After watching Saving Private Ryan and other documentaries for WWII, they made it seem like everyone was able to identify enemy vehicles very easily. For example, in Saving Private Ryan, they were able to identify the types of tanks (Tiger and Panzer) that were coming in the final battle.

In some other documentary (I think it was Spitfire, I'm not 100% sure), they were talking about fighters they faced like the Messerschmitt 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s.

I'm trying to imagine how the Allies knew what the Germans called their vehicles and how they got clear photos of what they looked like to show other soldiers/pilots. I don't think cameras back then were that good to take clear photos of things in motion and also if you were driving/flying for your life, I don't think you'd stand still long enough to take photos of the German vehicles.

I'm also wondering how the Allies learned the names of these vehicles. Were the Germans announcing all their new vehicles to strike fear in the Allies hearts? Were there spies for the Allies in Germany who learned this info and passed it to the Allies?

My guess is the documentaries I watched were made way after WWII so they were able to talk about things in hindsight and know the names of all the vehicles, have photos, etc. Saving Private Ryan, it's just a movie and again, they have hindsight and can add all this info to make it seem more authentic.

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    Names aren't particularly important, and in fact the US made up its own names for Japanese aircraft. My grandfather trained sailors to spot planes during the war. I doubt this was much of an issue for tanks because you generally don't come across a couple tanks wandering alone. Planes like the me109 were from the pre-war period, when information flow likely existed.
    – user15620
    May 27, 2021 at 20:48
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    The names of tanks and planes were not secret. They did not need to interrogate prisoners, as it was easier to read German trade journals etc.
    – Tomas By
    May 27, 2021 at 20:55
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    I am going to be honest. You might want to change "documentaries" to movies. Saving Private Ryan was fictional and while it took from history there is a lot of artistic play for the story.
    – EvanM
    May 27, 2021 at 21:48
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    Well, I would not have voted to close. Operational and materiel/equipment intelligence gathering and, more importantly, dissemination, is an interesting topic which reaches behind to pointy end of the stick so troops and sailors have at least some idea of what to expect from the enemy's bag of tricks. I regret that a movie was used as an example, but, in the real world, there would have been training to identify, e.g. a Tiger II from a PzKw IV or an A6M3 from a Ki-84.
    – R Leonard
    May 27, 2021 at 23:59

2 Answers 2


Manuals, lots of manuals, recognition publications, intelligence bulletins, reports and so on.

From a US perspective some of these were not necessarily accurate circa 1941-1942, but as time went on, well, the more information that comes to hand, the better the presentation. This was a lot of effort gleaned from pre-war measures such as reports from military and naval attachés, reports and information from Allied Powers, field intelligence activities, examination of captured documents, materiel, and equipment. Thirst for information on the enemy was insatiable.

See for example:

Early war identification manuals Italian aircraft - http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USArmy/US%20Army%20Field%20Manuals/USArmy,%20Basic%20FM%20Mil%20Intell.%20ID.%20Ital.%20Aircraft%20FM%2030-39%201941-10-24.pdf

Japanese Naval Vessels – http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USArmy/US%20Army%20Field%20Manuals/USArmy,%20Basic%20FM%20Mil.%20Intell.,%20%20ID%20Japanese%20Naval%20Vessels,%20FM%2030-58,%201941-12-29.pdf

Armored Vehicles, German, Japanese, Russian, Italian - http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USArmy/US%20Army%20Field%20Manuals/USArmy,%20Basic%20FM%20Mil.%20Intell.%20ID%20For.%20Armd%20Veh.%20GER.%20JPN,%20RUS,%20ITAL.%20FM%2030-42%201941-06-20.pdf

British Armored Vehicles – http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USArmy/US%20Army%20Field%20Manuals/USArmy,%20Basic%20FM%20Mil%20Intell%20ID%20BRIT%20Armd%20Veh.%20FM%2030-41%201941-04-27.pdf

You can find these and German, Japanese, Soviet, and, yes, US aircraft manuals here - http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USArmy/US%20Army%20Field%20Manuals/

Then there is the Journal of Recognition, some of the monthly issues can be found here http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USA/Journal%20of%20Recognition/ for example the September 1943 edition (big file, takes a while to load) - http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USA/Journal%20of%20Recognition/Journal%20of%20Recognition%2043-09.pdf

Some US Navy ONI Recognition Manuals can be found here http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USN/ONI%20Recognition%20Manuals%20and%20other%20material/
for example, ONI 41-12 Japanese Naval Vessels - http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USN/ONI%20Recognition%20Manuals%20and%20other%20material/ONI%2041-42.Japanese.Naval.Vessels.pdf Or, perhaps, “Japanese Operational Aircraft – Know Your Enemy,” a CinCPac/CinCPOA bulletin from April 1945 http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USN/ONI%20Recognition%20Manuals%20and%20other%20material/USN%20ONI.Know.Your.Enemy.Japanese.Operational.Aircraft.1945.04.pdf

The Military Intelligence Service of the US War Department published an intelligence bulletin that provided information and photographs on enemy equipment. Here is volume 1, No 1: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USArmy/USArmy%20MID%20Intelligence%20Bulletins/USArmy%20MID%20Intelligence%20Bulletin%20Vol.%201%20No.%2001%201942-09-00.pdf. Volumes 1, 2, and 3 may be found here http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USArmy/USArmy%20MID%20Intelligence%20Bulletins/.

And there are the USAAF Intelligence Bulletins http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/NewPDFs/USArmy/USAFPOA%20Intelligence%20Bulletin/

And if one’s military attaches at the time were clever, there were also small insights into who was who in the opposition. For example officer registers for the US Army provided back ground on serving officers, dates of rank, qualifications, service schools see https://archive.org/details/officialarmyregi1941unit/page/n5/mode/2up?q=United+States+Army+Register+1941 . And the USN, up until 1941 provided current assignments in both directories and registers of officers: Register for 1940 http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AMH/USN/Naval_Registers/1940.pdf ; Navy Directory 1941 https://ia801305.us.archive.org/21/items/navydirectoryoff1941unit/navydirectoryoff1941unit.pdf One would only have to go down to the GPO and put money on the counter . . . these were not classified.

Everybody did it. Some carefully worded searches can give you all kinds of things “Australian Army Primary Documents” will get you here https://www.army.gov.au/our-heritage/history/primary-materials which will get you here https://www.army.gov.au/our-heritage/history/primary-materials/1939-1945-world-war-two and if you scroll down to the bottom of the page, the next to last item Pocket Notes on the Japanese Army https://www.army.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-11/pocket_notes_on_the_japanese_army_organisation_and_equipment_1944_0.pdf

A search for Royal Australian Navy Primary Materials will get you here, https://www.navy.gov.au/media-room/publications which will get you here - Combined Operational Intelligence Centre Naval Summaries, which will get you https://www.navy.gov.au/media-room/publications/wwii-combined-operational-intelligence-centre-naval-summaries, the Combined Operational Centre Naval Summaries, and picking the first one and snooping to page 13, we find for 5/21-41 noted: “French Submarines in Indian Ocean - C. in C. East Indies report's ‘Censorship of mail from French Ship ‘SONTAY’ reveals following - French submarines ‘ELONGENS’, ‘ESPOIRE’, ‘MOUGE’ and one other accompanied by tanker which victualled and fueled them at sea reaching Tamatave nonstop from Dakar about 16th January. 2 have left for Indo-China and 2 are remaining Tamatave. Graded A.I. Name of tanker is "LOT” and it is presumed she will be accompanying submarines to Indo-China.

Or from the same base publication page you can get to the Royal Australian Navy Monthly Naval Warfare Review at https://www.navy.gov.au/media-room/publications/acb-0254454-royal-australian-navy-monthly-naval-warfare-review-wwii for contemporary documents on goings on and intel/recognition information.

Documentation could be fairly simplistic, even crude, for example, these descriptions of Japanese ships distributed at NAS Maui in early 1943 (from my collection, this is page 5, the start of Japanese warship descriptions, the first four pages were descriptions of US warships)

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Others fairly detailed and esoteric, such as these examples regarding the Arado 234 (both also from my collection; the first from a 28 page document entitled “German Arado 234 Bomber – A Collection of Data from Various Sources” and the second, obviously the cover of a second document of 30 pages)

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I am leaving out a great many internet places which require a fee to access their available documents (yes, I avoid them, too), and sites requiring academic connections which I do not possess to access same. But, Intelligence, everybody did it. Everyone wanted to know what those people was doing with what equipment and what our guys were doing about it.

  • i did read in a Battle of Britain memoir that the pilots were shown crashed enemy aircraft so they could familiarise themselves with their silhouettes, and these planes would also have model ID plates somewhere ? Jun 1, 2021 at 10:23

As one example I know from family connection, the Bassett Lowcke company in Northampton in England before the war specialised in making model ships, aircraft, railways etc. mainly as toys or for collectors but as a selling point and from pride took care to make them accurate and to scale.

When the diversion of resources to war production reduced the number of models they could make for the general market, they used their expertise to make scale models of enemy ships used in training by the navy to help sailors identify 'that's the silhouette of a K Class enemy destroyer on the horizon' etc..

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