World War II Relic Hunting

by Daniel Bernzweig

From 1939 to 1945, the world was engulfed in World War II. No conflict has defined modern history the way that World War II did. It was possible for the war to occur because of the triumphalism Britain and France displayed in their treatment of Germany following the First World War. The overly punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 created a deep well of resentment within Germany at how it had been reduced to a second-rate power, which, when combined with the economic crisis brought about by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression which followed it, allowed a party of complete misfits led by Adolf Hitler to seize power. This was a strange coalescence of circumstances. A few years earlier, for instance, the Nazis of the Nazi Party had been considered borderline criminals and had garnered less than 5% of the vote nationally in Germany.

By the end of 1933, Nazi Party was in total control of the country. But while this was the ostensible root of the second global conflict of the twentieth century, the war was, in a much greater sense, the clash of ideological forces which had been unleashed by modernity. In particular, it was an explosive showdown between fascism and communism on the European continent, with western liberal democracy and a brutal form of Asian nationalism in the shape of the Empire of Japan thrown into the mix. Yet while Britain, the US, and the other western allies played their parts in defeating Nazi Germany, the real crucible of the conflict was on the Eastern Front. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, it unleashed a level of brutality across Central and Eastern Europe that has few parallels in human history. But when Hitler failed to take Moscow and Leningrad that year, it also doomed the German cause.

Though it took over three years, the Russians gradually pushed them back. Eventually, they came to Berlin early in 1945, aided by the western allies having opened other fronts in southern and western Europe. Unsurprisingly, such a vast global conflict that lies in the relatively recent past has left behind a huge array of material cultures lying just beneath the ground and waiting to be discovered. Here we provide a brief overview of some of it. The vastness of World War 2 resulted in numerous changes to the global environment. Adolf Hitler's violent campaigns in and around Germany, along with military activities in the Pacific, resulted in the scattering of historical items around the world. On an even greater scale than World War I, the second World War involved almost too many nations in counting; the United States, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and even New Zealand. During World War II, African Americans, as well as Japanese American troops, fought alongside white soldiers in segregated units. Many also participated in the Civil Rights Movement.

The Pacific Theater and the Equipment of Battle

Before the Manhattan Project and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, marking a pivotal moment in human history and violating human rights laws for millions of Japanese citizens, the war was alive with fury. Japan's infamous war crimes against China displayed a bit of the brutality that came from the war, and their involvement in Asia can still be discovered by metal detectorists. American battle gear can also be found in Iwo Jima, a testament to the importance of the U.S.'s capture of that symbolic Japanese location.

By V.J. Day and the surrender of the Japanese, millions of bullets had been fired in the Pacific War. A precursor to the savagery that would be seen in the Vietnam War, these bullets and casings can still be found today. Indeed, from South Africa to South Korea, the German invasion of Poland that launched World War 2 was felt worldwide. While victory came at a great cost, and World War II facts can be haunting, it cannot be denied that the conflict left its mark on history. But the goals outlined in the Atlantic Charter were staunchly strived for, and though the Cold War would be born from the aftermath of the Great War, the end of the conflict was nothing short of a life-changing moment in global history.

Queen Elizabeth II of England

With a history of 70 years as Queen of England, at the start of the war in 1939, Queen Elizabeth II was 13 years old. She held the title of Princess at the time. Interestingly, Princess Elizabeth did serve in military service as an automobile mechanic in the woman's division of the British military. Churchill served as the prime minister of Britain during World War II. As a result of Churchill's leadership, the war against Germany turned around. The United Nations was also established after WWII due to Churchill's contribution to the establishment of the United Nations.

How the United States Enters World War II

The US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu was attacked by Japanese forces on December 7th, 1941. Approximately 2,400 Americans were killed in the attack, both military personnel, and civilians. Congress was called into a special session by President Roosevelt to discuss war strategy. The United States declared war on Japan on December 8th, 1941. The death of Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, marked the start of Harry Truman's presidency. President Truman oversaw the war until its end on September 2, 1945.

Western Europe and the Technology of War

In the Western Theater, Allied Forces were using weapons that have left traces around the European continent. The M1 Garand Rifle was the standard weapon for US soldiers during the Second World War. Given the popularity of the M1 Carbine, it's understandable that .30 carbine bullets can be found on beaches and battle sites across Europe, North Africa, and East Africa. But there are other items of import from the war effort that don't come from the Allied forces.

From Nazi Germany, the Waffen-SS belt buckle, among other uniform ornaments, still infects parts of western Europe's soil so many years after VE Day (Victory in Europe Day). By the time of President Franklin Roosevelt's involvement in the Potsdam Conference, as history remembers clearly, London had already been bombed by the German troops consistently for half a decade. The remains of such weapons still mar the landscape and have affected both the British government and the United Nations.

In addition, one can't forget the involvement of the Soviet Union in World War II. The Soviet force's defensive fronts and destructive warfare style were what kept Hitler's forces at bay. Red army steel buttons are still littering parts of eastern Europe, a testament to the efforts of Soviet troops and part of the war's military history. The Soviet Union, or USSR, was officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from the early 1900s through 1991.

Weapons of History's Deadliest War

For metal detectorists who respect the history of this great conflict, its powerful reminders are still sprinkled around the world. Where does one start in terms of trying to assess what the most significant weapons of World War II were? The range of battles was so varied that some weapons were central to some and peripheral to others. For instance, in the early days of the war in Poland in September 1939 and France and the Low Countries in 1940, the German Panzer IV tanks with their 7.5cm KwK L/48 main gun turret were the deciding factor on the battlefield as Germany conquered Europe with its Blitzkrieg tactics. After that, the war with Britain became about British battleships and German U-boats and fighter and bomber planes in the sky.

The metal detectorist is unlikely to find either a Panzer or a German U-boat underground while out detecting! It is much more likely he or she will come across one of the main infantry weapons borne by German, British, American, Russian, Japanese, Italian, Canadian, and French troops or one of the allied force troops. One of the most common weapons used by many different armies during the war was the M1 Garand Rifle. This was a semi-automatic rifle that entered service in 1936 and was widely used by the western Allies, being the standard service rifle issued to US soldiers during the war. Indeed General George Patton, by some estimates the greatest Allied general of the war, called the M1 Garand 'the greatest battle implement ever devised.' The M1 Garand was matched amongst the western Allies only by the M1 Carbine. This semi-automatic rifle was used not just by American, Canadian, and British troops but also sent in large numbers to their allies amongst the Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese Communists during the war in their fight to free eastern China from Japanese occupation.

For the Germans, the weapons most widely used were the Karabiner 98K, a bolt-action rifle that predominated in the ranks of the Wehrmacht throughout the war, and the MP 40, a submachine gun that was first developed by Heinrich Vollmer in 1938. Finally, for the Russians, whose sheer numbers decided the fate of the war between 1941 and 1943, the weapons they most regularly used were the Mosin-Nagant Rifles, the AK-47 of their day. These were originally developed in the late nineteenth century, but such has been the utility that variants of them have been used in wars down to the present day. There were many, many other common firearms. For example, the Beretta Model '38 was the official submachine gun of the Italian Army used throughout the war. It was also employed by some of the Axis allies in Europe, such as the Romanians. Many side-arms have become synonymous with the war as well. Surely the most famous are those borne by German officers, the Luger, the Walther PP, and the Walther PPK, which have gained attraction as they were amongst the world's first successful double-action semi-automatic pistols.

Bullets of World War II

By the 1930s, as the guns which would become ubiquitous on the battlefields of Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific were being developed, the days of developing generic bullets which could be used in most types of guns were long gone. Thus, there were large as many different types of bullets being produced during World War II as there were different types of guns. A notable kind was the .30 Carbine, a rimless cartridge that was manufactured for use in the M1 Carbine. Because the M1 Carbine was distributed not just amongst American army personnel but a great number of its Allies, this became one of the most widely produced bullets of the Second World War and the one which individuals are most likely to discover when relic metal detecting. Amongst the Russians, the Mosin-Nagant Rifle used 7.62 x 54mm rimmed rifle cartridges. The first of these was brought into use in the 1890s, but they were still being employed by the 1940s, with only some slight variations. The Germans produced one of the most widely utilized bullets in modern history in the MP 40 submachine gun. This is the 9 x 19mm Parabellum, a rimless, tapered cartridge that was originally designed by George Luger in 1901. It remains in use throughout forces such as the US police services down to the present day.

Buttons and Buckles in a Global Conflict

As with any other war, a metal detectorist might well stumble upon metallic buttons and buckles from World War II. The former had become less decorative and more practical by the time of the mid-twentieth-century conflict. Thus, belt buckles often resembled modern belt buckles to a much greater extent than nineteenth-century army belt buckles, which were highly decorative. However, there were some major exceptions. One such relic that might be located with a metal detector was the belt buckles worn by members of the German Waffen SS. These were silver plates which, in addition to bearing the swastika, bore the motto Meine Ehre heisst Treue, 'My Honour is Loyalty. While belt buckles like these were becoming a more rarefied aspect of military uniforms, or at least a less significant one, by World War II, the buttons which were used to tie up a soldier's uniform were more significant, for weather played such a critical role in the determination of the outcome of the conflict. Accordingly, individuals were issued different clothes for summer and winter with different buttons. For instance, American servicemen were issued a wool serge four-button coat in winter. Nurse's uniforms often included a suit jacket with gold colored (i.e., gilt) army buttons. Generally, US army buttons of all kinds at this stage tended to bear the federal seal after dispensing with the wide variety of different buttons, often using state seals and other insignia, which proliferated during the nineteenth century. As with the Americans, British, Germans, and other powers, the Russians also distributed buttons and buckles with idiosyncratic insignia on them. Perhaps the most widely distributed were the plain steel buttons used in the jackets of Red Army soldiers, which bore the Red Army Star with the Communist hammer and sickle image within it. If one were to find metallic buttons from the Second World War while metal detecting somewhere in Eastern Europe, this would be the most likely button to uncover.

It is nice to know that in Washington D.C. on November 11, 2004, the World War II Memorial was dedicated to the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial. There are three parts to this memorial: the bronze sculpture, the sunken plaza, and the reflecting pool. A statue depicts a soldier raising his arm in salute, a symbol of the victory over fascism. This is a lasting tribute to all that served and paid the ultimate price.

© 2022 Detector Electronics Corp.