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I was a truck driver for an antiaircraft artillery unit, the 776th AAA AW [Automatic Weapons] Battalion, 49th AAA Group, Third Army. When not towing guns, we would often be stationary for a week or two and take on other jobs. We were in Germany after the liberation of Dachau concentration camp when I was asked to help transport survivors for rehabilitation. Inside the camp, I found this object. The handle is about 12 inches long; the strips of leather, about 16 inches. I don’t know what it is for certain. Can you help?
—Athanace “Joe” Landry, Shirley, Massachusetts

In spite of its sinister look, this is a clothes beater—or Klopfsteg in German army slang—which was standard issue to German service members. The Germans’ thick wool uniforms and blankets tended to collect large quantities of dust and caked mud, and the Klopfsteg was simply a tool issued to soldiers for beating them clean. Could it have been used for other purposes? Of course it could. However, it was designed and manufactured as a fabric cleaner, not as a weapon. 

Most examples I’ve seen are marked with the initials “RAD,” for Reichsarbeitsdienst, or Reich Labor Service—a counterpart to the Works Progress Administration in the United States at the time. Like the WPA, the RAD was established to mitigate the effects of unemployment during the Depression. The Third Reich leadership also used the Labor Service to clandestinely train soldiers to rebuild its military, which during the 1930s was strictly prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles.

Once hostilities began in September 1939, the RAD functioned more like engineers, supporting the German army by building fortifications, roads, and bridges. In the closing days of the war, RAD members were trained as antiaircraft gun crews and, in several isolated incidents, used as infantry. It makes sense that many a Klopfsteg was RAD marked, considering the dirty nature of the work its members performed.  —Larry Decuers, Curator 

This column was originally published in the October 2018 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.