Gravity Knife: A Wartime Souvenir


World War Two veteran Charlie Burgess brought home a German paratrooper’s knife, after his service in Normandy. 

Soldiers always try and bring back some form of souvenir from their campaigns and in the Second World War the ‘Nazi dagger’ was seen as a prized item worth acquiring.

Charlie Burgess served with the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars and was interviewed for our World War Two War Stories Exhibition and he can be seen talking about his experiences at Villiers-Bocage in our Normandy section of the exhibition.

His daughter Diane knew he had a knife as a wartime souvenir, she wrote of it;

“Dad always referred to it as a German paratrooper’s knife. I have no idea where he got it from. He also brought back a Leica camera but with the arrival of the Brownie Box camera, my mum thought it was out of date so it went into the bin!

“The knife however sat in the bottom drawer of our sideboard and my dad used to open his letters with it. Because I always showed an interest in it my dad gave me the knife many years ago. It has remained tucked safely away only coming out when I have shown it to my children.

“I think that with doing the interview for the exhibition this encouraged dad and I to talk about do you remember when you used to use the knife for letter opening (lots of laughs and my goodness a lethal weapon used in front of a child!)

“Happy memories but I can’t have it on show and I think between us we thought it might be a good idea if I offered the knife to you. 

“For someone who never talked very much about his experiences until later life those war years had a huge impact on him.” 

Gravity Knife with blade extended
By holding the wooden gripped handles downward, whilst pulling up the side switch or lever, gravity drew the blade down. The awl fitted (shown at the top of the photo) could be used for untangling knots.

The knife – now kindly donated to the Tank Museums collection by his family – is what was known as a Luftwaffe Fallschirmjäger-Messer – a knife carried by German aircrew and perhaps more famously Paratroopers.

It has become known as a Gravity or drop knife as the blade can be deployed by holding the wooden gripped handles downward whilst pulling up the side switch or lever. This allowed gravity to draw the blade down to its full length. Returning the side switch back to its original position locks the blade in place. The knife also has a marlinspike or awl fitted and this could be used for untangling knots.

The shape of the blade, with a relatively blunt end, showed this was a knife with a practical purpose rather than a fighting knife, that would have a more pointed end. The knife was issued to German aircrew and paratroopers to keep in in an accessible pocket to use – potentially with one hand – to cut themselves free of parachute rigging or their harness in an emergency.

Left – Charlie Burgess was filmed about his experiences as a tank driver during the Second World War, including action at Villers-Bocage.

This knife is of the earlier pattern made from 1937 – 1941 – a later model could be taken apart. It has the manufacturer’s logo on it of a seated King and the abbreviation SMF – this stands for Solinger Metallwaffenfabrik.  The town of Solingen, where the knife was made, had a centuries old tradition of blade manufacture and still makes knives today. It is also stamped ROSTFREI (rust free) indicating the 4inch blade is of stainless steel construction.

Where Charlie obtained his knife is not recorded – but his memento now resides in The Tank Museum’s Collection along with his account of he helped liberate Europe in 1944-45.