German WWII tactical signs
During the last war, Nazi-Germany had a complex system of
tactical sign. This was used to mark each vehicle with a sign that
would identify its unit and division, its method of transportation, its
weapon and military branch.
Below is a useful explanation of the whole system, with
images of the most important tactical signs. This information is
published with permission of the GD for
CM website. We are greatly thankful to its author. Some parts have
been complemented with additional information from our own researches.
The "Balkenkreuz", or German national insignia, was used to
identify Wehrmacht vehicles from before the outbreak of war. These
markings were usually reserved for armoured vehicles, though
occasionally some softskins (especially captured ones) used them.
Poland - 1939
During the Polish campaign, the Balkankreuz was a solid
white cross affixed to prominent surfaces of German tanks. The markings
were found to be too highly visible, especially by enemy gunners, and
so the centres were obscured with mud, or painted in dark yellow (the
standard colour that divisional markings were painted in standard
panzer divisions (GD was an exception to this in that GD's divisional
insignia was in white).
France - 1940 & Russia - 1941-1943
After Poland, the "correct" national insignia design was
finalized, being an open white cross, with no black authorized for
either a border or the centre of markings. The size varied from vehicle
to vehicle, but on the Panzer III and IV was about 10" or 25cm tall.
This insignia remained the authorized national insignia until the
change from dark grey vehicle paint ("Heeresgrau") to dark yellow
("Einheitsfarbe", "Erdbeige") in 1943, and was the national insignia
that Grossdeutschland vehicles were supposed to have in France in 1940
and also Russia from 1941 on.
Russia - 1943-1945
In 1943, all new German vehicles were produced in a base
colour referred to variously as Dark Yellow or Ordnance Tan
("Einheitsfarbe", "Erdbeige"). Many older vehicles were painted in the
new camouflage colour as well. The standard German Balkankreuz was
again modified (as it had been on the light coloured vehicles used in
Africa from 1941 on) by painting the centre of the crosses black.
There were many, many variations of the "standard" German
cross seen on vehicles; they were often applied in the field, whenever
new field-applied paint schemes were done, for example. These
variations had black borders, longer arms than normal, narrower arms on
the cross, etc.
The most common forms of aerial identification were either a
painted swastika on the roof of vehicles, or more commonly the use of a
cloth flag strapped to the rear decking, roof or hood of the vehicle.
1940 - 1942
The most common reference source for field units was printed
before the advent of the panzer division and well before the outbreak
of war, and expanded on after the outbreak of hostilities. In January
1943 this source was amended and many changes and additions were
instituted. In general, the prewar system consisted of three types of
Method of transportation:
By combining the three types of symbols, in combination with
other special designators, all the major units of a division could be
described. There were many variations from the "official" symbols. As
well, numbers were sometimes used to indicate subunits (ie an infantry
company or assault gun battery). Company sized units were also
indicated by thickening one side of the weapons branch symbol, usually
the left side. These tactical symbols were painted on the driver's side
of the vehicle on both front and rear; on fenders or directly on the
Headquarters were designated by flags of specific shapes,
sometimes combined with the symbols above.
Some specific examples:
This symbol would have designated the 10th Company of an Infantry
Regiment. The square represents infantry, the two wheels represent
motorized method of transport, and the Arabic 10 designates the
The 1st Company of a fully motorized reconnaissance unit would have
used this symbol; the A stands for "aufklärungs", or reconnaissance.
An example of the tactical sign for a motorized transport company.
The 2 designates the second battery while the symbol designates towed
Vehicles belonging to a Battalion headquarters bore this symbol.
This symbol was most likely carried by a vehicle belonging to the HQ of
a motorized artillery regiment.
The addition of tanks and other armoured vehicles to the
German Army resulted in the adoption of special symbols for these types
Vehicles used by officers and commanders were marked with
pennants, usually affixed to the fenders of staff cars, though some
commanders also used armoured halftracks as command vehicles. The
different levels of command had different pennants; a Divisional
pennant was triangular, black over white over red.
Battalion Pennants were triangular, with waffenfarbe (branch of service
colour - see chart below) used to designate the type of unit.
Battalions within a regiment had a black bar across a waffenfarbe
Independent battalions within a division had a black cross across a
Armoured reconnaissance units used a golden yellow pennant with black
Panzer Brigades used a black pennant with rosa waffenfarbe bar.
|motorcycle and some
armoured reconaissance units
|Panzergrenadier (motorized infantry)
|Jaeger (light infantry) and mountain troops
|Nebelwerfer (smoke units)
Officers (or officials with officer-equivalent rank) and
Generals had authorized rank pennants; until April 1941, this pennant
was as shown at right; a grey pennant with white border and national
emblem. In April 1941, generals received their own pennant, with a more
elaborate gold border replacing the white border, and a gold eagle
replacing the white eagle. Command pennants were carried on the left
(driver) side of the vehicle, and officer pennants on the right
(passenger) side. The pennants were covered with cloth covers when the
officer was not actually using the vehicle.
Units of battalion, regiment or brigade size were designated by a flag
bearing the Waffenfarbe, or arm of service colour, associated with that
unit. Grossdeutschland's command vehicles would thus have been marked
by a unit pennant in white. Upon expansion to divisional status, GD
panzer battalions would have used rosa (pink), artillery red, signals
lemon yellow, pioneers black, reconnaissance golden yellow, and the
infantry (later panzergrenadier and panzerfüsilier) regiments retained
The term Harko (Höherer Artillerie Kommadeur - Higher
Artillery Commander) designated both an officer and a headquarters unit
that co-ordinated all the artillery units within an Army. The pennant
at right, authorized in October 1943, was used to designate these
During the invasion of France, two formations named for
their commanders, Panzer Groupvon Kleist and Panzer Group Guderian,
wore capital letters denoting these designations on their vehicles as
an additional form of identification. After the invasion of Russia,
other formations sometimes wore similar unofficial markings. Panzer
Groups were again designated for Barbarossa; Panzer Groups were
eventually designated Panzer Armies.
German soft-skin vehicles and armoured cars or APCs were
given individual number plates, at first painted on metal signs and
attached, but increasingly painted on the vehicle itself as the war
progressed. The plates were white, being rectangular on the front of
vehicles and square on the rear, sometimes with two used on front
and/or rear instead of a single plate. Motorcycles had smaller plates,
with the front plate being curved to fit the contour of the fender.
Numbers were issued from a series, and a prefix identifed the branch of
service. Unit identification was often indictated by the use of a
Feldpost stamp on the plate, bearing the unique numerical designator
for that unit as assigned by the army post office. These numbers were
assigned at battalion and sometimes company/battery/squadron level.
||Wehrmnacht - Heer vehicle
||Wehrmnacht - Luftwaffe vehicle
||Waffen SS vehicle
As an aid to operating in formation, a system of vehicle
numbers was developed for German tanks (that was also used on armoured
cars, armoured personnel carriers and self-propelled weapons). These
numbers were painted on turret and hull sides, in the main, and the
style of numbers used changed throughout the war.
In general, the system involved use of 3 digits numbers; the
first digit indicating the Company the tank belonged to, the second the
Platoon, and the third the vehicle's position within the platoon. Some
panzer divisions and units used variations, such as one or two digit
numbers, specifiying only individual tanks or platoon/tank combinations.
A typical tank company would thus appear as:
Company command vehicles would have a second digit of 0 to
Battalion command vehicles would have a Roman numeral
designating the battalion. The commander of the first battalion of a
panzer regiment might thus have tank I 01. The second
battalion commander would have
II 01, etc. Other
officers were designated with higher numbers; in general vehicle 02
designated the executive officer, 03 the signals officer and 04 the
ordnance officer of that battalion.
Regimental command vehicles had an R instead of the Roman
numeral to indicate a staff vehicle. R01 was the regiment commander,
R02 the executive officer, R03 the regimental signals officer, and
higher numbers designated other staff officers.
Some battalions and regiments used non standard numbers.
Other units avoided the use of the R, as it gave away the status of the
officer commanding the tank. Instead, "fake" company numbers, referring
to companies that did not exist in a panzer regiment (for example, the
9th company) were used, as was the number 0 (ie 001, 002, etc.).
Divisional and Regimental Markings
The unit listing pages on this site will show the divisional
markings carried on unit vehicles; some regiments adopted special
markings also (especially panzer regiments), and independent units like
heavy tank battalions or Assault Gun detachments also wore special
insignia. These markings could be found on all manner of vehicles,
including tanks, halftracks, trucks, motorcycles, even horse drawn
field kitchens were found to be marked with divisional markings.