Bundeswehr Conscript 1980

In the later Cold War years, while some countries like Britain could boast armies entirely made up of dedicated and professional volunteer soldiers many nations, particularly those at war like the USA in Vietnam, felt the need to resort to compulsory military service.

One such nation that relied heavily on “conscription” to swell its ranks was the Federal German Republic, which fielded an army made up from a large proportion of drafted citizens backed up by a smaller cadre of career soldiers, NCOs and Officers.

Following WWII the newly formed West Germany was initially garrisoned by the US, French and British. In the 1950s a small 10,000 man Border Guards service was established but increasing tensions with the Soviet Union following the Korean War, made the western allies realise that re-arming Germany was essential to the defence of the West.

For the new Federal German army or “Bundeswehr”, drafting its young men into the armed forces was more than just an easy way of swelling the ranks, it was a political statement as well. Post war conscription symbolised that the new army was something different from the previous, overly martial armies of WWI and WWII and very much a “Citizen’s army”. Conscription or “Wehrpflict” was introduced in 1956 for all able bodied male citizens between 18 and 45, with the exception of those who were either conscientious objectors or were members of families persecuted by the Nazis. In addition those objecting to military service could elect to serve in a number of civil projects, such as disaster relief or emergency services.

west-german-conscript-01While the Soviet Union was alive and considered a threat, conscription did indeed fill out the bulk of the 495,000 servicemen in the German armed forces (this number could be doubled by pulling in reservists) and even after the collapse of communism the system was kept in place until 2011 –although by this point conscript soldiers found they had little to do within a largely professional army that had no use for short service recruits. This “citizen soldier” approach did lead to the famously smart German army of yesteryear looking decidedly scruffy during a proportion of the cold war years, as conscripted soldiers rarely felt the pride that those who had chosen to join the army felt for their profession. Of note was one short-lived experiment in the 1970s to allow German servicemen the opportunity to grow their hair long if they wished, which gained the Bundeswehr the nickname “German Hair Force” with British soldiers.

Basic training (Allgemeine Grundausbildung) for a recruit consisted of a minimum of two months of combat training, then four months service at their assigned post. Conscripted soldiers frequently served at lower ranks than their professional counterparts and most would only reach the rank of Obergefreiter – akin to senior private or junior lance corporal. While conscripts were not paid a massive amount compared to their career soldier comrades, they did receive free health care, accommodation and food during their service

The Backbone of NATO
Despite being drafted, for the larger part the Bundeswehr was considered one of NATO’s best armies. It was heavily armed, well equipped and technologically advanced compared to many NATO nations by the 1970s. West Germany had been adamant in insisting to NATO that should the Soviets invade the West, they would not concede an inch of their territory and forced NATO to deploy substantial forces right on the border between East and West. To their credit, the Bundeswehr manned a sizable proportion of these positions and were considered by many to be the backbone of NATO’s defences in a third world war. Some NATO theorists were sceptical of whether, if push came to shove, the Bundeswehr would fight against its fellow Germans in the east but few in NATO who had trained with the Bundeswehr on exercise felt this way. Despite its significant commitment to NATO’s security, the Bundeswehr was never permitted to deploy outside of its own borders on operation in aid of NATO or the UN and it would not be until 1993 and operations in Somalia, that German troops would step outside of the Fatherland for the first time in 50 years.

west-german-conscript-02Our cold War Warrior this month represents a typical conscript soldier of the Bundeswehr of the late 1970s to early 1980s. In contrast to our elite Pnazergrenadier featured in a previous issue, he presents a slightly more dishevelled appearance. While most of his basic uniform is the same we will refresh our memory by looking at it once again and also highlighting some new cold and wet weather kit issued to the conscript.

As with the Panzergrenadier, his basic uniform is the olive green 1960 pattern combat suit known as the ‘Feldanzug Olivfarben’ (olive green combat suit). This uniform replaced the poorly received 1950s three piece suit which was uncomfortable due to a built-in waterproof lining. The 1960s pattern of suit was, in contrast, much more comfortable and based on the olive drab uniforms worn by many of Germany’s NATO allies, sharing similarities with the British 60 pattern uniform and the US OG-107 BDU. The basic uniform consisted of a soft green full button undershirt and jacket and trousers in a “moleskin” fabric. All of these items initially came in ‘olive green’ but repeated washing and wear frequently lifted the shade of the uniform to a light greeny-grey and gives an unknowing nod to the German army’s “field grey” roots. Initially jackboots in the traditional German style were issued but these quickly gave way to laced black ankle boots (although some units retained jackboots for some time). Headdress was either a traditional “schiffen” (boat) side cap or in some specialist services, a beret or mountain cap.

US Influence
Our soldier is kitted out for a reconnaissance patrol on a cold winter’s morning and so wears some more specialist winter kit, most notable being the extremely warm cold weather “parka”. These comfy and practical coats were once commonly seen on the UK’s student scene as surplus stocks from Germany flooded the UK market after re-unification but are now becoming more expensive. Composed of a showerproof olive green outer layer, with a warm “fake fur” fleecy inner liner, the parka became a firm favourite with soldiers as the liner could quickly be removed should it not be needed. Made of similar fake fur and water repellent fabric is our soldier’s cold weather cap. This cap can be either worn as shown here or with the folded upper part secured down around the ears and chin in extreme conditions.
Footwear is the standard German army combat boot, with its speed-lacing system that was at the time innovative and saw NATO soldiers from the UK and US eager to source a pair for themselves (the astute will notice our soldier is wearing a “look-a-like” pair of boots, as genuine 80s examples are now harder to source) but as aforementioned, tank crew and other units would often wear calf high slip on “jackboots”.

Our recruit’s webbing is minimal and contains merely his ammunition to supply his G3A3 battle rifle and a water bottle and canteen set… basic essentials for a night recce patrol. The webbing itself is clearly derived from the leather and steel WWII “Y strap” system and, by the 1980s, was clearly showing its age. Its plethora of metal upon metal parts made it noisy and its heavy webbing construction made it stiff and inflexible. Notable on this webbing set are the large rubbery green G3 ammo pouches that, while a “modernization”, feel incredibly cheap and nasty!

west-german-conscript-03Arming our man is the venerable G3A3 battle rifle adopted by the German army in the late 50s and based on the Spanish CETME rifle. As we’ve reviewed the G3 in this month’s issue we will avoid repetition of the rifles backstory and only add that the G3 would serve the Bundeswehr until re-unification and the adoption of the G36 assault rifle. During the 80s several successor rifles for the aging G3 were considered, including a revolutionary 4.85mm caseless “G11” rifle but, unfortunately, the design was plagued by failures and became too expensive to implement. If you’re not a fan of the G3A3, other suitable alternative small arms include the UZI (Mp2 in German service) and the MG3 (a rejigged WWII MG42!)

Lastly, protecting our conscript from artillery and the elements are two items – the German M62 steel helmet and his rain poncho. The poncho was a simple but effective piece of kit and similar items could be found on both UK and US soldiers. A rubberised fabric sheet with a central hood formed the garments basis but press stud closures along its edges allowed several soldiers to create bigger shelters by connecting their ponchos together, when a more permanent protection from the rain was required. The M62 helmet is a clear copy of the US M1 helmet and like its US cousin, consists of a plastic inner shock liner with affixed internal suspension and an exterior steel protective layer.

So there you have it, this month’s Cold war Warrior isn’t particularly glamorous but it is interesting! It’s a shame however that this kit is so rarely seen on the “camo obsessed” skirmish fields of the UK airsoft scene. It’s also somewhat sad that this once “cheap as chips” kit is now drying up and, whereas a full uniform in the 90s would have left you with change from £20, some traders are now trying to charge that for a shirt. But if you can find it at a decent price, the Bundeswehr uniform will probably last you a long time… I know mine has!

Pictures: Oscar James Photography