27 May 2016

The Zeltbahn. Off on a tangent (again): Zeltbahns and Bivvies

Of Zeltbahns and Bivvies (Part 1) 

I rip open the Bolt Action package. Great ! Hanomag, Late War Wehrmacht Grenadiers, GIs. Some of the German figures are wearing Zeltbahns. Bivvies. That's what they were called in South Africa. Bivvies. Short for Bivouac, makeshift tent. The tent (well sort of) that is a poncho, that is a stretcher, that is camo, that is a ground sheet, that is...

My mind races back. I am 16. I am at Veld School. Preparation really for national service, for conscription into the SADF, to fight in the border war that raged in Angola and Namibia from 1966 to 1989.

All of my childhood and subadult life was dominated by this conflict. Military cadets in khaki brown uniform from the age of 14, Veld School and leadership courses through ages 16-18.

           Some came back carried in their bivvies...

 " Wees Paraat!" Be prepared! One year of conscription, quickly became two years. Called up for military service at age 16 for the first time. Service could be deferred if you were still at school or university studying for something the military could use, but only as long as you continued to pass your exams.

My first conscription papers came ... Report to 5 SAI (SA Infantry) Ladysmith, then it was 3 SAI Kimberley, 6 SAI Grahamstown, 7 SAI Phalaborwa. (Everybody feared that one)

7 SAI: The worst infantry training camp, right on the Tropic of Capricorn. Hot as hell, and a reputation to match. The call-up instructions came every 6 months. If you did not respond or report, the Military Police came around to collect you to help you "klaar in" (enlist).

Oh, so you're now off to Medical School...
 ah, almost a doctor...

The direction of the call-ups changed:

1 Military Medical training unit Voortrekker hoogte, 3 Mil Bloemfontein, and for some strange reason again 7 SAI Phalaborwa.

As I was studying and in hospital training, I was given exemption from National service until I had fully qualified as doctor. You had to apply for this exemption.

Every 6 months or 12 months, depending on what that clerk in Pretoria felt like.

SADF Bivvies in use

So I am 16 again. In the pouring rain. A forced night march. Wearing the bivvie as a poncho. My legs are soaked from mid-thigh down. Full pack on my back. Water squelching in my boots. A 20 km night march. In winter, in the pouring rain. Shivering. At least no gun to carry...I still have that Bivvie.

Back to here and now.

So yeah, I look at the models with Zeltbahns. Interesting word that. Zelt. Bahn.

Means "Tent Strip"  Mostly interpreted as "Tent quarter" in translations and discourses on the internet.

The intent was that 4 of these triangular bits/strips of canvas would make a small tent
(Zelt = Tent in German, Bahn = strip, a term also used for roads, railways, etc. (Autobahn, Eisenbahn)

A simple piece of equipment, but a multi-faceted life-saver for many a soldier.

The Zeltbahn hails from the first world war, and the interwar years. Originally it was square, like the 1980s bivvie so familiar to SA troopies.

The types of historic zeltbahn can be classified according to their shape. Each type has standardised dimensions and button hole arrangement, which allows them to be combined to make up larger shelters or tents.

The Zeltbahn was a multi-purpose piece of equipment that was issued to every soldier at the beginning of his basic training. This simple but ingenious item could be combined to make tents or shelters of various sizes, for all sorts of camouflage and as a rain cape, an improvised floatation device or an emergency stretcher. German army regulation Heeresdienstvorschrift HDv 205/1 issued on 20 April 1932 with an amendment in 1937 specified how the Zeltbahn 31 was to be used.

Zeltbahn tents and shelters

Zeltbahn shelter

A single Zeltbahn could be used to provide protection against wind and rain by arranging the shelter quarter at an angle with the tip attached to a tree, post or similar object at breast height and the lower edge pegged to the ground. The same method could be used against walls, slopes, trenches, etc., with the wide edge at the top, if necessary. The top could be attached using a guy rope, hook or something similar.

Single Zeltbahn used as a simple shelter
Tent half

Two Zeltbahnen buttoned together on a long side could be used to provide cover against wind and weather from behind and the side for 2 or 3 men.

The tent half could be supported by a tent pole (made of 4 pole sections) and a guy rope. It could also be attached to a tree, wall, etc., as described above.

Two Zeltbahn quarters used to make a shelter for 2 or 3 men
Shelters and tents as described above could be erected very quickly and used when there were not enough shelter quarters available to make a complete tent or when special circumstances, such the vicinity of the enemy, required a high level of readiness or to hide small outposts from view in suitable terrain. Typical examples of this were for positions such as sentry and observation posts, machine gun crews and weapons pits, signals troops, command posts, etc.
A helmet was frequently placed on top to enhance the water resistant qualities of the shelter

This is the basic enclosed tent that nominally offered space for at least four men. To build the tent, four shelter quarters were buttoned together leaving one side open. This tent skin was then laid out in the shape of a square and pegged at the two corners of one side. The tent was then lifted from below with a pole made of four sections and the other two corners were pegged. The unbuttoned side served as the entrance. A canopy could be made by undoing the buttons on both sides of one section and supporting it with two poles, each made of four sections, and securing it with two guy ropes. The sides were also pegged at the bottom using rope loops attached to the middle eyes.

Many other variations on this basic theme was possible, all requiring more zelt bahnen and increasing in complexity.

Tents were meant to be erected in such a way that they offered the smallest possible surface of attack for the wind.

The tent sections were to be buttoned together on the ground to form the skin before the tent was erected. The edges were to be buttoned in such a way that the overlap pointed away from the wind to prevent rain and snow from being blown between the edges of the tent sections. All sections with the tip at the bottom (eight-man and house tents) had to be arranged to overlap.

Regulations recommended that a stone or piece of wood be placed under poles to prevent them from sinking into soft ground. Improvised pegs or poles were to be used if there were not enough. The slit at the centre of a tent section could be held open using a suitable stick for observation or ventilation purposes.

A small trench could be dug around the edge of the tent to help rain water drain away. The spoil from the trench could be used to cover the edge of the tent on the ground to make the tent as wind and waterproof as possible.

The history:
Square zeltbahnen

This type includes the standard 1892 pattern issued by the German armed forces from the end of the nineteenth century and throughout World War I until at least the early 1930's, and variants used by other nations, also throughout this period and post-World War II, e.g. by Switzerland, Russia, France, Italy, the East German NVA and other Eastern Bloc nations.


Triangular: The WW2 Zeltbahn 31

The Zeltbahn was a multi-purpose piece of equipment that was issued to every soldier at the beginning of his basic training. This simple but ingenious item could be combined to make tents or shelters of various sizes, for all sorts of camouflage and as a rain cape, an improvised floatation device or an emergency stretcher. German army regulation Heeresdienstvorschrift HDv 205/1 issued on 20 April 1932 with an amendment in 1937 specified how the Zeltbahn 31 was to be used.

The 1931 pattern - patented as the "Warei" Zeltbahn, replaced the square Reichswehr pattern. It was produced in plain colours and a variety of camouflage patterns and was used by all branches of the German armed forces, party organisations and police and auxiliary units. Similar shelter quarters  were also produced by other nations with their own camouflage patterns in the post-war period, e.g. France and Sweden. Plain green and grey 1931 pattern shelter quarters were also used by the German police and Bundesgrenzschutz Federal German border police (BGS)  post-war.

The BGS and Austrian armed forces also used a modified triangular pattern that was not dimensionally compatible with the standard 31 pattern. Unlike the triangular 31 pattern, the bottom edge of this type is not straight.

The Zeltbahn 31 pattern forms an isosceles triangle with a narrow rectangular section that appears to have been added along one side. This section makes it possible to refer to one edge of a triangular Zeltbahn as the base or bottom edge. The German term for this is Grundlinie. (Ground line) The term for each of the other sides is Schenkelseite, (limb or connection side) referred to here as long or side edges. The corner opposite the bottom edge is referred to as the tip or top corner throughout this site. Although it may seem trivial to point this out, it is the simplest way to differentiate between the three corners and sides when describing eye and button hole arrangements and their variants.

Post-war shelter halves and sections:

Similar to the American design and still used by the Bundeswehr today, is a true shelter half and a completely different shape to its predecessors. It has been produced in plain olive green and at least two different camouflage patterns. These halves are made up of rectangular sections, the short sides of which are not straight, but fashioned in such a way that they form pointed or triangular end sections, thus forming the end flaps of the pup tent. The Norwegian armed forces also used a shelter section in the shape of two triangles joined together to form a lozenge.

Zeltbahn camouflage patterns

Shelter quarters can be found in a wide variety of camouflage patterns, many of which are highly similar or related in some way. The first regular camouflage shelter quarter material was introduced by the Italian armed forces in 1929. This pattern continued in use almost unchanged until it started to be replaced by more a modern pattern in the 1980s.

Shelter quarters were also produced by Germany and other nations of plain material without any camouflage pattern.

Wehrmacht camouflage patterns

The German armed forces used a range of similar designs that evolved from the early 1930s until 1945. The basic style is referred to as the splinter pattern by most collectors and authors.

Army splinter pattern

 Splinter pattern camouflage material, Dark and light sides of reversible splinter pattern material

 This was the basic pattern developed for the German armed forces in 1932. The original German term for this design was Buntfarbenaufdruck.

The pattern was roller-applied and repeated approximately every 44 cm. The standard design was printed in lighter colours on one side of the Zeltbahn material, and more subdued colours on the other.

It was used for the standard camouflaged Zeltbahn 31 issued to all units of the army, navy and airforce until 1945. It consisted of green and brown splintered designs printed on a grey/green or grey/tan base colour with a further disruptive "raindrop" design printed on top.

The coloured geometric design was not new, as similar colours and styles had already been used on German helmets during World War One and even earlier on naval vessels.

The pattern was also used on other materials to make padded reversible winter suits, mittens, smocks and helmet covers, among other items. These materials were usually only printed on one side and thinner than the cotton duck used for shelter quarters.

Luftwaffe splinter pattern

The German air force also developed a slightly smaller version of this design for the camouflaged paratroopers smock introduced in 1941 and the field jacket for Luftwaffe ground troops introduced in 1942. This style is often referred to as splinter B. The only other documented use of the Luftwaffe pattern material was for helmet covers, grenade pouches and ammunition pouches developed for use by paratroopers. With the exception of scraps of material used for small and often hidden reinforcing sections of Zeltbahnen, the Luftwaffe pattern material is not known to have been used for shelter quarters.

Tan water pattern

This modified version of the standard splinter design was introduced in 1943. A red-brown shade was added and the clear-cut edges of the splinter shapes were diffused, although the basic structure of the pattern remained. The pattern changed again in 1944 and the edges between the splinter areas virtually disappeared. The raindrop design was retained throughout.

This pattern saw widespread use on smocks, padded winter jackets and trousers, toques, helmet covers, gloves, camouflage aprons and gas protection suits. However, it was not used for Zeltbahn shelter quarters.

Modes  of wearing the Zeltbahn: Undeployed

As a poncho/Rain coat

Part 2 will contemplate some of the other camoflage patterns employed by other branches of the German military in WW2


  1. Excellent 'little' article Herman... a knew a little about this but not to the depth you have gone into, nor your personal experiences with it!
    I think we're all grateful for your carried on / worn on person pics , ... great for any budding kraut painter...

    1. Thanks Scott. I love chasing the history behind the uniform or bit of equipment a little.

  2. An excellent post. Your SADF reminiscences were particularly interesting. I first saw the Zelt mentioned in one of the Funcken books and even owned a repro version as part of my airsoft kit for a while. I still have the East German version.

    1. Thanks Tim. The shelter was an essential part of every soldier's kit, then and probably still is now. I still use my Bivvy for tramping (hiking) as it is known here in NZ. It automatically goes on the pack, with the water bottle.

  3. Great article. Thanks for the link.