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Unteroffizier (English: Subordinate Officer, otherwise historically a Corporal) is both a specific military rank as well as a collective term for non-commissioned officers of the German military that has existed since the 17th century. The term continues to be used by the modern-day German Bundeswehr.
There are two classes of non-commissioned officers (in the following, the titles of the German Navy (Deutsche Marine) are given in brackets):
- Unteroffiziere ohne Portepee, comprising:
- Unteroffiziere mit Portepee, comprising:
Informally, the non-commissioned officers with portepee are often called "the Feldwebel [Bootsmann] ranks" or even altogether Feldwebel [Bootsleute], which creates a similar confusion as exists already with the word Unteroffizier. In the navy, the official terms remain more common. The word Unteroffizier, in turn, is getting a third meaning, namely: non-commissioned officer without portepee, as opposed to Feldwebel.
Unteroffizier translates as "subordinate-officer" and, when meaning the specific rank, is in modern-day usage considered the equivalent to Sergeant rank under the NATO-standard rank scale, historically though the Unteroffizier rank was considered a Corporal and thus similar in duties to a British Army Corporal. In times of peace an Unteroffizier was a career soldier who trained conscripts or led squads and platoons. He could rise through the ranks to become an "Unteroffizier mit Portepee", i.e. a Feldwebel, which was the highest rank a career soldier could reach. Since the German officer corps was immensely class conscious a rise through the ranks from a NCO to become an officer was hardly possible except in times of war. The Unteroffizierskorps was made up of professional soldiers which formed the backbone of German armies. This tradition has not been changed by the Bundeswehr which is a classical conscript army but where all ranks of Unteroffizier and up consist only of professional soldiers who sign up for a period extending conscription.
Unteroffizier is one of the few German military ranks whose insignia has remained unchanged over the past one hundred years. The shoulder boards of a modern Unteroffizier are relatively similar to the World War I and World War II designs.
A modern-day German Bundeswehr Army Unteroffizier typically commands squad sized formations or acts as an assistant platoon NCO. The rank is also used in the modern-day German Luftwaffe. In the Bundeswehr the grade of Stabsunteroffizier (a Junior NCO) ranks between Unteroffizier and Feldwebel (a Senior NCO).