Markings were used so that aircraft could be identified. Just like camouflage, the subject of Luftwaffe airplane markings is complex and rather confusing. When one observes markings used on German aircraft, one is immediately struck by the number of variations from 1935 to 1945. This section merely gives a general outline of markings intended to be applied.
From 1933 to 1935, Germany did not officially possess an air force, but the nazification of the civilian airfleet was evident by a replica of the Nazi flag painted on both sides of aircraft fins. This consisted of a bright red band with a white circle in which there was a black Hakenkreuz (swastika), very often standing on one point to emphasize an impression of dynamism and movement. In early 1936, a series of changes came into force. These included the application of the Balkenkreuz (national cross), a Greek cross with four arms of equal length. This was black with white outline similar to that used on German tanks. The Balkenkreuz was placed on both sides of an aircraft's fuselage at midpoint between the wing and tail units. It was also painted on the wings, both on upper and undersurface. This emphasized the importance of identifying friend and foe in a campaign where close cooperation between ground-attack aircraft and dive bombers and the assaulting armored forces was a fundamental feature of the Blitzkrieg.
The aircraft of the German Legion Condor that took part in the Spanish Civil War were repainted, as Germany was not officially at war against the Spanish Republic. Instead of Balkenkreuz and Hakenkreuz, they carried a white Andrea's cross in a black circle on both sides of the fuselage, while fins and rudders had a black Andrea's cross on a white background. The conspicuous red/white/black swastika painted on fins and rudders was discarded and replaced in late 1938 by a simple black swastika, often with a thin white outline. In the case of ambulance airplanes, the black and white Balkenkreuz was replaced by a red cross on a circular white background. Later in the war, there were several variations on the Balkenkreuz theme. For camouflage purposes, the cross was often merely outlined in white or black with the center left in the basic color.
Tactical markings enabled a unit commander to quickly call up one of his aircraft by radio and pick it out more easily above the battlefield. Before the official creation of the Luftwaffe in 1935, German airplanes had no tactical markings but a civilian registration, generally a letter D for Deutschand (Germany) and a sequence of three of four letters. After 1935 identification marks were introduced, consisting of a combination of three letters and an Arabic numeral applied on the fuselage, in conjunction with the Balkenkreuz, the cross dividing the four symbols. These codes were painted in such as way that they would be readable if the aircraft was passing over the observer from front to back. These markings represented the plane's Geschwader, Gruppe and Staffel. The expansion of the German air force in the years preceding the war required some administrative changes, particularly when the Luftflotten (air fleets) were created in 1939. Single-engine fighter units had their own marking system, showing unit and tactical seniority. These used chevrons to indicate the rank of the pilot; bars, points or cross to indicate the Gruppe; a numeral showing the Geschwader to which the Gruppe belonged; and sometimes a horizontal black line ran entirely around the fuselage indicating a staff pilot. A Geschwader commander, for example, was indicated by two chevrons and a vertical bar; a Gruppe commander by two chevrons; a Gruppe technical officer by a chevron and a small circle. Colors were also applied to indicate the Geschwader; they were also designated by their abbreviation followed by an Arabic numeral: e. g. KG 77, NJG 26, ZG 110. Staffeln in the Geschwader were numbered consecutively in Arabic numerals; the first, second, and third Staffeln constituted Gruppe I; the fourth, fifth and sixth Staffeln, Gruppe II; and the seventh, eighth and ninth Staffeln, Gruppe III. Where a fourth or fifth Gruppe existed, the Staffeln were numbered 10, 11, and 13 or 13, 14 and 15 respectively. In unit designations, the Gruppe numeral was omitted whenever the Staffel number was displayed. Thus the fourth Staffel of Kampfgeschwader 77 was known as 4/KG 77 and no other reference to its position in Gruppe II of KG 77 was necessary. Gruppen attached to a Geschwader were numbered in Roman numerals; thus I/KG 77 and II/KG 77 were the first and second Gruppen of the medium-range bomber Geschwader 77.
Training aircraft were indicated by letter S for Schule (school), a numeral indicating Luftkreis, a letter identifying the school, and the aircraft's registration numeral within the school. There were, however, many exceptions to the rules, and systems were partially changed, becoming complicated. As World War II progressed, the application of the rules became somewhat more lax, and interpretation at the unit level varied widely from front to front and year to year, resulting in a complex and confusing "system" without uniformity, markings being omitted, some obscure or rarely seen, others added or placed in unofficial positions. Geschwader designations could then consist of three digits, and a system of colors was introduced to indicate Staffeln and Gruppen. There were many variations on the theme, some being in solid or outlined form, or red, yellow, white or black according to the plane background color. In 1941, colored tail bands were added according to theater of operation, and often wingtips and cowling were painted in the same color. In mid-1944, a more complicated system of colored tail bands was introduced for fighter units in the defense of the Reich, adding to the confusing situation already existing. At unit level, however, the tendency was toward smaller and less conspicuous application of the tactical numbers, and in many cases they were simply omitted.
Next to each of the airplane's filler points, there was a small yellow triangle pointing upward, bearing indications referring to the octane rating of the fuel. Luftwaffe vehicles were marked with an identification plate bearing the prefix WL (Wehrmacht Luftwaffe).
Unit and individual emblems
Individual pilots and those belonging to an established unit had "honor titles," crests and emblems. This practice, started by prominent flyers and units of World War I, such as the famous "Red Baron," Manfred von Richthofen, was revived in the Luftwaffe, and awarded, for example, to fighter JG 132. The fighter Geschwader JG 26 was titled Leo Schlageter, after a Nazi activist, an early "martyr" of the cause shot down by the French in 1923. Another example is JG 134, which was named Horst Wessel after the Nazi Party's gutter poet, and distinguished by its brown, the color of the early Nazi and Sturm Abteilung (SA, Storm Trooper) uniforms.
Insignia were of great variety. Directly inspired by classical heraldry, they represented the arms of the city or cities with which the pilot or units were associated, or were individual devices with geometrical forms including colored triangles and diamonds. Pseudoheraldic signs such as birds (eagle, owl and raven), and other animals (shark, lion, cat, horse, fox, unicorn, even Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse) were frequently used. Some crests were obviously directed at a particular target. Example of this type were the cliffs of Dover, an axe cleaving John Bull's hat, or a dog performing on a puddle-shaped map of England. Numerous other examples were observed, using various aggressive combinations and martial themes, for example, lightning, a falling bomb, a flying devil, and Death with its scythe. The shark's mouth insignia with menacing teeth was also used; it displayed unit heraldry, suggesting personal flamboyance and enhancement of aggressive spirit. It was painted, for example, on Messerschmitt Bf 109C of 2/JG 71, Junkers Ju 87 B-1 Stuka of 2/StG 77, Messerschmitt Bf 110 C of II/ZG 76 (Haifisch Gruppe) and even on Gotha Go 242 gliders. Individual, personal or unit good-luck symbols were sometimes used. Crests, insignia and emblems were usually placed on both sides of the cowling near the cockpit or on the aircraft's nose. The kill tally was proudly exhibited in the form of small stars or bars, generally painted on the aircraft rudder. Art and decoration painted on aircraft in the form of pin-ups, fictional or cartoon heroes, lucky or aggressive symbols, animals, and patriotic motifs were often disapproved or frowned upon by military authorities, but they were often tolerated as they benefited morale, expressed individual pride, offered relief from uniform military anonymity, comforted by recalling home, and were believed to work as fetishes against enemy action.