World War One aircraft camouflage

Camouflage 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 camouflaged, 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 camouflage schemes. Their main goal was, literally, to make the aircraft disappear into the woodwork.

In Great Britain, the story actually began in 1913 with a series of experiments performed by a Crown corporation, the Royal Aircraft Factory, to discover the ideal pigmentation needed to protect aeroplane fabric from the highly 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 camouflage was adopted in April 1916; this was the so-called PC-10. Depending on the proportions, the dopes and the pigments in it, PC-10 could vary from a greenish-ochre to a superb chocolate brown.

The example above is the basic scheme for British camouflage. The upper surfaces were a single dark colour 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

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 camouflage patterns using 4 or 5 colour patterns in large blotches on a varnished canvas background, lower wing colour varied from light blue, tan, to pale grey.

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

The German military approached the problem from a different angle. At first, the Air Service used two or three colours, applied in large blotches over the entire aircraft.

The example above shows one of the typical colour schemes for the upper wing of an Albatros D-III, there were 2 and 3 part schemes in purple and green, lower surfaces were typically painted with a pale blue.

Toward the end of 1916, Germany introduced a new scheme called Lozenge camouflage which was made up of polygons in four or five colours, sometimes more, printed on the fabric. This camouflage not only saved the weight of the paint, but also the time needed to apply it to each and every aircraft.

The example above is of a five colour 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 colours

Given the large scale use of wood and, in some cases, light alloys in aircraft covering, Germany also had to develop camouflage schemes involving patterns that disrupted the silhouette of the plane making it difficult to distinguish the silhouette of the aircraft; the three to five colours they used were often quite similar to the ones printed on the "lozenge fabric."