The German armed forces used a rather complex and inconsistent vehicle designation system, part of which was inherited from the Reichswehr which preceded it until its replacement by the Wehrmacht on 16 March 1935. In the broadest sense, German vehicles typically had three components to their designations, this being an ordnance number, an item name, and in some cases a colloquial name. Although this would appear straight-forward in theory, in practice the system was profoundly convoluted given the inconsistencies in how the item designations were assigned, the proliferation of unofficial (usually simplified) item designations as well as names, and the need to abbreviate compound nouns due to the peculiarities of the German language. Making matters worse is that the Germany Army relied on more base vehicle designs than any other army of World War II, most of which were eventually adapted to different roles thus complicating the designations of converted vehicles. For example, no less than 11 different half-track transports were fielded by the German Army during the war, one of which had 23 individual variants most of which fulfilled a unique combat role. In contrast, the US had just two.
The numeric designation of German vehicles was the ordnance number, which consisted of either a Kraftfahrzeuge (most commonly abbreviated Kfz) number for motor vehicles of civilian origin or Sonderkraftfahrzeuge (SdKfz) number for special motor vehicles, which referred to vehicles designed specifically for military use. Kfz and SdKfz numbers were sequential and non-repeating although there were some early exceptions (Kfz 1-4 and SdKfz 1-4 both existed). The 1 to 99 series was limited to unarmored vehicles, 100 to 199 to tanks, tank destroyers, assault guns, and self-propelled artillery; 200 to 299 to reconnaissance vehicles, armored cars, armored personnel carriers, and command tanks; and 300 to 399 to all other support vehicles (just two numbers above 400 were assigned as well). SdKfz numbers were typically assigned to a single vehicle design, rather than by variant. So for example, the ordnance number of the Panzer IV medium tank was SdKfz 161. A modifier number was frequently added when there was a major armament change. Thus, the SdKfz 161 only referred to the Panzer IVs with short-barreled 7.5cm L/24 KwK 37 guns (Ausf A to F variants). Panzer IVs with 7.5cm L/43 KwK 40 guns (the Ausf F2 and early G variants) were known as the SdKfz 161/1 while those with 7.5cm L/48 KwK 40 guns (late Ausf G, H, and J variants) were known as the SdKfz 161/2. An exception to this was the Panzer II tank which had separate SdKfz numbers for its modified versions (SdKfz 121 for the tank variants, SdKfz 122 for the flamethrower variants, SdKfz 123 for the Luchs reconnaissance vehicle, and SdKfz 124 for the Wespe self-propelled gun). Structural changes to a vehicle generally did not warrant an modifier number, only armament changes or equipment changes that would modify the vehicle's role. The ubiquitous Opel Blitz truck had designations ranging from Kfz 305 to Kfz 305/137, highlighting the myriad of different roles it performed.
New designs that emerged from an existing vehicle chassis were typically assigned a new ordnance number when they represented a significant redesign of the base vehicle. So, for example, while the Panzer III tank was assigned the SdKfz 141 number, the StuG III family of assault guns based on its chassis was designated SdKfz 142. This rule was not always applied consistently. For example, the Hetzer tank destroyer was a radical modification of the Panzer 38(t) tank that it was based on yet was designated SdKfz 138/2. However, inconsistencies like that were generally few. Strangely, there were also a number of vehicles that did not receive ordnance numbers at all despite being based on vehicles that had them, such as the Panzerjäger I tank destroyer, the Bison series of self-propelled guns, and the Ostwind self-propelled anti-air gun, the latter case all the more inexplicable given that the similar Wirbelwind vehicle did get an assigned number. A few base vehicles themselves also lacked ordnance numbers including the sWS half-track and Czech-designed Panzer 35(t) and 38(t) tanks although converted vehicles like the Marder III tank destroyers did receive them. In yet another inconsistency, SdKfz 138 and SdKfz 139 were assigned to different Marder III variants (in reverse order to their release, no less) while the Panzerwerfer rocket launcher variant of the sWS was given the SdKfz 4/1 designation which referred to a completely different vehicle!
By and large, ordnance numbers have not been used to refer to German vehicles in common parlance, the exception being many wheeled and half-track vehicles such as the SdKfz 3-11 half-tracks and SdKfz 231-234 armored cars.
By far the most complex and inconsistent aspect of German vehicle designations was the item name. At first glance, it was not dissimilar to equivalent naming conventions used on US, British, and Russian vehicles in which the function of the vehicle was described in as complete and consistent manner as possible. For example, Panzerkampfwagen refered to all German tanks, with subsequent designs being given a new roman numeral akin to a British mark number. Thus the Panzerkampfwagen I to IV referred to the first four (pre-war) unnamed tank designs, followed by the Panzerkampfwagen V Panther and Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger. Given that the chassis of tanks were widely used for other vehicles, it was common to retain their roman numeral while changing their item name. Thus the Sturmgeschütz IV was the assault gun version of the Panzer IV, rather than the fourth assault gun design. In some cases item names for the same type of vehicles were changed, for example, the name Panzerjäger was initially used for tank destroyers but this was later changed to Jagdpanzer, the distinction being that the latter were much more heavily armored than the former.
For base vehicles like tanks, armored cars, and half-tracks, the item name was relatively straightforward. However, the large number of conversions required the item name to describe both the vehicle chassis as well as the armament. Unfortunately the method by which these item names were constructed was never standardized resulting in a myriad of different formats. No better example of this exists than the Marder family of tank destroyers which despite all being designed for the same purpose (a self-propelled anti-tank mounted on a tank or tracked vehicle chassis), followed completely different naming conventions. The full item name of the first variant of the Marder II was known as the Panzer Selbstfahrlafette 1 für 7.62cm PaK 36(r) auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf D1 und D2 which would be broadly translated as the 'armored self-propelled 1 for the 7.62cm PaK 36(r) captured Russian anti-tank gun on the chassis of the Panzer II Ausf D1 and D2'. The next Marder II variant had a slightly shorter item name of 7.5cm PaK 40/2 auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II (Sf) or '7.5cm PaK 40/2 anti-tank gun on the chassis of the Panzer II (self-propelled)'. Item names tended to be gradually simplified over the course of the war, so for example the first version of the Marder III was mercifully known simply as the Panzerjäger 38(t) für 7.62cm PaK 36(r) or 'tank destroyer version of the Panzer 38(t) tank for the 7.62cm PaK 36(r) captured Russian anti-tank gun'. But as can be seen, there was nothing remotely like the standardized naming conventions used in US and British item names.
Knowing this, deducing any rules for German vehicle item names is impossible, although there were some rules of thumb that were followed on a semi-consistent basis. Vehicles that were based around their chassis frequently described the chassis first and the main armament second, either through the use of a für or mit preposition or with the weapon in parenthesis. For example, the original version of the SdKfz 221 armored car armed with MG 34 machine guns was known as the leichter Panzerspähwagen (MG) or 'light armored reconnaissance vehicle (machine gun)' whereas a modified variant armed with an anti-tank rifle was known the leichter Panzerspähwagen mit 2.8cm sPzB 41 or 'light armored reconnaissance with the 2.8cm sPzB 41 anti-tank rifle'. The reverse method of describing the armament first and the chassis second was frequently used when a vehicle was based around the weapon instead, typically using the auf (on) preposition. This was the case with most tank destroyers and self-propelled artillery. For example, the 15cm schweres Infanteriegeschütz 33 (Selbstfahrlafette) auf Panzerkampfwagen 38(t) was the '15cm heavy infantry gun 33 (self-propelled) on the Panzer 38(t) tank' while the 3.7cm FlaK 36 (Selbstfahrlafette) auf Fahrgestell Zugkraftwagen 5t was the '3.7cm FlaK 36 anti-aircraft gun (self-propelled) on the chassis of the 5 ton towing vehicle'. There were some notable cases of variants of the same design switching from a chassis-weapon to weapon-chassis format, usually when these reflected a different role. Such was the case with the initial variants (up to Ausf E) of the Sturmgeschütz assault gun based on the Panzer III (better known as the Sturmgeschütz III, although this was never applied to the item name of any variant). These were armed with a short-barreled StuK 37 gun and were known as the Gepanzerter Selbstfahrlette für Sturmgeschütz 7.5cm Kanone or 'armored self-propelled vehicle for the 7.5cm assault gun'. When armed with the long-barreled StuK 40 gun (from Ausf F) their role switched more to that of a tank destroyer and were consequently renamed as the 7.5cm Sturmgeschütz 40 or '7.5cm assault gun 40'. If there was one downside to the simplification of item names later in the war is that sometimes it was not clear what chassis or weapon was being referred to. An example of this is the Sturmgeschütz mit 8.8cm PaK 43/2 or 'assault gun with the 8.8cm PaK 43/2 anti-tank gun', better known as the Ferdinand/Elefant tank destroyer. This vehicle was based on the chassis of the Tiger tank but with no indication of this inferred from the item name.
The designation of variants was done via an Ausführung letter, this commonly abbreviated as Ausf. Ausf letters were typically assigned in order starting with A and represented either structural, armament, or major equipment changes, thus broadly corresponding to a British mark number or US A-suffix. Ausf numbers were most commonly seen in base vehicles rather than conversions given that the latter were frequently built either as one-off designs or had separate item names for different variants. There were, however, exceptions, such as the Luchs reconnaissance vehicle which was given the Ausf L letter despite a change of item name from Panzerkampfwagen II to Panzerspähwagen II. Ausf letters were usually inherited from the based variant when conversions took place. For example, the Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf D command tank variant of the Panzer III was not the fourth command tank variant, but rather the first variant that happened to be converted from the Ausf D tank chassis. Unique Ausf numbers were added to converted vehicles in the event that there was no corresponding base variant, such as the Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf K of which there was no Panzer III tank equivalent. There were also a number of cases in which the Ausf letter was not applied in order. For example, the initial production version of the Panther tank was the Panther Ausf D, with the Ausf A following later. The Tiger tank was also introduced as the Tiger Ausf H, in this case the H referring to Henschel which manufactured it (it was followed by the Ausf E). Another well-known exception to the rule was the Panzer IV Ausf F2, which incorporated a longer-barreled version of the 7.5cm KwK 40 gun than the Ausf F (retroactively referred to sometimes as the Ausf F1). The inconsistency did not last long as it was subsequently renamed Ausf G just a few months later.
The reliance of the German language on compound nouns has required a system for abbreviating these words for ease of writing. These consist of a combination of uppercase and lowercase words written uniterrupted, although many sources separate parts of the abbreviation with spaces or periods (ex: Sd.Kfz. or Sd Kfz instead of SdKfz). The most well-known vehicle abbreviation is PzKpfw for Panzerkampfwagen, the item name given to all tanks. The idiosyncracies of German abbreviations is particularly evident in this case. Panzerkampfwagen is a compound noun consisting of three words, Panzer (armor), Kampf (combat), and Wagen (vehicle). One would be tempted to assume that a lowercase 'w' would be the universal abbreviation of Wagen, an obviously common word in motor vehicle item names. But that was hardly the case, as evidenced by its use in Panzerspähwagen which was abbreviated PzSpWg or Schützenpanzerwagen which was abbreviated SPW resulting in three separate abbreviations for the same word. One rule that was followed more consistently was the use of lowercase prefixes for a vehicle or piece of equipment's weight. This was either 'le' for leicht (light), 'm' for mittel (medium), and 's' for schwer (heavy). Thus the popular 105-mm howitzer was known as the leFH 18 (leichte Feldhaubitze) while the heavier 150-mm infantry gun was known as the sFH 18 (schwere Feldhaubitze). In the end, the absence of clear rules makes it impossible to deduce the appropriate abbreviation of any piece of military equipment without prior knowledge.
Abbreviations were one way around the long item names given to many German vehicles. The other was the use of shortened versions, the classic example being the use of Panzer rather than the full Panzerkampfwagen. In some cases the shortened version had little to do with the item name, as was the case of the Sturmpanzer which was used on various vehicles including two self-propelled guns known informally as the Bison and the assault gun also known informally as the Brummbär. All German vehicles in the country profile pages on this site are listed on the basis of their most commonly used name, whether official or otherwise.
A list of the most common abbreviations for vehicles as well as their armament and equipment is provided below:
|BeobPzWg||Beobachtungspanzerwagen||Armored artillery observation vehicle|
|BergePzWg||Bergepanzerwagen||Armored recovery vehicle|
|EgKw||Entgiftungskraftwagen||Chemical decontamination vehicle|
|FlaKmesstrKw||Flakmesstruppkraftwagen||Anti-aircraft rangefinder vehicle|
|FlakPz||Flakpanzer||Armored anti-aircraft vehicle|
|FlaKv||Flugabwehrkanonen-vierling||Anti-aircraft gun, quad mount|
|FlammPzWg||Flammpanzerwagen||Armored flamethrower carrier|
|FuPz||Funkpanzer||Armored radio vehicle (half-track)|
|FuPzWg||Funkpanzerwagen||Armored radio vehicle (half-track)|
|GasspuKw||Gasspurkraftwagen||Chemical detection vehicle|
|JgPz||Jagdpanzer||Tank destroyer (late)|
|KdoPzWg||Kommandopanzerwagen||Armored commander's vehicle|
|KwK||Kampfwagenkanone||Fighting vehicle cannon|
|leFH||leichte Feldhaubitze||Light field howitzer|
|MunPz||Munitionspanzerwagen||Armored ammunition vehicle|
|PiPzWg||Pionierpanzerwagen||Armored engineering vehicle|
|PzBefWg||Panzerbefehlswagen||Armored command tank|
|PzBeobWg||Panzerbeobachtungswagen||Artillery observation tank|
|PzFuWg||Panzerfunkwagen||Armored radio vehicle (wheeled)|
|PzJg||Panzerjäger||Tank destroyer (early)|
|PzSpWg||Panzerspähwagen||Armored reconnaissance vehicle|
|sFH||schwere Feldhaubitze||Heavy field howitzer|
|sIG||schweres Infanteriegeschütz||Heavy infantry gun|
|SpruhKw||Spruhkampfwagen||Chemical spraying vehicle|
|SPW||Schützenpanzerwagen||Armored infantry vehicle|
|sWS||schwerer Wehrmachtschlepper||Heavy military tractor|
|Zgkw||Zugkraftwagen||Towing vehicle (half-track)|
Only a small number of German vehicles were given a colloquial name, this usually being a reference to a large or aggressive animal as was the case with the Panther and Tiger tanks. Some others received names that appear to have been only used informally, particularly in the case of conversions like the Brummbär. Naming vehicles became far more common during the second-half of the war and it was also the case that variants of older, unnamed vehicles were named, such as the Puma (a variant of the SdKfz 234) or the Luchs (a reconnaissance variant of the Panzer II). In a small number of instances, vehicles were renamed over the course of their production run, as was the case with the Hornisse becoming the Nashorn or the Ferdinand (a rare case of a combat vehicle receiving a non-animal name) becoming the Elefant. The Hummel self-propelled gun was also notable for being a rare case of a vehicle that had its name officially removed by Hitler who felt 'bumblebee' was unfit for a combat vehicle. Given that they were essentially two different tanks, the Tiger I and Tiger II were among the few that had a roman numeral number to differentiate them, which in the case of the Tiger I was applied retroactively after the Tiger II entered service. This resulted in something of a parallel with the British system of giving a separate mark number to the item name and the colloquial name.
The large-scale use of captured foreign vehicles (known as Beutefahrzeug or 'looted motor vehicle' or Beutekpanzer or 'looted tank') necessitated their incorporation into the German designation system. This also applied to vehicles built in occupied territories (mainly Czechoslovakia and France) as well as other vehicles and equipment purchased from abroad (mainly Switzerland). Model numbers were either retained from their original ones or renumbered using using a new series made specifically for captured vehicles and which is described below. All designations for captured vehicles included a reference to their country of origin in parenthesis. So for example, the Skoda-built LT-35 and LT-38 tanks that were captured or produced following the German annexation of Czechoslovakia were redesignated PzKpfw 35(t) and PzKpfw 38(t), the (t) referring to tschechisch. In contrast, the Soviet T-34 tank was known as the PzKpfw 747(r). In some cases, both the original designation (sometimes slightly tweaked) and new number were incorporated, as was the case with many French tanks like the Hotchkiss H35, known as the PzKpfw 35H 734(f), or Rennault Char D2, known as the PzKpfw D2 733(f).
|400-599||Gepanzerte Halbkettenfahrzeuge||Armored half-tracks|
|630-699||Gepanzerte Artilleriezugmaschinen||Armored artillery tractors|
|800-899||Waffenträger Selbstfahrlafetten||Self-propelled artillery|
Designations of West German vehicles in the post-war era have incorporated some of the features of the Wehrmacht systems while also adopting a number of conventions from abroad, notably the US Army which was the major supplier of the Deutsches Heer (Army) following its creation in 1955, at at time when the German armaments industry had still not recovered from the war. The main changes include the abandonment of the Kfz and SdKfz ordnance numbers as well as the convoluted and largely arbitrary item naming system. Instead, German vehicles are now known either by their names or by their type designation (typically abbreviated) and frequently numbered as well. In many cases the abbreviations have been altered from their wartime versions, frequently because the word Wagen has been dropped thus leaving Panzer as the catch-all term for armored vehicles rather than just tanks. For example, the Luchs armored reconnaissance vehicle is known as the Spähpanzer 2 or SpPz 2, indicating that it is the second such vehicle designed (the first being the experimental SP1C). Not all vehicles have been given a type designation, notably the Leopard 1 and 2 main battle tanks. Likewise, a number of vehicles lack names, such as the Schützenpanzer 11-2 (SPz) infantry fighting vehicle or the Raketenjagdpanzer (RakJPz) ATGM tank destroyer. The numbering of type designations does not appear to be mandatory and often not used when the vehicle is named, as is the case with the Schützenpanzer (SPz) Marder IFV or the Transportpanzer (TPz) Fuchs wheeled APC.
Variant designations in the post-war period follow two different conventions. In the case of armament or role changes, these are incorporated into the type designation or name. So for example, the base version of the Wiesel family of airborne fighting vehicles is the Wiesel 1 AWS (airborne weapons system, strangely abbreviated in English) while the Wiesel 2 leFlaSys (leichtes Flugabwehrsystem) is an air defense version. We also have the Wiesel 1 ATM TOW anti-tank vehicle and the Wiesel 1 MK20 with a Rheinmetall MK 20 Rh202 20-mm autocannon. Meanwhile, variant changes involving the same armament or role now use a US Army-style A-suffix with sequential numbering beginning with the second variant. For example, the six main variants of the Leopard 1 tank (Germany's first post-war indigenous tank) are known as the Leopard 1, 1A1, 1A2, 1A3, 1A4, and 1A5. An second A-suffix can also be added in the event of notable equipment changes. So, for example, the addition of night sights to the Leopard 1A3 resulted in the Leopard 1A3A1, while the 1A3A2 had digital radios, and the 1A3A3 had both. The large number of private venture and export variants of many German vehicles (particularly over the last two decades) has also resulted in many unofficial company designations such as the advanced Leopard 2A7+ which has not been adopted by the Bundesheer.
|BPz||Bergepanzer||Armored recovery vehicle|
|GTK||Gepanzertes Transportkraftfahrzeug||Armored transport vehicle|
|FlakPz||Flugabwehrkanonenpanzer||Self-propelled anti-aircraft gun|
|FlaSys||Flugabwehrsystem||Air defense system|
|KanJPz||Kanonenjagdpanzer||Tank destroyer, gun|
|PiPz||Pionierpanzer||Armored engineering vehicle|
|RakJPz||Raketenjagdpanzer||Tank destroyer, missile|
|SPz||Schützenpanzer||Infantry fighting vehicle|
|SpPz||Spähpanzer||Armored reconnaissance vehicle|
|TpPz||Transportpanzer||Armored personnel carrier|