By Paul F. Straney and Robert Sacchi
Interpreting historic military aircraft camouflage is interesting but sometimes frustrating. It is very rare to find an older aircraft in its original camouflage and markings. Usually you must rely on photographs, general orders and instructions, and the memories of others that may have come in contact with your subject.
While this may seem straightforward, there are many factors that make this an inexact science. Here, using late-war Luftwaffe camouflage and markings as our case study, we will attempt to demonstrate some of the difficulties in formulating rules of thumb.
The Evolution of Contemporary Theory
Popular theories regarding late-war camouflage of Luftwaffe machines have greatly changed in the past 40 years. Books written during the war or in the immediate post-war era about Luftwaffe aircraft rarely mentioned camouflage colors. Color illustrations were often speculative. The victorious allies captured many of the surviving German military records. After the war, the Allies packed this large quantity of unsorted material away in warehouses around the world. The allies only catalogued a few of these records. The onset of the Cold War virtually sealed records behind the Iron Curtain. As the soldiers of the combatants returned home, personal memorabilia such as photographs disappeared into attics and other dark corners. This was not a callous rejection of history, but rather the desire to put a war that was still painfully fresh in everyone's minds to rest and to allow a period of healing to begin. Most of the photos published at this time were from the United States Air Force or the Imperial War Museum collections. These pictures showed captured aircraft in various stages of repainting. Color photographs were very expensive to publish so few appeared in print. In the mid-60's, Karl Ries published several books pertaining to Luftwaffe camouflage and markings. This was the first authoritative work on the subject. His theories of the evolution of Luftwaffe camouflage were dramatically different from what most people accepted as fact. He used documents, photos, and personal recollections, to establish that Luftwaffe camouflage changed in 1940-41 to a two-tone gray camouflage. The theory now went that the Germans painted their fighter aircraft in dark greens through 1940. After 1940 they painted their fighters in grays through the end of the war.
A Messerschmitt Me-262 on the runway at Lechfeld. One of the aircraft acquired by Col. Watson for shipment to the USA, this a/c has unfinished engine covers [NASM]
Researchers continued to catalogue Luftwaffe military records into the late 1970s. New data from these records indicated the Germans made another change to Luftwaffe camouflage in 1944. Unfortunately time and events scattered the surviving records. The volume of the remaining material to be combed through was staggering. Finally, J. R. Smith and J. D. Gallaspy published a series of books entitled "Luftwaffe Camouflage & Markings 1935-45" (Kookaburra Publications). The third book in the series, which covered late-war camouflage, introduced the subject of a late-war change to green and brown colors for Luftwaffe aircraft. There haven't been any subsequent broad revelations about late-war Luftwaffe colors. New material has continued to change the way researchers perceive these late-war Luftwaffe colors and their application, especially since the Iron Curtain fell in the early 1990's. Captured records, photographs, and aircraft remains from old crash sites continue to pour out of the former Communist Bloc. Field modification deserves a word here as well. As units moved farther away from Germany shortages of materials, local needs, and individual initiative directly affected camouflage and markings of aircraft. Thus, individual units modified camouflage to suit their needs. Me-262's of Kommando Nowotny had a very distinctive camouflage, particularly on the vertical tail surfaces. On the Eastern front, aircraft of several units (i.e., JG 54) appeared in greens and browns as early as 1943.
A good example of a "field modification" is Messerschmitt Me-163B-0 Komet (Comet) work number (Werke Nummer) V41. On Saturday, May 13, 1944, Major Wolfgang Späte flew this aircraft. It was the first operational mission for the Me-163. The ground crew painted it a bright red for the occasion. The ground crew said they painted it in The Red Baron's colors for good luck. It didn't work. Major Späte failed twice to bring down a P-47. This incident points out several other problems, memory, eye witness testimony, and written sources. Keith C. Schuyler wrote about how his waist gunner spotted a red jet fighter on "Saturday, April 21, 1944, after bombing Hamm." April 21, 1944, was a Friday. The 8th Air Force bombed Hamm on Saturday, April 22. Hamm is over 200 miles (320 kilometers) northeast of Bad Zeischnahn, the Me-163's base at the time. The Me-163 had an operational radius of less than 30 miles (50 kilometers). Was it a false sighting? Did Keith Schuyler get the date and location wrong? Did the editors of Profile, 225 get the days wrong?
A Messerschmitt Me-262 in the trees. In the final days of the war, roads were used as makeshift runways. This a/c in color, not rings on nose, other colors... [NASM]
"Reading" camouflage from an existent airframe
Possession of the aircraft you wish to study can be like holding a piece of the true cross. Even that doesn't mean you have complete information. If the aircraft still carries the camouflage you wish to study, and you can get paint samples from the airframe without breaking any laws (or irking any aircraft owners) there are still several complicating factors. Paints fade with age, losing their color, or even changing color. Sheltering aircraft slows this aging process. World War II military aircraft were generally not built to last. In that conflict obsolescence was often measured in months.
Sometimes aircraft have already been examined for camouflage. When it was time for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (NASM) to restore its FW-190A, the workers at their Paul E. Garber Restoration facility thoroughly investigated the aircraft. The Germans had repainted the airframe several times. Restorers found the original Luftwaffe camouflage was still there, under all the other coats of paint. To determine the aircraft's original colors Mike Lyons, a Garber employee, did an exhaustive job of sanding the airframe to remove the layers of paint one at a time. While he did not sand the entire airframe, he chose many spots on the airframe to check for special markings, colors, etc. This was tedious, pain-staking work, as the various paints were delicate. He was able to establish the camouflage and markings that the aircraft had at several points in its career. He even discovered the airframe had been re-manufactured at least once.
Old paint finishes are delicate. Professional restorers strip off old paint prior to repainting. Several cases illustrate this clearly. The Messerschmitt Me-109G and the Arado Ar-234 the NASM restored are two examples. The Me-109G-6 was stripped of paint late in World War II. When the restoration team at the Paul E. Garber facility examined the airframe prior to restoration in the 1970's, the airframe yielded no indication of its camouflage or markings in German service. A search of existing records, including photographs, gave no further clue. The NASM team restored the aircraft in a scheme they felt was representative of what an Me-109 would have worn. When the NASM restored the Museum's Ar-234 in the 1980's, the restorers found most of the original finish had been stripped away when the airframe was restored to flying condition in 1946. During that restoration in 1946, the restorers applied a spurious paint scheme. NASM restorers found some traces of camouflage colors around the cockpit but it was not enough to conclusively establish the original scheme. Post-war color photographs of the aircraft existed from when the aircraft was at Freeman Field (with its original paint). The photographs' age cast doubt as to how accurately they portrayed the original finish. The colors in the photographs had faded over the years. Also, by the time pictures had been taken of the aircraft, the Allies had painted out the original markings. In the end, the NASM also finished the Ar-234 in representative camouflage and markings. Even possession of an aircraft does not guarantee you can accurately "read" a historical paint scheme off the airframe.
Captured at Salzburg, this a/c shows unfinished prop, color varegation [NASM]
Dusty photos of late-war Luftwaffe aircraft continue to emerge from private collections. Researchers are gleaning new documents from old archives. Our concept of late-war camouflage will probably continue to change as new documents come to light. The great influx of new photos and documents, particularly from personal collections, is due in no small part to the new appreciation (and valuation) of World War II memorabilia. This trend is certain to continue for some time. Color photographs of late-war subjects are rare. Complicating this is the tendency of color photographs to fade, rendering many of them of questionable value in analyzing camouflage finishes. How color negatives are developed also affects the colors of the images Much more common are black & white photographs of late-war subjects. However, black & white images are difficult to read for color, as they reflect grayscale only, indicating only contrast without reference to color. You can determine one color is lighter or darker than another, but it is difficult to say exactly what the color may be, as different colors (e.g. greens and reds) have the same grayscale values. Orthochromatic films complicate this, as yellows and reds can appear much darker than blues. Where color charts exist for certain camouflage colors, it is possible to make a general assumption as to the camouflage of a specific aircraft.
This partially assembled Me-262 has not yet received its camouflage coat. The cross-hatch pattern on the fuselage was the result of a combination of primers, fillers and bare metal. The fillers and primers were used to cover and weatherproof rivets and panel lines. [NASM]
However, one of the problems in evaluating late-war Luftwaffe camouflage has been the lack of sample charts from paint and aircraft manufacturers for this time period. This means researchers have to interpret terms such as "violet-brown" or "medium green" into an exact color. In interpreting unfinished areas of an airframe, remember raw material shortages meant the quality of metal used in aircraft production deteriorated as the war wound down. Poorer grades of material and lower manufacturing standards gave the German metal a darker, gray, appearance than the bright, shiny US metals. The German metal was less rust resistant. Unfinished portions of aircraft were not bright and shiny. The metal was dull, inconsistent in color, sometimes with large contrast between individual sheets of metal used in manufacture, covered with manufacturer's stamps and occasionally rusty, which gave it a brown tinge. It can be difficult to differentiate between unfinished surfaces and surfaces painted in browns and brown-greens, or even sometimes reds or yellows. This has led to much speculation over whether the forward part of jet engines on Me-262s and He-162s were painted in squadron colors (white, yellow, red, etc.) or left unfinished. The Germans considered the jet engine part of the engine and not the airframe so they considered it exempt from standard airframe painting directives. Without color verification, it is all but impossible to determine.
White "35", a 2-seat trainer. While the engine covers on this a/c are finished, the engine intake is unfinished. The intake of the Jumo jet engine was was part of the engine. With low engine life and frequent engine changes, it was not unusual to find intakes either in different colors than the airframe, or left in bare metal. [NASM]
Photographers usually photograph aircraft from the horizontal plane. Photos of the lower surfaces of aircraft are rare. A photo taken from the horizontal plane normally casts a shadow over the under surfaces. This makes the colors of the aircraft's underside difficult to decipher. Colors appear different as the light strikes them differently. The task of interpolating color out of the grays of a black & white image is daunting. Additionally, some units (i.e., Jagdverband 44) painted the undersides of their aircraft in bold colors (red with white stripes, black with white stripes red/white or black/white checked) for aircraft recognition. By 1945 anti-aircraft gunners often assumed anything flying was an enemy aircraft.
Military Directives regarding Luftwaffe camouflage 1944-45...
There was no specific body of orders that governed aircraft camouflage in the Luftwaffe. Orders and instructions pertaining to aircraft camouflage were usually part of larger directives from the German Air Ministry's Technical Department (RLM). This department occasionally issued catalogs of paint chips to provide specific references for paint manufacturers and final assembly plants which applied camouflage to aircraft. Since 1941, the Germans camouflaged their day fighters in these RLM colors:
|RLM 74||Dark Gray||Upper surfaces|
|RLM 75||Medium Gray||Upper surfaces|
|RLM 76||Light Blue-Gray||Under surfaces*|
* On the sides of the fuselage the demarcation line between upper surface and lower surface colors was broken up with the application of the two upper surfaces colors over a base coat of RLM 76, supplemented by RLM 02 (a green-gray) and RLM 70 (a black-green). [Some sources indicate the Germans may have retained RLM 65 for lower surfaces, with RLM 76 only used for fuselage sides.]
The Germans camouflaged the bomber in these colors:
|RLM 70||Black-Green||Upper surfaces|
|RLM 71||Dark Green||Upper surfaces|
|RLM 65||Bright Blue-Gray||Under surfaces|
By 1943, the Germans started to use day-fighter colors for night fighters as well, with the application of some (or all) colors used in night fighter camouflage. In 1943, the Luftwaffe began experimenting with darker colors for the upper surface camouflage of its fighters. After the disastrous losses of the Luftwaffe day fighter force in early 1944 and the invasion of France in June of 1944 the need for defensive camouflage for the day fighter force became even more urgent. The RLM issued "Collected Instructions Number 1" July 1, 1944. Part of its instruction specified the colors 81 & 82 should replace 70 & 71 as soon as possible. The instruction made some provision for mixing old and new colors (i.e., 82 & 70, 81 & 71) where necessary to exhaust all stocks of both colors. Interestingly, it included the following comment:
"...The delivery of color-sample cards for the RLM-shade's 81 and 82 is for the present not possible, thus testing of the paint for correct color-shade is omitted."
Fifteen days later the RLM issued a second directive which said:
"Camouflage colors and their application to aircraft have lately been entirely revised. Firms producing camouflage charts will receive from Erprobungsstelle Travemünde a camouflage atlas containing all necessary information. With the publication of this atlas, it is forbidden to use any other color shades and schemes, including special requests from operation units without the express permission of E-Stelle Travemünde. As a result of the new revision, the following colors will not be used in the future: 65, 70, 71 and 74. Color 70 however, is still prescribed for (metal) propellers."
While the directive didn't directly address day fighter camouflage, the elimination of 74 as a camouflage color meant day fighter camouflage was anticipated to change as well. As no color samples were forthcoming from the German Air Ministry, the various manufacturers now attempted to describe these colors for themselves. In November 1944 Dornier identified both 81 & 82 as dark green. The Messerschmitt firm identified 81 as brown-violet and 82 as light green. Where the Germans established new production lines they could immediately use stocks of the new camouflage colors. Existing production lines had reserves of paint stocks to exhaust first. Under ideal circumstances, it would be 3-6 months before aircraft appeared in front line units bearing the new camouflage colors. However, circumstances were far from ideal. There was a war on and the Germans were losing.
A He-162 worked on. Note wingtip color - this was a light blue, equivalent to RLM 65, applied to leading edge of wings and tailplanes of some He-162's, as well as wingtips, overlapping upper and undersurfaces [NASM]
...and Historical Perspective
By 1944, Germany was in a struggle for her life. Round-the-clock bombing and heavy losses from escort fighters put the Luftwaffe on the defensive. Despite the aerial pounding aircraft production in Germany was at an all-time high. Production peaked in September of 1944. This was in spite of the loss of foreign production when the Allies retook the territories held by Germany since the beginning of the War. Additionally Germany had long been dependent on her "neighbors" for raw materials. By 1944 the Allies had liberated most of the land Germany had conquered. This denied her access to much-needed raw materials. German innovations in the fields of synthetic production of oil and rubber had partially assuaged shortages in these areas. By 1944 raw metals and facilities needed to produce airframe alloys were in desperately short supply, this makes this manufacturing feat even more incredible.
German combat loses were also high, and the Luftwaffe no longer ruled the skies over Germany. The devastating losses meant the German factories had to produce a larger number of aircraft to replace the losses. On 31 May 1944 the Luftwaffe had 4,475 serviceable aircraft. On 10 January 1945 the Luftwaffe had 4,566 serviceable aircraft. On 9 April 1945 the Luftwaffe still had 3,331 serviceable aircraft.
Another partially assembled Me-262. Again note finishes. In this picture, the middle of the fuselage cross-hatch appearance would seem to be in grey. However, German metal quality was adversly affected by wartime conditions, and sometimes was dark compared to US and British examples. [NASM]
One of the factors participating in this great feat was the effort to re-manufacture damaged or obsolescent airframes. This helped to boost production levels to an all-time high. Germany emphasized production of whole airframes over repair and replacement parts. As a result Germany didn't properly service existing aircraft, preferring instead to re-manufacture unserviceable airframes. Efforts continued throughout 1944 to speed production by simplifying manufacturing techniques. Aircraft interiors, once exhaustively painted, were now simplified or just left unpainted. Wings and fuselage interiors, other than the cockpit, were the least likely to be painted. Manufacturers often reduced exterior painting to a single coat of paint. As shortages grew, primers were only applied to points particularly prone to corrosion. Coats of camouflage paints were applied more thinly to help conserve paint, allowing the primer coat to "bleed" through. Near the end of the war factories delivered some Messerschmitt Me-262 and Heinkel He-162 aircraft partially or completely unpainted. Over all surfaces, the variegated grays of the bare metal was broken only by primed and puttied seams on the airframe.
As an austerity measure, manufacturers experimented with the idea of leaving the under surfaces of certain aircraft unpainted. In the autumn of 1944 the Germans produced a batch of 50 Focke-Wulf FW-190A aircraft with only steel and wooden under surfaces painted. The Germans considered this experiment a success, and this short cut soon became the standard.
Found abandoned by US troops, only the engine cover would appear to have received any camo coat at all... [NASM]
A variety of sub-contractors manufactured sub-assemblies. By late 1944 final aircraft assembly was usually done outside a "normal" factory setting. Final assembly points were just a "bolt-em-up" affair, with many component sub-assemblies being pre-painted before delivery. Shortages of materials strongly affected production methods. New aircraft on the production line were often a patchwork of colors, depending on how current each sub-manufacturer was with their paint supplies. The stress of the closing ring around them and internal pressures to increase production were the major contributing factors to airframes that were unpainted or combined several different sets of camouflage colors. Bombers were largely unaffected because the Germans cut bomber production in favor of fighter production. Germany curtailed bomber production sharply in 1944. Except for a few Arado Ar-234s Germany didn't produce any bombers in 1945. Production continued at a fevered pace almost until the end of the Third Reich. Towards the end of the war the SS started overseeing production. This confused an already chaotic system. Since Germany had dispersed its production the Germans had to send their directives to hundreds of "shadow" factories scattered around the countryside. Coordination in peacetime would have been difficult -- in wartime, it was almost impossible. New production lines for Messerschmitt Me-262 and Arado Ar-234 would be able to adopt the new colors a lot faster than existing production lines for Messerschmitt 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 aircraft. These existing lines had reserves of older paints they needed to exhaust before they introduced these new colors. Next, there was a time lag between aircraft manufacture and aircraft delivery to front line units. This lag was to test the aircraft and fit them with equipment needed for front-line service.
This air-to-air shot shows the lower surfaces of Me-262 w.nr 111711. The only paint is primer used to seal panel seams, and control surfaces and flaps, the rest largely left in bare metal. [NASM]
If the military had had at its disposal a legion of model builders, complete with rules and FS-cards, military surveys and records (crash records, etc.) crash site surveys and such would be more accurate documents. Most surveyors were conscripts. Military emphasized survey of weapons, aircraft type, etc. Camouflage was incidental. A comparison of most crash-site reports with contemporary photographs quickly shows that accuracy of details on markings and camouflage was not a top priority. Pilot recollections, while widely used, are not always accurate. To a pilot, flying characteristics are more important than looks. Certainly a mechanic, whose jobs included maintenance of the airframe (and its paint) would be a perhaps more reliable source of information on airframe appearance. Sadly, most inquiries are with pilots.
Captured before the end of the war when a test pilot flew this a/c to the West, it was tested extensively after the end of the war. [NASM]
The study of Military aircraft camouflage is an evolving study, with new theories emerging every day. There are many self-appointed authorities, but there is very little truly empirical evidence. Thus the study of aircraft camouflage becomes the elusive search for concrete data, and the attempt to interpret existing data to cover general application.
An air-to-air of w.nr. 111711 over the midwest U.S. [NASM]