Both before and during the Second World War, German armor camouflage went through a series of changes. Some of the colors and patterns used, especially during the late-war years, are still subject to much discussion. The camouflage patterns described below mainly apply to armored vehicles. Still, it is not uncommon to see German soft-skinned vehicles with more or less standardized camouflage patterns.
The paint colors used were defined by the Reichs-Ausshuss für Lieferbedingungen (RAL) (Reich Committee for Terms of Delivery). It is important to note that, while the current Bundeswehr color standard uses some of the same color names, the colors are different from the ones used during the war.
Between 1927 and 19 July 1937, German tanks were painted in the Buntfarbenanstrich (colorful paint pattern). The pattern used three colors: RAL Nr. 17 Erdgelb-matt (matte earth yellow), RAL Nr. 18 Braun-matt (matte brown), and RAL Nr. 28 Grün-matt (matte green). The colors were sprayed onto the vehicle in the wavy pattern, with a different pattern for each vehicle. The borders were to be either feathered, or bordered by one to three centimeter wide stripes of RAL Nr. 5 Schwarz-matt (matte black).
- Pz Kpfw I with pre-war Buntfarbenanstrich pattern.
On 19 July 1937, it was ordered to change the camouflage pattern to Dunkelbraun Nr. 45 (dark brown) and Dunkelgrau Nr. 46 (dark gray), with feathered edges. Vehicles already painted in the Buntfarbenanstrich were not to be painted in the new pattern, unless they were to be re-painted anyway.
On 7 November 1938, it was ordered that all vehicles were to be re-painted by the individual units. At the same time, it was specified that the pattern should be a base coat of Dunkelgrau, with one-third of the vehicle covered in Dunkelbraun.
The dark brown color was very dark, making it very difficult to distinguish the colors on black-and-white photographs. Most photographs therefore appear to show the vehicles painted in a monotone pattern.
- Sd Kfz 221 with a Dunkelgrau and Dunkelbraun camouflage pattern.
Mid-war and North Africa, 1941-1942
After 12 June 1940, units stopped buying paint directly from the suppliers. Instead, paint was issued directly to the units, with Dunkelgrau being the only issued color. On 31 July 1940, to save paint, it was ordered that armor should only be painted Dunkelgrau. On 10 February 1941, the RAL colors were re-numbered, with Dunkelgrau Nr. 46 becoming Dunkelgrau RAL 7021.
- An all-Dunkelgrau Pz Kpfw III in Russia in 1941.
On 17 March 1941, it was ordered to paint all vehicles in North Africa a base color of Gelbbraun RAL 8000 (yellow-brown), with one-third of the vehicle covered by Graugrün RAL 7008 (gray-green), with feathered edges. To save paint, the areas covered by Graugrün were not to be covered with the Gelbbraun base color. Small items should only be painted in one color. On 25 March 1942, Gelbbraun and Graugrün were replaced by Braun RAL 8020 (brown) and Grau RAL 7027 (gray), once existing paint stocks were depleted, with no change in pattern.
There are examples of vehicles in Europe in 1941 and 1942 with a two-tone pattern. The most likely explanation is that vehicles intended for North Africa, and painted at the factories, were re-routed to European units.
- Pz Kpfw III in North Africa in 1941, with a Gelbbraun and Graugrün pattern.
- Pz Kpfw III in Russia in 1942, with a two-tone camouflage pattern.
On 18 February 1943, all vehicles were ordered to be painted in a base coat of Dunkelgelb RAL 7028 (dark yellow). Only small pieces of equipment were to retain their previous color. On top of the Dunkelgelb base coat, stripes of Rotbraun RAL 8017 (red-brown) and Olivgrün RAL 6003 (olive green) was applied.
The Rotbraun and Olivgrün paint was delivered to the units in tins, which were thinned with any available liquid. It was then applied by the maintenance section, which allowed the pattern to match the terrain. This also resulted in a wide variety of patterns, from elaborate sprayed camouflage, to patterns that look like they were smeared on with a broom and rag.
To standardize and improve camouflage patterns, on 19 August 1944, it was ordered that all vehicles were to be painted at the factory. The pattern, Hinterhalt-Tarnung (ambush camouflage), still used a base color of Dunkelgelb, with Rotbraun and Olivgrün stripes. On top of each color, small dots of the other two were applied. This pattern was created to give the appearance of the sun shining through forest foliage.
In mid-September 1944, vehicles started leaving the factories in their red oxide primer, with only sparse camouflage. On 31 October 1944, more elaborate camouflage in Dunkelgelb, Rotbraun and Olivgrün began being applied at the factories over the red oxide primer. Furthermore, Dunkelgrau could be used if Dunkelgelb was unavailable. Despite this order, there has never been any evidence that Dunkelgrau was actually used.
On 20 December 1944, it was ordered that a Dunkelgrün base coat, with a hard-edge pattern of Dunkelgelb and Rotbraun should be used.
- Pz Kpfw Tiger in Russia in a Dunkelgelb base, with stripes of Rotbraun and Olivgrün.
- Sd Kfz 251 on the Western Front, in a carefully painted camouflage pattern.
- Captured Jagdpanzer 38, in what looks like a Dunkelgrün base, with a Dunkelgelb and Rotbraun pattern.
Throughout most of the war, the most common interior color was Elfenbein RAL 1001 (ivory) and Graugrün, with some pieced of equipment retaining their factory-applied colors. Elfenbein made the interior brighter, while Graugrün was more resistant to oil and dirt. During 1944, it was ordered to start leaving the interior in the red oxide primer.
Areas visible from the outside of the vehicle were generally painted in the exterior base color. There are, however plenty of photographs showing interior colors on the inside of doors, etc.
- The turret door of this Pz Kpfw III is painted in the base exterior color.
- This Pz Kpfw III's turret door is still painted in Elfenbein.
- Ironically, while this Nashorn's interior has been painted in the exterior base color, Elfenbein would have been more suitable in the winter environment.
While the colors were standardized, there were slight variations from manufacturer to manufacturer. Different application methods, especially when the paint was applied in the field, could also affect the result. Determining the original color of preserved equipment can be unreliable. Aside from the risk of the equipment having been re-painted after the war, paint colors can change over time. For example, Dunkelgelb has a tendency to turn darker over time.
Museum vehicles are rarely re-painted correctly. While some museums do research the camouflage, such research is often based on articles written for modelers. As such articles may, in part, be based on museum vehicle paint jobs, this practice can likewise lead to wrong conclusions. Unless the museum documents their color research, such as the Tank Museum's Tiger 131 (external link), museum vehicles cannot be used as reliable references.
Using photographs to determine color can be next to impossible. Many factors can change the appearance of a color on a black-and-white photograph. Lighting and angle can make dark colors appear light, and light colors dark. Some black-and-white films will make red colors appear darker than green, while other will make green colors darker. Dust can make a vehicle painted Dunkelgrau appear Dunkelgelb.
While many Second World War photographs were posed, most were either taken in combat conditions or by soldiers with little, if any, training in taking photographs. In such conditions, it is much more likely that what appears to be an anomaly is in fact some optical illusion, rather than a factory worker disobeying orders to paint a single vehicle in an unauthorized color.
During the first winter on the Eastern Front, it became apparent that Dunkelgrau vehicles became very easy targets in the snow. To solve this, white paint was issued. The paint was water soluble, so that it could be easily removed in the spring, or run off when it started to rain. Unit markings, Balkenkreuze, and other markings were usually left in their original base color, to avoid having to repaint the markings.
As there was not enough white paint available to paint all vehicles, non-combat vehicles were generally not whitewashed. Some vehicles also received only partial whitewashes, such as in stripes or only on the front. Some even used chalk, white sheets or stacked snow, when no paint was available.
- Sd Kfz 254 in the snow, in its original Dunkelgrau base color.
- Whitewashed Sd Kfz 2.
Germany had camouflage nettings and camouflage tarps, but did not generally use them for vehicle camouflage. Instead, small rings were welded to the sides, to which foliage could be attached using wire. During the late-war years, large piles of pre-cut branches were sometimes left at roadsides, to allow retreating units to quickly camouflage their vehicles.
- Pz Kpfw I and II's camouflaged with straw.
- Nashorn camouflaged with branches.
- ANDORFER, Volker, BLOCK, Martin & NELSON, John. Nuts & Bolts volume 15 : "Marder III" Panzerjäger 38(t) für 7,62 cm Pak 36 (Sd.Kfz. 139). Uelzen : Nuts & Bolts, 2001.
- CULVER, Bruce & Murphy, Richard. Panzer Colors : Camouflage of the German Panzer Forces 1939-45. Carrollton : Squadron/Signal Publications, 1976.
- JENTZ, Thomas L. & DOYLE, Hilary Louis. Panzer Tracts No. 1-2 - Panzerkampfwagen I : Kl.Pz.Bef.Wg. to VK 18.01. Boyds, MD : Panzer Tracts, 2002. 96 p. ISBN 0-9708407-8-0.
- JENTZ, Thomas L. & DOYLE, Hilary Louis. Germany's Panther Tank : The Quest for Combat Supremacy. Atglen, PA : Schiffer Military History, 1995. 156 p. ISBN 0-88740-812-5.