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Subject: The Complicated World of Unit Designations rss

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Carl Fung
United States
Old Greenwich
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Today is a fluff piece, something I wrote on the side while writing the historical notes for Last Blitzkrieg.

Each army had its unique and traditional way of how units were designated. This is a basic primer on unit designations for the three major armies that fought. This won’t get into unit sizes or composition but rather how units were named. This is also geared for official designations and not ones used for game purposes or English translated designations (for the Germans)

The Americans used ordinal numerals (i.e. 1st, 2nd, 4th…) for their platoons, battalions, regiments, and divisions. Their companies were lettered consecutively through the regiment (or battalion if smaller), skipping “J” because 19th century “I”’s looked like “J”’s as best as I could find as to the reasoning. Corps used roman numerals. Technically armies used spelled out numbers (i.e. First or Third) but numbers like 1st or 3rd were used often. Reconnaissance used the traditional cavalry names for their unit sizes like Troop for Company and Squadron for Battalion. The pair of Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadrons was under the command of a group, typically with the same number as the lower numbered Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (with the exception of the 18th Cavalry Group).

To understand German military unit designations is to understand a little bit of the German language. With apologies to native German speakers, my German language skill comes from skimming German texts or translating them via Google Translate. My sister’s German Grandmother-in-law looked at me in horror when I explained “flak” stood for “flieger abwehr kanone”, saying there was no such word in the German language! The German military used ordinal numbers for their platoons, companies, divisions, and armies. The German notation for ordinal numbers was to have a dot after the number so 1st is represented by “1.” so it’s the 1. SS-Panzer-Division. Companies were numbered consecutively through the regiment, typical 1. to 4. in the first battalion with the 4. Kompanie being the heavy weapons company. Numbers higher than 12 were the regimental support companies. In infantry divisions 13. was reserved for the infantry gun or mortar company and 14. for the anti-tank company even when there were only two battalions per regiment. Regiments and independent battalions or smaller were in cardinal numbers (i.e. 1, 2, 3…) with the number appearing after the unit type and size. Therefore, the 1st SS Panzer Regiment in German is SS-Panzer-Regiment 1 (no dot at the end). Battalions and Corps used Roman numerals with the ordinal dot. The 1st Battalion of the SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 2 is I. Bataillon. Germans used two different words for Battalion. Infantry and pioneers used Bataillon. Abteilung was used for virtually everything else that was battalion sized. Abteilung literally means “department” (more properly “detachment”) and when combined with other words (like the German language likes to do), you can form other words that aren’t battalion-sized units, like Korpsabteilung that was “Corps detachment” meaning remnants of divisions grouped together. My new favorite word Vorausabteilung does literally mean “lead detachment” which was often augmented battalions or at least battalion sized units that led the advance of German formations. In all of the German documentation and maps I’ve seen, the German military used XXXX to denote “40” instead of XL. Hence 47th Panzer Corps is written as XXXXVII Panzer-korps. This did not extend to “4” as this was written as IV and not IIII. To add to the apparent German love for roman numerals, I see many uses of it for months in dates (16.XII for December 16 in European date format with the day followed by the month).

The British and much of their Commonwealth Empire had their rich regimental tradition which creates some lengthy and unique unit designations. For the purposes of this discussion I’ll refer to the British but this was applicable to the old Commonwealth like Canada, South Africa, India, etc. There’s not a lot of standardization so the best approach is to do bottom to top describing each. Infantry Platoons were numbered consecutively through the battalion (1 through 16 in a four platoon, four company battalion). Companies were often lettered alphabetically per battalion, but not always. Some were numbered; others like the Scots Guards retained Musket era companies like “Left Flank” and “Right Flank”. 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment had its sequential company letters as R, S, and T and others not sequential like A, B, then D in the Regiment’s 10th Battalion. There was no easy explanation other than tradition. Battalions are more peculiar. Using the example of the 2 FFY Armour Battalion, this is actually 2nd Battalion, Fife and Forfar Yeomanry (Regiment), or more commonly listed as just 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry. The term Yeomanry, like Hussars, Dragoons, or Horse stem from the cavalry tradition which has been mixed in modern times to designate tank or armored reconnaissance units. The thing to remember is the number is technically the battalion and the word afterwards is the regiment, often with the word regiment itself dropped. Add in subtitles like Royal Wiltshire Imperial Yeomanry (Prince of Wales's Own Royal Regiment) and you have very lengthy unit designation. This is often why British battalions are so heavily abbreviated in games. Brigades and Division designations are more straightforward being numbered. Given the British Army system of having their Territorial Army (equivalent to the US Reserves) grouped within the same region, Infantry Divisions would have the country or region associated to their designations like the 50th (Northumbrian) Division or the 15th (Scottish) Division. Corps and Armies were designated similar to the American Army where it also common to have corps designations using cardinal numbers. All of this gives units a great sense of pride in their long unit histories. Rounding out the British military uniqueness is that their cavalry/armor likewise used troop and squadron but at a different scale. A Troop is the equivalent of a platoon (instead of company in the US Army) and Squadrons at company level. The US has followed suit after WWII but without the rich regiment names like the Commonwealth. Lastly, the British had a knack for calling their units by the cardinal number instead of ordinals. So a platoon member may call out his unit as “Nine Platoon” or “Thirty Corps” instead of “Ninth Platoon” or “Thirtieth Corps”.

This covers the major players in Last Blitzkrieg. For other nation's like Italy and the Soviet Union, the former used roman numerals for all their battalions and the latter used ordinal numbers for battalions that belonged to a regiment. My knowledge of the Italian army is still nascent, but I believe their battalions were all numbered uniquely within each military arm. So some Bersaglieri regiments would have a V and XII battalion and likewise armor regiments would have XIV and XVII battalions. That's a bit of a handful to fit on a counter when showing the battalion and regiment together.

Confused yet?

For game purposes, things like ordinals, unit size terms, and the like are not really used for simplification and for easier denotation for the counters in set up. This is mostly to show why German battalions as part of regiments used roman numerals and the British have abbreviated battalion names. In all, it irks me when I see games use numbers instead of roman numerals for German battalions. This bit of minor detail adds flavor without being too heavy handed.
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