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Panzer Markings and Camouflage


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When one starts to write about the camouflage and markings used on German tanks, one is immediately struck by the number of exceptions to the rule that were used in practice. Although definite guidelines were set out for the manner and type of markings and camouflage to be used in the field, in practice these rules seem to have been either interpreted in differing fashions, or quite simply ignored or amended to suit local tastes or conditions. This was particularly true during the latter days of the war but other exceptions to the rule can be discovered even during the early days of 1939 and 1940. Therefore this section does not set out to describe what was a rigid marking system universally applied, but merely to give a general outline of what was intended to be applied to tanks in the way af camouflage, tactical markings and insignia.

To every rule stated below there were many variations and exceptions, and it should be borne in mind that many of the markings were applied by soldiers with varying degrees of skill, and that they were applied under a wide range of circumstances.

Tank Camouflage
German tanks were originally delivered in a dark grey finish known as Panzergrau. This grey shade, which incorporated a blue element, was one of the most widely used and encountered of all German tank camouflage finishes, but after about 1942 or 1943 German tanks were delivered in an alternative sand-coloured shade which had originally been applied to Afrika Korps vehicles serving in Africa. This sand-yellow shade was also found to be very suitable for the conditions on the Russian steppes, but in 1944 tanks were again being delivered in the original grey finish. On occasion, tanks were encountered with a basic earth brown scheme, but this was in the early years of 1939 and 1940 only.

Tanks were rarely used in action in their basic colour schemes alone. In addition to the basic grey or sand yellow, tank units were issued with supplies of paint in shades of olive green, light grey, red-brown and dark yellow. These were applied by the tank crews themselves to suit local conditions, and were applied in a wide, combination of camouflage schemes and colours. The extra colours were either applied by brush of were sprayed on to the tanks using spray equipment issued at company level. On occasion there was no time to apply carefully worked-out schemes and a suitable colour was often applied by throwing the paint at the side of the tank from cans!

The colour combinations were many and varied. A common scheme was sand yellow overlaid by olive green patches or stripes. Some units used schemes which involved the use of the basic grey with red-brown, yellow and green patches. Schemes used were sometimes very elaborate when a unit had time to apply them. Some schemes used splinter or lozenge markings overall, a typical example being the yellow 'spotted' panzer grey overall finish employed in the pine forests of North-West Europe in 1944 and 1945. In the Normandy bocage some Panther units employed a complex lozenge scheme with red-brown and dark grey being the predominant colours.

In winter conditions, when snow covered the ground, German crews followed the usual pattern of daubing their tanks with white paint not making their vehicles pure white but leaving enough of the basic colour to form a camouflage pattern. Whitewash was often used for winter schemes in preference to paint as it could be quickly and easily removed when the snow melted.

These finishes were applied over the basic colour scheme of the tank as delivered from the factory, and from early 1944 onwards tanks were delivered coated in a grey coat of 'Zimmerit'. This was a plaster-like substance applied over the whole of the tank which gave the surface a degree of protection from magnetic anti-tank devices likely to be applied by infantry tank-killer squads. Zimmerit was applied in a rough and corrugated finish which gave the vehicles to which it was applied a matt and worn appearance.

National Markings
Perhaps the most universally applied markings used on German tanks was the tactical national recognition marking. This was usually a black cross outlined in white, and was applied to the vehicle sides and rear. Some were also applied to the sides of the turret. In its initial form during 1939 and early 1940 this cross was all white, and the black centre was added in 1940. There were numerous variations on this theme. On some sand yellow tanks, the cross was merely outlined in white or black with the centre left in the basic sand yellow. There were also many variations in shape and size, as well as the actual positioning on the vehicle.

During the early war years, before Allied air supremacy became overwhelming, many German tanks draped the German national flag over the tank hull top as a recognition signal for Luftwaffe aircraft. As a general rule, captured tanks used on the same front as they were captured tended to have the German crosses very prominently marked in larger sizes than normal. An obvious example was the use of T-34 tanks which were covered with German crosses.

Tactical signs
Most German tank units used an internal recognition scheme based on the use of a three-digit number painted on to the turret sides. This number gave the tank regiment, platoon (zug) number, and the individual tank number in the platoon. For example, a number of 521 would mean that the tank belonged to the fifth regiment, was from the second platoon, and was the platoon leader's tank, as the number one was always reserved for the platoon leader. The second tank in the platoon would be 522 and so on. Regimental tanks were indicated by the use of a large R followed by 01, 02, etc, for the regimental
commander and his staff in declining order of importance.

As always there were many variations on this theme. On occasion four-digit codes were encountered, and some tanks carried two-digit or single-digit numbers. The four-digit numbers were usually applied to the reconnaissance units of large formations. Battalion headquarters tanks were often marked by the use of Roman numerals in place of the first number. These numbers were applied in a wide range of sizes and styles. Colours used ranged from a simple black to white to yellow or red outlined in white. As well as being painted on to the turret sides, they were sometimes repeated on the turret rear or sides of the hull. The same system was often used by self-propelled artillery and assault guns when they formed part of a panzer formation.

Another tactical marking used on tanks was the tactical symbol or Tak-tische Zeichen. This was a small symbol painted on to the tank front and rear for the guidance of traffic police and others arms as the exact function and tactical seniority of the vehicle to which it was applied. These symbols were the same as those used on tactical maps and were usually very simple outlines in white or yellow (sometimes red was used) and were designed to be instantly recognisable.

As so often happens, a simple idea was soon made complex by the addition of flags, etc, to the basic symbol to denote the rank of the user, type of armament carried, and so forth, so that the basic simple idea became complex and cumbersome in use. For tanks the basic symbol was a rhom-bold, but it was not often carried, or was often painted out. However, the system was widely used on other types of vehicle used in panzer formations.

Divisional Signs
Every panzer division used some form of divisional sign which was painted on to the front and rear of their tanks. These signs ranged from the simple to the complex. The first panzer divisions used very simple signs made up from straight lines only, and they were very easy to apply, remember and recognise. Later signs were more complex. The simple signs were painted on to the vehicle with white or yellow paint, and later signs often used a variety of colours. After about 1944 it was not unusual to see tanks without divisional markings, for after that time tanks were used less and less in divisional formations and more and more in ad hoc battle groups (Kampfgruppe) formed for specific tasks.

Other Markings
This sections covers a wide and varied range. German tanks often carried a variety of personal or unit good-luck symbols or signs. Some tanks were given names by their crews, or were named after wives or girl-friends, but this practice was officially frowned upon. Tanks rarely carried the vehicle number plates used by all the other transport vehicles in the Wehrmacht.

Hornisse with regimental markings on the front fender

Marder1 -320 Infantrie Division

6th Panzer using national flag for air identification

Battalion HQ Pzkpfw II Ausf B

106 denotes 1st battalion