German Vehicle Lighting

Detailed look at the light systems used on German vehicles in World War 2
Text by Bruce Culver

Text taken from an old publication completed with some extra pictures.

The typical front lighting layout on an AFV. This new StuG III Ausf F has the NoteK Tarnscheinwerfer on the left fender, side lights, and headlights covered with metal slit masks.

The German military blackout night lighting system was developed prior to World War 2. It was designed by the Nova-Technik GmbH of Munich in collaboration with the German Army and was called the NOTEK system by way of abbreviation. It was operated in conjunction with the normal headlights on military and impressed civilian vehicles, and was eventually adopted for use on all vehicles used by the Wehrmacht. Though not all the components were titled to every vehicle, the NOTEK system consisted of four basic parts: a front blackout headlight, a rear interval judging indicator light, a rear running light, and a switch inside the vehicle which operated all the lights. The front blackout headlight (‘Tarnschein-werfer') was generally mounted on the left front side of the vehicle between 32 inches (81 cm) and 48 inches (122 cm) above the ground. It had a peculiar shape similar to a flattened German helmet, and was pressed from sheet steel. It was 9-3/4 inches (25 cm) long, 7 inches (18 cm) wide, and 3 inches (7.6 cm) high; the mounting bracket added 3-1/2 inches (8.8 cm) in height. The ‘Tarnschein-werfer’ was detachable from the mounting bracket and often was stowed inside the vehicle to prevent damage. A friction lug and locking nut secured the lamp to the bracket; electrical contact was made by a contact pin on the lamp slipping into a contact ring in the mounting bracket. The bottom plate of the ‘Tarnscheinwerfer’ was detachable, held by three nuts and locking washers. It was removed to replace the bulb or lens, and to clean any dust or debris from the lamp housing. The 35 watt clear bulb faced to the rear. The light from the bulb was reflected from a pressed steel chrome plated mirror which extended around the rear wall of the lamp housing. The mirror directed the light through a heavy glass diffusion lens so that it was projected down and forward.

Side view of a standard Tarnscheinwerfer assembly. Compare with scale drawings to identify components. On the right the NOTEK firm logo imprinted on top of the device.
The underside of the Tarnscheinwerfer and disassembled to show interior.

The forward part of the ‘Tarnscheinwerfer’ body served as a hood to prevent the light beam from being seem from above. The resulting beam of light was very soft and flat-topped, projecting forward 30-40 metres (98-131 ft) and extending to about 25 metres (82 ft) in width. It was very diffused at the edges and was very difficult to see from the sides. With the switch set on ‘Low’, the light could not be seen from above 500 metres (1640 ft); on ‘Medium’, above 800 metres (2625 ft); and on ‘High’, above 1500 metres (4920 ft).

The large rear combination interval indicating and stop light was mounted at the left rear of the vehicle. It was a rounded rectangular box 7 inches (18 cm) wide, 4 inches (10 cm) high, and 2 inches (5 cm) deep. The light housing was originally cast from aluminium alloy, but later versions were pressed from sheet steel. A pressed metal faceplate was fastened by screws over the rear of the light body. The light was divided longitudinally into two halves. The upper half was the interval indicating section and the upper part of the faceplate had two pairs of rectangular windows; these had glass lenses which transmitted a yellow-green light very similar to that of the firefly.

These interval-judging lights were basically identical in principle to the ‘cats eyes' interval indicating lights used by the US Army, and operated using known limitations of the human eye, which can perceive separate points of light only within certain distances. At distances from 300 metres (985 ft) to 35 metres (115 ft), the four lights appeared to be one light, indicating that the following vehicle was too far behind. From 35 metres down to 25 metres (82 ft), the lights appeared to be two spots, indicating a safe separation between vehicles. From 25 metres and closer, all four lights were separate, and indicated the following vehicle was too close for safety.

A pressed metal flap, hinged across the middle of the face-plate, was flipped down to expose the yellow-green interval indicating lights, and was held in place by spring clips at the sides. When flipped up and retained by the upper clips, the flap exposed the rear running light and brake light, and covered the interval lights. The running light was to the left and had a red glass lens. It was on all the time and served to mark the vehicle's width. The brake light was to the right and had a yellow glass lens. The brake light burned only when the brakes were applied. When the metal flap was flipped down to cover the running light and brake light, the small hole in the flap allowed a spot of light to be seen by the following driver when the brakes were applied.

On the bottom of the interval indicating light casing was a sliding metal shutter. When opened, this shutter allowed the running light to illuminate the number plate mounted below this light. It was opened only in rear areas where blackout regulations allowed this.

The right rear running light was required by German military regulations, which stated that the width of the vehicle be indicated from the rear as well as the front. The oval housing was fitted with a bulged cover plate having two oval lenses. The upper lens showed a dim red light, the lower lens, a bright red light. The switch in the centre of the cover plate turned a rotary shutter which blocked one of the lenses; thus either setting could be chosen, depending on blackout conditions.

The control switch had five settings: 'O', ‘H’, 'VY, 'V2, and 'V3\ 'O’ was ‘Off’. 'H' position turned on just the rear lights and was used when very close to the enemy, making it dangerous to operate the 'Tarnscheinwerfer'. The rear intervalindicating lights and ‘dim' red running light could not be seen from above, and only 500 metres (985 ft) from behind. 'V,' operated the ‘Low’ setting for the ‘Tarnscheinwerfer', the rear right light being set on 'dim'. This setting was used on very dark nights, or when operating close to the front lines, moving into artillery positions, and assembly points, etc. ‘V,’ lights could not be seen beyond 500 metres (1640 ft). ‘YV was the ‘Medium* setting for the front light, and was used for movement near the front lines and in command areas near the front. ‘V>’ lights could not be seen beyond 800 metres (2625 ft). ‘\Y was the ‘High’ setting for the ‘Tarnscheinwerfer’ and usually the ‘bright’ setting for the rear running light. This setting was used primarily for peacetime conditions or training exercises where the higher level of light was safer. Often the interval indicating lights were covered and the left running light and brake light were used, and the license plate was illuminated also. ‘V3’ lights could not be seen beyond 1500 metres (4920 ft).

Above scale drawings of the different devices

It should be noted that the vehicle headlights were used in conjunction with the NOTEK lights; this was required in order to indicate the width of the vehicle so that oncoming traffic could clear if safely. For this purpose, the headlights were almost always masked to prevent the beams from revealing the vehicle to aircraft or enemy observers. On many vehicles, the headlights were covered with metal slit masks, as on Pz Kpfw Ills. Many 'softskin' vehicles had rubber or cloth slit masks fitted over the headlight housings, held in place with rubber bands. The most common expedient, though, was the use of black or camouflage paint to mask most of the lens, leaving only a slit for a thin beam of light sufficient to indicate the width of the vehicle. The light beam was to be visible only to 500 metres. In rear areas, the most common procedure was to use the ‘VY switch position, the right rear light on ‘bright’, and the left rear light with the flap up and the license plate illuminated. At the first sign of danger, the driver would stop the vehicle and turn the right light to ‘dim’, close the shutter for the license plate light, and lower the metal flap to expose the interval indicating lights. The lighting intensity was then set to the appropriate brightness; the darker the night, the lower the light level. Convoy lighting varied to some extent depending on local conditions. Normally the leading vehicle only would use the ‘Tarnscheinwerfer’; all following vehicles would use only the rear interval indicating lights and ‘Dim’ right rear light. On very dark nights or when very close to the enemy, the headlights were turned off, the leading vehicle operated as above, and the following vehicles used only the rear lights, every fifth vehicle using the ‘Tarnscheinwerfer’ on the lowest light level. Because of the danger of observation by the enemy, it was recommended that the headlights and ‘Tarnscheinwerfer’ be turned off when climbing hills or cresting ridges, as the light beams might be seen as they skimmed over the tops of the rises. In very hilly areas, it was probable that only the lowest light level was used, and the speed of the vehicles reduced for safety. In 1942, a new combination headlight/blackout light was introduced to replace the NOTEK ‘Tarnscheinwerfer' on military vehicles. Produced by the Robert Bosch electrical firm, this new headlight had a cylindrical body with a slightly bulged rear face, and a heavy glass lens covering the bulb and reflector. For blackout use, there was a special detachable blackout slit cap, which hung from a chain attached to the rear of the body when not on the light. This cap had a double slit design which had the rear slit set higher than the front one, so that the beam of light was directed down and forward. The broad flat beam was very difficult to see from above, and nearly as hard to sec from the sides as the light source was very well shielded. The real advantage of the Bosch combination light was that it eliminated the need for special masks or painting of the headlight lenses to comply with blackout regulations, and in the latter case, it provided an easy means of having full lighting in non-blackout areas, which resulted in greater safety. From mid-1942, the Bosch headlight replaced the NOTEK ‘Tarnscheinwerfer’ on most AFV’s manufactured from that point. The major exceptions were the StuG III Ausf G and StuH 42, which retained the NOTEK light, mounted in the middle of the glacis plate. The NOTEK Tarnscheinwerfer’ was also manufactured in Czechoslovakia during World War 2, and production was continued after the war, the light being fitted to a variety of vehicles in Czech service. The Czech version of the light was not exactly the same as the German type, and one close-up photo shows a post-war Czechoslovakian model. The German version had a flat bottom plate on the lamp housing, which required stiffening strips to the sides and rear; the contoured plate eliminated this need and also supported the reflecting mirror. The NOTEK system of blackout lights was used on virtually all vehicles procured or used by the Wehrmacht. and is a significant detail that should be added to models of German vehicles. In general, Pz Kpfw I-IV models had the 'Tarnscheinwerfer' and interval indicating combination light only, though late Pz Kpfw Ills and I Vs used the Bosch headlight, Pz Kpfw Ills from the Ausf M. and Pz Kpfw IVs from the Ausf H. Tiger Is appear to have carried the interval indicating light over the left rear track guard, and two (later one) Bosch headlights in front. Tiger Us carried only the Bosch headlight in the centre of the glacis. Panther Ausf Ds had two Bosch lights later models had one, on the left side only. All Sd Kfz 251 APCs up to the Ausf D carried the NOTEK ‘Tarnscheinwerfer’; the Ausf D could carry either this light, or the Bosch AFV headlight. All Sd Kfz 250s with the pre-1943 body used the NOTEK blackout light; from the 1943 new body, both types of lights appear to have been used. ‘Softskins’, as noted, continued to carry the NOTEK design, and nearly all 'softskins' carried the rear lights as described, though the Volkswagen 'Schwimmwagen' usually carried only the oval rear light, often only on the left side. Most of the Sd Kfz 250 and 251 models carried the two rear NOTEK lights early in the war, all early 250s up to the 1943 design change, and all 251s up to the Ausf D, which carried only the rectangular interval indicating light on the left side. When in doubt, try to follow photographs for details.

The Bosch AFV headlight

The Tarnscheinwerfer

The Combination Backlight