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German “Iron” Rations (eiserne Portionen)
By Doug Nash


While on campaign, German soldiers during World War Two were served hot meals once a day from their company or battalion field kitchens. Ideally, while the troops were marching from one mission to another, the unit’s kitchen personnel (which included the mess sergeant or Feldkochunteroffizier and his cook’s assistants or Küchenbullen) would start the fires in the mess wagon trailer or Gulaschkanone early, so hot water for tea or coffee could be served out, especially during cold weather.  Normally, Landsers would be issued their bread ration for the day (Kriegsbrot, a dark, multi-grain bread), and would draw cheese (Käse), jelly or preserves (marmalade) and perhaps hard sausage (Dauerwurst) for their morning meal.  The hot coals in the Gulaschkanone would be kept going all day to cook stew or Eintopf for the mid-day meal, normally the largest meal of the day. The evening meal would look much like that of the morning, using the remainder of the bread issue, with perhaps the addition of instant soup or Wehrmachts-Suppekonserve).

When the tactical situation prohibited the bringing up of hot food for 24 hours or more (which occurred frequently), commanders could authorize soldiers to consume their iron or half-iron rations (eiserne Portionen or halb-eiserne Portionen).* The iron or half-iron ration, which consisted of canned meat and packaged crackers, was similar to the American Army’s K-Ration, though it was packed more simply and lacked many of the sundry items (such as cigarettes, chewing gum and instant coffee) that G.I.s were accustomed to.  This ration was carried in the bag on the Landser’s assault pack (Beutel zum Gefechtsgepäck) and was normally placed inside the Zwiebackbeutel.  The full Wehrmacht iron ration consisted of 300 grams of hard crackers (Zwieback, Hartkeks or Knäckebrot), 200 grams of preserved meat (Fleischkonserve), 150 grams of preserved or dehydrated vegetables (Gemüse) or pea sausage (Erbsenwurst), 25 grams of artificial substitute coffee (Kaffe-Ersatz), and 25 grams of salt (Salz).  The halb-eiserne Portion carried by Landser in their Gefechstgepäck consisted of the canned meat and crackers only.

In Dr. Hoehne's Der Feldverpflegungsbeamte (The Field Food Service Official) published in 1939, a book which serves as the cook’s version of the Reibert’s manual, the rules governing the use of iron rations are covered in Chapter VII, Section C, Paragraph 3.  It stated that "Whenever supplies and local procurement are not available, troops must utilize their iron rations…To prepare for cases such as these, two iron rations will be kept on hand for men and one ration of fodder for the horses.  Regarding the two iron rations, the reduced ration (i.e., the halb-eisernes Portion) will be carried by each man. It consists of Zweiback and canned meat and is intended to be consumed in the case that rations cannot be provided by the field kitchen.”

The “full” iron ration (with canned vegetables, salt, coffee, etc.) was stored in the field kitchen wagon or on the truck carrying the field stove. In addition to the components of the halb-eiserne Portion, there was also Wehrmachts-Suppe, or condensed soup, and coffee, which allowed the cooks to issue warm liquids as a supplement. These items were used only in the case where food supplies from the issue point [note: at regiment or battalion level] to the company field kitchens could not make it through. Also, prior to beginning a tactical march or a movement to contact, troops were issued an additional day's issue of iron rations if sufficient numbers were available. 

Supervision of this allotment and the iron rations was the duty of the food service officer or Feldverpflegungsoffizier.  At battalion level this duty was normally carried out by the Stabsintendant, who also served as the battalion’s logistical officer.  The iron ration was to be always carried by the troops, who were supposed maintain the rations in perfect condition. These items were only allowed to be consumed when the normal ration could not be issued and could only be eaten upon the expressed order of the troop commanding officer, i.e., the company commander.  No doubt, many a hungry Landser received several days of close arrest for eating his iron ration without permission. 

What did the eiserne Portion look and taste like?  While few examples of the canned meat are known to have survived the war and the lean postwar years that followed, we do have some detailed descriptions left by the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps, which conducted exhaustive tests on German rations from 1945 to 1947.  The report, published in May 1947, reviewed everything in the German soldier’s diet literally from soup to nuts and compared them to similar U.S. ration and subsistence items.  Fortunately, the reviewers conducted tests of canned meat products and the various types of crackers issued on a routine basis as part of the iron ration.

For example, the standard meat portion of the iron ration came packed in a can that measured 3 inches high by 2 ⅝ inches wide.  Weighing between 190 and 200 grams net, the can was normally packed with various pork or beef products, including the German version of Spam (Schinkenwurst) or corned beef hash (Labkaus).  The use of horsemeat was also common at the time.  Size had to be kept to a minimum in order for the can to fit inside the A Frame bag on the assault pack.  The cans were usually not labeled, since they were issued directly from the box or crate, which would have had a descriptive paper label glued to the outside.  The few markings that seemed to have been used were stenciled directly on the lids of the cans, consisting of codes such as “66 W 445” or “WEHRN – 18 T  H  850  7 – 10 – 43”.  Certainly nothing to indicate what exactly was inside the can!  The can itself was normally unpainted tin though some were known to have been coated with a thin layer of varnish to inhibit rust.

How did the meat portion of the ration taste?  According to the U.S. Army laboratory’s taste testers, the canned pork “was excellent in both appearance and flavor…packed solidly, with just enough fat to fill the spaces completely.”  The canned beef, which came in a similar-sized can, was “of excellent appearance and palatability…the quality was comparable to that of good American beef.  The flavor would have been improved by the addition of salt.”  Once the order had been given to consume the meat ration, the Landser would have opened his can using a privately purchased can opener of with the tip of his bayonet if nothing else was available.  If he had one in his possession, and if security conditions permitted, he might also have heated it using his Esbit stove.  The contents of the meat ration could easily be consumed in one sitting, leaving the hungry Landser with the bread portion of the ration to tide him over for the rest of the day or until normal issuing of rations was resumed. 

The cracker portion of the iron ration offered a bit more variety, though its taste apparently left something to be desired.  Depending upon what was available from Germany ’s food service industry, the Landser could have received 300 grams of Hartkeks, Knäckebrot, Zwieback, or plain crackers.  They could have been issued individually or pre-packed in paper or cardboard boxes.  Again, it would have had to fit inside the A frame bag or inside the bread bag or Brotbeutel.  Knäckebrot, or crisp bread, was similar to the Swedish crisp bread available at any modern deli.  It came packed four to a carton, with each piece measuring 5 ⅜ inches by 4 ½ inches by ¼ inches thick.   According to the taste testers, it “was somewhat darker in color than the similar American product.  It was hard and brittle, with a strong rye taste.”  The package contained “only 13 calories per cubic inch, while the average U.S. K Ration biscuit had almost 3 times as many calories…from a palatability standpoint, the American soldier would not have liked the whole rye taste.”

Hartkeks were another substitute for bread that found its way into the iron ration.  This item came in a package of six, with the contents wrapped in clear cellophane with colorful lettering on the outside.  One example of Hartkeks was XOX Kraft Keks (a company which still manufactures crackers and cookies today), which was essentially a hard biscuit fortified with vitamins and other nutrients.  Although each package contained well over 1,000 calories, American taste testers were skeptical, stating that “the flavor of the energy biscuits is difficult to describe, since it was utterly unlike any American commercial biscuit or those types packaged in U.S. Army rations.  It can only be said that they resembled in texture the regular sweet dog biscuit…”

Another common substitute for fresh bread in the iron ration was Zwieback, or the common cracker (which bore no resemblance to the modern baby teething Zwieback in the baby food section of your local grocery store).  These were often issued loose, directly from a tin box or wooden crate, and measured 2 ⅛ inches by 2 ⅛ inches by 3/16 inches thick.  According to the taste testers, “the crackers were a very hard, dense hardtack made from a very low-grade flour…they were made from flour, salt and water and had unlimited keeping qualities.”  No doubt these were a direct descendant of the same kind of hardtack used by the Kaiser’s armies during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War!  There were also sweetened round crackers called Duve Keks that came packaged 18 crackers (which measured 2 3/16 inches in diameter) to a heavy paper carton that weighed 100 grams net.  Three cartons would constitute a full iron ration of bread, though a Landser on the move would have trouble finding a place to put it.  These were manufactured by H. Bahlsen Keks factory of Hanover and “the taste and appearance were considered good.” 

When German manufactured items were in short supply, substitute items from occupied or neutral countries could be issued, such as Italian canned meat (nicknamed Alte Mann or old man) or Portuguese sardines.  Italian or French crackers would be issued as well.  The key concern was that the items were of equivalent weight and ruggedness in order to survive the rigors of being carried into the field.  Larger cans of meat products were issued as well, but due to their size, they would probably be issued in bulk during a halt in operations, since they were too large to be carried in a soldiers assault pack.  Most pictures showing canned meat depict the larger can, which would have been sufficient to feed two or three soldiers at a time.  This larger can, however, cannot be considered the same as the smaller tin that constituted the meat portion of the iron ration. 

While the German iron ration lacked the sundry items and may not have provided the variety that similar American rations did, they did what they were supposed to do – provide a day’s worth of food when cut off from the field kitchen or when normal subsistence had been interrupted.  Once his iron ration was eaten, there was still one more ration for each man in the company’s kitchen trailer.   Since the recreation of the new German Bundeswehr in 1956, German Army field rations have considerably evolved to the point where they are now comparable in flavor and nutrition to modern U.S. Army rations; but for the hungry Landser of World War Two, the eiserne Portion was the most he could hope for without resulting to foraging to fill his belly when cut off from his beloved Gulaschkanone.


 
Sources:

- German Rations and Subsistence Items, Volume II.   U.S. Army Quartermaster Food and Container Institute, May 1947, p. 2 and 20
- Der Feldverpflegungsbeamte (The Field Food Service Official), by Dr. Hoehne, Food Service Advisor to the German Army High Command, ( Berlin : Verlag Bernard und Gräfe) 1 August 1939 .
- Heeres-Dienstvorschrift 86/1 - Vorschrift für die Verpflegung der Wehrmacht bei besonderem Einsatz:  Einsatz-Wehrmachtverpflegungsvorschrift.  (Berlin: Reichsdruckerei, 20 June 1940).

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