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RLM Colors
L.Dv. 521/1 (November 1941)

The colors used by the Luftwaffe were defined by the State Ministry of Aviation (Reichsluftfahrt Ministerium), which established a standard for color shades, their production and application. These directives were promulgated through a series of service regulations (Luftwaffen Dienstvorschriften) designated L.Dv. 521. The earliest edition to survive (L.Dv. 521/1) is dated March 1938 and included a color table (Farbtontafel) that was to be matched by manufacturers, aircraft repair depots, and front-line units. Other regulations, some of which had been established before the formation of the RLM itself in 1933, limited the number of colors and encouraged production from pigments that could be obtained in Germany. At a time of limited hard currency, such policies simplified purchase and storage, and minimized dependence on imported raw materials. Paints were supplied by different companies and, although aircraft manufacturers could choose which commercial products to purchase, they all were to adhere to these uniform standards, as represented by the Farbtontafel and later by individual paint chips.

In November 1941, L.Dv. 521/1 was revised and a new edition issued. It stipulated that the pre-war colors RLM 61/62/63 were no longer to be used for land-based combat aircraft. Instead, bombers were to use RLM 70/71 and 65 on the underside; day fighters and destroyers, RLM 74/75 and 76 beneath, a gray scheme that seems to have been introduced some months earlier, perhaps as early as March or April. RLM 76, a light blue-gray, often would extend up the sides of the fuselage in a mottled pattern of upper-surface colors supplemented by RLM 02 and RLM 70. Tropical aircraft, which had retained their original European scheme, were to use RLM 79, a desert tan applied over the entire upper surface of the aircraft or mottled with RLM 80, a gray-green that could be applied as appropriate for vegetation on the ground. On the underside, a brighter blue RLM 78 was to be used.   

In August 1943 (less than a month after the firebombing of Hamburg), after preparations that must have begun sometime earlier, there was a notice announcing the future introduction of RLM 81 and 82, which were to replace RLM 70 and 71. Almost a year later (in July 1944), this change was made official with a Sammelmitteilung or notification. When stocks of existing paint had been depleted, RLM 70 and 71 were to be discontinued, and RLM 81 and 82 used instead. If necessary, any surplus quantities were to be mixed: RLM 70 with 82, and RLM 71 with 81.

By the next month, in August 1944, there was a second set of regulations, Sammelmitteilung Nr. 2, emphasizing that "With the issue of this camouflage guide the industry is expressly forbidden to use any other camouflage types or colours, e.g. in response to special requests from front-line units, than those specified in the camouflage guide." It directed that RLM 65 was to be replaced on the underside of aircraft by RLM 76, no doubt due to the fact that cobalt, its principal coloring pigment, was needed in the production of high-grade steel. RLM 70 was to be used only on propellers, and RLM 74 completely withdrawn, which likely had been phased out by then, as there is no mention of mixing any surplus stock. It was to be replaced by RLM 83, even though there is no surviving directive to this effect. The context suggests that the new color, which is mentioned here for the first time, had been announced months earlier (at least to the paint manufacturers) and already was in service. It presumably was a dark gray-green similar to RLM 74, which, like RLM 70/71, had oxides of chromium as its primary pigment. In increasingly short supply, this important raw material now was needed for the production of jet engines (fittingly, the camouflage colors of the Me 163, Me 262, and He 162 were RLM 81/82/76).

In a simplified scheme of RLM 83/75, these gray and dark-green colors were more suitable for defensive camouflage and still not overly compromised in the air. It is a change that must have occurred one or two months before, perhaps as early as June 1944, when the Allies landed in France and German losses on the ground were beginning to exceed those in the air. By September, the need to conceal land-based aircraft precipitated a shift to an even darker combination of RLM 81/82 over 76 on the undercarriage. RLM 83 no longer was to be produced, although it did continue to be used.

Sammelmitteilung 1 had stated that "Delivery of colour charts for RLM shades 81 and 82 is currently not possible. For this reason there is no acceptance inspection of the paint's shade." There were to be no official descriptions of RLM 81/82 and manufacturers were obliged to describe these colors themselves. Dornier referred to both RLM 81 and 82 as Dunkelgrün; Blohm & Voss described RLM 81 as Olivbraun and RLM 82 as Hellgrün, and later Messerschmitt, as Braunviolett and Hellgrün, respectively. Rather than simply replacing RLM 70/71, it is possible, too, that these colors were reissues of the nearly identical RLM 61/62 that had appeared in the Farbtontafel of 1936 (the first to be issued by the RLM) but withdrawn from service by the beginning of the war. Indeed, official color descriptions were thought to be of secondary importance and only twenty-eight colors had official names, none after RLM 73. Color samples not available at the time a Farbtontafel was printed (or issued after November 1941), such as the desert colors RLM 78 and 79, were represented by paint chips stuck on a blank page.

RLM No.

Name

Ries
(1963)

Smith et al. (1979)

Merrick & Hitchcock (1980)

Warnecke & Böhm (1998)

Merrick & Kiroff (2005)

 

Ullmann
(2008)

 

02 Grau
(Gray)

04
(Marking Color)
Gelb
(Yellow)

23
(Marking Color)
Rot
(Red)

24
(Marking Color)
Dunkelblau
(Dark Blue)

25
(Marking Color)
Hellgrün
(Light Green)

27
(Marking Color)
Gelb
(Yellow)

65
(Lower Surface)
Hellblau
(Light Blue)

70
(Splinter Scheme)
Schwarzgrün
(Black Green)

71
(Splinter Scheme)
Dunkelgrün
(Dark Green)

73
(Splinter Scheme)
Grün
(Green)

74
(Upper Surface)
RLM 74/75/76 were the last colors to appear in a Farbtontafel
Dunkelgrau
(Dark Gray)

75
(Upper Surface)
Grau
(Gray)

76
(Lower Surface)
 
Weissblau
(White Blue)

77
(Night Fighter)
Hellgrau
(Light Gray)
 
78
(Mediterranean)
Lower Surface
Colors used after 1941 and not included in the L.Dv. 521/1
Himmelblau
(Sky Blue)

 

79
(Mediterranean)
Upper Surface
Sandgelb
(Sand Yellow)
 

80
(Mediterranean)
Upper Surface
Olivgrün
(Olive Green)
 

81
Late War
(No color chip)
Braunviolett
(Brown Violet)
 

82
Late War
(No color chip)
 

Hellgrün
(Light Green)

 

 

83
Late War
(No color chip)
Dunkelgrün
(Dark Green)
 

A Farbtontafel was inserted in the first volume of Ries' pioneering work, although he does not refer to it there but only later in his second volume, where the printed insert, which is titled Farbtonkarte nach LDv 521/2 November 1941, is correctly identified as L.Dv. 521/1. The Farbtontafel zur Behandlungs und Anwendungsvorschrift für Flugzeuglacke ("Color Table for Treatment and Application Regulations for Aircraft Lacquers") for 1938 is provided by Smith et al. and Merrick and Kiroff, whose facsimile of the original includes matte paint chips. No single chart ever represented all RLM colors, however. Ries identifies 21 colors (from RLM 00 [Wasserhell], a colorless lacquer, to RLM 76); Smith et al. and Warnecke & Böhm, 30 (from RLM 02 to 83); Merrick and Kiroff, 29 (from RLM 00 to "84"), and Ullmann, 44 (from RLM 00 to 83).

In the Farbtontafel of RLM colors above, several shades have been omitted, including silver (Silber, RLM 01), black (Schwarz, RLM 22), and white (Weiss, RLM 21); additional marking colors, such as brown (Braun, RLM 26) and wine red (Weinrot, RLM 28); export and maritime colors; pre-war colors such as RLM 61/62/63; RLM 64 (Dunkelgrün), RLM 66 (Schwarzgrau), and RLM 72 (Grün); and the pale green-and-gray blue "sky colors" (Hellgrünblau) used at the end of the war, sometimes conveniently but erroneously referred to as "RLM 84," which likely were variations of RLM 76, the standard undersurface color. In time, the Reichsluftfahrt Ministerium would not issue any new colors—simply because, by the end of the war, there were not the means to produce them.

There are differences (some subtle, others obvious) in all these colors, and it is difficult to know which truly are accurateor rather, which are most authoritative. Smith et al., for example, declare their printed chart to be "very accurate," its colors having been "very carefully hand-mixed" to provide a "very precise reference." The paint chips commissioned from Warnecke & Böhm GmbH are of interest in that they were provided by one of the Luftwaffe's principal suppliers. The reference in L.Dv. 521/1 (1941) to the formulations "of an original manufacturer" is, in fact, to Warnecke & Böhm, whose Ikarol lacquers could be applied in one coat and were in such demand that they were produced under license by ten different subcontractors, many their former competitors. The chips are certified to be authentic, having been matched to the manufacturer's own archived material and by spectrophotometric analysis to original paint specimens. Indeed, they are "the most accurate and authentic source for actual color standards" as specified by the RLM. The publisher is more cautious, however, and feels compelled to comment that paint often was thinly applied and varied from company to company. Merrick and Hitchcock prudently limit their remarks to the subtle variations even in official color cards and say only that their listing of color chips is comprehensive. But their publisher is not as circumspect and guarantees them to be "perfect matches to the originals in both color and finish" and the work itself "the most authoritative and complete record of paint samples and related material yet published."

As more information has become available, Merrick and Kiroff reconsidered the subject in two magisterial volumes. The result is "as complete an analysis of the colours, markings and usage of German aviation paints as possible." By using original formulations, chemicals and pigments, and manufacturing equipment, they feel confident that they have provided "the only accurate source of Luftwaffe colours produced since manufacture ceased at war's end." And one cannot help but be impressed by the rough matte feel of these large paint chips. Such was the cost of production that the eventual price of the book was increased significantly. A quarter of a century earlier, Smith et al. had made a similar complaint, ruefully remarking that the color card had cost nearly half as much to produce as the book itself. In a brief comment on his own tipped-in color chart, Ullmann prudently admits that, although the intention was to match specified colors, there were many variations in shadedifferences that had to be accepted then and now.

It should be appreciated that RLM colors did not necessarily match even those applied by the manufacturer or subcontractor at the factory. Paint formulations could vary from one batch to another and colors thinned or combined, especially toward the end of the war and in the field, when supplies became more scarce and conditions for proper application, more difficult. It was not enough that pigments be thoroughly mixed but that nozzle settings and air pressure, viscosity and proper spraying distance, ambient temperature and humidity, surface preparation and drying times all accord to regulation. Once delivered from the factory, colors oxidized, weathered, and fadedespecially under the strong Mediterranean sun, where yellow, blues, and grays were particularly susceptible to ultraviolet light.

Color attribution is complicated, too, by the fact that most photographs used in identification are black and white, which themselves could be over or under exposed. With only contrast in shading, different colors can have virtually the same grayscale value. This makes it difficult (especially without a specific color tone as reference) to distinguish between RLM 70/71/73 and RLM 81/82/83. The problem is compounded if orthochromatic film was used, which is sensitive to blue and green light but not to red (which is why it can be processed with a red safelight), and causes shades of blue to appear lighter, and red and yellow darker. Color photographs, which may seem more reliable, are affected by shifts in the dyes of the film, which themselves have different light sensitivity. When published, they are further subject to the vagaries of the printing process, especially if the print is not taken from the original negative but is a copy (or even a copy of a copy). Finally, there is the phenomenon of "scale effect," in which the appearance of color is affected by the perspective in viewing itthe further one is from a plane, the lighter its color appears to be. Particulates in the air from dust and mist introduce a hazy veil that reduces the perceived saturation of colors, some of which are more affected by scale than others, but all tending to fade to neutral gray over distance.

Nor do the colors above unerringly duplicate those that were sampled. Even within the same color, the average RGB value of a five-pixel square sample can show tonal variations. They will look different again when viewed on another monitor, given that the representation of color is device dependent. But none of these caveats really are significant. Whatever errors there are in the fidelity of the colors, they themselves are consistent, each having been scanned on the same flat-bed scanner, edited with the same software, and viewed on the same calibrated high-resolution monitor, all of which used the same color management profile. The intention therefore is not to present a definitive catalog of RLM colors (which is not possible in any event) but simply to demonstrate that, in spite of sincere claims that the respective color charts are accurate (and there is no reason to assume that they are not), there still are obvious variations between them, so much so that a contemporary standard for RLM colors no longer would seem possibleif it ever were.


Although "paint" and "color" are used here, the terms in RLM regulations were more precise: Lacke ("lacquer"), which consists of a binder dissolved in a solvent and colored by pigment that hardens or dries as the solvent evaporates, and Farbton ("color tone" or "shade"), the color's hue.

The issue of color fidelity can be even more problematic for the modeler. Ideally, a plane at 1/48 scale should look the same from one foot as the full-sized aircraft does at 48 feet (1/72 scale would be lighter still). But it may not be known whether the manufacturer has applied scale effect in its paint formulation (and to what degree) or, if paints are identified by a RLM number, which standard was adhered to. Even color profiles can be lightened to take scale effect into consideration. There also are conversion charts with which to contend and even the temperature of the light source illuminating the model, the colors of which will appear differently under artificial light when compared to the original aircraft in daylight. For the flight simulation enthusiast who wants to "skin" a plane, it is a much simpler proposition: one need only sample from one of the authorities above.


The Focke-Wulf Fw 190 F-8/R1 pictured above originally was manufactured in 1944 as an Fw 190 A-7 but, after having been damaged during operations, was reconfigured as a fighter bomber (with a new wing and bomb racks) and attached to SG 2 (Schlachtgeschwadern, Ground Attack Squadron 2). After having been surrendered in 1945, the plane was shipped to the United States and put into storage before being transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. Restoration from 1980 to 1983 revealed at least three different camouflage schemes. The plane now appears as it flew in October 1944. It is displayed in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center outside of Washington, DC.


References: Markings and Camouflage Systems of Luftwaffe Aircraft in World War II (1963-1972) by Karl Ries, Jr.; The Modeller's Luftwaffe Painting Guide: A Supplement to Luftwaffe Camouflage & Markings Vols 1, 2 & 3 (1979) by J. R. Smith, G. G. Pentland, and R. P. Lutz; The Official Monogram Painting Guide to German Aircraft 1935-1945 (1980) by Kenneth A. Merrick and Thomas H. Hitchcock; Luftwaffe Color Chart (1998) colors authenticated by Warnecke & Böhm GmbH; Luftwaffe Colours 1935-1945 (2002, rev 2008) by Michael Ullmann; "Day Fighter Camouflage" edited by Michael Ullman, in More Luftwaffe Fighter Aircraft in Profile (2002) by Claes Sundin and Christer Bergstrom; Luftwaffe Camouflage and Markings 1935-1945: Volume One: Pre-War Development, Paint Systems, Composition, Patterns, Applications, Day Fighters (2004) by K. A. Merrick and Jürgen Kiroff; Luftwaffe Camouflage and Markings 1935-1945: Volume Two: Code Systems & Markings, Night Fighters, Ground-Attack, Reconnaissance, Bombers, Maritime, Transports, Trainers (2005) by K. A. Merrick and Jürgen Kiroff.

See also Annotated Bibliography.

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