German & Japanese Aircraft Designation Systems

We've previously explained a number of military designation systems. Among these are the US systems for aircraft and missiles as well as the codenames given to Soviet aircraft. Since your question does not specify whether you are asking about naming schemes used by the countries themselves or those applied by the Allies, we'll discuss both where applicable.


German aircraft were most often identified by two letters and a number. The letters did not specify the mission of the aircraft, as has always been common practice in the US, but denoted the manufacturing company. The number refers to the specific model of aircraft built by that company. The letters and number are separated by a space, not a dash as is common in the US or Russia. The two letter prefix codes for the various German manufacturers are described below.

Note that three companies had two designations. The "Bf" used by Messerschmitt came from Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, which had been the company's name before Willy Messerschmitt took over the firm. Older Messerschmitt aircraft desinged before the name change continued to be known by their Bf designations. The "Ha" for Blohm und Voss refers to Hamburger Flugzeugbau, the name of the aircraft division of the Blohm und Voss shipbuilding company. "Ta" refers to Kurt Tank, an aircraft designer honored by Focke-Wulf.

The type numbers were not chosen by the companies, but officially assigned by the German air ministry, or RLM. A single sequence was used for all manufacturers. Related types were often given numbers differing by 100. For example, the Messerschmitt Me 210 was designed as a replacement for the Bf 110, and was later developed into the Me 310 and Me 410.

Major variants of a given aircraft model were denoted by additional letters following the type number, such as the Me 262A. Slight changes to these subtypes were usually designated by an additional variant number after the variant letter, the two being separated by a dash. An example is the Me 262A-1. Pre-production aircraft were similarly identified, except that the variant number was always 0, such as the Me 262A-0. Further variations on a subtype could be denoted by a lower case letter attached to the variant number, such as the Me 262A-1a. Modified aircraft were indicated by "/R" or "/U" and a number, e.g the Me 262A-1a/U5, or by "/Trop," which indicated a tropical climate adaptation.

However, a special case is prototypes of a particular aircraft model. These were identified on an individual airframe basis. The prototype itself was indicated by a letter "V" separated from the type number by a space, and the specific prototype was called out by a number immediately therafter. An example is the Me 262 V1.


As for the Japanese, there is no single, clearly defined naming system. Four different systems were actually in use simultaneously during World War II, in addition to the codenames used by the Allies. The Japanese Army and Navy each used two systems to identify the same aircraft, so a type used by both services could have up to five different designations--a Japanese Army Kitai number, Army type number, Navy designation code, Navy type number, and Allied codename.

To confuse matters even further, a few types were known best by nicknames that had no official status. The Mitsubishi A6M fighter, also known as the Carrier-Borne Fighter Type 0, had the official Allied codename of "Zeke", but it went down in history under the unofficial nickname used by both sides: "Zero".

The Japanese Army Air Force identified aircraft by "Kitai" (airframe) numbers. This system consisted of "Ki", a dash, and a number. Originally the numbers were a simple numeric sequence. Later, some randomization was added as a security measure. Gliders received "Ku" ("Guraida") numbers instead. Subtypes or variants were indicated by Roman numeral suffixes, or by various Japanese abbreviations. A common example was "Kai" (for "Kaizo"), indicating a major modification.

In addition to Kitai numbers, most Army aircraft also received a second designation in a parallel system based on role and the year of entry into service. Originally, this value was the last two digits of the year, where 100 was used for the Japanese year 2600 (1940). Afterwards, the numbers were restarted from 1.

Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft received a designation code very similar to those used by the US Navy. This method consisted of a letter to indicate the aircraft's function, a sequential number to indicate a specific aircraft type (but unlike the USN system, the number 1 was retained), and a letter to indicate the manufacturing company. This series was then followed by a dash and a number to indicate a subtype, plus an optional letter or letters for further variations.

The Japanese Navy aircraft function codes are described below:

The major Japanese manufacturer codes included: The IJN also used a parallel system based on role description and year number, similar to (but independent of) the Army system. In this case, however, the year 2600 (1940) became 0 instead of 100. This system was abandoned in 1943, when it was decided that revealing the year of an aircraft's entry into service might give useful information to the enemy. Aircraft were then given proper names instead.

Because the correct designations of Japanese aircraft were often not known to the Allies, simple codenames were assigned to them instead. Although they were not often followed, some basic rules for choosing the codename were developed:

The following list provides some of the various designations given to several Japanese aircraft of World War II.

Manufacturer & Designation   Army/Navy Type Number or Proper Name		Allied Codename
Aichi B7A Ryusei	     Navy Carrier-Borne Attack Bomber Ryusei		"Grace"
Aichi D1A		     Navy Type 94 Carrier-Borne Dive Bomber		"Susie"
Aichi D3A		     Navy Type 99 Carrier-Borne Dive Bomber		"Val"
Aichi E11A		     Navy Type 98 Night Reconnaissance Seaplane		"Laura"
Aichi E13A		     Navy Type 0 Reconnaissance Seaplane		"Jake"

Kawanishi E7K		     Navy Type 94 Reconnaissance Seaplane		"Alf"
Kawanishi H6K		     Navy Type 97 Flying-Boat				"Mavis"
Kawanishi H8K		     Navy Type 2 Flying-Boat				"Emily"
Kawanishi N1K1 Kyofu	     Navy Fighter Seaplane Kyofu			"Rex"
Kawanishi N1K1/2-J Shiden    Navy Interceptor Fighter Shiden			"George"

Kawasaki Ki-32		     Army Type 98 Light Bomber				"Mary"
Kawasaki Ki-45 Toryu	     Army Type 2 Heavy Fighter				"Nick"
Kawasaki Ki-48	   	     Army Type 99 Light Bomber				"Lily"
Kawasaki Ki-61 Hien	     Army Type 3 Fighter				"Tony"
Kawasaki Ki-100		     Army Type 5 Fighter
Kawasaki Ki-102		     Army Type 4 Assault Plane				"Randy"

Kyushu K11W Shiragiku	     Navy Operations Trainer Shiragiku
Kyushu Q1W Tokai	     Navy Patrol Plane Tokai				"Lorna"

Mitsubishi A5M		     Navy Type 96 Carrier-Borne Fighter			"Claude"
Mitsubishi A6M Zero-Sen      Navy Type 0 Carrier-Borne Fighter			"Zeke"
Mitsubishi A7M Reppu	     Navy Carrier-Borne Fighter Reppu			"Sam"
Mitsubishi B5M		     Navy Type 97 Carrier-Borne Attack Bomber		"Mabel" or "Kate 61"
Mitsubishi F1M		     Navy Type 0 Observation Seaplane			"Pete"
Mitsubishi G3M		     Navy Type 96 Attack Bomber				"Nell"
Mitsubishi G4M		     Navy Type 1 Attack Bomber				"Betty"
Mitsubishi J2M Raiden	     Navy Interceptor Fighter Raiden			"Jack"
Mitsubishi J8M Shusui	     Navy Rocket-Powered Interceptor Fighter Shusui
Mitsubishi K3M		     Navy Type 90 Crew Trainer
Mitsubishi Ki-15 Karigane    Army Type 97 (Navy Type 98) Reconnaissance Plane	"Babs"
Mitsubishi Ki-21	     Army Type 97 Heavy Bomber				"Sally"
Mitsubishi Ki-30	     Army Type 97 Light Bomber				"Ann"
Mitsubishi Ki-46 Shitei      Army Type 100 Command Reconnaissance Plane		"Dinah"
Mitsubishi Ki-51	     Army Type 99 Assault Plane				"Sonia"
Mitsubishi Ki-57	     Army Type 100 Transport				"Topsy"
Mitsubishi Ki-67 Hiryu       Army Type 4 Heavy Bomber				"Peggy"
Mitsubishi L3Y		     Navy Type 96 Transport				"Tina"

Nakajima B5N		     Navy Type 97 Carrier-Borne Bomber			"Kate"
Nakajima B6N Tenzan	     Navy Carrier-Borne Attack Bomber Tenzan		"Jill"
Nakajima C6N Saiun	     Navy Carrier-Borne Reconnaissance Plane Saiun	"Myrt"
Nakajima E8N		     Navy Type 95 Reconnaissance Seaplane		"Dave"
Nakajima G8N Renzan	     Navy Heavy Bomber Renzan				"Rita"
Nakajima J1N Gekko	     Navy Type 2 Reconnaissance Plane			"Irving"
Nakajima Ki-27		     Army Type 97 Fighter				"Nate"
Nakajima Ki-34		     Army Type 97 (Navy Type AT-2) Transport		"Thora"
Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa      Army Type 1 Fighter				"Oscar"
Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki	     Army Type 2 Fighter				"Tojo"
Nakajima Ki-49 Donryu	     Army Type 100 Heavy Bomber				"Helen"
Nakajima Ki-84 Hayate	     Army Type 4 Fighter				"Frank"

Yokosuka B4Y		     Navy Type 96 Carrier-Borne Attack Bomber		"Jean"
Yokosuka D4Y Suisei	     Navy Type 11 Carrier-Borne Dive Bomber		"Judy"
Yokosuka K5Y		     Navy Type 93 Intermediate Trainer			"Willow"
Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka	     Navy Suicide Attack Plane Ohka
Yokosuka P1Y Ginga	     Navy Type 11 Bomber				"Francis"
After the war, Germany largely retained the same designation system system for later aircraft production. The Japanese, thankfully, switched to a much simpler system similar to that used by the US today.
- answer by Joe Yoon, 21 September 2003

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