrifice, they displayed another distinctive feature that they all had in common, and that is modest but highly esteemed diamond-shaped breast badges of the Soviet paratrooper of the first pattern. It was proudly worn on military uniforms or civilian attire since its introduction in 1931 throughout the WWII, until 1955.
The Model 1931 “Paratrooper” breast badge (Nagrudnyj Znak “Parashutist”) was instituted on February 12, 1931 by a resolution of the Central Council of the OSOAVIAKhIM. According to the Order of the then Air Force Commander, Komandarm 2nd rank Yakov Alksnis (26.01.1897-29.07.1938), No.28, dated March 07, 1932, decoration with the badge was extended to RKKA military personnel. Wearing of the badge on uniform was authorized “as a stimulation of parachute jumps for training purposes”.
The “Paratrooper” breast badge was awarded to civilians and servicemen who voluntarily conducted one or more parachute jumps from an aircraft, balloon or airship. The wording was changed later on. Thus, according to the “Parachute training” handbook published in Moscow in 1947 for restricted usage only, “the Certificate and “Paratrooper” breast badge are issued to servicemen who conducted evaluation or forced parachute jump from an aircraft or any other type of flying vehicle” (page 133).
The badge had a shape of a dark blue enameled vertical convex kite with bronze frame. An acute lower angle was the main distinctive feature of the 1931 badge in comparison with its successor introduced in 1936. That feature, however, turned out to be ill-conceived as the lower angle of the badge became deformed quite easily resulting in enamel peeling off. An image of a descending open “round” parachute with eight suspension lines and stylized figure of a paratrooper are placed at the dark blue background. The contour of the image as well as suspension lines are executed with a bronze outline, while the canopy and paratrooper are covered with white enamel. The badge is topped with a red enameled five-point star bearing the sickle and hammer bronze emblem at its centre and radiant rays under enamel. The reverse of the badge had a serial number engraved with a burin tool.
Each badge was presented together with a certificate issued according to the pattern approved by the Appendix to the Order No.28. Parachuting inspector of the RKKA Air Force Department was made responsible for recording parachute jumps as well as distribution of badges and certificates.
According to the Order No.28 mentioned above, the badge was to be worn on the summer and winter uniform above the button of the left breast pocket flap and had to be attached “with a screw and dish-shaped nut”. If worn on a uniform that had no breast pockets, the badge was to be fixed to the upper left part of a tunic. Officers wearing the open-front service jacket for Air Force commanding officers introduced in 1927, as well as the service jacket for Air Force and Armored Troops commanding officers introduced in 1935, were allowed to fix the badge either above breast pocket, on a breast pocket flap, or on a lapel.
As stated above, initially the badge was to be worn on the left side of the breast. However, on June 21, 1943, by the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, which was announced with Order No.240 of the People’s Commissariat of Defense, all breast badges were to be worn on the right chest, either to the left of, or below state awards.
The non-regulation wearing of “Paratrooper” breast badges mounted on fancy homemade plates made of metal, celluloid or cloth was a common practice. Those custom-made plates were manufactured and worn either to protect uniform cloth from piercing by rough contours of the badge or to visually increase its dimensions.
“Paratrooper” breast badge of 1931 issue had several variations described below
1. It is believed that the very first lot of one hundred numbered badges was manufactured of silver in a certain Leningrad workshop. Badge No.1 was presented to Leonid Minov (23.04.1898-January 1978), military pilot, glider pilot and certified paratrooper, who conducted the first training parachute jump in the USSR during muster of the Moscow military district Air Force held in Voronezh on July 26, 1930. Another viewpoint suggests that the first lot consisted of ten silver and ninety copper badges bearing burin-engraved serial numbers on reverses.
Unlike the previous variation that still remains a mystery and is not described in detail in any reliable source, another rare specimen was manufactured in Leningrad in the workshop of the famous jeweler, Georgy Svenson. Those rarely seen badges were made of bronze and were equipped with round nuts bearing the maker’s mark.
Serial production badges were manufactured of bronze by the Moscow-based All-Russian Union of Cooperative Associations of Workers in the Visual Arts (“Vsekohudozhnik”). It is considered to be the sole manufacturer of the “Paratrooper” breast badges of 1931 model that made those decorations, engraved serial numbers and ordered certificates at printing establishments. Full sets, i.e., badge with blank certificate were subsequently sent either to RKKA or OSOAVIAKhIM units in numbers ordered by the Aviation Department under the Central Council of the OSOAVIAKhIM and Flight Inspection of the RKKA Air Force.
2. Figure of a paratrooper of a straight prolonged shape. Badges measure 41,0-42,2х16,3-17,4 mm; distance between edges of the star varies from 7,3 to 8,0 mm; weight averages 4,0-5,8 g. Badges had either flat or counter-relief reverse. Three styles of serial numbers engraved on reverses are known to exist:
- three, four or five digit number /absence of abbreviation before digits signified that the badge was issued to a RKKA serviceman/;
- “OAKh” (“ОАХ”) /standing for the OSOAVIAKhIM/ followed by a four or five digit number;
- “GVF” (“ГВФ”) /standing for the Chief Directorate of the Civil Air Fleet/ followed by a four digit number.
3. Figure of a paratrooper of a curved shape. Badges measure 42,5-44,4х17,5-18,7 mm; distance between edges of the star varies from 8,4 to 11,7 mm; weight averages 5,2-6,6 g. Badges had a flat reverse. Four types of serial numbers engraved on reverses are known to exist:
- four or five digit number;
- “OAKh” (“ОАХ”) followed by a five digit number;
- “О” /standing for the OSOAVIAKhIM/ followed by a three, four or five digit number;
- “NKVD” (“НКВД”) /standing for the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs/ followed by a four digit number.
4. Elongated lower edges of a star, leaf-like figure of a paratrooper. Badge with counter relief reverse measures 43,9х17,5 mm, distance between edges of the star is 8,2 mm. Those badges were presumably manufactured in late 1940s – early 1950s.
Circular nuts bearing “Vsekohudozhnik” logo measured 17,8-18,7 mm in diameter and weighed 1,5-2,4 g.
Second type “Paratrooper” badges introduced in 1936 differed from the 1931 model described above in several features, the major amongst them being blunt lower angle, slightly lower height, shape of a paratrooper figure, as well as absence of serial numbers.
Depending on the manufacturer at least five variations of the “Paratrooper” breast badge of 1936 issue could be singled out.
1. Badges manufactured by the Leningrad Enamel Factory (Leningradskaya Emaljernaya Fabrika). Obverse and reverse are nickel-plated, badge is covered with light blue or dark blue enamel, reverse is either flat or counter relief. Badges measure 41,0-41,2x18,4 mm; distance between edges of the star varies from 10,0 to 10,2 mm; weight is approximately 5,4 g. Nut measures 16,5 mm in diameter and weighs 1,3-1,5 g.
2. Badges manufactured by the Moscow-based factory “Pobeda” (Pobeda means “Victory” in Russian). Contour of the image and suspension lines are executed in bronze outline, badge is covered with light blue or dark blue enamel, reverse is either flat or counter relief. Badges measure 39,7x17,4-17,9 mm; distance between edges of the star – 9 mm; weight averages 3,5-4,8 g.
3. Badges manufactured by the Moscow Mint (Moskovskij Monetnyj Dvor). These badges were presumably manufactured in late 1940s – early 1950s. Badges measure 40,6-41,0x17,4 mm; distance between edges of the star – 8,9 mm; weight averages 4,2-4,9 g. Badges with counter relief reverse were attached either with screw and nut or horizontal safety pin. Some pieces had a maker’s mark on reverse. Nut measures 17,9 mm in diameter and weighs 1,9-2,4 g.
4. Badges manufactured by the Leningrad Partnership No.30 (Leningradskoe Tovarishchestvo № 30). Contour of the image and suspension lines are executed in bronze outline, badge is covered with dark blue enamel, reverse is flat. These badges were manufactured from 1939 until the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War (June 1941).
5. Badges manufactured by the Enamel Factory of the Moscow Artists Partnership (Emaljernaya Fabrika Moskovskogo Tovarishchestva Hudojnikov). Image found on this badge differs drastically from those on all other “Paratrooper” badges, be it 1931 or 1936 issue. Thus, canopy is made three-dimensional and shows six dents; backside of the canopy is clearly visible; suspension lines are separated into two groups of four. Image of a paratrooper is executed more accurately; he holds suspension lines with both hands. Reverse is counter relief, attachment method by screw and nut. Badges of this type differ in width of canopy, length of dents on canopy, shape and corpulence of paratrooper, plus dimensions of sickle handle. Those badges were presumably manufactured in late 1940s – early 1950s. Badges measure 39,5-40,0x16,9-18,2 mm; distance between edges of the star varies from 10,1 to 11,0 mm; weight averages 3,4-4,2 g. Nuts measure 14,8-16,0 mm in diameter and weigh 1,5-2,5 g.
Again, the badge was to be worn on the left side of the breast. However, on June 21, 1943, by the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, which was announced with Order No.240 of the People’s Commissariat of Defense, all breast badges were to be worn on the right chest, either to the left of, or below state awards.
Non-regulation wearing of M1936 “Paratrooper” breast badges mounted on homemade fancy metal plates was a common practice. Those plates were found in various shapes, e.g., aircraft, pair of spread wings, or pendants with indication of parachute jumps.
“Paratrooper” breast badges of 1936 issue were awarded until introduction of decorations of a new pattern of the same name, instituted by the Order of the Minister of Defense of the USSR No.186 dated November 10, 1955.