This isn’t mean to be an in depth history lesson on German tanks, but more an attempt to provide a brief outline that will hopefully be useful to the total novice in explaining some of the terms and references used when naming and describing German second world war tanks. So for now I’m going to limit it to just the actual tanks and likewise I won’t be going into the visual variations of the various ausfuhrung but rather just a general outline including stuff like when and where they were used.
So firstly a few terms to become familiar with.
The most commonly known term used to refer to a German tank, from the german panzerkampfwagen. You’ll hear or see tanks refered to at times as a “Panzer Three” or Panzer III ( or Panzer Four, Panzer II, etc ). Generally only used with the Panzer One through Four as the five was the Panther and the six was the Tiger I and Tiger II which are more often refered to by those names.
The german written abbreviation of Panzerkampfwagen, used in conjunction with the numerical model number of the tank in question, as in Pz.Kpfw.III or Pz.Kpfw.VI. The Germans being a nice orderly lot were good enough to name their tanks from one through to six. Each number usually representing a larger , more advanced tank over the previous with the odd exception that the Kongistiger ( or Tiger II ) wasn’t numbered VII but kept the Pz.Kpfw.VI designation of the original Tiger I. Also in terms of chronology the Pz.Kpfw. VI Tiger I entered service before the Pz.Kpfw. V Panther.
Short for the german ausfuhrung. If the I, II, III, IV etc are thought of as the models then the Ausf. is the variants within the model. Over each tank’s lifetime they went through a continual process of improvement and upgrades that every now and then these were standardised as a particular model variant or ausfuhrung, for example the Pz.Kpfw.III Ausf. N would be thought of as an “N” variant of the Panzer III. Usually the higher the Ausf. lettering the more recent and advanced the model variant, though there are the odd anomaly such as the Pz.Kpfw.IV Ausf. J which was a simplified version of the preceding Pz.Kpfw.IV Ausf. H.
Initial, Early, Mid, Late Production
These aren’t official terms and won’t be found in german military nomenclature. Rather they are terms more frequently used by modellers to refer to a particular phase in a variants life cycle. Some variants stayed in service for a year or two and constantly underwent modifications and improvements. Most of these could be dated and as such are used to identify a vehicle as being an initial production, or early in the production run, or late in the production run etc. Most commonly seen with vehicles that had a particular Ausf. with a long lifespan, notably the Pz.Kpfw. IV Ausf. H, The Pz.Kpfw. V Panther Ausf. G, and the Pz.Kpfw. VI Tiger I Ausf. E.
Porsche, Henschel, “Production”
Again these aren’t official terms but rather contemporary descriptions to differentiate between the two types of turret seen on the Tiger II. Porsche and Henschel both competed for the Tiger contract and Porsche produced a number of turrets which were then used on the winning Henschel body rather than throw them away ( oddly both turrets were actually built by Krupp ). There were only something like 50 of these. The Henschel, or “production” turret refers to the usual Tiger II turret. The Porsche turret was more rounded, particularly under the mantlet, the Henschel was flared out all around with flat angled sides.
Berge and Behfels
These are added to the name to denote that the vehicle is either an engineering version ( Berge ) or a command version ( Behfels ). For example a Bergepanzer IV is an engineering recovery version of Pz.Kpfw. IV and a Behfelswagen Tiger is a command version of the Tiger tank.
Sometimes there will be more descriptive names as the Germans had a tendency to like to name something as precisely as they could and then abbreviate the whole thing down, but those terms will help you understand the basics of what is being refered to.
And so to the tanks themselves.
The Ausf. variants being the A, B, C, D, and F. The first and smallest tank, armed with two 7.92mm machine guns and seen in the opening stages of the war mostly, in Poland, France and a few of the Fs also saw service in Russia. They were also used in limited numbers in the Spanish Civil war. After 1942 these were mostly turned into donor chassis for other vehicles such as ammunition carriers and platforms for light anti-aircraft guns.
The Ausf. variants being the a,b,c,A,B,C,D/E,F,G,H,J,L and M. Bigger brother to the Pz.Kpfw. I this was a bit bigger and was armed with one 7.92mm machine gun and one 20mm cannon. It was a still a bit small for a serious tank of the time so ended up mainly doing reconnaissance work and served in all the early arenas such as Poland, France, the Balkans, North Africa and Russia. By 1943 they were pretty much relegated to donor chassis for self-propelled guns.
The Ausf. variants being A,B,C,D,E,F,G,H,J,L,M and N. The first of what could be considered a proper battle tank and having the shape that would become most synonymous with the German Panzer. Armed initially with a 37mm gun that changed to a 50mm with the later produced Ausf. F at which time the Ausf. E and earlier Ausf. F were upgunned too. The A-D were prewar variants that didn’t see action, the E-H were involved in all the early war arenas and the J-N in the mid war period. After 1943 what was left were mainly converted to other roles or used as donor chassis for other vehicles.
The Ausf. variants being A,B,C,D,E,F,F2/G,H and J. The true workhorse of the german tanks and the most common. Starting life with a short barrelled 75mm gun changing to the much more effective long barrelled 75mm gun with the Ausf. F2 ( aka the Ausf. G as it was redesignated later on ) in early 1942. Seen everywhere throughout the war though only the A-D were in the early battles and only in small numbers. The Ausf. H was the acme of the Pz.Kpfw. IV variants and the most numerous. This would have been the most likely version to be seen in 1945 onwards other than the J which was just an H dummed down by losing a few bits to simplify production, most notably the turret motor. Not just the most numerous tank but also the most commonly used chassis for other vehicles.
Pz.Kpfw. V Panther
The Ausf. variants being D, A, G and F. One of the most recognisable with its sloped armour, and probably the best German tank of the war. These entered production as the Ausf. D in early 1943 and saw action first in russia. Unusually the Ausf. A followed the D, then the G which was the most common variant, then finally the Ausf. F which never went into production. The chassis was also used for the Jagdpanther mounting the 8.8cm gun with no turret, Bergepanthers for recovery, and Behfelspanthers which had fake guns, as well as several planned ( but never produced ) versions mounting twin anti-aircraft guns ( known as the Flakpanzer V Coelian ), quadruple AA guns, and an 8.8cm gun ( to be known as the Panther II ).
Pz.Kpfw. VI Tiger I
The most recognisable name, and one often ascribed to any and every german tank. Only coming as the Ausf. E and entering service in late 1942 at Leningrad, also seeing service elsewhere in Russia as well as being sent to Tunisia to support the AfrikaKorps. Armed with the 8.8cm gun this was formidable but was never really around in large enough numbers and had a lot of mechanical reliability problems. Towards the end of their life around mid 1944 they were replaced with the Tiger II, the remaining ones rather than being rebuilt as Tiger Is were converted into command Befehlswagen Tiger I Ausf. E and Sturmtiger Sturmmorser.
Pz.Kpfw. VI Tiger II
Also known as the King Tiger, Royal Tiger or Konigstiger. Easily recognisable from its size and angular shape with it’s sloped armour. Entering service at the start of 1944 as the Ausf. B and seeing out the war though only ever in small numbers. Also armed with an 8.8cm gun but a longer one firing a bigger shell at a higher velocity. Also used as the chassis for the Jagdtiger mounting a 12.8cm gun.
I hope that this has been of help to anyone overwhelmed by the nomenclature for World War Two German tanks. If there is anything that people feel should be added to this please feel free to sound off and I’ll add in anything that seems appropriate.