Main | About Us | Membership | Articles | Events | Photos | Links | Books | Contact Us
 

Tinned Meat in the German Army Iron Ration
By Douglas E. Nash


The Wehrmacht’s Eiserne Portionen or iron ration was a pre-packaged emergency combat ration somewhat like the U.S. Army’s K-Ration, designed to feed one man for one day, but without the amenities that accompanied the American ration.  The iron ration consisted of 250 grams of Zwieback (hard biscuits or crackers) packed in waxed paper, 200 grams of canned Fleischkonserve (tinned meat), and 150 grams of canned Suppenkonserve (either condensed canned soup or Erbswurst, dried split pea sausage that could be reconstituted as a stew).   This ration, also called the “Full” iron ration, was carried in the kitchen’s supply wagon located in the unit’s Tross, or field trains.

The Fleischkonserve and the Zweiback was normally issued immediately prior to a unit’s departure for the field, and replenished when necessary.  According to regulation, the tinned meat and crackers were supposed to be stored in the small pouch affixed to the Sturmgepäck , or assault pack, attached to the soldier’s Y-straps, along with the soldier’s weapon’s cleaning kit, sweater, Zeltbahn rope and pegs.  It was a tight fit, to say the least.  Soldiers could also store the tinned meat in his Tornister backpack, if he was assigned to the Tross (supply column) in a supporting unit. 

During peacetime, tinned meat was rarely issued, since it was more economical to feed troops directly from the field kitchen.  Until September 1939, units rarely strayed far from their Kaserne in any case, unless they were training at one of the larger Wehrmacht maneuver areas such as Grafenwöhr or Sennelager.  Once the war began, however, necessity often forced commanders to order their men to open their tinned meat and crackers, especially when they had outrun their supply lines or had become encircled. 

Tinned meat was usually issued directly from a wooden crate or cardboard box. Standard sized crates seemed to have been designed to hold fifty 850-gram tins and were supposed to be recycled for further use.  The tins themselves usually had no labeling whatsoever, unless it was procured directly from civilian stocks, in which case it would have had normal commercial advertising labels.  Any description of the contents of Army-issued tinned meat would have been found on the crate or cardboard box itself.  Unless he was paying attention at the time of issue, the average Landser had no way of knowing what type of tin meat he had received.  The marking on the tins themselves consisted of indented or raised stamps placed on one end of the lid during manufacture.  These were usually a series of codes that denoted canning plant, date of manufacture, lot number, and service that had ordered the product. 

For example, tinned meat destined for the Kriegsmarine’s U-Boot crews were normally stamped “KM” for Kriegsmarine.  Tinned meat destined for the Heer might be stamped “WH” and so forth.  Dates were normally just the last two numbers of the year the meat was canned, such as “41” or “43”; though sometimes the month might be added as well, depicted as “6/43” or similar.  Manufacturing codes varied by packing plant, such as “FL SP-8009,” “850Q,” “1509,” etc.  For example, the lid of a can of beef might be stamped with the following: “KM 4 R 10/42 850Q” – decoded, it meant Kriegsmarine issue, manufactured October 1943 by packing plant # 850Q.  Some tins were additionally stamped with the acronym “DIN” to signify that it had been inspected by the Deutsches Institut für Normung, the German Standardization Institute, responsible for setting and enforcing manufacturing standards.  No guidebook to decoding the identities of the packing plants is yet known to exist.

Tinned meat was issued in a variety of sizes, ranging from the smaller individual 200 gram ration that measured 3 9/16” x 2 7/16” (roughly the size of a tin of today’s condensed milk) to the squad-sized 850 gram can that measured 4” x 4 7/8”.  The squad-sized can was large enough to feed 3 – 4 men, though its contents were often cooked into a stew with the added vegetables from the Iron Ration.  The cans, which were hermetically sealed using the latest techniques at the time, were made from a variety of metals, usually tin-covered steel or galvanized metal.  To inhibit rust or corrosion, many of the tins were covered with a thin coat of varnish or lacquer.  To supply the seemingly inexhaustible demand for canned meat, packing and canning plants throughout Germany and the occupied countries were dragooned into the war effort, with cans of beef from France mingling with cans of ham from Denmark, Germany, Italy, Belgium and even tins of sardines from Morocco.

There were quite a variety of tinned meats available, though the hungry Landser seldom got much of a choice – usually, he lined up with his Kameraden and took whatever the cook and his helpers issued out.  But the selection available could include the following:

Bacon
Bacon and Peas
Beef
Beef and Gravy
Beef with Beans
Potted Meat
Beef and Barley with Carrots
Beefsteak Rolls in Gravy
Beef and Pickles in Gravy
Roast Beef
Steak and Gravy
Beef, Lentils and Potatoes
Beef, Beans and Potatoes
Beef Goulasch
Blood Sausage
Bologna Sausage
Frankfurters
Ham
Ham Lentils and Potatoes
Head Cheese
Horsemeat
Liver Sausage (Liverwurst)
Meat and Rice
White and Green Beans with Mutton
Pork, Peas and Potatoes
Pork packed in Fat
Sardines
And so on…

While these may in themselves sound appetizing, any reliance on them for an extended period of time would quickly result in troops becoming heartily sick and tired of them, forcing many Landser to fall back on their own ingenuity to scrounge what he could from the local inhabitants or from any neighboring Luftwaffe or Allied unit, such as the Italians, in order to keep things interesting.

The tinned meat portion of the iron ration had already acquired a poor reputation even prior to the North African campaign and had become a notorious black joke among both Germans and Italians troops by 1941.  In North Africa, German and Italian troops had to rely much more on canned goods than the Anglo-Americans, since fresh food was scarce due to the harsh climate, lack of refrigeration capability and insufficient shipping space.  To make up this shortfall, the men of Rommel’s Afrikakorps were frequently issued tinned meat, cheese, and black bread.   It is a small wonder that the entire Axis force in North Africa did not fall victim to chronic constipation!

When German tinned meat was in short supply, a substitute might be issued from Italian food stocks.   Like the meat in the German Eiserne Portion, the Italian variety, marked only by the initials “A.M.” stamped upon the lid, lacked taste and texture, but apparently tasted even worse than the German issue.  Though the canned bread and cheese remained popular, with their characteristic sense of gallows humor Rommel’s veterans soon nicknamed the canned meat alter Mann (old man), anisus Mussolini, (Mussolini’s ass) or alter Maulesel (old mule), figuring that the stamping “A.M.” had to stand for one or the other!  (Actually, AM stood for Administrazione Militare, the Italian equivalent for War Department. The various nicknames stuck, long after Italy’s surrender and the dissolution of the Italian Army’s Administrazione Militare.  George Forty, The Armies of Rommel, p. 76).

Upon receipt of his Iron Ration, each soldier’s Soldbuch or pay book was annotated to reflect the date of issue, making each man accountable for his ration and responsible for its upkeep.  The Iron Ration was supposed to be opened only upon receipt of a direct order from a unit’s commanding officer and was reserved for emergencies only. Eating any contents of the Iron Ration without permission, such as the tinned meat portion, was a serious offense, though in situations when the food supply had been cut off or if they simply were not getting enough to eat, hungry Landser undoubtedly ate them without permission and damned the consequences.

To prepare their tinned meat, soldiers could eat them cold or heat them with their folding Esbit field stoves using trioxane tablets.  Then, using can openers and eating utensils, they would open them up and eat their contents straight from the can, as any G.I. would have done, or spread the meat on the Zwieback or crackers, perhaps with some canned or tube cheese for a garnish.  That, and a hot cup of Ersatz coffee and a hunk of Kriegsbrot – what else could a hungry Landser desire?

Postwar analysis and taste test were conducted on a selection of captured German rations in 1947 by the US Army’s Food and Container Institute to compare them to similar American rations.  In regards to the typical tinned meat, most of it fared favorably, though some evinced disgust among the taste testers.  For example, the bacon and peas fared poorly.  According to the taste testers, “The bacon was cut in medium-sized cubes, and, as is common in most German meat products, was very fat.  The peas were of a number of varieties and sizes but were comparatively tender.  The product had an unappetizing appearance.” 

Steak and gravy fared far better: “The meat slices retained their shape very well and had an excellent appearance.  The product might be compared with Swiss steak and gravy…” Beef, beans and potatoes were also a crowd pleaser.  According to one taste tester, “The product contained cubes of beef and potatoes, with an equal quantity of navy beans.  The appearance was fairly good, and the flavor was acceptable.  The meat and potatoes had apparently been cubed in a machine and the beans precooked prior to being placed in the can.  There was quite a bit of ‘purge’ with indication that moisture had been added.”  The small tin of canned pork was assessed to be “excellent in both appearance and flavor.  The pork was packed solidly, with just enough fat to fill the spaces completely.”

Today, of course, except for inedible 65-year old cans of tinned meat that fetch over $200 apiece in the collectors market, it is getting increasingly difficult to find tinned meats in the grocery store that match the World War II German issue in size and appearance.  With pop-top lids, plastics, and other modern packing and canning techniques in wide use, today’s German Army re-enactor has to either search Third World marketplaces or other out-of-the-way food stores to find tinned meat that matches the WWII German issue in content and appearance.  One thing for certain – whatever you buy, remove any paper labels, as these seem to have been relatively rare or non-existent. 

 


 
Sources:

- George Forty, The Armies of Rommel, 1997.
- Dr. Fritz Höhne, Der Feldverpflegungsbeamte, 1939.
- Heeres-Dienstvorschrift 86/1 - Vorschrift für die Verpflegung der Wehrmacht bei besonderem Einsatz:  Einsatz-Wehrmachtverpflegungsvorschrift.  (Berlin: Reichsdruckerei, 20 June 1940).
- Douglas E. Nash, Victory Was Beyond Their Grasp: With the 272nd Volks-Grenadier Division from the Hürtgen Forest to the Heart of the Reich, 2008.
- Quartermaster Food and Container Institute, German Rations and Subsistence Items, May 1947.
- Agustin Saiz, Deutsche Soldaten: Uniforms, Equipment & Personal Items of the German Soldier 1939-45, 2008

BACK TO ITEMS

   

Copyright © 2005 der Erste Zug All rights reserved

Web Design by Jon Bocek