These, which appeared both on motorised vehicles and, with modifications, on flags, signboards and other plaques, were of two basic types:
COMBAT IDENTIFICATION SIGNS: These were officially restricted to front line vehicles and comprised variations on the national insignia, with large identification letters and numbers of various patterns. The Nazi swastika was little used for this purpose except as part of the national flag which in the early years of the war was often draped over the top of vehicles to identify them to friendly aircraft.
Crosses (kreuzen), however, were widely used, mainly for ground identification of AFVs; as the photographs in this book show, patterns differed widely with local painting but in general German built, and therefore easily recognised, vehicles had small black-filled crosses on the sides and rear, while larger white outline crosses adorned captured or unfamiliar vehicles.
In addition to the insignia, tactical numbers were provided to enable a unit commander easily to recognise and communicate with individual vehicles within his unit. These were normally three-figure numbers of which the first showed the company within the mother unit, the second the Zug or platoon within that company, the third indicating the individual vehicle within the platoon. HQ vehicles carried distinctive ciphers consisting of either a capital R (Regiment) or a big Roman I, II or III (Abteilung) with a two-figure number from 01 to 09 indicating specific Officers (eg R01 was the regimental commander). Within the companies certain combinations also identified the sub-unit commanders and their aides: 01 the company commander, 02 the CSM, while platoon leaders took 11, 21, etc. Thus the commander of 3rd Zug in the 2nd kompanie of the 2nd Abteilung (6th company in the regiment) would be 631.
These numbers were officially restricted to tank units, armoured infantry and armoured engineer units, armoured infantry companies of the recce Abteilung and unit staff armoured vehicle up to Regiment level. They were normally displayed prominently on armour or turret sides and rear in a variety of types. Originally they were on detachable rhomboid boards, presumably to facilitate transfer to a replacement vehicle, but these were replaced after the French campaign by painted numbers usually a white outline with black or red centre depending on the vehicle camouflage. In practice these codes were also used by some SP artillery and assault guns which officially had battery letters instead, and by some armoured units that should have come under the scheme outlined below.
NON-AFV IDENTIFICATION SIGNS: These were normally unit or sub-unit identification signs but in two distinct series — Divisional or organic abteilung (eg assault gun brigade) signs; and tactical insignia for lesser units.
Every Division or Brigade had its own identifying symbol as in other armies. Examples are given in above but in general the less potent the unit the more elaborate was its sign. Thus the Panzer Divisions normally had strictly simple signs in yellow or white; the few exceptions were those reformed from infantry units fairly late on or were SS. These insignia were at times changed or swapped between Divisions for security reasons and examples of variations are shown.
Infantry Divisions, on the other hand, usually had quite elaborate heraldic or pseudo-heraldic emblems based on their territorial associations and these were normally retained throughout a Division’s career. The Divisional sign normally appeared on all vehicles and was extensively used on signposts, etc.
These were based on the symbols described earlier but adapted for their particular purpose. They were officially applied to all motor, and many horse-drawn vehicles other than AFVs and there were standard sizes and positions for them as shown above. The latter were the front left-hand mudguard or front armour plate, and the rear mud flap or tailboard. Those for motorcycles were half size and applied to front and rear mudguards. In practice, however, size and shape and position all varied, only the yellow or white colouring being standardised. These signs were also used on signboards and indicator posts to denote unit areas in a large camp or assembly area.
OTHER FIELD SIGNS: Other markings found were standard lettered signs, often in Gothic characters; indicating the direction and position of various HQs and administrative formations, and the various pieces of information often painted on vehicles — weight restrictions, etc. The most important of these were the vehicle number plate, each consisting of two letters and six or seven numbers and carried by all motor transport. There were various series of which the most important were WH — army; WL — Luftwaffe; WM — Navy; and SS (as the formalised double-lightning flash) for the Waffen SS. The army also had such things as minefield warning signs and other items, often produced in differing forms to indicate ‘true’ and ‘dummy’ hazards to the initiated.
AIR-GROUND RECOGNITION SIGNS These were either various combinations of light signals, fired from signal pistols, or else patterns made by laying out strips of cloth. The light signal varied widely.