German Camouflage and Tactical Markings – Part I (by AgaresTretiak)

Author: AgaresTretiak (NA)


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 pretention 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 anyway, 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.

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 Werhmacht 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.


[Photo 1 - An actual colour photo demonstrating all these vehicles in Dunkelgrau during 1941. A tactical mark on the Pz Kpfw III in the foreground, next to the building seems to indicate these were from the 7th Panzer Division, but I have no supporting documentation. Also notice how the kubelwagen (probably used for scouting) is done in a different colour scheme.]

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.


[Photo 2 - More Dunkelgrau painted vehicles during Operation Barbarossa. Notice how road dust and lighting make the vehicle's colour appear to change.]

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.


[Photo 3 - A Pz Kpfw III Ausf. F with very crudely applied winter camouflage (probably white-wash) over Dunkelgrau. Notice how, despite the rather poor application, it does a decent job of breaking up the vehicle's outlines.]


[Photo 4 - A Sd.Kfz 232 (Rad 8) with a coat of white-wash over Dunkelgrau. Notice that you can clearly see how it was applied with a brush or rag by hand, rather than applied via airspraying.]

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.


[Photo 5 - A Pz Kpfw III with German infantry and desert camouflage. A few things to note is that this is a brightened image (and probably color touched up to make up for washed out colours) to help show off the desert camouflage (this was likely taken somewhere in Tunisia) and the possiblity it's a posed image for propoganda purposes.]

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 info-graphics 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.


[Photo 6 - A Pz Kpfw IV Ausf. F2 painted in what appears to be two-tone camouflage, from the 14th Panzer Division, which means this image must be on the Eastern Front and possible during 1941, when the Ausf. F2 was introduced.]

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 Werhmacht 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.


[Photo 7 - A Pz Kpfw V 'Panther' Ausf A with a tri-colour camouflage pattern, carefully applied by the vehicle maintenance crew. Note that you can see the interior color for the vehicle on the opened driver's hatch.]


[Photo 8 - German infantry and motorized vehicles at what seems to be a staging area. The most interesting thing about this photograph (which must have been taken sometime after the 1943 order) is the extremely wide variety one finds in all the camouflage applications and colours! Some clearly use Dunkelbraun, for instance, where as other seems to eschew all brown colors and go for green, and the vehicle in the lower right corner is painted in what could be a desert pattern. This sort of variation was also reflected in how tanks were painted by the maintenance crews.]

Regardless of what the shade was, it was applied liberally through out the Werhmacht’s 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 Werhmacht 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 recieved 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.


[Photo 8a - JgdPz 38 (t) 'Hetzer' in a very carefully applied Hinterhalt-Tarnung. Notice how you can more or less differentiate the different colours by shade.]


[Photo 8b - Pz Kpfw V 'Panther' Ausf. G with a Diamler-Benz 'dot' pattern Hinterhalt-Tarnung. Other interesting features are the nightvision device mounted on the commander's cupola and the missing hull MG.]


[Photo 8c - A StuG III or IV with Schurzen painted in the MAN/MNH 'disc' pattern Hinterhalt-Tarnung. It seems like there are also some dots applied between the bigger 'discs', and indicates that someone spent a lot of time painting this vehicle.]


[Photo 8d - StuH IV done up in the MAN/MNH style 'disc' pattern Hinterhalt-Tarnung. Part of the poor visibility in the image is due to falling snow.]


[Photo 8e - Sturmtiger in a field applied Hinterhalt-Tarnung. This is a Sturmtiger that was captured in 1945.]

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 pained 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 laying 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.


[Photo 9 - A Pz Kpfw VI 'Tiger' Ausf. E and battalion vehicle belonging to the 508th Schwere Panzer Abteilung, taking a rest at the Italian front. Notice the hasty camouflage on the car and the carefully applied camouflage on the Tiger.]

This forced the Werhmacht 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 laying 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 applicators, 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 manuvers would increase the likelyhood 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 differintiate from its surroundings. They would also, on occassion, 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 ocassions where crews would apply a thin layer of mud or snow to the vehicle to help camouflage it with its surroundings.


[Photo 10 - Pz Kpfw VI Ausf. B Tiger II with Porsche turrets being camouflaged by their crews with foliage on the roadside in Normandy, 1944.]


[Photo 10a - Pz Kpfw VI Tiger Ausf. E heavily camouflaged by its crew with hay or staw next to a barn.]


[Photo 10b - Jagdpanther knocked out or abandoned by its crew on a roadside in North-West Europe, being checked out by what appears to be an American GI, camouflaged in tree branches.]

To be continued…

44 thoughts on “German Camouflage and Tactical Markings – Part I (by AgaresTretiak)

  1. pic5. is for sure somewhere at the start of Barbarossa, its surely not Tunisia

    interesting reading for sure

    • Indeed the photo is from Russia sometime in the summer of 1941 and was published in Signal Magazine. The tank is a Pzkpfw III Ausf J early production with the 50mm KwK L/42 gun, old style commanders cupola and rear pistol ports. Note the Nazi flag as air-ground identifier behind commanders cupola. The equipment being worn by the infantry is standard for 1941 and not for Tunisia in 1943.

      Photo 7 is a recent picture of Panther Ausf A II 01 currently at the Deutsches Panzermuseum Munster and may not actually represent the correct paint scheme.

      • That was one of the other photos I didn’t have documentation on the source, though the colouration displayed coincides with all my research on the colours utilized during the time period the vehicle is from. I’d refer you to the info-graphics (which I mistakenly forgot to provide SS with when I sent him the original article) for the colours I found to be closest to what was used. I’d point out how close it resembles the same colours in the image just below, which is to all indications, colour-accurate.

    • I was thinking the same thing, chom. I know for certain that I’ve seen that pic before and that it was associated with the Eastern Front, not the African front.

      Besides that tank’s driving through what looks like a wheat field and the soldiers appear to be in standard Wehrmacht gray uniforms, not the khaki ones you’d expect for the Afrika Corp soldiers.

  2. “Photo 8c – A StuG III or IV with Schurzen”
    You can clearly see it’s StuG IV, based on the suspension which has 8 wheels rather than 6 used on Pz III and StuG III

    • Yeah, I didn’t try too hard to identify it in that picture, but you’re very much correct! I was mostly pointing out the rather complex pattern they used on the vehicle, which I thought was very interesting.

      • And you did a good job in my opinion :) It was very entertaining to read, and quite informative as well :) So thank you for doing the hard job and writing this for us.

  3. The main screwed part of German camos in WoT is that all German tanks are gray.
    It is valid for early vehicles, but since 1944 German tanks were painted in dark yellow – which can be mistaken for desert camo, while it was applied for all tanks. And besides that base color, particular vehicle’ camo was ‘whatever’.

    So late Pz IVs, Panthers, KTs (and corresponding TDs and SPG) should be dark yellow instead of gray.

    UP: Photo 8c I would call simply Brummbar.

    • I don’t think grey is a problem – the fact that it’s a light grey rather than dark grey is what annoys me a lot more…

      WT uses “dunkelgelb” kind of color for the german vehicles and some very nice camos but overall both games could step it up a bit with regards to the camos and colours…

      • This one, ironically, might be the case of ‘balance vs historicity’. Or appealing graphic vs historicity in this case. True dunkelgrau would obscure many of the vehicle details, making the model itself much less interesting.

        • Eh, perhaps. It’d be nice to see a side by side comparison though, wouldn’t it? and in a game like WT which tries to differentiate itself by (supposedly) being more historically accurate, it makes little sense to have changed the color.

  4. I commend AgaresTretiak for the correct spelling of colour and his informative article. Even if he is only confirming what I learned 30 years ago. It’s always annoying seeing a Panther or KT in WG grey paint…..they can’t even get Dunkelgrau right.

    • Thank you! I appreciate that. I’m working hard on providing the second part in the next few weeks, where I’ll detail things like the numbering system (or the basics of it at least), some of the tactical markings tanks had on them and their meanings, and of course more period photographs.

  5. This camouflage mess is even more observable on german airplanes especially those having parts replaced or produced at the end of the war.

    It created some nice chimera like each wing having it’s own camouflage pattern.

  6. Thanks AgaresTretiak for this great contribution, I relished both the facts and the language. You may want to substitute “Werhmacht” with the correct “Wehrmacht” to make your essay flawless.

  7. Apart from in snow-covered environments, and to a lesser extent flat desert, vehicle paint has almost no practical camouflage effect anyway.

    Apart from the fact that vehicles quickly become covered in dust that obscures the paint scheme, by far the biggest factors in concealment are the soldiers’ well-known -

    (+ movement, spacing, noise, etc)

    Hence paint achieves almost nothing, and vehicles have to be covered with scrim or foliage to break up their outline and eliminate flat surfaces and sharp edges that differentiate something man-made from the background.

    It would be quite interesting if “camouflage packs” could be added in-game, which offer a concealment bonus as well as improving the “parade ground” look of the vehicles.

    • So you tell that soldiers wasted their time painting the camo like on that Brummbar or Panther? As you say – silhouette. In european forest, in spring/ summer/ autumn, those types of camo could do their job – breaking the silhouette, making vehicles hard to count or identify etc. Also the painted vehicle would be seen bit later – that’s what the visual camo is for, to make optical reconaissance harder. Of course, with today’s technology visual camo lost its meaning, but back then, it was really helpful – especially against air recon.

    • While what you say is true in general, just consider why OKH decided to go for more camouflage towards the end of the war. For all their failings in terms of strategy (setting aside all political issues with the Wehrmacht), they were intensely practical about what was needed to be efficient in terms of tactics.

      A vehicle that pays attention to the four ‘S’ is going to be better off than one that drives through the middle of a field in broad daylight.

      But one that follows the four ‘S’ and utilizes effective visual camouflage (paint, on-vehicle foliage or camouflage netting,and ground cover like bushes) is going to be that much more effective, even by today’s standards.

      With that in mind, it’s entirely silly -not- to camouflage your vehicles and make effective use of said camouflage painting just removes one more factor that could be to your advantage during combat.

  8. Oh! I forgot the info-graphics!

    Here’s links to them! Also, tanks could be painted in a single colour, yes, but I was mostly referring to how they could be painted multiple ways and I’d point out the article (both part 1 and part 2) are more intended for those who are not as familiar with the materials. I was going to supply these with the article, but I missed some. I did misspell ‘Wehrmacht’, which I apologize for. Sadly, my spell checker is somewhat shifty when it comes to German.

    The fighting for the DAK in North Africa started in 1941, and early model vehicles were utilized extensively. Furthermore, there were green fields in Tunisia, but I admit I didn’t have any documentation for the photograph. The colouration, however, is appropriate for the 1941 DAK two-tone camouflage used. It should be noted that vehicles painted for the North Africa campaign were often rerouted to the Eastern Front (as mentioned in the article).

    Here are the links to the info-graphics.



    The patterns one is more just a demonstration of the colours as they might have appeared like, used together, rather than a scholarly work on every pattern that vehicle crews utilized in the war.

    SS, I hate to make more work for you, but if you could add those to the Article (somewhere), I’d be really appreciative!

  9. There’s a reason why the colours get mixed up, is because the base Wehrmacht colours got removed from RAL after the war. The dark yellow for german vehicles from 1943 on didn’t even have a RAL number and is very different from RAL 7028. Check this link (only in german) but you’ll recognize the colour. Entfernte Farben means removed colours:

    • Ah, yes, that is entirely correct and something I noticed during my research. One of my info-graphics (see my above post) briefly touches on this fact, that the RAL catalog 840 R was changed after the war as part of the broad effort in Europe to remove all traces of the Third Reich (and who can blame them, even if it means that it creates conflicts in historical research).

  10. To the author:
    Thanks for your article, i liked it a lot!

    First i suggest you should change the title of your very interesting article to “50 shades of (Dark) grey”. :-)

    Second, i read an interesting anecdote regarding winter camo:

    In Alfred Rubbels book “Im Panzer 4 und Tiger an der Ostfront” (“In Panzer 4 and Tiger on the Eastern front”) he writes when they were short on alcohol, tabacco and chocolate, all supply that came through to them was tooth paste. Lots of tooth paste.
    But, he tells, you dont want to brush your tooth at minus 20 degrees celsius.
    So the driver “Gobby” Tost had the idea to heat up the tooth paste and apply it to their tank. There are pictures in the book:

    Cant wait to read more…

    • I honestly can say I never heard that before! I’d like to look into that some more, as the concept is pretty fascinating, though not entirely surprising, given supply issues and the like. I also wonder if it smelled minty-fresh…

  11. WoT needs to put a lot more camo patterns in the game, there are many that were used by many nations still not in the game. It would help us to customize our tanks more, players want it, and most people pay for camo with gold so WarGaming wins too, win win situation, so why not?