What’s in a Name – Germany

The German Luftwaffe’s aircraft designation system was one of the simplist employed during the war years

After the jump, what will surely be my shortest article yet in this series!

I can explain the basic designation system used by Germany in one paragraph.  If we look at a common early war type like the Stuka, it was officially the Ju87.  The “Ju” indicates the manufacturer, Junkers. The number “87” was assigned by the Air Ministry (RLM), and was unique across all manufacturers.  Generally, low numbers were used earlier.  But this was not a sequential thing like used by the US or Japanese Air Forces.  Like a modern vanity plate, a manufacturer could request a number, and if it was available it could be issued, regardless of sequence.

There are some significant oddities though. Probably the most obvious comes from Willy Messerschmitt.  Messerschmitt had formed his own company, Bavarian Aircraft Works (twice; 1923, and reorganized after bankruptcy, 1934).  He had three significant designs; the Bf108 light civil aircraft, the Bf109 fighter, and the Bf110 heavy fighter.  Those are the correct designations for all three aircraft. In 1938 Messerschmitt took over as chairman of his company and changed the name to “Messerschmitt”.  All subsequent designs received an “Me” prefix.  British and American writers, for many years, were in the habit of putting an “Me” in front of his earlier designs too, but this is not correct.  At this point I believe most readers will recognize the type whichever form is used, but I prefer to be correct, unless it becomes very confusing!

That's a Bf109E-3.  NOT an Me109!  even if we all know what we're talking about...

That’s a Bf109E-3. NOT an Me109! even if we all know what we’re talking about…

The head designer of Focke-Wulf, Kurt Tank, led to a similar change.  Although I believe the company name was never actually changed, several of his late war projects received a “Ta” number to honor the great designer.

Prototypes of a new aircraft would get a “V” number.  So the first few examples of a type might be listed as “V-1” through “V-6”.  Once a design was finalized it would be ordered as the “A-0”.  So the first Fw190 in production was the Fw190A-0.  New test aircraft and advanced prototypes would continue the “V” sequence, and actual production changes would get new suffix changes.

Predictably, minor tweaks would get a new number, while bigger changes would get a new letter.  But there were a lot more irregularities to this than in say the US system.  More numbers skipped (paper projects would be my guess) and letters taken out of sequence.  There were also more variations in production at the same time; like the Bf109E-1 armed with 4 x 7.7 mm machine guns.  The Bf109E-3 that replaced the wing mounted MGs with 20 mm cannon was meant to replace the E-1.  But due to cannon shortages, the E-1 remained in production long after the first E-3s were being delivered to combat units.

I think this comes down to Germany having less effective central control of industry.  Kind of ironic, but there are several such example.

Other oddities exist; like the first varient of Stuka being the “A”, replaced by the “B”, a navalized “C”, and eventually a much improved “D”.  Makes sense.  But when an extended range version of the “B” was ordered it didn’t get a new sub-number; it became an “R”. (?).  Maybe it would make more sense if I spoke German!

Common usage among crews was to mostly refer to their aircraft by a phonetic form of its version letter.  So a Battle of Britain Messerschmitt pilot would refer to his mount as an “Emil”.  The following summer he would have upgraded to a “Friederich” and eventually a “Gustov”.

A Fw190A.  That's "Anton" to its friends.

A Fw190A. That’s “Anton” to its friends.

You also may see a “U” or “R” number following a type designation.  These are factory or field applied modification kits.

The Germans did not give aircraft types names initially.  The early war names we sometimes see are usually just types; “Stuka” (Ju87) is German for dive bomber, “Zerstorer” (Bf110) is German for destroyer.  But gradually manufacturers started naming their product, and this at least earned official acceptance if not endorsement.  So late war Komet (Me163), Grief (Griffin, He177) and Wurger (Shrike, but more often translated as “Butcher-Bird”, Fw190) do sometimes appear in official records; but generally types were always better known by their numbers.

Me262 Schwalbe.  We'd call that a "Swallow".

Me262 Schwalbe. We’d call that a “Swallow”.

I actually wrote more on this than I thought I would!  The German system is fairly simple, but it has many irregularities.  And that’s where I’ll leave it.

Related Posts: What’s in a Name – United States
 What’s in a Name – Japan

Up Next: Polikarpov I-16 Type 10


About atcDave

I'm 53 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 30 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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3 Responses to What’s in a Name – Germany

  1. Ernie Davis says:

    So quintessentially German. Logical, efficient, and at times absolutely incomprehensible to non-Germans.

  2. Pingback: What’s in a Name – United States | Plane Dave

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