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The "A" Frame Bag
By Doug Nash


One of the most misunderstood and puzzling items of German WWII accoutrements is the little bag that attaches to the assault pack, commonly known as the “A” frame bag.  While many people purchase this item of equipment when they build up their German impression, they do so without truly understanding its actual purpose.  In the hopes of exploring the origins of this little item and shining a little light on this aspect of the life of the ordinary Landser, this article will review the history, design specifications and regulations outlining its utilization. 

Up until the mid-1930s, the German infantryman had gone to war carrying his extra underwear, socks, shelter quarter, blanket, extra boots and iron ration in the horsehair-covered Tornister, or backback.  This heavy and ungainly item became one of the images that came to mind, along with the Pickelhaube, when one thought about the German soldier of the Great War. 

In line with the evolving doctrine that foresaw Germany ’s next war as one of mobility and movement, the new Wehrmacht gave much thought to lightening the soldier’s load and providing him with field equipment that was as compact and functional as possible.  Since it was large and cumbersome, many of the officers of the Army’s uniform board recommended replacing this venerable backpack (known with little affection as the “Schwere Affe” or “heavy ape”) with something more ergonomically functional.  To this end, the Oberkommando der Heeresleitung or OKH issue an order in early 1938 that called for the lightening of the soldier’s basic load and experimentation on what means would work best to allow the soldier to carry the most of what he needed with the smallest amount of impedimenta.

To make a long story short, after several months of experimentation and field-testing, the Army’s uniform board settled on adopting the Battle Pack or “Gefechtsgepäck” and issued an order requiring its adoption on 12 July 1938 for use by infantry units.  This item consisted of a webbing pack frame with a small canvas bag, to be utilized as a standard assault pack.  Attached to this by two leather (later canvas) straps was the Zeltbahn and standard mess kit.  In turn, the Gefechtsgepäck was attached to the supporting straps (Trageriemen or “Y” straps) utilizing the D-rings attached to the straps for that purpose.

The bag for the Gefechtsgepäck, officially labeled the “Beutel zum Gefechtsgepäck,” was made out of olive-brown or gray light canvas and measured 28 x 13 x 8.5 centimeters.  Its flap had an inside pocket that allowed the Landser to store his rifle cleaning kit model M34.  The regulation also specified that the bag would contain the following items and the following items only:  one woolen sweater (Schlupfjacke), 1 half Iron Ration (verkürzte eiserne Portion), and 1 tent line (Zeltleine).  The half iron-ration consisted of a can of beef or pork measuring 3” x 2 ⅝”, weighing 200 grams, and 300 grams of hardtack crackers (Hartkeks).  Together, these items were fairly bulky and took up most of the space in the Beutel zum Gefechstsgepäck, once they had been placed in the mythical “ration bag.”

Once packed, the Beutel was closed utilizing two lengths of webbing tape that were passed through a steel grommet on each side.  The bag itself was affixed to the Gefechtsgepäck by means of a short webbed tab on each side that fastened with a steel button.  If required, a greatcoat and blanket could be attached to the pack using leather or canvas straps passed through 3 metal D-rings sewn into the top and sides of the frame itself.

Carried in the platoon’s baggage train (which consisted on one wagon per platoon) was each Landser’s Tornister, not worn but packed with his Greatcoat, 1 pair of lace-up boots, 1 shirt, 1 pair of socks, 1 pair of twill trousers, 1 hand towel, and washing, cleaning and repair equipment (soap, brush, sewing kit, etc.).  Also packed or strapped to the Tornister were the pole sections for the Zeltbahn and two tent stakes.  Needless to say, if the soldier was far away from the company trains (Tross), he might not see his Tornister for a long time, a common experience, especially during the early days of the advance in Russia .

What was the average Landser to do if this were the case?  The problem with his equipment was that it was specifically designed to prevent him from carrying anything extra and the size of the bag on his Gefechtsgepäck made it nearly impossible to carry what the regulations required, much less anything extra.  The only recourse was to carry as much as one could in one’s uniform pockets or breadbag (Brotbeutel), which wasn’t very large either.  Experiments done by the author show that it is nearly impossible to fit the iron ration, rifle cleaning kit, tent rope, and sweater into the tiny little bag (it works if the sweater is very thin or nearly threadbare!).  When you try to affix the bag to the A frame in the conventional manner (with the Zeltbahn on top), it becomes almost impossible to fit anything in it except the cleaning kit and iron ration.  And even then, it becomes very difficult to gain access to the bag to get to the ration, unless you stop and remove your Y-straps or have a Kamerad do it.

Which is exactly what the Heer uniform advisory board wanted, I believe.  The only way an individual under close supervision could get to his iron ration or cleaning kit or sweater in combat or on the march was if he was ordered to do so and was helped by a Kamerad.  Thus, while a hungry Landser may have been tempted to make a grab for his iron ration, it was challenging to do so without being caught.  Since the iron ration could only be consumed on orders, it made the enforcement of this edict rather easy.  Therefore, a very practical and ergonomic piece of equipment also made the maintenance of discipline somewhat easier.  Most photos taken of soldiers in combat from 1939 – 1943 show Landsers wearing their equipment in the prescribed manner.

As the war progressed increasingly against Germany ’s favor, the scarcity of strategic materials, such as canvas, resulted in the A frame and bag being issued in smaller quantities and usually only to infantry units.  As the Wehrmacht’s professionalism and discipline began to break down by mid-1944 due to the enormous losses in small–unit leadership caused by fighting a three-front war, the enforcement of uniform regulations began to be increasingly relaxed.  By late 1944, the A frame with its cursed little bag became a rarity, as troops increasingly used the far more practical Rucksacks to carry their kit with increasing frequency.  Though Landsers may have carried more weight in their Rucksacks, evidently they preferred that as opposed to being able to carry too little in the A frame bag.  


Sources:
- Gepäckerleichterung der Schutzenkompanien der Infanterie, OKH Regulation Number 541/38 g, 12 July 1938 .
- Feldgrau:  Mitteilungen einer Arbeitsgemeinschaft, Volume 2, Number 2, March 1954.  (Friedrich Schirmer Publishing, Hannover, Germany, 1954), pp. 1 – 3. 
- German Rations and Subsistence Items, Volume II.   U.S. Army Quartermaster Food and Container Institute, May 1947, p. 2 and 20. 
- John R. Angolia and Adolf Schlicht, Uniforms and Traditions of the German Army 1933 – 1945, Volume 3.  (San Jose:  R. James Bender Publishing, 1987), pp. 66 and 70 – 7.

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