A Note on German Army Military Unit Designations

In light of the discussion in the comments section on this prior entry, I think it might be useful to explain my understanding of German unit terminology as it was used in 1941 (there were some changes throughout the war).  This is also helpful because in our book we will stick as much as possible to this, and because there are some distinct differences between English language and German terminology. The aim of this entry is to explain our translations, but also to elucidate debate on whether they are correct. Regarding the comparisons, I use British instead of Commonwealth below, and English when the term is identical for the British and US armies.

I start from the bottom up. Terminology was slightly different by arm of service in some cases. Artillery probably the most pronounced. It is important to note that regimental anti-tank and infantry gun companies used infantry terms, not artillery terms, while divisional and Heerestruppen (see below) anti-tank units would use artillery terminology. In the motorised infantry, the infantrymen would be called Schuetze (Rifleman), and the regiment was called Schuetzenregiment (Rifle Regiment). These were more common in Africa than leg infantry. Regarding the typical commander ranks, please note that the German army was not that hung up on what rank commanded what unit.  In particular in cases where attrition hit heavily (as it did during CRUSADER), lower ranks would take command of formations based on need.

Army Units, Commands, and Formations on Permanent Establishments

Trupp = a small group dedicated to a specific task. E.g. Nachrichtentrupp = signals section attached to a battalion HQ.  These could be on permanent establishment (Funktrupp – radio section or Kompanietrupp – company HQ), or on an ad-hoc establishment (Aufklaerungstrupp – reconnaissance patrol/Sabotagetrupp – raiding column).

Gruppe = English Section or US Squad, the smallest permanent unit in an infantry formation, usually 8-12 men commanded by a senior Private (Obergefreiter) or junior NCO (Unteroffizier) . Their heaviest weapon would be a light machine gun (or two), around which the tactics were built. The term Gruppe is confusingly sometimes also used as shorthand for Kampfgruppe (see below) – it is then followed by the name of the commanding officer (Gruppe Marcks = The Kampfgruppe commanded by Oberst Marcks)

Zug = English Platoon, made up of three Gruppen and a HQ Trupp, and commanded by a senior NCO (Portepee Unteroffizier, often a Hauptfeldwebel) or a junior officer (Leutnant = 2nd Lieutenant). In the artillery a Zug consisted of two guns, and there were usually two per battery. The English term would be Troop. It the infantry it would usually be equipped with a light mortar as direct support. A tank platoon usually consisted of five tanks.

Kompanie = English company, made up of three platoons and a Kompanietrupp HQ and commanded by an Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) or a Hauptmann (Captain). In the field artillery a Kompanie would be called a Batterie, just like in English, and consisted of two Zuege with four guns in total, and a HQ. In cavalry units the term was Schwadron (Squadron), and it  would be commanded by a Rittmeister, equivalent to a Captain. Kompanien are numbered consecutively in a regiment with Arabic numerals, which gave the Germans an efficient way to refer to them in orders and reports, and made it unnecessary to refer to the battalion as well. E.g. 1./SR155 would be the first company in Schuetzenregiment 155. In armour units the term was Kompanie, and there would be four platoons and a HQ. Abbreviated Kp.

Batallion  = English Battalion, in the infantry consisting usually of three infantry companies and a support company (schwere Kompanie = heavy company) with machine guns and mortars, and a HQ with small signals and logistics support.  In the artillery, armour, and cavalry the term for battalion was Abteilung, and it would usually be preceded by the arm of service, if directly refered to (e.g. Aufklaerungsabteilung 33 – reconnaissance battalion 33). In 1941 an armoured battalion (Panzerabteilung) consisted of three light and a heavy company (with Panzer III and IV, respectively), a reconnaissance section with Panzer II, and a HQ with a command tank. In the artillery a standard Abteilung consisted of three batteries with 12 guns in total. Usually commanded by a Major (same as in English), occasionally by an Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant-Colonel). Batallione would be numbered consecutively in a regiment with Roman numerals, so II./AR155 would be the second battalion (Abteilung) of artillery regiment 155. Independent Batallione (divisional units or Heerestruppen (see below) would usually be numbered in Arabic numerals based on their divisional parent unit (e.g. Feldersatzbatallion 200 – Field Replacement/Training Battalion 200 of 21. Panzerdivision), but with the relatively chaotic establishments in North Africa, this rule did not hold there, and there was a lot of mixing going on. Abbreviated Btl.

Regiment = British Brigade, US Regiment (not English Regiment!). This usually consisted of three battalions, support companies, and a HQ in the infantry,  and of four Abteilungen (three light, one heavy) in the artillery. In the motorised infantry there would normally only be two battalions in 1941. An infantry regiment would normally have 14 companies, 12 in the three battalions (nine infantry, three support companies), plus an anti-tank and and infantry gun company as regimental support. Usually commanded by an Oberst (Colonel), or a Lieutenant Colonel. Abbreviated Rgt, or IR/SR/PR/AR (infantry, rifle, tank, artillery regiment).

Brigade = no equivalent in British terms, maybe Combat Command in a US Armoured Division in 1944/45. In 1941 this was grouping of two rifle (motorised infantry) regiments in an armoured division. Usually commanded by a Colonel, or a Generalmajor (= US Brigadier-General, but not British Brigadier), the most junior General officer rank. As war went on, Brigades would become even rarer than they were initially, and a Generalmajor would usually command a division. In Africa 15. Schuetzenbrigade (15th Rifle Brigade) was the infantry arm of 15. Panzerdivision.

Division = as in English. A formation consisting of three or four regiments (e.g. three infantry, one artillery, or one infantry, one armour, one artillery), or a Brigade, an armoured,  and an artillery regiment. Usually commanded by a Generalmajor, or a Generalleutnant (Major-General). The Germans called Divisions Grosseinheiten (large formations), and in German doctrine they were the smallest formation capable of sustained combat without support. Divisions also controlled divisional units such as anti-tank battalions (Panzerjaegerbatallion), reconnaissance battalions (Aufklaerungsabteilung), or engineer battalions (Pionierbatallion). Divisions also add significant amounts of support troops to their constituent units, which enable these to function in the field. These include field mail, military police, signals, logistics and signals support, medical, bakery and butcher companies, etc. Abbreviated Div.

Korps = as in English. A group of two to four divisions, with a HQ.  Korps HQs would have significantly more capable signals elements than a divisional HQ, and have an important role in logistics support for the divisions it commands.  Besides the divisions they could also control Heerestruppen independent formations. Usually commanded by a Generalleutnant. The German contribution in Africa started as a Korps. The Panzerkorps (Armoured Corps) was used from 1942, but not in Africa, it replaced the prior Mot. Korps (motorised Korps), which was the term used for Corps HQs controlling primarily armoured and motorised units.

Arko (Artilleriekommandeur) = British AGRA (Army Group Royal Artillery), US ?. An independent artillery command which would have significant signals assets and other dedicated support to be able to control artillery assets above divisional level for concentration of firepower.  In status probably equivalent to a Division or a Brigade, and usually attached to a Korps or an Armee. It would also be used to control artillerie Heerestruppen (see below), such as siege or coastal artillery. Arko 104 under Generalmajor Boettcher (later Oberst Mickl) was attached to Panzergruppe Afrika to deal with Tobruk.

Panzergruppe = no equivalent. A Panzergruppe was an odd invention that worked well for the Germans in the early war. Essentially this was a Corps HQ with an elevated status, and under direct control of a Heeresgruppe (army group), as a mobile arm. Usually commanded by a General der Panzertruppen or a General der Kavallerie (General, with an indication of the arm of service where they originated from). The German HQ in North Africa was upgraded to a Panzergruppe in summer 1941.

Armee = Army. A grouping of two or more Korps, usually commanded by a General der (insert arm of service here), or a Generaloberst (Colonel-General, the highest German General rank). An Armee HQ would add even more signals capability, and important logistics support. In 1942 the German HQ in Africa was upgraded to army status, and Rommel was promoted to Generaloberst. A Panzerarmee (Armoured Army) was primarily just a cool-sounding name, it did not indicate that it would control only armoured units (or indeed any).

Other terms:

Heerestruppen – literally: army troops. Independent battalions with specialised support functions. These could be assigned temporarily to support a formation. In North Africa they primarily included artillery units, such as coastal and super-heavy artillery, and Beobachtungsabteilung 11 (a counter battery observation battalion).  Panzerjaegerabteilung 605 with its self-propelled ATGs was also  Heerestruppe. The existence of these units gave the German army considerable flexibility in responding to needs along wide frontages.

Kampfgruppe – British (Commander Name) Column, although usually much bigger in size than these, and well supported by German army doctrine, which is not something that can be said for the British approach to columns, especially during CRUSADER (many thanks to Jon for making that point). A Kampfgruppe was an ad-hoc combat formation (always, it would never be a permanent establishment, even though the duration of its existence could be relatively long) assembled to respond to a specific and temporary need. Usually built around a regimental, sometimes a battalion HQ, and named after its commander. During the counterattack in January, Kampfgruppe Marcks under Oberst Marcks distinguished itself in defeating 4th Indian Division, earning its commander the Knights Cross. Once the specific task was no longer relevant, it would be disbanded, and the individual formations returned to its parent unit. Sometimes abbreviated Gruppe, followed by the commander’s name (e.g. Gruppe Cruewell during the retreat from the Gazala position in December 41).

Kolonnenraum – literally: column space. This refers to indepent truck supply units on the army level. In German terminology is only used as a supply term, while the British used it as a combat formation term (e.g. Currie Column during the pursuit from the Gazala position to Agedabia).

Korueck (Kommandeur Rueckwaertiges Armeegebiet) – no English equivalent. The commander of the army rear area was responsible for army installations in the rear areas, and for security in these areas. He would have some security forces at his disposal for this purpose. The rear area was usually not specifically defined.  During CRUSADER, Korueck was Generalmajor Schmitt, who then commanded the German forces in the Bardia fortress. He became the first German general to surrender his command to Commonwealth forces in World War II when Bardia fell on 2 January 42. No doubt a distinction he could have done without.

2 thoughts on “A Note on German Army Military Unit Designations

  1. I have two 16mm reels of what looks like Nazi propaganda for their invasion to the Sudetenland in the late ’30s.
    The title on the first reel says “Flack Leipzig, Sudetenland”
    The c in Flack has a slash through it, if that helps. I am guessing it is an anti-aircraft unit?

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