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WW2 planes Camouflage and Paint


May 29, 2013
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Reasons to Paint a Plane for Combat

The history of World War II aircraft paint colors and camouflage in military aircraft is a fascinating study. Volumes have been filled on all the different variations of paint that were used on military aircraft. In World War I it was the practice to fire on all aircraft at a distance because nobody could tell whether it was an enemy or friend, as recognizing the British Royal Air Force (RAF) roundel or a German (Luftwaffe) Iron Cross in the air was far from easy. But in WW2 it was a completely different story. The planes now were "identifiable" through distinctive colors used by the various air forces. Camouflage had also been introduced, giving pilots an advantage in dogfights depending on their particular location in the fight.

Which Colors for Camouflage?

Aircraft camouflage is the use of light and dark colors to make the aircraft difficult to see. Military planes flying at night would use flat black or dark green on the underside of the plane and sometimes on the whole plane to help hide the vehicle at night. All camouflage colors are flat to refract the least amount of light. However, this flat paint would cause both skin friction and drag. This caused a reduction in speed when flying. So, while camouflage had its advantages for much of the war, it also caused occasional problems.

Nose and Wing Art
Nose art refers to an individualized design or painting in essence graffiti usually on the fuselage or nose of a military aircraft. This graffiti which was psychologically satisfying to the pilots is now referred to in some circles as a type of folk art. It was never officially approved which also led to its appeal. It was commonplace for pilots and aerial squads to paint foreboding images such as skulls and bones or sexy images like scantily-clad women. It worked as both a morale booster and a way to let off steam. The practice started in Italy and Germany and both Axis and Allied pilots and ground crew took part in this form of art. Nose art was not officially allowed on United States Navy planes and was uncommon on RAF aircraft.Art on the wings was primarily used for identification purposes. The French and British planes used different forms of circle roundels. The Germans used Iron Crosses. Japanese planes sported red dots, helping to promote the nickname "zero." Meanwhile, the USand Soviet Union used different forms of star emblems. Each of these were placed on various spots on the plane, most notably the wings. During a particularly intense dogfight with similar models of aircraft, a pilot would simply have to visually check the wing to see if another plane was an enemy or friend.

Soviet Red Air Force and Naval Aviation

The People’s Commissariat for the Aviation Industry did issue color templates for the Soviet Air Force but the standard colors specified were not always followed. There were wide variations in colors of USSR aircraft. The specified colors included a brilliant medium blue for the undersides. For the main body of the planes a variety of greens were used including olive green, forest green, and dark green in conjunction with black, light and dark browns and grays. By the end of the war, most Soviet planes were painted with the simple red star roundels.

French Army of the Air

During World War II the French or Armee de L’Air did very little flying, as they were quickly overtaken by the German Blitzkrieg. Few French aircraft evacuated to the United Kingdom or were stationed in Allied zones. However, many of these were recommissioned into British hands and colors. Notably, the French were the first to use roundels on a combat aircraft. They used the tricolor cockade with the blue, white and red of their flag.

British Royal Air Force

The British aircraft in WW2 sported sky colors on the underside of the planes, and ocean gray or sea gray on the top. This provided a pattern that was well suited to higher altitudes. Slight modifications to the colors were made for aircraft which flew over water. For water attacks the aircraft were painted extra dark sea gray or dark slate gray. Night bombers used black or ‘special night’ in coloration for the underbelly and dark brown and green for the fuselage and wings. The camouflage on British aircraft changed throughout the war depending on where the planes were flying. Some planes were even painted pink since they were flown at dawn or sunset. The RAF also used roundels on their military aircraft which changed several times during the war.The right paint color to give a plane the perfect camouflage was extremely important in WW2. All of the nations tried something different to get it right: the German Luftwaffe, the Imperial Japanese Navy, the US Army Air Force, the Soviet Red Air Force, the Italian Air Force, the French Air Force and the Royal Air Force.

United States Army Air Force and Navy

The United States had strict standards in place for the colors of camouflage on military aircraft, although these standards did change over the years. The Army Air Force used mostly an olive drab paint above and neutral gray on the undersides. Blue or gray was also widely used on the bottom of aircraft so that the planes blended with the sky when looking up at them. The Navy aircraft, on the other hand, used a bluish gray on top with a brownish gray below. Special operations called for special colors that would distinguish them from other forces. An example of such is the invasion stripes used on planes during the Normandy invasion. These invasion stripes were painted in order for quick visual identification by friendly forces. They were later removed as the war continued.In the later stages of World War II the US nearly did away with camouflage altogether. Radar was used to find aircraft and so planes were left unpainted with bare metal finishes. This helped with flying as it reduced friction and weight. The US Army Air Force pilots were famous for the ‘nose art’ painted on their military aircraft. Fighter units added their own unit color markings to their planes such as colored spinners and nose band designs. Many pilots viewed this as a way to intimidate the enemy. US military aircraft also added the famous Stars and Bars insignia to the roundels on their planes.

German Luftwaffe

The standard colors for German planes were strictly prescribed by the German State Ministry for Aviation. In the latter part of the Second World War when items like paint became scarce, plane colors were a little more varied. In general, the undersides of German aircraft were light blue or light gray. The fuselage and wings were generally dark green through 1940 and then were switched to a two-tone gray until the end of the war. In the later part of the war the Luftwaffe added yellow Home Defense markings to the planes. German aircraft were also sometimes sprayed with white paint for winter camouflage. Slight differences in camouflage colors were determined for different types of military aircraft including fighters, destroyers, bombers, transports, naval aircraft and tropical aircraft. The insignia for German airplanes was the black cross on a white background called the Balkenkreuz and was widely known as the Iron Cross.

Imperial Japanese Army Air Service

The Japanese used camouflage in grays, dark green and pale blue gray on the undersides. The paint used on most Japanese military aircraft in World War II did not adhere well so camouflage was always a problem. Some planes were left in the natural metal and left to weatherize to a pale gray. Almost all Japanese military planes had a narrow white strip as a ‘field identification mark’ which went around the Hinomaru the red circle which made up the Japanese national insignia. Generally there were also yellow or orange strips on the edges of the wings.

Italian Aeronautic Military

Italy’s aircraft during World War II was probably the most colorful of all the combat planes. The colors were determined at the factory instead of by the military. This meant that the colors changed depending on the location of the actual building site. Due to the size of Mussolini’s empire, comprised of the various Italian states and other dominated territories, the paint colors ranged in nearly every conceivable way. These colors also changed during the war. The early camouflage colors were verde mimetico, galo mimetico, marrone mimetico, and grigio chiaro. The colors were applied in broad stripes not traditional camouflage. Later in the war, circa 1941, the Italian air force ‘Regia Aeronautica’ standardized their paint colors into a more traditional camouflage of a two tone green and brown. At the same time, the underbellies of most of the planes were painted gray.

Paint Continues to Play a Military Role
As it was already mentioned, airplanes played a major role in WW2. In fact, relying on stron air power is a doctrine used by several militaries to this day. Of course, with the invention of radar and the development of radar invisibility, the colors started to play a lesser role, but the tradition is still here. Nowadays, insignia is still used by nations to delineate planes. Even unmanned aerial vehicles are painted with distinctive colors and use camouflage to hide in the sky.

WW2 spy planes pink camouflage

They were painted pink because of the visible light that we see as blue down on the ground is actually filtered out and reflected, casting objects in the sky (like clouds) with a pinkish hue. These Spitfires flew missions at dawn and dusk, where they blended perfectly with cloud cover.Spitfires went through extensive rounds of camouflage paint, from dark and light brown, to a pale gray, to a baby blue. Perhaps their most unusual color, though, was a light pink. the planes were ideally meant to fly at sunset and sunrise, when the clouds took on a pinkish hue and made the plane completely invisible against them, they were also useful during the day. Clouds are pinker than we give them credit for. We perceive them as white against the sky because the particles in the sky scatter blue light, sending some of it down towards us and letting us see the sky as blue. Clouds scatter every kind of light, and against the intense blue sky look whitish gray. But their color depends on what kind of light gets to them, and what they are floating next to.In the evenings, when the sky was pink with the sunset, they were far more invisible than a white plane shining against a pastel cloud.
A Field Guide to WWII Aircraft Camouflage,
or how ten million model builders can make a simple paint job really complicated

One of the first rules of aerial dogfighting, and one that still applies today, it that what you don't see CAN hurt you. In fact, what you don't see can put several twenty millimeter cannon shells into the small of your back in just a fraction of a second, so it pays to stay alert. Good eyesight has always been an important job requirement for fighter pilots, and spotting and quickly identifying enemy aircraft an important skill that ultimately resulted in those nifty little airplane spotter playing cards you can buy at any local airshow. The owners and operators of the air forces of the world know this and, having gone to the tremendous expense of buying all those shiny airplanes, they have developed a wide variety of ways to hide them from the eyes of those who would shoot them down.

The camouflage and marking of aircraft has not only saved countless lives, it has spawned a whole postwar industry of decal sheets, modelbuilding guides, historical lacquer paints and at least one book company. It has also developed into a matter of some debate, as most wartime pilots never really cared much what color their plane was during wartime, provided it did its job and didn't have a bullseye painted on it. So no one really bothered to keep very good records of just what color their plane was, and now have little to offer the historians of today other than a few sun-faded photos and an occasional colorful anecdote.

All to the chagrin of that most militant of airplane spotters, the modelbuilder, whose obsession with color matching borders on the psychotic. You see, like most things that people argue incessantly about, color is a very relative thing. We all perceive color somewhat differently, and its fugitive hues are only further obscured by its tendency to change over time. Color is the most visible example of Heisenburg's Uncertaintly Principle you will encounter in daily living, and its true nature is subject to the whimsy of ambient light, chemical composition, temperature, the cellular makeup of your eyes, and sometimes even that flickering piece of electronic voodoo called a monitor.

So who the heck really knows what color anything is?

Well, modelbuilders know, or think they know, or think they can find out if they argue about it long enough, or travel to the steamy jungles of some forgotten Pacific Isle to scrape the leavings from the bottom of the rusty ruin of a wrecked Zero. And, indeed, modelbuilders are one of the best sources of information regarding the color and markings of WWII aircraft.

I know. I've seen their web pages. I plowed through hundreds of them in my own search for similar information. As an illustrator who likes to paint pictures of airplanes, I find myself having to know the same things that modelbuilders want to know. Unfortunately, they have made my searches excruciatingly painful at times, with cryptic references to expensive, out-of-print books and obscure color matching systems. It has all proven maddening at times, so I finally decided to write it all down, in order to spare other armchair historians the same headaches.

The goal of this guide is to be informative and easy to use, and does not bog the curious knowledge seeker down with too many pesky and often irrelevant details: it is the book that I had wished I could have found when I was first delving into the seemingly bottomless topic of aircraft camouflage and markings. It does not attempt to be an exhaustive list of all known markings and camouflage schema ever used...simply a useful primer that indicates the most common uses of color and markings, and their meaning.

I hope you find it helpful. Should you find any glaring innacuracies, or feel you have some information that might make it even more helpful, feel free to tell someone in a modelbuilding club. They will be happy to argue with you.

Japanese Aircraft Markings and Camouflage

Japanese camouflage is not as well documented as the camouflage of many other nations, partly owing to language barriers, and probably in no small part because just about every small scrap of paper on their long-suffering island suffered the same tragic fate of anything else remotely flammable during the Allied firebombings of '45. This has not deterred the enthusiasts over at J-Aircraft.com from compiling an impressive amount of reference material on the topic.



Luftwaffe Aircraft Camouflage and Markings

German aircraft colors were methodically specified by the Reichsluftfahrt Ministerium (State Ministry for Aviation, but it sounds funnier in German). During the later years of the war, when Luftwaffe factories were under seige from the allied air offensive, the widespread dispersal and scarcity of resources rendered any efforts at standardization moot, so late war colors were subject to much greater variability than earlier in the war. Likewise, the far flung offensives of the German armed forces meant that the Luftwaffe was forced to fly and fight in a wide variety of climates, so locally-applied field camouflage was commonplace, and insured that enough variety existed in Luftwaffe coloration to keep model builders from repeating themselves for decades.

Thanks to the German propensity for documenting everything, a great wealth of information regarding Luftwaffe camouflage exists today, and can easily be found on the web. The magic keyword is "RLM". Some great reference sites are the IPMS Stockholm website, Hyperscale's Digital Color Charts and The Luftwaffe in Scale. Those of you interested in deciphering the unit codes on the fuselages of Luftwaffe aircraft will find a treasure trove of information at The Luftwaffe in Scale site, and some helpful hints at modelingmadness.com

For physical samples (which were used to divine the reasonably accurate approximations of Luftwaffe color seen here) I highly recommend Eagle Strike Publications"Luftwaffe Color Charts", whose color chips were reproduced from original archive specimens by one the Luftwaffe's wartime paint suppliers, Warnecke and Bohm.




Regia Aeronautica Aircraft Camouflage and Markings

Italy's aircraft coloration was largely determined at the factory level. Because of this, and the far flung advances of Mussolini's would-be empire, a very wide and colorful assortment of paint schemes for Italian aircraft existed. You could write whole books about them, and some people have. Sadly, I do not own any of those books, so I cannot recommend any. However, you can learn an awful lot about the Regia Aeronautica's colorful aircraft at the Stormomagazine website.

Armee De L'Air Aircraft Camouflage and Markings

While the French air force probably spent more time painting their planes than actually flying them during World War 2, there is little information about them available. This is not suprising, as they probably still don't want to talk about it. Despite leading the world in military aviation during World War I, the Armee de L'Air put up a very poor showing in World War II. During the interwar years, their aircraft industry failed to modernize, and a lack of inspired leadership resulted in a chaotic state of affairs that reduced their once impressive service to near impotence by the time the Luftwaffe filled the skies in 1940. French pilots found themselves with an outdated fleet of hangar queens and no clear strategic doctrine, and their few airworthy planes soon littered the French countryside like lawn darts at a family picnic.

But they blended in nicely with the landscape.


British Aircraft Markings and Camouflage

The RAF adhered to pretty rigid and well-documented standards of aircraft camouflage during the war, so researching authentic paint jobs is a no brainer. You can read the British Air Ministry's instructions for aircraft marking yourself at rafweb.org, or delve into the bottomless archives of that mecca for modellers, ipmsstockholm.org.

The only thing the British did that was rather out of the ordinary was paint some reconnaisance planes pink. Many recon missions were often flown at dawn or dusk, when the sun was low in the sky, and the pink color helped them blend into the reddened clouds very well. But you really had to feel very secure with your masculinity to fly one. RAF pilots apparently have machismo to spare, as many of their strike aircraft during the Gulf War also wore the infamous pink paint. This time the paint was fully washable, though, so if anyone said anything they could hose the plane clean and deny everything. The British have an unusual historical affinity for the color pink. The traditional colour for Imperial British dominions on maps is pink, pink was once used to refer to the scarlet-colored coats worn in fox-hunting, the London Financial Times uses a salmon-pink color newsprint for its paper and Pink Floyd is the name of one of Britain's leading rock bands. All of which is meaningless coincidence, of course. I'm not trying to suggest anything.



American Aircraft Markings and Camouflage

The USAAF and USN adhered to strict, if ever evolving, standards regarding aircraft camouflage, and the colors specifications then, as today, were standardized in the Federal Specification color charts, which have since been adopted by model builders the world over as a defacto standard of their own. It remains a mystery to me where so many of them obtain the color matching books, which are normally issued by the government to contracters. Your tax dollars at work, I guess. Anyway, this is the meaning of the cryptic numbers proceeded by the letters "FS" you will find on almost every modelbuilder's website used to describe particular color shades. US camouflage color were also referred to by ANA numbers, but the FS colors are more informative.

While many nations decorated their aircraft with nose art, American Air Force pilots were unique in their penchant for painting pretty girls on the sides of their planes. Sometimes they would forget to paint the clothes on them, which would often be hastily added before the plane returned home from the front lines. Eventually, the Air Force passed a regulation encouraging a sense of decorum, but boys will be boys and pretty girls still get painted on airplanes, even in today's Air Force.




VVS Aircraft Markings and Camouflage

Camouflage of the Russian Air Force, or VVS (which is an ancronym for some long Russian words which are hard to pronounce even in your head) was largely determined at the factory level. The NKAP, or People's Commissariat for the Aviation Industry, finally got around to issuing templates to the factories around 1943, but like most government efforts at micromanagement, they were largely ignored. Paints used were often whatever was available, and patriotic slogans could often be found scrawled on the planes by the workers who built them.

The latest authoritative word on the subject is Erik Pilawskii's "Soviet Air Force Fighter Colors 1941-1945".




Guide to World War Two Aircraft Camouflage


During WW2 each nation used their own design of camouflage on aircraft. Is there any evidence that this had any benefit and if so was one design better than another?

Gerard O Toole, Galway Ireland
  • Camouflage on aircraft during world war two was not strictly a national trait of 'you have that camouflage, we'll have this one,' as the whole point of camouflage is to disguise the aircraft (or any military vehicle for that matter) against the terrain. You'll find that the camouflage for British aircraft during the Battle of Britain was a mixture of large areas of green and brown, thus recognising the prevalent grass and earth of the English countryside. German planes however had a much more dappled and darker green camouflage reflecting the more interchangable terrain of Germany. As such, during the Battle of Britain it was quite easy to differentiate between planes on account of their camouflage.
    During the desert war however, the camouflage of the opposing military vehicles was so similar that a system of flares was used to identify whose vehicles were whose, so the same side wouldn't end up attacking each other.
    At the end of the day it could be said that the camouflage of vehicles on either side worked just as well for both sides, but only against the terrain they were meant to be camouflaged against.

    Tony Greenfield, Bath, UK
  • Camouflage used correctly does work (reference "The Secret War" by Gerald Pawle). During WW2 a British warship was painted in covert colours and sent out to test its worth. It was at anchor and as the light began to fade in the early evening it was rammed by a trawler at full speed. The skipper at the helm admitted he did not see the warship. Whereas, the RAF painted the buildings on their bases in aircraft style camouflage colours. Having served at, and flown over RAF Coltishall, I defy anyone to not realise that they are observing a military base. The regimented rows of buildings and street plan is unlike any other area of habitation. The last time I saw these buildings was in the early 1970s and they were still painted then. Still on the subject of paint - the grass was painted green prior to annual inspection, just to make it look like grass. But discussing the military desire to paint anything that does not move opens a new can of worms!

    Jim Butcher, Eltham, London

During WW2 each nation used their own design of camouflage on aircraft. Is there any evidence that this had any benefit and if so was one design better than another? | Notes and Queries | guardian.co.uk
The U.S. Army Air Forces Strips Its Planes of Paint


All the military powers in World War II used camouflage paint schemes for their aircraft. The main purpose was to help hide them when they were most vulnerable – on the ground – though it also was useful in low-level tactical operations. In December 1943 the War Department announced the removal of paint from “almost all” of its aircraft, with exception of some “specialized planes overseas” like night fighters and transports. As of January 1944, almost all new warplanes coming off the assembly line would only have national insignia, squadron, and plane number markings. Japan would soon make a similar decision, but its reason for doing so was a result of a scarcity of materials.

Army Will Strip Planes of War Paint for Speed”

New York Times headline, December 14, 1943

The diversity (and paucity) of colors and patterns used by the combatants during the war was striking, and in some respects reflected each nation’s character. Arguably the most artistic were the aircraft camouflage patterns of the Italians. German schemes were a marvel of practical efficiency and identity addressing both the wide array of field conditions, from arctic/winter to desert, as well as the need for friend/foe recognition, both air-to-air and ground-to-air. The British (with the startling exception of using pink for their reconnaissance aircraft) utilized an understated blending of earth tones that evoked images of flowing mud. The Soviet Union attempted through its heavy-handed bureaucracy to regulate camouflage schemes, but regional climate requirements and patriotic fervor on the factory floor largely defeated that effort. The Japanese, with the exception of a jaguar-like blotch pattern, employed a flat two-color coating (one for the top, another for the bottom). American AAF and Navy camouflage paint schemes (based on the Army-Navy Aircraft, or ANA, color standard adopted in June 1943 that combined two previous standards) also tended to be two flat monotones, more a reflection of the priority placed on high volume aircraft production.


One of the initial tests conducted by a P-51 Mustang showed a speed increase of 21 mph when the plane was unpainted, although other factors may also have been in play. U.S. Air Force photo

AAF aircraft paint schemes were the responsibility of Materiel Command, based at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base). It raised the notion of not painting AAF aircraft in November 1942 based on a study by the RAF that noted speed gains of six to eight miles an hour on an airplane with polished surfaces. In circulating its query, Materiel Command asked if the advantages of camouflage paint would be “more than offset by the last bit of ‘oomph’ in speed and climb from total elimination.” Separately, Proving Ground Command conducted its own flight experiments that same month on the subject, only with painted planes having polished surfaces, and noted speed increases of eight miles per hour. OneP-51 used in the tests clocked an astonishing 21 mph increase. Examination of that fighter determined a variety of contributing factors to its speed increase, rendering its results void.

Separately Proving Ground Command conducted its own flight experiments that same month on the subject, only with painted planes having polished surfaces, and noted speed increases of eight miles per hour.

In early 1943, theater commander input was sought. Static commands like those in Panama registered no objection. Strategic commands in active theaters approved paint removal for heavy bombers and fighters if the tests proved out. Active combat tactical commands tended to recommend smoother surfaces or no change at all.


A North American Aviation painter cleans the tail assembly of a P-51 Mustang. By January 1944, all planes coming of the assembly line were unpainted. Library of Congress photo

Additional tests of unpainted aircraft confirmed increased performance results. The decision to stop factory painting unless otherwise advised on an individual basis was initiated in October 1943. By January 1944 all planes coming off the production line were not painted. Instead, they received a wax coating or were over-sprayed with a lightweight clear coat. Not only were these unpainted aircraft faster; they were also lighter. This meant increased range for fighters and bombers and extra bomb capacity for the latter.

A B-17 has a surface area of 4,200 square feet and took about 35 gallons of paint to coat. If the paint weighed 10 pounds a gallon wet, after accounting for evaporation the weight would be roughly 300 pounds. Given that figure, eliminating the paint would indeed be a major weight reduction.

No record exists about how much a gallon of paint used on the aircraft weighed. Contemporary reports stated that with the elimination of the paint, fighters would be “fifteen to twenty pounds lighter” and heavy bombers would “lose seventy to eighty pounds.” One recent study on the subject noted that the paint during this period was undoubtedly lead-based and “probably copper fortified.” A gallon of such paint could weigh as much as 30 pounds, though for aircraft it was more likely to be in the 10-pound range. A B-17 has a surface area of 4,200 square feet and took about 35 gallons of paint to coat. If the paint weighed 10 pounds a gallon wet, after accounting for evaporation the weight would be roughly 300 pounds. Given that figure, eliminating the paint would indeed be a major weight reduction.


A B-24 “Liberator” of the 15th Air Force releases its bombs on the railyards at Muhldorf, Germany on March 19, 1945. The decision to not paint aircraft also sent a powerful message that air superiority had been established. U.S. Air Force photo

Regardless of which figure is correct – and one would also have to take into account paint loss due to friction and other factors – pilots and crews noticed that all non-painted aircraft were faster, which helped boost morale. Squadrons of gleaming aluminum aircraft over enemy territory also sent another message – that the AAF had achieved air superiority to such an extent that it was no longer necessary for its warplanes to “hide.”

The U.S. Army Air Forces Strips Its Planes of Paint | Defense Media Network

Google books page 53 on wards has some stuff related to this: Modeling Classic Combat Aircraft - Google Books
I immediately thought of one plane. It's a plane that served in a multitude of roles throughout the war and, at least to Western sensibilities, was a little bit "alien" in design. That plane is the Mitsubishi G4M Ishiki rikujo kogeki ki ("Type 1 land-based attack aircraft") allied code-named "Betty."

The Betty was highly versatile, was quite fast, had an extremely long range and had a truly deadly 20mm cannon in the high visibility and wide arcing rear turret. Its main weaknesses were that it had almost no protection for the crew, and its light construction made it quite fragile. In fact, it's lack of self-sealing tanks led some allies to refer to it as "the flying Zippo." Still, the Betty was used as an effective bomber and transport. It was often used as a torpedo bomber (and later as a kamikaze plane), but traveling low and slow as a large target is pretty much how it got its negative nick-names. As a high altitude, high speed bomber and transport it was much more difficult to bring down.

In service of the Imperial Japanese Navy's Air Wing, the Kido Butai, these had dark green color schemes.



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