Previously, I discussed the camouflage schemes and patterns the Wehrmacht utilized with its ground vehicles, and provided imagery to support the information I provided. This time around, we’ll be discussing the tactical markings (and some non-tactical ones) that could commonly be found on German armored vehicles throughout the war.
I’d like to again clearly state my presentations are strictly apolitical and not partisan. I do not favor, support, advocate, or promote in anyway, any particular political, socioeconomic, or national agenda and it is my sincerest hope that those who read this article will appreciate that as I proceed. This is strictly for demonstrating historical significance and information. To start with, I’ll be covering the tactical markings and camouflage for German vehicles, though like other nations, to really cover every, single little detail, variation, or controversy would require an extremely large tome and more exhaustive research than I currently have the ability to perform (not to rule it out in the future). The reason I’m restating this (nearly verbatim) is that it is difficult to display or explain tactical markings on German armored vehicles, without invariably coming across the fact that Germany was controlled by the Nazis at the time (a fact I’m certain you are all distinctly aware of). While it is not banned in my country (the United States of America) many countries do have what are commonly referred to as ‘anti-Swastika’ laws, which prohibit displays of Nazi iconography with some very limited exceptions.
There’s at least two distinct situations were such iconography will invariably show up during this article, for (again) the purpose of historical presentation.
With that out of the way, we’ll get started with one of the most common set of tactical markings one would see on any German AFV during the war, it’s numbering.
German Tank Numbering System
Anyone who spends even a little time reviewing images of World War 2 German tanks will come across images depicting tanks with large numbers painted on them (usually three of them). While this can seem bewildering or mysterious at first, its really a pretty straight forward system of identifying vehicles and allowed tank commanders to visually confirm and keep in mind the placement of their vehicle crews, as well as assisting vehicle crews to identify friendly units, etc.
To explain the numbering system, first we must take a slight detour and explain the general organization of an ‘average’ Panzer Division circa 1943-44. In general, a Panzer Division consisted of the following:
1 – Panzer Regiment
2 – Infantry Regiments
Misc. Support Battalions* (Artillery, Recon, Anti-Tank, etc).
*(for those unaware, the German term for Battalion during World War 2 was “Abteilung”, so keep that in mind when you see something like “Schwere Panzerabteilung 503” which means “Heavy Panzer Battalion 503”)
Focusing on the Panzer regiment, we then have two regimental tank battalions (designated with Roman numerals I and II) and each of these regimental battalions consisted of (normally) 4 companies. The companies in the regiment would be numbered consecutively, meaning there were a total of eight numbered companies in our ‘average’ Panzer regiment (yes, there’s a reason I say ‘average’ in that manner and it will be touched on soon). Companies 1-4 would be in the I regimental battalion and companies 5-8 would be in the II regimental battalion.
The reason I’m referring to an ‘average’ Panzer division is that while this was theoretically how a Panzer division was supposed to be organized, the reality of what Panzer Divisions consisted of in practice could vary heavily depending on the individual Division in question. For instance, some very well equipped Panzer Divisions got a third regimental Panzer battalion (III) generally equipped with specialized or rarer vehicles, such as Tiger Is (if they were lucky). But this was an exception. Some had larger collections of Panthers or Panzer IVs or replaced a missing battalion with StuGs to keep their numbers up (there were about 10000 StuG IIIs of all variants produced throughout the war, compared with approximately 6000 Panthers and maybe 1300 Tiger Is). Prior to the battle of Kursk, participating Panzer Divisions grew to their numerically largest average size in preparation for the massive battle, and so did the numbers on the sides of their tanks.
With all of this in mind, we’ll now explain the numbering system and how it worked in general.
We’ll start with this tank as an example.
231 is broken down like so.
The first number means the Panzer company it is a part of. 2nd company, so I regiment of what ever Panzer division it is part of.
The second number shows the platoon it’s part of, so is part of the 3rd Panzer platoon.
The third number is the vehicle number in the platoon. So this would likely be the platoon leader’s vehicle, as it’s the 1st vehicle in the platoon.
We’ll go with a second one for demonstrative purposes.
This tank’s numbering means its 3rd company, 1st Platoon, 2nd Vehicle.
Now, this is the general rule of thumb, regarding the numbering system, but as you will soon see, the system had drawbacks, especially when it came to making it easy for others to identify the commander’s vehicle with relative ease. This, and the tendency for some Panzer Divisions to do their own variations on things, leads to a number of possible differences one might encounter. I doubt I can cover all of them reasonably at this time, but I’ll touch on a few.
Among others, Wehrmacht units would create fictional company numbers or jumble the order the numbers were to be read in. For instance, the 12th SS Panzer Division ‘Hitler Jugend’ would start their numbering of platoon vehicles at 5. So instead of 211 for ‘2nd Company, 1st Platoon, 1st Vehicle’ it would would be 215 for the first vehicle, then 216 for the second, and so forth. Some would remove the leading letter for Regimental officers (which was R). As an example, R01 could become 001 then 002, etc. The 2nd SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’ had their 8th Company comprised of Tigers and thus numbered their vehicles starting with ‘S’ for Schewere (Heavy). So they’d go S11, S12, S13, and so forth. There were also some who used only two numbers and then a large coloured insignia (such as the 505 sPzrAbt who sometimes coloured the knight’s plume and saddle a different colour) with each different colour representing a different company.
All of this, once again, was intended to obfuscate the structure of the unit being fought and deny the enemy the ability to clearly determine which vehicles had officers in them.
Here’s some additional images that clearly show vehicle numbering.
And here’s an infographic with some examples of tank Camouflage and numbers, helpful for anyone who wants to recreate tank numbering.
It should be noted that some units prior to the 1944 order mentioned in the info-graphic, used numbers with white outlines. The most common colours for this were black or red numbers with white outlines, though any number of combinations apparently existed during the war (likely due to either individual units wanting to be even more identifiable or the need to paint with what they had on hand/could find). The 1944 order, more than anything, solidified the size, font, and general structure (darker solid colour outlined in a lighter colour) of the vehicle identification number. This is why after the order was issued, you will notice more vehicles follow the white outline with red/black solid numbers and seem to be roughly the same size across all vehicles.
German Tactical Markings
The Wehrmacht used a wide range of tactical markings during the war, and actually changed some partway through. Most were used to identify the type of unit the vehicle was a part of (such as recon, signals, heavy tank battalion, etc) and individual tactical symbols and insignia used to identify the division or regiment the vehicle belonged to. Prior to and during the Battle of Kursk there was a specific system that was used, that utilized configurations of bars and dots to denote the division the vehicle belonged to, which was mostly (but not wholly) abandoned after the battle. Some units, such as the Heavy Tank Battalions and the various SS Panzer Divisions, had very unique and easy to recognize symbols and markings for their vehicles. For the sake of brevity, we’ll try to keep this narrowed down to examples found mostly in Panzer Divisions and Regiments and those related to tanks.
The most basic tactical symbol to indicate a vehicle belonged to a Panzer Division was the symbol of a rhombus (see infographic provided below) that indicated the vehicle belonged to a tank unit (and only tanks seem to have carried it). Early in the war, this was sometimes a metal plate that was attached to the vehicle and could have the 3 number tactical code for the vehicle. Sometimes they were left blank and attached to the side or back of the vehicle or had a single number in them or beside them that indicated the company they belonged to. Later on, the metal plate was replaced by a stenciled or painted in rhombus that could have several different markings that could further indicate what unit or role the AFV served.
If one wants a fairly large and accurate list of Panzer Division insignia, Wikipedia actually has a pretty good list of them here: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Insignia_of_the_Wehrmacht.
In addition to the rhombus, tactical numbers, and unit symbols, the Wehrmacht featured the ubiquitous ‘Balkenkreuz’ (lit. “Bar” or “Beam” Cross, from the shared term “balk”, which is a wooden beam used in reinforcing a structure). It could take a number of forms, from being very narrow and long, to short and squat. Early in the war, the Balkenkreuz was purely white which, as one might image, made excellent aiming points for enemy tank and anti-tank gunners. Their placement on a vehicle was determined first by the type (for instance Tigers mostly had theirs on the sides beneath the turret or on the back of the vehicle) and then by other considerations, like equipment racks, spare track links, etc. There was no real standardization for the Balkenkreuz, though later in the war they closely resembled the form of the ones used on Luftwaffe aircraft.
Finally, many Panzer crews would try to provide air identification for friendly aircraft so that they could focus on other units by displaying a swastika on the top portions of their vehicles. Normally, this was done with a rolled up flag that was unfurled when they knew or suspected friendly aircraft were operating near them, which could be rolled up if they came under attack by enemy ground-attack aircraft. Some vehicles also opted to paint it on.
Hopefully, this article has helped history buffs, modelers, and even game designers with their understanding of the visual characteristics of World War 2 German AFVs. Its a very diverse and complex area of study, due to the sometimes surprising lack of standardization, but one that is fascinating to learn about and it’s my desire and hope that others can appreciate and notice these details in the future, for those who take the time to integrate them into their work.
Next up in my on-going series about tank camouflage and tactical markings will be the United States Army and Marine Corps during World War 2!