Absence of reliable and accurate information on the most significant details of uniforms and insignia often puzzles even seasoned militaria collectors and complicates correct identification of survived artifacts as well as competent attribution of old photos. Topic this article deals with is very important for those who take an interest in pre-WWII and wartime Soviet insignia and photographs. The most tricky issue is that although the Red Army entered the series of military conflicts of the late 1930s, both triumphant and tragic, wearing uniforms sporting M1936 collar branch badges, less is known about those distinctive emblems in Russia itself, to say nothing of foreign collectors. Information available online is either incomplete or uncertain and in most cases isn’t based on original documents, but represents reprint of several amateurish articles that make one grit his teeth on. Although this survey does not claim to be exhaustive, it is fully based on reliable authentic sources and attempts to shed as much light as possible on introduction, evolution and abolition of collar branch badges of the RKKA. Hopefully this study will help international enthusiasts to attribute photos of Red Army personnel from their collections, silent images of soldiers and officers who managed to smash the once invincible German army at the cost of their lives.
The very first attempt to introduce branch collar insignia for the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (Raboche-Krestjanskaya Krasnaya Armiya, RKKA) personnel was undertaken by the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic (RVSR), the supreme military authority of Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic that existed from September 02, 1918 until August 28, 1923. Thus, the initial list of branch badges was described in the Order of RVSR No.322 of January 31, 1922. However, it underwent numerous changes within 1922-1923 that resulted in creation of an awkward and intricate system hardly understood even by servicemen themselves. Moreover, no provision for centralized manufacture and distribution of those badges was ever made, and local unit commanders found themselves responsible for production of emblems to their own understanding.
The next revision was made in 1924, when the Revolutionary Military Council of the USSR, or RVS of the USSR (the name RVSR bore from 28.08.1923 until its disbandment on 20.06.1934) issued an Order No.807 dated June 20, 1924 introducing new system of trade and unit collar insignia that initially consisted of fourteen metal badges.
Those emblems were issued to RKKA personnel who served in the following units:
1. Military engineer inspections of district, front, army; engineers of rifle corps and rifle divisions;
2. Separate construction engineer companies, construction engineer battalions and fortress construction engineer companies;
3. Construction engineer squadrons and half-squadrons;
4. Pontoon battalions;
5. Electrical engineer battalions;
6. Mine detachments;
7. Motor transport troops;
8. Camouflage troops;
9. Railway troops;
10. Commandant’s offices of railway stations and docks;
11. Signals inspections of RKKA, district, front, army; chief signal officers of corps and divisions;
12. Communication trains of RKKA headquarters, regiments, battalions, companies and signals squadrons;
13. Radiotelegraph battalions and companies;
14. Pigeon post stations.
Drawings of emblems are taken from the book “Uniforms and Insignia of the Soviet Army (1918-1958)” by Oleg Kharitonov, an Artillery Historical Museum official (Leningrad, 1960).
The decision of the Commission of the RKKA deputy quartermaster, that prepared the Order No.807 stipulated that collar trade badges were introduced for servicemen of technical troops only. Military personnel serving in core combat arms and wearing specified facing cloth were not supposed to receive any badges on their collars.
Apart from those fourteen badges, a fifteenth emblem was also mentioned in the Order No.807, that for the medical personnel, representing equilateral metal red cross. However, in less than two months Order of the RVS of the USSR No.1058 of August 19, 1924 replaced it with a gilt emblem showing the bowl of Hygieia, i.e., a chalice with a snake twined around its stem and poised above it.
A number of additional badges were subsequently introduced by individual Orders of the RVS of the USSR. Following are three of them issued to the personnel of:
- Chemical troops and military institutions of the RKKA (Order No.721 dated December 02, 1926).
- Commanders of RKKA fire brigades manned by RKKA private draftees as well as RKKA fire wardens from the RKKA reserve (Order No.152 dated August 10, 1932).
- Soviet military attachés abroad regardless of their service category (Order No.220 dated November 18, 1932 “Uniform Wearing Regulations by RKKA Servicemen”).
This system remained unchanged until March 1936.
Model 1936 collar branch badges for enlisted men and commanders of the RKKA that are dealt with in this article were introduced by the Order of the People’s Commissariat of Defense (Narodnyj Komissariat Oborony, NKO) No.33 dated March 10, 1936. Those badges replaced Model 1924 trade and unit emblems that were worn according to the Order of the RVS of the USSR No.807.
In total, seventeen branch badges were introduced, their images being shown below. Note that badges for Railway troops and Military transport service were not in the initial listing, but in that of the second pattern introduced by the Order of the NKO No.165 dated August 31, 1936 (will be dealt with below).
Names of branch badges are given according to the 1937 Internal Service Regulations of the RKKA (UVS-37) published in 1938. The author took the liberty of providing detailed description of those emblems, slightly different from original text.
1 – Armored troops. Stylized image of the light cavalry “convertible” tank BT-5.
2 – Technical personnel in all branches and services. Crossed hammer and adjustable wrench, sometimes referred to as a “French key”.
3 – Air Force and paratroopers. Vertically placed two-bladed airplane propeller superimposed on a pair of horizontal spread wings.
4 – Railway troops and Military transport service. Red enameled five-point star superimposed on a winged anchor with crossed hammer and adjustable wrench.
5 – Artillery and artillery units in other branches. Two crossed old cannons.
6 – Motor transport units and drivers in all branches except Armored troops. Front axle with two wheels, steering wheel and steering column attached and a pair of vertical spread wings.
7 – Signal troops and signal units in other branches. Red enameled five-point star superimposed on a pair of horizontal spread wings and three vertical lightning bolts.
8 – Engineer troops. Two crossed axes with curved handles.
9 – Medical service in all branches (gilt colour). The bowl of Hygieia, i.e., a chalice with a snake twined around its stem and poised above it.
10 – Veterinary service in all branches (silver colour). Mirror reflection of an emblem described above.
11 – Chemical troops and chemical units in other branches. Upstanding gas mask superimposed on two crossed gas canisters.
12 – Construction engineer units and construction engineer sub-units in other branches (incorrectly called “Construction engineer troops” in UVS-37). Crossed pickaxe and spade.
13 – Bandmasters in all branches. Stylized image of a lyre.
14 – Supply and Administration service in all branches. That badge had the most complex shape and consisted of a ring, left part of which represented motor-car tire and the right part showed a cogwheel. Three elements were superimposed on the ring, namely compass with its legs moved apart, adjustable wrench placed diagonally and profile view of a small helmet in the very centre of the whole composition.
15 – Legal officers in all branches. Shield superimposed on two crossed swords pointing downwards.
16 – Pontoon engineer units and pontoon engineer sub-units in other branches. Stylized image of an anchor with two crossed axes placed under its shackle.
17 – Electrical engineer units. Crossed axe and spade superimposed on two horizontal lightning bolts.
It should be noted that initially conscripted enlisted personnel and NCOs were ordered to have branch badges stenciled with yellow oil-based paint on collar patches. Only re-enlisted commanders and NCOs as well as students of military schools were allowed to wear branch badges stamped of copper (sic!) on collar patches. Having found it nearly impossible to paint miniature branch badges on cloth collar patches in an appropriate manner, that regulation was revoked shortly and wearing of metal branch badges was extended to all military personnel of the RKKA.
However, some military personnel either still continued to wear out obsolete branch badges of 1924-1932 patterns for some time or wore no branch badges at all due to lack of production capacities and mammoth size of new orders.
It should be noted that the Order mentioned above and following instructions never regulated exact orientation of non-symmetrical branch badges on collar patches, i.e., usage of each pair of emblems as a right or left side. As a result, lower ranks, NCOs and commanders were unofficially given complete control over that issue and managed to use their own discretion regarding “correct” wearing of branch badges. Thus, in most cases Armored troops personnel preferred to attach tank emblems with gun turrets facing from each other. Medical service personnel fixed their brass bowls of Hygieia in a way that snakes were facing each other, while veterinarians attached their emblems vice versa. In the meantime, photographic evidence clearly shows that exceptions from that unwritten rule did exist; not only some military men wore branch badges in the opposite way, but wearing of two identical emblems, i.e., both “right” or both “left” emblems was not uncommon.
It should be noted that although being the core combat arm, Infantry, as well as Cavalry, were not granted with their own branch badges. As a result, infantrymen, riflemen and troopers were initially issued with blank collar patches. Special branch badges for Infantry and Cavalry were not introduced until July 1940 (Order of the NKO No.226 dated July 26, 1940), but their description is beyond the scope of this article. Absence of those branch badges in 1936-1940 is thought to be an ironic echo of pre-1917 traditions that took root in the Russian Imperial army. Thus, only smaller technical combat arms of the former Tsarist army were issued with distinctive branch insignia.
Political officers of the Red Army (except students of military schools, military faculties and academies who wore collar tabs with abbreviations of institutions they studied in) also displayed no branch badges and wore blank collar patches of the combat arm to which they were assigned. Distinctive insignia for political officers was introduced by the Order of the NKO No.226 dated July 26, 1940.
All of the branch badges mentioned above except those for Veterinary service personnel were manufactured of brass and were gilt in colour. The bowl of Hygieia worn by veterinarians was made of white metal and had silver-grey colour. Badges were attached to collar patches by means of a pair of prongs that were soldered on the reverse. When the field blouse (gimnastyorka) was worn, branch badges were fixed to far corners of its collar patches irrespective of presence of rank insignia; on greatcoat they were attached to the upper parts of diamond-shaped collar patches above rank insignia (if its wearer had any).
According to the Order of the NKO No.229 dated December 17, 1936, commanding officers of technical, supply, administrative, legal, medical and veterinary services wore their own emblems irrespective of combat branch they served in. An exception was made for students of military schools, military faculties and academies only.
Commanding and political officers as well as enlisted men and NCOs of technical and legal services of ground forces and the Air Force of the RKKA wore collar tabs of the combat branch they served in.
Commanding and political officers as well as NCOs of technical and legal services serving in rear institutions and headquarters (up to district headquarters, departments and sections inclusive) wore collar tabs of the combat branch they served in before transfering to rear institution or headquarters.
Military personnel of special units within separate larger units, such as regimental artillery, signal units, etc. wore collar tabs of those larger units.
According to the Order of the NKO No.253 dated August 01, 1941 “On Revision of the Red Army Uniform During Wartime”, in early stages of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) different shades of camouflage green paint were applied to branch badges for security reasons.
Following is the author’s representation of all twenty collar branch badges that were introduced for wearing by the RKKA military personnel throughout 1936.
1 – Armored troops; 2 – Technical personnel in all branches and services; 3 – Air Force and paratroopers; 4 – Railway troops and Military transport service, early pattern badge; 5 – Railway troops and Military transport service, late pattern badge; 6 – Artillery and artillery units in other branches; 7 – Motor transport units and drivers in all branches except Armored troops; 8 – Signal troops and signal units in other branches; 9 – Engineer troops; 10 – Medical service in all branches; 11 – Veterinary service in all branches; 12 – Chemical troops and chemical units in other branches; 13 – Construction engineer units and construction engineer sub-units in other branches; 14 – Bandmasters in all branches; 15 – Supply and Administration service in all branches; 16 – Legal officers in all branches; 17 – Pontoon engineer units and pontoon engineer sub-units in other branches; 18 – Electrical engineer units; 19 – 1st Class Cavalry scout observers; 20 – 2nd Class Cavalry scout observers.
Please note that most of these badges were already discussed above, except for emblems for Railway troops and Military transport service (images 4 and 5) as well as emblems for Cavalry scout observers (images 19 and 20).
In four months after its introduction, the branch badge for Railway troops and Military transport service that was also worn by students of the L.M.Kaganovich Military Transport Academy of the RKKA and Military transport service schools was updated according to the Order of the NKO No.165 dated August 31, 1936. The obsolete emblem – crossed axe and anchor, the latter with its flukes pointing upwards (image 4) – that had actually been used during the Tsarist era as a transportation agencies insignia was abolished. The newly introduced branch badge for Railway troops and Military transport service had the shape of a red enameled five-point star superimposed on a winged anchor with crossed hammer and adjustable wrench (image 5). Like the vast majority of branch badges, it was manufactured of brass and was gilt in color.
The badge of Cavalry scout observers that came in two classes and was introduced by the Order of the NKO No.26 dated February 02, 1936 deserves separate discussion. To be precise, it was not a collar branch badge in the true sense of the word and thus was not mentioned in the Order No.33. Unlike the other seventeen branch badges that were worn as distinctive insignia of independent combat arms, this badge strictly indicated qualification of Cavalry personnel. It should be noted that the badge of Cavalry scout observers was the only qualification badge of the RKKA that was ordered to be worn on collar patches.
“Regulations on Scout Observers in the RKKA Cavalry” were instituted by the above-mentioned Order of the NKO No.26 dated February 02, 1936, while a separate order for introduction of a distinctive collar badge for scout observers was signed by Cavalry Inspector of the RKKA Marshal of the Soviet Union Semyon Budyonny (25.04.1883-26.10.1973). This emblem had the shape of field glasses superimposed on a crossed saber and a pair of compasses. A compass topped with a red enameled five-point star was situated at the upper part of the whole composition. Cavalry scout observers 1st class wore a gilt badge (image 19), while those qualified for the 2nd class – a silvered one (image 20).
The badge of Cavalry scout observers was worn for only three and a half years and was abolished soon after WWII broke out, according to the Order of the NKO No.162 dated September 04, 1939. Creation of a new strategic cavalry staff list as a part of amendments to the cavalry divisions structure that had been put in practice in March 1938 was at the bottom of such a decision. As a result, reconnaissance on regimental level was declared unnecessary and disbanded. However, the all-powerful NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) decided to retain scout observer units within their cavalry regiments, and qualified troopers continued wearing of distinctive insignia in question.
To complete this article a few words on the RKKA corps colors and piping of collar patches should be addressed. That color scheme was introduced by two Orders of the NKO – No.176 dated December 03, 1935 and No.165 dated August 31, 1936.
Infantry – crimson collar patches with black piping;
Cavalry – dark blue collar patches with black piping;
Artillery and Armored troops – black collar patches with red piping;
Air Force – light blue collar patches with black piping;
Railway troops and Military transport service – black collar patches with light blue piping;
Technical troops – black collar patches with dark blue piping;
Chemical troops – black collar patches with black piping;
Administration, Supply, Medical and Veterinary services – dark green collar patches with red piping.
The crucial change in the course of war for the USSR in late 1942 forced Joseph Stalin to introduce several fundamental changes. Thus, on October 09, 1942 the principle of “single responsible decision maker” was established. The institution of the military commissar within the Red Army was abolished, and former commissars were made deputy commanders. Officers were granted additional privileges, including assignment of orderlies to commanders of all units, all the way down to the platoon level. In January 1943, shoulder boards (pogony), that had been abolished in 1917 as a detested symbol of the Tsarist army and were specifically targeted as fundamentally incompatible with initial socialist doctrine, were re-introduced to Red Army uniforms as new rank insignia. The latter was announced by the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on January 06, 1943, and collar patches were abolished and soon disappeared.
Order of the NKO No.25 dated January 15, 1943 “On Introduction of New Rank Insignia and On Changes of the Red Army Uniform” stipulated collar patches be replaced with shoulder boards within February 01-15, 1943. However, since it was impossible to change rank insignia in time, Order No.80 dated February 14, 1943 postponed the deadline to March 15, 1943. Nevertheless, some branch badges moved from obsolete collar patches to newly introduced shoulder boards of the Red Army, took their roots in the Soviet Army and remained in a slightly changed shape on shoulder insignia of the mighty Soviet military machine that went down in history with the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
The author thanks Dr.Kirill Sologub (Moscow) for his expert advice, useful comments and critical remarks as well as Boris Term (Tbilisi, Georgia) for providing collar badges from his personal collection.