I recently came across a fascinating and well-written article by Dr. Michael L. McSwiney, Ph.D on the Flames of War website – you’ll find a link at the end of this post.
Why did I find it fascinating? Well, because in addition to providing lots of interesting information about markings, it also challenged the view I had that early war German tanks, as used during the invasion of Poland and during Fall Gelb in the west, were painted a uniform overall panzer grey (dunkelgrau – RAL 7021). That, it seems, might not be correct.
Research in the early 2000s by Tom Jentz and Hilary Doyle revealed that in July 1937 the Whermacht introduced a new panzer colour scheme of a base of dunkelgrau (dark grey) with one third of the vehicle to be given a camouflage pattern of dunkelbraun (dark brown) stripes with feathered edges. In November 1938, orders were issued that all existing vehicles still using the older three-colour Buntfarbenanstrich camouflage scheme were to be re-painted in the new colours.
So, how come wartime photographs of early war German tanks seem to show them painted in a single colour? Well, it’s claimed that these two colours, while plainly visible to the human eye, have sufficiently low contrast to be invisible to black-and-white photographs in most lighting conditions. However, Jentz and Doyle have highlighted some early war photographs that do seem to show some sort of camouflage pattern.
This is one of the photographs used as an example by Jentz and Doyle and if you look closely, this early war image of a German Sd Kfz 221 Armoured Car does seem to show a camouflage pattern. However, most other contemporary photographs don’t show anything similar on other AFVs.
According to this theory, the decision to paint vehicles overall dark grey wasn’t introduced until July 1940, after the fighting in France was over. So, while an overall dunkelgrau might be appropriate for a panzer taking part in Operation Barbarossa in 1941, it wouldn’t be for a tank involved in other actions earlier in the war.
What about colour photographs of early war tanks that appear to show vehicles finished in overall dark grey? Well, the theory is that these are mostly black-and-white photographs which were hand-colourised either during the war for use in Nazi propaganda publications or later. Because the black-and-white photos on which these are based don’t show the camouflage, the colouring artist simply showed the whole thing as a single colour and chose the base colour, dark grey.
Next time I’m working on an early war German AFV, I’ll certainly be giving this some thought.
Early War German Vehicle Colours, on the Flames of War website, on the Flames of War website
German Armor Camouflage, by Christian Ankerstjerne on the Panzer World website seems to confirm a two-colour camouflage scheme for early war panzers