German Armor Balkenkreuz and Tactical Numbers
By Christian Ankerstjerne
To help quickly identify vehicles during combat, German armored vehicles were painted with Balkenkreuze (bar crosses) and tactical numbers. The tactical numbers are often called turret numbers when referring to turreted vehicles. Both the crosses and the number system changed during the war. In addition, individual units sometimes diverted from the official system. These descriptions should therefore only be seen as a general guide.
Balkenkreuz (Bar Cross)
The German Balkenkreuz national marking originated during the First World War, and continues to be used by the Bundeswehr today.
Inspectorate 6, responsible for motor vehicles, ordered on 13 July 1939 that a white Balkenkreuz should be applied to all armored vehicles.
Recognition markings for German armored vehicles
All German armored vehicles (tanks, command tanks, armored reconnaissance cars, and armored radio cars) are to be recognized by a white bar cross (see drawing) on all four sides.
Tanks and command tanks will also receive a white chalk line on a suitable area of their rear deck as a recognition marking for friendly aircrafts.
Implementation provisions will be provided to the relevant units with order O.K.H. AHA/In 6 (I.Kav./IV) Nr. 3003/39 g.
Armored vehicles that do not have this bar cross must be considered enemy armored vehicles.
A chart of the German armored vehicles is currently being printed and will, once completed, be distributed to the troops without the need for requisitions (at first only to the anti-tank units).
Following the invasion of Poland Inspektorate 6 changed the design and placement in an order dated 26 October 1939 to no longer use the solid white Balkenkreuz.
Recognition markings for German armored vehicles
Changing the 1939 Army bulletin order number 525 on page 230, the white bar crosses on the front of all armored vehicles are to be removed.
The recognition markings remaining on both sides and the rear are to be changed to the open bar crosses (see drawing), similar to the markings on German aircrafts.
Bar width approximately 2,5 centimeters.
These bar crosses are not to be painted on the turrets like previously, but only on the superstructure.
The second order and drawing appears to have been interpreted differently by different units. Some units only painted their vehicles with the white part, others adding the central, black cross, and others still also including the thin, black outline on the sides of the arms of the cross. It is not clear from the order or drawing whether the cross was intended to have a thin outline, or whether this was only to make the drawing clearer.
The most common variants used during the war were the four white corners without a filled-in center and the white corners with a black inner cross. For both variants, the thickness and length of the bars varied from unit to unit.
Even before the war, a three-digit number system was implemented. The first digit identified the company, the second the platoon, and the third the individual tank. The third vehicle of the second platoon of the third company would thus be 323. If the second digit was a zero, the tank belonged to the company headquarters. If numbering more than nine companies, the full company number was still used. For example, the second vehicle of the first platoon of the tenth company would have tactical number 1012. Thus, the first company of a Panzer battalion would have looked liked this:
- Company headquarters
- 101 (company commander)
- 1st platoon
- 111 (platoon commander)
- 2nd platoon
- 121 (platoon commander)
- 3rd platoon
- 131 (platoon commander)
Some units used variations of the above system. For example, both Panzer-Regiment 15 and 24. Panzer-Division has used two-digit turret numbers. Half-tracks, such as the Sd Kfz 251, often received four-digit tactical numbers.
Battalion and regimental headquarters used a variety of markings. Regimental staff tanks, especially early in the war, replaced the first digit with a capital letter R, e.g., R01, R02, and R03. Roman numerals were similarly used to identify the battalion headquarters tanks. In the case of Abteilungen, best translated as independent battalions, the battalion headquarter vehicles could simply have a zero as the first digit. An example of such a system was the November 1943 tactical number system of 1. Panzer-Division, which used an R for regimental staff tanks, Roman numerals for battalion staff tanks, single digits for company command tanks, and double digits for platoon command tanks.
The disadvantage of such markings was that they also made it clear to the enemy which tanks were command tanks. As a result, more obscure schemes were invented. One such scheme, introduced by the Inspector General of the Armored Forces on 24 April 1944, lists the following examples for Panzer-Grenadier regiments:
- Regimental headquarters
- 3701 (regimental commander)
- 3702 (regimental staff Sd Kfz 251)
- 2nd platoon, regimental staff company
- 3721 (platoon commander)
- 3722 (platoon Sd Kfz 251)
- 1st Battalion
- 2701 (battalion commander)
- 2702 (battalion staff Sd Kfz 251)
- Signals section
- 2711 (section commander)
- 2712 (section Sd Kfz 251)
- 2nd Battalion
- 2801 (battalion commander)
- 2802 (battalion staff Sd Kfz 251)
- 3rd Battalion
- 2901 (battalion commander)
- 2902 (battalion staff Sd Kfz 251)
Style and Color
While the tactical number system varied somewhat from unit to unit, the style and color of the tactical numbers differed dramatically. During the early years of the war, the tactical numbers were often painted on small, rhomboid metal plates attached to the sides and rear. Later, the numbers were painted directly on the turret or superstructure. A 1944 order specified the following style:
- DIN numbers (see below).
- 30 centimeters tall.
- Five centimeters wide, with a three centimeter black inner number, with a white, one centimeter outline.
- Numbers were to be located on the sides and read, in the following locations:
- Sd Kfz 251:
- Sides: On the upper armor plate, with the middle of the number approximately two meters before the rear end. The Balkenkreuz was placed on the stowage boxes, below the number.
- Rear: On the middle of the upper armor plate (or, on the Ausf. D, at the same height as the side number), across the door opening, with the Balkenkreuz on the lower armor plate.
- Sd Kfz 250 (early):
- Sides: On the rear upper armor plate, just before the rear end. The Balkenkreuz was placed at the front upper armor plate, just after the front end.
- Rear: centered at the same height as the side number, above the Balkenkreuz.
- Sd Kfz 250 (late): As the Sd Kfz 251.
- Armored reconnaissance cars: At both sides at the rear armor plates of the turret.
- Sturmgeschütz III:
- Without Schürzen: On both sides of the superstructure, behind the Balkenkruez.
- With Schürzen: Centered on the upper half, above the Balkenkreuz.
- Jagdpanzer 38:
- Sides: Centered on the superstructure, with the Balkenkreuz on the Schürzen.
- Rear: Centered above the Balkenkreuz.
- Jagdpanzer IV: Centered on the superstructure sides, with the Balkenkreuz on the Schürzen.
- Jagdpanther: Centered on the superstructure sides and rear, above the Balkenkreuz.
- Elefant: Centered on the superstructure sides and rear, above the Balkenkreuz.
- Marder I, Marder II, and Marder 38T: Centered on the superstructure sides and rear (where applicable). Balkenkreuz was placed either below, in front of, or after the tactical number.
- Nashorn: Centered on the superstructure sides and rear, above the Balkenkreuz.
- Sd Kfz 251:
- Allgemeine Heeresmitteilungen : Sechster Jahrgang 1939. Berlin : Oberkommando des Heeres, 1939. 429 p. BArch RH 1/162.
- Beschriftung der Panzertürme. 1. Panzer-Division, 1943. 2 p. 1.Pz.Div. Ia Nr. 4152/43 g.Kdos.. NARA T315 R32.
- Taktische Nummern für Pz.Gren. (gep.), Pz.A.A., Pz.Jäg. Abt. und Pz. Artl.. Berlin : Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen, 1944. 11 p. Gen. Insp. d. Pz. Tr. Abt. Ausb. Nr. 4940/44 g.Kdos.. NARA T78 R621.