The Heer General’s Collar Tab:

Exploring The Variations


This page is the first step in a study of the variety in hand-embroidered General officer and senior ranks collar tabs.  This “project” goal is to add some knowledge to the study of this insignia in hopes of verifying many of the variations of Generals collar tabs that existed during the war.  To accomplish this, my aim is to utilize period photographs which clearly show these variations in actual wear.  One of the bigger problems in this hobby has been the attempt to assign “textbook” criteria to Third Reich material, some of which is anything but textbook!  Hand-embroidered insignia is one of those examples.  I often read collector comments on forums or hear them at shows in which declarations are made that the insignia in question “doesn’t display the quality expected of General Officer insignia”, or “they never made it like that”,  or my personal favorite, “it doesn’t look like MINE”! 


The problem is, all of this was hand-made by what was largely a cottage industry and there were variations in both quality and material.  Hand embroidery by its very nature does not lend itself to creating exact duplicates as each piece will display a degree of variation, unlike machine embroidery.  It’s also difficult to have an exact matched, left and right pair due to the difficulties of the hand creating a reverse, mirror image. Add to this the reality that insignia were produced by probably hundreds of firms, each with different materials to work with, different talent levels of embroiderers, located throughout the Third Reich and even in some of the foreign countries that were captured.  So, in essence, how does one create “textbook” in this type of environment?  You don’t!


Now, one saving grace of all of this is that while there may not be a textbook, there is definitely consistency in several areas, which help us in our identification of what we believe to be period produced insignia.  These consistencies are primarily in the execution of the embroidery and the materials used.  Many try to fall back to the design of the tab as being the only indicator of an original, but as you will see in the imagery below, there was quite a degree of variation in design execution of Heer General collar insignia.  We have to believe that some of this was the intention of the embroidery firm to differentiate themselves from the competition and show a different look or flair to their product to capture the sale.  In other cases it may have just been the choice of the embroidering “artist” to add his or her own definitive touch to express pride and individuality of their given talent. 


One also has to understand that there were likely larger firms with bigger contracts who produced the bulk of what was available, lending consistency to the look and appearance creating “common” tab styles that are more often seen due to the volumes produced. These more commonly seen pieces then become the “textbook” that the collector community so loves to assign.  The rush to fulfill larger orders by these big firms may also explain why some insignia is of lesser quality and doesn’t have the ornate detail one might expect, as attention to individual detail and quality would not be as attentive as that of a smaller firm not under the same pressure to produce volume.  Generals, and officers could purchase higher quality, uniforms, caps and insignia….for a higher price, if they wished and could afford it.  Or they could buy their uniform items through government procured outlets contracted at a lower price.  So yes, some insignia was “not the quality expected of a General officer” as some of it was not as good, or as expensive.  Insignia firms competed for business like any other and some offered better quality at higher prices.


So, as we’ve learned, there are a lot of reasons for variation in this insignia.  What this page will focus on is variation in executed design, so that we might better identify patterns that do not quite conform to expectation, yet are valid original styles that were produced and worn during the war.  Far too often original pieces are questioned or dismissed because they don’t exhibit “accepted” features that collector myth has passed down as being the only indicators of originality.  What’s difficult to review on a website are the materials used for production and the incredibly tight quality of hand-embroidery during the Third Reich….a skill and trade that no longer exists.  We will discuss them, but in order to really learn about these factors the collector needs to get out to militaria shows or meet with other collectors who own original pieces so that they may be studied in-hand and get a feel for the material and the workmanship. I know this outreach may be difficult for some collectors, but I can tell you with all certainty that you will never attain a proficient level of identifying originals from fakes by solely looking at pictures on the internet…you have to log some time studying the real thing by hand. I cannot tell you how many times I have looked at pictures of items and thought them fake, only to get the piece in hand and realize it was original…and vice versa.  There are some incredibly well made copies, thanks to the high availability of photos of originals on the internet, but the execution and materials of the copies are usually given up once you have them in your hands to examine.


We’ll begin with an overview of the collar tab design.  I’m going to use some terminology that is largely of my own making so that the various traits of the design elements and the variations can be pointed out in the period photos.  Please don’t take this terminology as “textbook” as it is only being used for the ease of discussion and in no way is already a part of collector lingo.



Basic Collar Tab Design Elements


The collar tab design is based on a traditional arabesque design pattern known as “Larisch” that dates back to Prussian Infantry Regiment “Al-Larisch” and the ornamented coats the officers wore during the late 18th century.  It has been used on Prussian and German General Officer insignia since 1900. 


At the front, leading edge of the collar tab is the point or NOSE of the tab.  The rear of the tab design is the TAIL, which also resembles a brush, and is connected to the BODY of the tab by a TAILBONE which typically, but not always features three round edges which some refer to as balls.  The body is connected to the nose by the SPINE which is an elongated oval which is often closed, but sometimes open in the middle so that you see the red backing.  There are two PRONGS that extend up and down from the spine (three prongs for the rank of field marshal).  Sandwiching these prongs are HORNS which often are very intricately curled and either curl back down inwards or can extend up and above the prongs in curls or somewhat straighter patterns.  These curls also have been seen to point either right or left.



This particular tab is a good study in what is considered “typical” design elements and execution for a Heer General Officer collar tab.  It is a provenanced example having been obtained directly from General Sachsenheimer by the late collector Bill McClure, who was responsible for a great deal of the high end militaria purchased directly from Generals, Admirals, Field Marshals and other senior ranking individuals all of which now resides in collections worldwide.  This particular example is embroidered in both gold bullion wire and celleon (nylon) which provides the very distinct two-tone colors and highlights.  This is not unusual, though not standard, to mix bullion and celleon, most likely done to provide highlights and definition to the design.  However most of what is encountered will either be all-bullion or all-celleon.  This is not true, however, for the Luftwaffe (which will be explored in a separate page) as for reasons still unknown the majority of Luft Generals insignia, uniforms and headgear all seemed to feature a mixture of bullion and celleon as somewhat of a standard feature.





Understanding Variation


As mentioned earlier, the hobby is rife with those trying to establish a standard textbook version of everything we encounter, but this simply can’t be done with the vast majority of hand-embroidered senior ranks insignia, for reasons already discussed.  As a collector, this can be considered exciting as if you are a collar tab collector as there are near endless variations to acquire for your collection with each piece having the aesthetics and quality of manufacture of a miniature piece of art!  There is no reason to be afraid to collect these things if you know what you are looking at and are familiar with period workmanship and construction.  The period photos show us how varied these can be.


When the artisan was producing these pieces of insignia he/she utilized a cardboard template referred to as an “unterlagen”, which was placed over the top of the red backing cloth.  From there, the artisan began the embroidery and executed the process employing their own individual touches or that of which was directed by the ownership of the firm.  While it is tempting to assume there was one standard unterlagen authorized, produced and distributed to all embroidery firms, the reality of what we see in period pictures puts this in doubt.  Much of the variation we see is most likely from the individual hands that did the embroidery, however we also see some distinct differences that could’ve only been produced as a result of a variant in the unterlagen.


So, what are the variations we see?  They range from subtle, to very dramatic, but I will list below those most often seen and we’ll move on to study photographic examples.


1.    The “Spine” is either open in the middle of the oval so that you can see the red backing cloth, or it can be completely closed.

2.    The “Nose” can be very short and pug-like, or longer and very pointy.  The Field Marshal tabs are a great example of this.  There can also be differing number of layers behind the point up to the first Horn.

3.    The “Tailbone” can be very intricately constructed, providing the look of three spherical balls from which the tail protrudes, or it can be very subtle curves looking more like a bird in flight.

4.    The “Tail” can have quite a number of variations, some with backing cloth protruding between the lines, others with blurred lines.  Typically the bottom of the “brush” is a very straight, symmetrical line that is very defined, but in other cases it can be seen to be wavy.  The size and angle of the brush can also vary somewhat dramatically.

5.    The “Horns” show the most variation from tab to tab, which is easily explained if you have ever seen the unterlagen.  These horns and the degree to which they curl depended entirely on artistic freedom and how much flair the individual embroiderer decided to employ.

6.    The “Prongs” are probably the most consistently produced element of the tab, with variations mainly in the different wires and threads used to fill in this area.  It’s also one of the easier areas to identify a fake as the originals are very, very tightly embroidered together with typical symmetry only a professional would employ.  I have seen differences in width and height of the prongs, but overall this area is usually pretty consistent.

7.    The “Body” is also somewhat consistent, with the bulk of the variation being the area between the Nose and the Prong behind the Nose.



Now that we have a basic understanding, let’s start exploring some period photos so that we can see some of these variations and consistencies first hand.  After that, we’ll explore some original examples out of contemporary collections so that we can see nice, clear modern photos of some of these variations.




While this first example is not a variation, it IS a good example of how regulations were not always followed and that sometimes whatever was available was used.  This is for the “they never did that” crowd.  Here we have Generalmajor Heinrich Kreipe (on the cover of “LIFE” magazine, no less!) after his capture wearing collar tabs reserved for the rank of a Field Marshal!  Obviously whoever tailored this particular uniform had no access to standard General officer collar tabs, yet somehow had field marshal tabs in the inventory and used those.  While a situation like this certainly seems beyond speculation, as you would think there was not a regular inventory of such a rare and seldom used rank as field marshal insignia sitting in every tailor shop, here is an example.  The Field Marshal collar tabs had a third “prong” to differentiate it from regular General officer tabs and the example here is the most commonly encountered example produced.






In this instance we have a fairly standard and common tab with some minor variations. Note how the tailbone is shaped more like a bird in flight with wings, rather than the three “balls” some collectors insist must be present.  Also notice how the tail of the tab is not straight across the bottom but angled upwards a bit and the bottom of the brush is not even.  The backing cloth is also visible between the arched lines in the tail.  The prongs on this tab have just a slight curvature, but no curls.




When viewing period photos that are “portrait” photos shot in a studio, always be careful of drawing too many conclusions regarding insignia as sometimes the photos are retouched, either to enhance the insignia (in this instance) or in many cases the insignia will be “upgraded” to reflect a promotion by adding pips, changing shoulderboards or even retouching new collar tabs on.  In this particular example, the three dimensional nature of the look of the collar tabs indicate that they were most likely highlighted by some retouching, especially since you can see the four loops of General officer boards, so we know it wasn’t retouched from field grade rank.  One other note; notice the shoulderboard on the right was put on backward as the button loop is facing the front and should be facing the back (this was a very common occurrence, but something else that collector myth has gotten wrong over the years).






Here is an excellent example of a tab that varies quite dramatically and in hand would be declared a fake by most collectors examining it at a show.  Notice how stubby the prongs are, the nose is misshapen and the bottom of the tail is not straight at all by very wavy and uneven.  The bottom of the brush also extends below the tailbone and into the horn.  Notice also how the two front horns are not symmetrical.  This is Generaloberst Erhard Raus wearing this uniform.  A grouping belonging to him was purchased directly from the family and included numerous pieces of insignia to include several sets of shoulderboards and three collar tabs, all of which displayed this unusual design in varying degrees (a couple examples are shown below).  Without photographic evidence like this, examples such as these would be roundly dismissed by the collecting community.




Two different examples, both for the wearers left collar, of General officer rank tabs belonging to Generaloberst Erhard Raus, which were obtained directly from his family.  Notice how the tail of the tab is completely detached from the tailbone on the top tab.  While similar, there are many differences between both these tabs if you study them carefully.  It’s quite possible these were foreign made or possibly custom made by a tailor who didn’t have the insignia in stock (which did happen as I’ve seen various examples).


 (private collection)



Another photo of Erhard Raus wearing his rather unusual tabs.  Note the uneven symmetry along the bottom of the “brush” on the tail of the tab, the odd nose and the crazy embroidery around the prongs toward the rear of the tab.


 (private collection)








These are clearly celleon embroidered tabs (and shoulderboards) and are perfectly executed designs.  Notice how symmetrical the oval inside of the spine is and how straight the bottom of the tail is.  The only noticeable variation to the tabs are how much underlay is visible between the nose of the tab and the first prong.  It also looks like the tailor may have removed the buckram backing before sewing these tabs on, which allows the tab to conform to the shape of the collar and also make it more comfortable for the wearer.






In contrast to the previous tabs, these examples have a mostly closed spine. In this example, also notice how long and exaggerated the front and middle horns are and how far they dip down and above the prongs.  The rear horns are much shorter but notice how the top one curves and points straight towards the back of the tab.  I’ve seen a few versions of these none of which are the same, so either several different embroidery firms employed this design element or it was the same firm, but different individual embroiderers.  Questions like this we’ll most likely never know.



Here is an example of similar, though different design as the tab featured in the period photo above, though not quite as ornate in execution and with a tailbone lacking in detail, it also features the very exaggerated front and middle horns.


 (private collection)



Notice how these tabs are somewhat compressed from side to side and very tall, in comparison to some of the other tabs we’ve examined.  The embroidery is very “tall” top to bottom and has a very large tail, in comparison.  The nose of this tab is very pointy, much like the field marshal examples.  Notice how tall the center horn is at the top. One other common feature is how uneven the spine oval is.  It is rarer to find a center spine oval that is perfectly symmetrical.



Here’s an example of a very busy and crowded tab from an embroidery execution perspective.  Every element from the nose to the tailbone is very busy and heavily embroidered.  Notice how tall and fat the nose, first horns and prong are.  Even the tail is very “fat”.



Notice how high the top of the tail sits on this tab as well as how low the bottom or “brush” of the tail dips.



Here is an nice example of a tab in which the tail and tailbone is completely detached from the body of the tab.


In this example, notice how tall and distorted the prongs are, almost like they have been squished from left to right.  Quite often reproductions and replicas have taller prongs.  Note also how the bottom brush of the tail is at an upward slanted angle instead of a nice straight bottom edge.  It’s also a very small tail in comparison to the size of the body.



Notice that this General’s tabs have a tailbone that is well formed, but yet it sticks up above the tail rather than being centered into the base of it.  One has to wonder how something like this happens when using a template (unterlagen) that is supposed to be consistent.


Generalfeldmarschall Collar Tabs



Unlike standard Generals tabs, Field Marshal tabs are known to be much more consistent in their design and execution, leading many collectors to mistakenly thinking there is only one “accepted” design.  Since there were so few Field Marshals in comparison to Generals, it’s logical that a much smaller quantity of this insignia, and as a result fewer variations, were produced.  Most likely one firm, perhaps in Berlin, produced the bulk of these particular examples.  Above are pictures of Field Marshals wearing what is considered the typical, most commonly encountered tabs for this rank. I will refer to this style as Version A. The quickest method to identify these tabs are firstly by the very pointy protrusion on the nose of the tab, which  resembles a spade, and secondly by the very curly, ornate horns that frame the prongs.


These collar tabs are attributed to Field Marshal Keitel and are perfect examples of “Version A”, the most commonly encountered collar insignia for this rank, with the spade-like front nose and extremely curly and ornate horns framing the three prongs.





This is a variant Field Marshal tab, worn here by von Manstein, (who also wore the more commonly encountered tab).  I will refer to this style as Version B.  Notice how the nose of the tab doesn’t have the spade and the nose is more compressed.  The horns, while still rather curly aren’t quite as exaggerated as the Version A examples.  The third variation to this B style tab is the backbone does not have the three well-formed and pronounced balls and instead is somewhat bird shaped.


Here’s a nice example of the Version B variant tab showing the three different variations described above.  It is from one of the tunics belonging to Field Marshal von Bock.








This tab that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is wearing is distinctly different than the other tabs explored above, and is the third variation we’re looking at, which I call Version C.  Notice how short and stubby the nose of the tab is and how it almost looks like a flower.  Now look at the tail and notice how pronounced the brush is and how the underlay shows between the embroidery. Also take note of the tailbone and how it also resembles a flower, rather than the “balls” or “bird-like” pattern of other tabs.







Here are the exact same tabs, which are displayed in the Imperial War Museum in London.  They were given as a gift to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, along with one of Rommel’s shoulderboards.



There are a few other variations of Field Marshal tabs that I’ve encountered, most of which I suspect are manufacturers samples that were either produced in hopes of obtaining a contract, or were never sold or distributed. Until they can be identified in a period photo, they will remain as examples period produced, but never utilized.  In the future I will be expanding this section on a regular basis to add any new information that is discovered.


Also, if you haven’t been there already, please visit the Heer General collar tabs page which features examples for study that are from collections and museums.




I’m looking for good period photographs of original Heer General’s and Field Marshal collar tab variations.  If you have something to contribute, please visit the submitting photos page.