Like many of us here, I play games with tanks in them. Not just one game, like World of Tanks, but others. Some, like Darkest Hour and the original Red Orchestra, provided many a happy hour of game-play (though not strictly the most accurate at times). Others, like War Thunder have provided me with equal measures of frustration and triumph. Yet others, like World of Tanks have been a long-standing source of entertainment and fun with friends through Clan Wars. One of the key aspects however, of any presentation of World War II armored vehicles for myself, has been the accuracy and detail of what was being displayed.
Part of this, I suppose, is in part due to my training as a historian, part due to my love of modelling, and I suppose a third is my pretension of artistic ability. Regardless of the motives though, I find myself irritated by inaccurate representations or information. Authenticity can be replicated through details, and when it comes to any fighting vehicle from a given nation, there can be quite a few details involved. Things like the right colour for camouflage, the placement and correct tactical markings on a vehicle, and even little personal touches crews might have added are all part of the details that can bring that much more authenticity into a game, a model, or even just for the pleasure of knowing someone took the time to make it that detailed.
Before I get started in writing out some of these details and their significance, I’d like to clearly state my presentations are strictly apolitical and not partisan. I do not favor, support, advocate, or promote in any way, any particular political, socioeconomic, or national agenda and it is my sincerest hope that those who read this article will appreciate that as I proceed. This is strictly for demonstrating historical significance and information. To start with, I’ll be covering the tactical markings and camouflage for German vehicles, though like other nations, to really cover every, single little detail, variation, or controversy would require an extremely large tome and more exhaustive research than I currently have the ability to perform (not to rule it out in the future). Rather, consider this a basic guide to the wide world of variance that one finds in World War II German armored vehicles (tanks in particular), with some explanations, examples, and images to support and liven the presentation. For the sake of not overwhelming people with walls of text, the presentation for each will be divided into two sections, one for camouflage and the second for tactical markings and their meanings, placement, etc. I will provide citations and references where available.
Without further ado, I present to you German Camouflage and Tactical Markings (Part I)
Part I – German Camouflage
German Camouflage – An Overview
The first thing anyone who studies camouflage from this era (or any era indeed) will discover that there are not really any set ‘patterns’ for ground vehicles, like one might find in uniforms. This was especially true of the Wehrmacht and associated ground forces, which rather than issue exhaustive explanations of how to camouflage vehicles, issued broad-based guidelines covering the officially sanctioned colour schemes and rough guidelines for how much to apply camouflage to the vehicle. For the sake of brevity, we’ll cover the majority of the War Years, eschewing pre-WW II camouflage. For now, I’d refer you to the two following info-graphics that I made to help illustrate what I’ll be discussing. One covers a list of the official (or mostly official) colours that were issued with some notes on them, the second provides examples of how they could be deployed by vehicle maintenance crews (or just ‘crews’ for the sake of brevity). Some may look familiar, while others a bit obscure.
In the early stages of the war in Poland and France, the Germans utilized primarily Dunkelgrau painted vehicles, with some being painted with Dunkelbraun as a camouflage pattern until O.K.H. (Oberkommando des Heeres aka, the High Command of the Army) issued an order for vehicles to be painted only Dunkelgrau. This wasn’t just tanks, but SPGs, Armored Cars, half-tracks, even some of the kitchen wagons were painted the same colour.
It’s interesting to note, that to date, only a handful of games have come close to getting this colour (dunkelgrau) correct. World of Tanks and War Thunder are not amongst them.
Some might highlight some black and white photographs that show what seem to be the vehicles in a lighter-grey colour, but those familiar with B&W photography will also notice inconsistencies with how it captures the shade, exposure, fuzzy images, and so forth.
The point is, the vehicles were a very, very dark greyish-bluish colour, and colour photographs as well the contemporary RAL catalog support this (refer to the colour photographs). Take special note that road-dust and lighting caused the vehicle’s Dunkelgrau (lit. ‘dark grey’) to change hue and shade. This was not entirely unintentional, as at long distances, grey will tend to ‘blend’ into the surrounding colours effectively. At closer range, however, or on a high contrasting background (like snow, or the sky) it stands out like a sore thumb.
This became especially clear in two different situations, Winter and North Africa. Both faced similar issues: Dunkelgrau was simply not suited to these conditions.
When winter came rolling out of the Arctic on the Russian steppe, those lovely dark vehicles stood out like huge “Aim here!” signs. Ingenious out of necessity, the Heer used any available material to colour their vehicles white, including chalk, white sheets, piled snow, and perhaps most popular, white-wash. Even slapdash applications of whitewash could make a vehicle more effectively camouflaged. Some of the white-wash applications even had the added benefit that they’d gradually wash away in the late winter and early spring rains, melting away like so much snow.
In the North Africa campaign, stretches of bright, arrid, sandy desert demanded more appropriate colouration, even though the first vehicles sent to the fight there were still painted in Dunkelgrau. Many maintenance crews used tan and khaki tinged paints to quickly try to make their vehicles less visible until a more permanent solution could be provided, which came sometime in 1941, when Gelbbraun was issued to that front and vehicles intended for it were painted Gelbbraun instead of Dunkelgrau. The approved second colour for camouflage purposes was officially Graugrün, though maintenance crews would undoubtedly substitute with whatever they had on hand or could raid from enemy supplies.
In 1942, as those colours of paint began to run out at factories and on the front, vehicles were painted in an alternative desert colour scheme, using Braun and Grau (lit. brown and grey). I’d refer you to look at the infographics I provided again for what these colours were (approximately) and an example of their application. Generally, the patterns used by the vehicle maintenance crews could vary rather extremely from crew to crew and depended upon what the circumstances they found themselves in. More on this in a bit.
On the Eastern Front, some vehicles painted in the desert two-tone camouflage had been re-routed to the increasingly intense fighting there, and there are some colour photos that support these reports as well as some black and white ones that indicate two-tone desert camouflage. Still, the majority of vehicles on this front were still Dunkelgrau until 1943, when OKH issued new orders that the standard base colour of all vehicles be made Dunkelgelb (lit. dark yellow). The colour was not so much yellow, as a tan, and a lot of the debates about the colour of Wehrmacht camouflage surround this particular colour. Among other things, it appears the colour’s shade could change based on what it was thinned with, the temperature when it was applied, and that it would darken as it cured and over time. Throw in that where the paint was manufactured could also affect the colour. One need only type in “Dunkelgelb RAL 7028” as an image search to see what the author means. As a result, the author has provided two of a variety of shades that exist out there for this colour, one being what the author was led to believe it would appear as when freshly applied, the other when it had ‘aged’ some.
Regardless of what the shade was, it was applied liberally throughout the Wehrmacht panzers and served as the basis for perhaps the most famous German camouflage pattern, Hinterhalt-Tarnung or ‘Ambush’ pattern camouflage. Due to Germany’s shifting fortunes in 1943 and waging an almost entirely defensive war in 1944 on the Eastern and newly opened Normandy front, the Wehrmacht looked to develop a camouflage that would be applied at (some) factories for new or repaired vehicles that would simulate the look of sunlight filtered through foliage. There were two primary styles, one being ‘dot’ ambush pattern and the other being ‘disc’ ambush pattern. The ‘dot’ pattern was primarily applied by Diamler-Benz, where as MAN and MNH utilized the ‘disc’ pattern. This applied mostly to the relatively new Panther tanks, though some other vehicles received the camouflage as well. I’ve provided a few photographs (black and white, but instructive all the same) with both the ‘disc’ and ‘dot’ patterns applied. The colours applied at the factory would be a base coat of Dunkelgelb, with splotches of Rotbraun (red-brown) and Olivgrün (olive-green). Furthermore, maintenance crews would sometimes paint a vehicle in their own, ad-hoc version of the ‘ambush’ pattern (as in the case of the Sturmtiger in photo 8e), utilizing whatever paint they had available.
The primary issue was that pattern was complex and time-consuming to apply, and there were still paint shortages on the front and at factories which further delayed crucially needed vehicles from being sent to the front. The order to paint vehicles in Hinterhalt-Tarnung started on August 19, 1944 and factories stopped applying it in mid-September, 1944, when vehicles would be sent out in the red-oxide primer coat and very basic camouflage, only to have the order reversed again on October 31, 1944, where Hinterhalt was applied again. There was also an order around this time that allowed the use of Dunkelgrau if Dunkegelb ran out, but there’s no photographic or anecdotal evidence of this happening at factories during this time. By December 20, 1944, a new order went out that had tanks painted in a base coat (over the red-oxide primer) of Dunkelgrün (though all references to the color actually used was Olivgrün) with applications in hard-edged stripes and patches of Dunkelgelb and Rotbraun and this appears to be the last order given for camouflage during the war, which ended in Europe during May of 1945.
On Variations and Camouflage Patterns
Now would be a good time, then, to explain why German ground vehicle crews would use anything lying around. Germany’s supply situation from the outset of the war was not stellar, and as the war continued and vehicles were lost, convoys destroyed, factories bombed, those vital but basic supplies grew ever scarcer. Simultaneously, the German civilian economy had not been fully converted over to wartime production as Hitler wanted to avoid the demoralizing deprivations that he felt helped contribute to the defeat of Germany on the home-front during World War I. This created further shortages that may have been avoided somewhat had they gone to a total-war economy from the outset.
This forced the Wehrmacht and German manufacturers to get creative with trying to meet the demand with dwindling stockpiles of desperately needed supplies and this can be seen and reflected in the OKH’s orders regarding camouflage and vehicle colours. They were constantly changing colours, to try to both meet their supply needs and also the need for adequate concealment for their vehicles, and vacilated back and forth with new orders coming out, sometimes only a month or less apart. In the field, units would scrounge together whatever colours that were closest to their environment or that resembled what the official standards were, and paint vehicles with those, resulting in non-standard colours and unusual patterns being used on all fronts. However, factory fresh vehicles followed OKH standards. In my info-graphics, I’ve tried to reflect this supply issue by demonstrating different patterns with colours that may have been found lying around (like left over Dunkelgrau and Dunkelbraun), but the actual number of colours and patterns one could have found would have been much, much more diverse.
To contribute to this diversity in shades and colours, was also that the quality of the camouflage produced ad-hoc in the field varied on the situations the vehicle crews could find themselves in. Applying the camouflage was technically supposed to be done with airbrush-like compressed air paint applicator, but if the unit lacked this equipment or was pressed for time, they might apply paint with paintbrushes, mops, or just rags on the end of a stick. Such ersatz means of applying the camouflage would increase the variations one would have seen in the field. In all technicality, there would be no ‘wrong’ patterns for applying camouflage, provided the vehicle was camouflaged in the standard colours. For modelers especially, it can be easy to fall into a mentality that there were ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ patterns, and that should be avoided, if you’re looking for authenticity. If you want your Panther Ausf. G to look like it was fresh from the MAN factory in August of 1944, you can stick with the exacting colours and application of a ‘disc’ ambush pattern camouflage, but if you have a Panzer IV Ausf. H in Normandy or on the Eastern front, chances are it would be painted by the maintenance crew with whatever they had available. Even then, I’d always refer you to look at images like Photo 8, which help show the sort of wild differences camouflage could show in field conditions.
On the Use of Foliage and Other Means to Conceal Vehicles
Like other militaries, the Heer understood that concealing vehicles in either defensive or offensive maneuvers would increase the likelihood of said vehicles surviving the encounter. In addition to camouflage painted on to the vehicle itself, they would also use foliage (branches from bushes and trees, grass or hay from fields, river-side reeds, even stacks of wood) to cover the vehicle, usually from the front to make it even harder to spot and differentiate from its surroundings. They would also, on occasion, use camouflage tarps and canvases, as well as camouflage netting to further conceal the vehicle from being spotted.
As the war became more defensive for the Germans, the frequency of vehicles being camouflaged in this way, waiting in ambush for the enemy, also increasingly common. Retreating units would often cut out foliage and leave it along the roads to help other retreating units conceal their vehicles as they fell back and to make setting up the next ambush that much faster. There were also occasions where crews would apply a thin layer of mud or snow to the vehicle to help camouflage it with its surroundings.