How to Name a German Unit

A Short History of the BundeswehrBundeswehr

Shortly after the end of the second world war the demand for a new (West) German army became clear, even though it was decided at the Potsdam Conference that Germany should be demilitarized. The German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer considered joining the NATO as one of the most important goals for his government and it was considered an important step to regain sovereignty.

First preparations were made when Adenauer named the former General Gerhard Graf von Schwerin his “special adviser for security questions”. In 1950 the so called “Amt Blank” was formed under Theodor Blank which would later become the ministry of defense. Strictly speaking this was illegal but the western allies tolerated and supported the step. The office was supposed to make plans to form a paramilitary police force.

The Federal Republic joined the NATO and regained nearly full sovereignty in 1955. This was the official start for forming new armed forces.

The new armed forces were supposed to have an army (Heer), a navy (Bundesmarine) and an air force (Luftwaffe) with a strength of less than 500.000 men. The FRG (Federal Republic of Germany) also assured that the armed forces would be part of a European defense system and that no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons would be developed. The United States agreed to deliver large amounts of weapons since Germany did not have any capability to build weapons.

Adenauer visits troopsThe Bundeswehr was officially founded on the 12th of November, 1955 – the 200th birthday of the prussian general and military reformer Gerhard von Scharnhorst. 

The nucleus of the new armed forces was the paramilitary Bundesgrenzschutz (Federal Border Guard). Nearly all the officers and personnel that joined the new army were former members of the Bundesgrenzschutz. The naval part part of the BGS was completely integrated into the Bundeswehr.

Finding a name was difficult: Wehrmacht was of course unusable so it was decided to use the name Bundeswehr since it was similar to the Reichswehr of the first German Republic. The proposal was made by the former General Hasso von Manteufel.

It was also difficult to find acceptable personal since nearly all potential officers and noncommissioned officers had served in the Wehrmacht. A committee was formed to test the candidates for the rank of colonel upwards. In 1959 of the 14.900 officers 12.360 had served in the Wehrmacht or the Reichswehr and 300 in the Waffen-SS. Confronted with that fact Adenauer answered: “NATO does not take 18 year old generals”.

The first bases were Andernach for the army, Wilhelmshaven for the navy and Nörvenich for the air force. A draft and reserve system was implemented.


The plan was to form 12 divisions by the end of 1959. After consulting with military experts like the former Feldmarschall Erich von Manstein it was decided to make the Heer fully mechanized; with brigades as the smallest operational unit instead of regiments.

Three Korps were formed with 4 divisions each and a tank regiment as a mobile reserve. In addition to the field army a territorial army was formed which was not under NATO command.

Naming (Heer)

ManöverThe divisions were formed as tank or mechanized divisions in turn so that the 1., 3., 5., … were tank divisions and the 2., 4., 6., … were mechanized divisions. This pattern was disrupted by the 1. Gebirgsdivision (8) and the 1. Luftlandedivision (9) so that the next formed division was a tank division (10. Panzerdivision). Usually a Panzerdivision that had not reached full strength was classified as Panzergrenadierdivision.

The Brigades were numbered in the order they were formed. The 1., 2. and 3. Brigade where part of the 1. Panzerdivision, 4., 5., and 6. Brigade part of the 2. Panzergrenadierdivision. The army was supposed to have 36 Brigades. The additional Brigades of the Territorialheer started with the number 52. Every Panzerdivision had two Panzerbrigaden and one Panzergrenadierbrigade. Every Panzergrenadierdivision had one Panzerbrigade and two Panzergrenadierbrigaden.

The regiments were numbered 100, 200 and 300. The 300. Panzerregiment was never formed though.

The Battalions were numbered after the Brigades so the 1st Battalion of the 1st Brigade is the 11th Brigade. For example: The Panzerbataillon 64 was a Battalion of the Panzerbrigade 6. The Panzerbatallion 363 was an Batallion of the Panzerbrigade 36.

Today with only two divisions left and a lot of shifting units around its no longer possible to recognize the division or brigade a battalion belongs to by the number.

Some units are special training units and have a Lehr in the name and some units have an addition to the name usually referring to region they are stationed in.

Overview (Heer)

  • Heer – Army
  • Panzerdivision (PzDiv) – Armored Division
  • Panzergrenadierdivision (PzGrenDiv) – Mechanized Division
  • Gebirgsdivision (GebDiv) – Mountain Division
  • Luftlandedivision (LLDiv) – Airborne Division
  • Jägerdivision (JDiv) – Light Infantry Division
  • Artilleriebrigade (ArtBrig) – Artillery Brigade
  • Gebirgsjägerbrigade (GbJgBrig) – Mountain Infantry Brigade
  • Pionierbrigade (PiBrig) – Engineer Brigade
  • Luftlandebrigade (LLBrig) – Airborne Brigade
  • Artillerieregiment (ArtRgt) – Artillery Regiment
  • Falschirmjägerregiment (FschJgRgt) – Paratrooper Regiment
  • Artilleriebataillon (ArtBtl) – Artillery Battalion
  • Pionerregemient (PiRgt) – Engineer Regiment
  • Panzerartilleriebatallion (PzArtBtl) – Self-propelled Artillery Battalion
  • Feldartilleriebataillon (FArtBtl) – Field Artillery Battalion
  • Raketenartilleriebataillon (RakArtBtl) – Rocket Artillery Battalion
  • Gebirgsjägerbatallion (GebJgBtl) – Mountain Infantry Battalion
  • Aufklärungsbatallion (AufklBtl) – Reconnaissance Battalion
  • Pionerbatallion (PiBtl) – Engineer Battalion
  • Gebirgspionierbattalion (GebPiBtl) – Mountain Engineer Battalion
  • Panzerpionierbattalion (PzPiBtl) – Armored Engineer Battalion
  • Falschirmjägerbattalion (FschJgBtl) – Paratrooper Battalion
  • Panzeraufklärungsbattalion (PzAufklBtl) – Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion


The Marine is the smallest branch of the German armed forces. It traces its roots back to the Reichsflotte (Imperial Fleet) of the revolutionary era of 1848-52. When the Marine was formed, it integrated several units of the former Kriegsmarine. Also included minesweeper units and small patrol vessels of the federal border guards.

During the Cold War the German navy had three major tasks:

  • Keep the entries to the Baltic sea open
  • Keep the navies of Warsaw Pact bottled inside the Baltic
  • Protect the Atlantic convoys

The duties have changed since the end of the Cold War. The German navy is now operating worldwide and is participating in counter terrorism and peacekeeping missions.

Naming (Marine)

ZerstörerThe first ships the german navy received were several Sloops and Destroyers of the Royal Navy for to train the sailors. Those units were named after famous Prussian officers:

  • Speer
  • Gneisenau
  • Graf Spee

The first Zerstörer were simply numbered (Zerstörer 1 – Zerstörer 6), the next class of destroyers was named after German countries. The last three destroyers lend from america were named after high ranking officers of the Wehrmacht. This was very controversial especially when it was realized that Mölders was a devoted Nazi and Rommel not involved in the resistance against Hitler. Later it was decided not to name any ships after Persons:

  • Lütjens
  • Rommel
  • Mölders

The Fregatten build in Germany are named after German countries or big German cities. The ships named Emden even carried the iron cross the 1st Emden had received in World War 1. Some of the Fregatten are often refereed to as destroyers outside Germany since they are similar in size and armament to destroyers. During the first years the Fregatte were classified as Geleitboote since the term Fregatte was not common in the imperial navy:

  • Augsburg
  • Emden
  • Schleswig-Holstein
  • Sachsen

The Korvetten are named after German cities:

  • Braunschweig
  • Oldenburg
  • Erfurt

The Schnellboote are named after birds and carnivores. The remaining Schnellboote are supposed to be replaced by a new class of corvettes in the near future.

  • Silbermöwe
  • Raubmöwe
  • Panther
  • Hyäne

Minesweepers and Minehunters are usually named after smaller cities:

  • Göttingen
  • Koblenz
  • Tübingen
  • Fulda

Landing crafts are named after fish:

  • Lachs
  • Schlei
  • Wels

The Replenishment Ships are named after German cities. The three ships of the Berlin-class are named after cities where a parliament was placed.

  • Lüneburg
  • Glücksburg
  • Bonn

Submarines traditionally are only numbered with a couple of exceptions for boats formerly used by the Kriegsmarine.

  • Wilhelm Bauer
  • Hai
  • Hecht

The Marine also operates a small number of planes and Helicopters for maritime surveillance, SAR and to be used on board of the frigates. The are organised into Marinefliegergeschwader (MFG).

  • Marinefliegergeschwader 3 „Graf Zeppelin“

Overview (Marine)

  • Zerstörer – Destroyer
  • Fregatte – Frigate
  • Korvette – Corvette
  • Schnellboot – Fast Attack Craft
  • Minenräumboot – Minesweeper
  • Minenjagdboot – Minehunter
  • Landungsboot – Landing Craft
  • Einsatzgruppenversorger – Replenishment Ship
  • U-Boot – Submarine

Trivia: The Gorch Fock

BundeswehrGermany had lost all schoolships after WW2 so it was decided to build a new ship after the same plans and name it Gorch Fock since the original Gorch Fock was delivered to the soviets and renamed Tovarishch.
The ship is named after the german Writer Johann Kinau who died in the Battle of Jutland and is supposed to be the most depicted ship in history since it was depicted on the 10 Mark bill.

The Tovarishch was bought by a German foundation and named Gorch Fock again leading to the confusing situation that sometimes two similar looking ships with the same name visit the same port…


BundeswehrOne of the biggest obstacles for the new Luftwaffe was to overcome the 10 years gap since World War 2 as the demands on an air force have changed since the introduction of jet planes.

Many well-known fighter pilots who had fought with the Luftwaffe of the Wehrmacht joined the new  air force and underwent refresher training in the U.S. before returning to upgrade on the latest U.S.-supplied hardware. These included Erich Hartmann, Gerhard Barckhorn, Günther Rall and Johannes Steinhoff. Steinhoff would eventually become commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe. Josef Kammhuber, also made a significant career in the post-war Luftwaffe, retiring in 1962 as Inspekteur der Luftwaffe (Chief Inspector of the Air Force).

With the introduction of the Starfighter the Luftwaffe faced a crisis because in the early years the crash rate and number of dead pilots was very high and unacceptable to the public. That changed after training was intensified and changes were made to the plane. Still the Starfighter was replaced by the Phantom and the Tornado much earlier than in other air forces.

In case of war several units can be equipped with nuclear weapons provided by the United States.

The Luftwaffe was the first German unit to experience combat when Tornados of the Luftwaffe took part in Operation Deliberate Force.

Naming (Luftwaffe)

Several units received a honorific title in April 1961, the anniversary of the death of Manfred von Richthofen, after famous fighter pilots of the first world war:

  • Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 31 “Boelcke”
  • Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 51 “Immelmann”
  • Taktische Luftwaffengruppe “Richthofen”

The honorific title of the Jagdgeschwader 74 “Mölders” was removed in 2005 after a decision of the parliament that members of the Legion Condor should not be honored.
Additionally the Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 73 received the honorific title “Steinhoff”.

Overview (Luftwaffe)


  • Jagdgeschwader (JG) – Fighter Squadron
  • Jagdbombergeschwader (JaboG) – Fighter-bomber Squadron
  • Aufklärungsgeschwader (AG) – Reconnaissance Squadron
  • Leichtes Kampfgeschwader (LeKG) – Light Combat Squadron
  • Luftransportgeschwader (LTG) – Air Transport Squadron
  • Hubschraubergeschwader (HSG) – Helicopter Squadron
  • Hubschraubertransportgeschwader (HTG) – Transport Helicopter Squadron
  • Flugkörpergeschwader (FKG) – Rocket Squadron (Pershing)
  • Flugabwehrraketengeschwader (FlaRagG) – Anti-air Rocket Squadron
  • Flugabwehrraketenbataillon (FlaRakBtl) – Anti-air Rocket Battalion
  • Flugabwehrraketengruppe (FlaRakGrp) – Anti-air Rocket Group
  • Flugbereitschaft des Bundesministeriums der Verteidigung (FlBschftBMVg) – Special Air Mission
  • Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader ( TaktLwG) – Tactical Air Squadron

In 2014 all Jagdgeschwader and Jagdbombergeschwader were renamed to Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader.

The Tradition of the Bundeswehr

TruppenfahneThe question of tradition was and still is a very difficult one.

One movement wanted to resume the traditions all German armies including the Wehrmacht others saw the opportunity to make reforms.

Topics important for the identity of the Bundeswer:

  • The Prussian military reforms of 1807-1813 during the wars against Napoleon (freedom wars). Especially the perception of Scharnhorst that every citizen has to be a defender of his state.
  • The military resistance against Hitler and that real obedience includes resistance against injustice. The Wehrmacht itself can not be a source for traditions.
  • Traditions formed by the Bundeswehr: the citizen in Uniform and leadership development and civic education

The Bundeswehr was formed colours but that caused problems with other NATO countries and using flags of the imperial army was not a real solution. President Heinrich Lübke endowed new flags to the battalions of the army in 1964 as “visible sign of the performance of duties for the people and the country”.

The current Traditionserlass (traditions decree) emphasizes the importance of

  • the black-red-gold federal flag
  • the national anthem
  • the eagle of the federal coat of arms
  • the iron cross
  • the Oath of Service and the solemn pledge
  • the “Großer Zapfenstreich” (Grand Tattoo )
  • “Ich hatt einen Kammeraden” (“The good Comrade”)

New recruits are sworn in on the 20th July every year either at the Bendlerblock (the place von Staufenberg was shot) or in front of the Reichstag the seat of the german parliament. It symbolizes the connection between the Bundeswehr and the resistance against Hitler and the role as a “army of the parliament”.

Exception to the Rule

WachbattalionWhile no unit of the Bundeswehr was supposed to continue the tradition of former german units an exception was made for the Wachbattalion. When the Möllendorfdegen was rediscovered after the reunification of Germany the heirs of the last bearer asked what to do. The german President Richard von Weizsäcker confirmed that the sword should be restored to the Wachbattalion as the successor of the 1. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß of the imperial army and the Infanterie Regiment Nr. 9 of the Wehrmacht.

Von Weizsäcker and several members of the military resistance against Hitler had served in the Regiment Nr. 9 including Henning von Tresckow and Axel von dem Busche. The Wachbattalion also has close ties to the Hohenzollern Dynasty.

Pictures: Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive), Wikipedia (public domain).

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