The Evolution of Camoflage

Blackburn Type I - 1913
British Blackburn Type I monoplane circa 1913

The British Blackburn Type I was a civilian design which was also used as a military training aircraft in the early days of World War One..

Camoflage and combat aviation were born as a result of World War I. From 1914 onward, aircraft flew high over the frontline to see what the “other side” was up to. These machines were both slow and fragile; they were not camoflaged, simply because few people actually saw the need for it. Early military aircraft were a pale yellow, just like pre-war machines. This was caused by the application of translucent dope and varnish on the cotton or linen fabric used to cover the light wooden structure. At the time, this was the extent of the protection given to aircraft.

Once in the air or even on the ground, the first military aircraft stood out like sore thumbs. They were all too visible to anyone flying above the forests and the mud of the trenches. As early as 1916, with the introduction of new, improved fighter aircraft, and with the increasing number of raids on the bases, losses became so great that researchers on both sides had to devise camoflage schemes. Their main goal was, literally, to make the aircraft disappear into the woodwork.

British CammoflageBritish Roundel

Sopwith Camel - 1917
Sopwith Camel in basic brown scheme, circa 1917
Sopwith Dolphin  - 1917
Sopwith Dolphin in basic green scheme, circa 1917

In Great Britain, the story began in 1913 with a series of experiments performed by the Royal Aircraft Factory, to discover the ideal pigmentation needed to protect aeroplane fabric from the damaging effects of the sun's ultraviolet rays. The generic name used to describe the compounds was “protective covering”, or PC. A mixture offering the best compromise between protection and camoflage was adopted in April 1916; this was the so-called PC-10. Depending on the proportions, the dopes and the pigments, PC-10 could vary from a greenish-ochre to a chocolate brown.

Example 1:

Sopwith Camel upper wing top Sopwith Camel upper wing bottom
Basic British camoflage scheme

This example is the basic British camoflage scheme. The upper surfaces were a single dark color usually a green or brown, and the under-surfaces were varnished cloth. The forward fuselage area around the engine compartment was often painted a medium to dark grey.

French CammoflageFrench Roundel

Nieuport 17
Nieuport 17
SPAD S-XIII 1917
SPAD S-XIII 1917
SPAD XIII standard French cammoflage scheme

The French planes in the early years were varnished fabric, switching in 1915 to a silver covering. In 1916 They began experimenting with several different camoflage patterns using 4 or 5 color patterns in large blotches on a varnished canvas background, lower wing color varied from light blue, tan, to pale gray

SPAD XIII upper wing top SPAD XIII upper wing bottom
SPAD XII upper wing cammoflage scheme

Example 2:

Shown above is the upper wing of a SPAD XII painted in the original factory camoflage colors. The under-side is light gray. This example has the standard American Expeditionary Forces markings.

German CammoflageGerman Cross

Fokker D.II - 1916
Fokker D-II painted in a 3 color scheme
Albatros D.III - 1916
Albatros D.III

The German military approached the problem of aerial camoflage from a different angle. At first, the German Air Service used two or three colors, applied in large blotches over the entire aircraft. The colors ranged from brown, tan, green or lavender.

Albatros D.III 3 part upper wing top Albatros D.III 2 part upper wing top Albatros D.III upper wing bottom
Early German cammoflage scheme
Pfalz D.IIIa - 1918
Pfalz D.IIIa - 1918

Germany also used a varnish finish with aluminum powder mixed it to give the aircraft a silvery finish.

Fokker Dr.I - 1917
Fokker Dr.I - 1917

The main fuselage is painted with a thinned translucent green and brown paint over the canvas producing a streaked effect.

Fokker E.V - D.VII - 1918I
Fokker D.VIII Circa 1918

While the fuselage is covered in lozenge fabric, the wing is painted green on the top and bottom, the tailplane is painted white.

Toward the end of 1916, Germany introduced a new scheme called Lozenge camoflage which was made up of polygons in four or five colors, sometimes more, printed on the fabric. This camoflage not only saved the weight of the paint, but also the time needed to apply it to each and every aircraft. Germany also had to develop camoflage schemes involving patterns that disrupted the silhouette of the plane making it difficult to distinguish the silhouette of the aircraft; the three to five colors they used were often quite similar to the ones printed on the “lozenge fabric”.

Example 4:

Fokker D.VII 5 color lozenge
Late German cammoflage scheme

The example shown above is of a five color lozenge pattern commonly in use in 1917-1918 . The lozenge fabric

has been applied cordwise on the top surface of the upper wing of a Fokker D-VII. The pattern of the lozenge fabric used on the lower surface of the wing is a lighter set of colors.

Albatros D.XI Upper wing to and bottom view
Albatros D.XI Upper wing to and bottom view
Albatros D.XI Lower wing to and bottom view
Albatros D.XI Lower wing to and bottom view

This example is a late war five color scheme shows some of the variation in color used. Each dye lot and production run would varie in color to a certain amount.

Austrian CammoflageAustrian Cross

Lloyd C.III - 1915
Lloyd C.III - 1915

Many early Austrian aircraft were not routinely camoflaged. For the most part many were varnished wood and cloth. This practice eventually gave way to fielding painted aircraft.

Albatros D-III (Oeffag) Series 253 - 1918
Albatros D-III (Oeffag) Series 253 - 1918

Austria experimented with some very unusual camouflage schemes. One such attempt was a complicated swirl pattern which was printed on cloth and applied where it was needed.

Albatros D-III (Oeffag) Series 153 - 1917
Albatros D-III (Oeffag) Series 153 - 1917

Examples of brightly colored Austrian aircraft became more common.

Aviatik (Berg) D.II
Aviatik-Berg (Aviatik) D.II - 1917

Some attempts to achieve cammoflage utilized small irregular splotches of a several color breaking up the surface.

Austrian Lozenge Patterns:

Aviatik-Berg (Aviatik) D-I Ba. 338 - 1918
Aviatik-Berg (Aviatik) D-I Ba. 338 - 1918

The Austrians used a different lozenge camoflage pattern than the Germans. Instead of a repeating asymetrical hexagon pattern they employed symetrical hexagons where the color varied in bands.

Aviatik-Berg (Lohner) D-I Ba 115 - 1917
Aviatik-Berg (Lohner) D-I Ba 115 - 1917

There were exceptions to this scheme. The example above has the factory finish camoflouge pattern used by