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.



National Markings

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.



Aerial Identification

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.



Tactical Markings

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 symbols.

Tactical Signs:

Weapons Branches:

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 body.

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 company.

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 artillery battalion.

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 of units.



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 background.


Independent battalions within a division had a black cross across a waffenfarbe background.


Armoured reconnaissance units used a golden yellow pennant with black vertical bar.


Panzer Brigades used a black pennant with rosa waffenfarbe bar.

branch colors

artillery RED
infantry WHITE
armoured reconaissance GOLDEN YELLOW


motorcycle and some
armoured reconaissance units
Panzer ROSA (PINK)
Panzergrenadier (motorized infantry) GRASS GREEN
Jaeger (light infantry) and mountain troops LIGHT GREEN
Nebelwerfer (smoke units) BORDEAUX RED
transport units LIGHT BLUE
Pioniere (engineer/pioneer) BLACK
military police ORANGE

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 white.



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 officers/units.


Panzer Groups

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.


Number Plates

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.

WH 12345 Wehrmnacht - Heer vehicle
WL 12345 Wehrmnacht - Luftwaffe vehicle
12345 Waffen SS vehicle


Vehicle Numbers

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:

THIRD COMPANY 1st vehicle 2nd vehicle 3rd vehicle 4th vehicle 5th vehicle
First Platoon 311 312 313 314 315
Second Platoon 321 322 323 324 325
Third Platoon 331 332 333 334 335
Fourth Platoon 341 342 343 344 345

Company command vehicles would have a second digit of 0 to indicate headquarters.

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.