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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 (still identified as Ausgabe 1938). 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 (RLM 65 on the underside), and fighters and destroyers, RLM 74/75 (with RLM 76 on the underside), a gray scheme that seems to have been introduced some months earlier, perhaps as early as March or April. (Tropical aircraft were to use RLM 79/80 and RLM 78 on the underside.)

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 impending introduction of RLM 81 and 82, which were to replace RLM 70 and 71. Almost a year later (in July 1944, by which time losses of planes on the ground exceeded those in the air), this change was made official with a Sammelmitteilung (Collected Communication). When stocks of existing paint had been depleted, RLM 70 and 71 were to be discontinued and RLM 81 and 82 used instead (even though "Delivery of colour charts for RLM shades 81 and 82 is currently not possible"). If necessary, surplus quantities were to be mixed: RLM 70 with 82, and RLM 71 with 81—and any excess exchanged by the manufacturer. Until the RLM could provide approved paint samples and the scheme fully implemented, old and new paints were used together.

By the next month, in August 1944 (a week before the Allies entered Paris), there was a second set of regulations, Sammelmitteilung Nr. 2, which directed that RLM 65 be replaced by RLM 76, a lighter shade of blue (possibly because 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 71 and 74 completely withdrawn. There also was reference to another color, RLM 83, which is mentioned here for the first time, although the context suggests that it had been announced (at least to the paint manufacturers) and already was in service. RLM 74 likely had been phased out by then, as there is no mention of mixing any surplus stock, and replaced by RLM 83, even though there is no surviving directive to this effect. RLM 70, 71, and 74 had oxides of chromium as their primary pigment. In increasingly short supply, they were important raw materials in the production of jet engines, which may account for these changes.

They must have occurred one or two months before, perhaps as early as June 1944, after the D-Day landing at Normandy. By September, the increasing need for defensive camouflage precipitated a shift to combination of RLM 81 and 82 over RLM 76 on the undercarriage for all land-based aircraftfor example, the Me 262, Fw 190, Do 335, and He 111. RLM 83 no longer was to be produced, although it did continue to be used. A Luftwaffendienstvorschrift (Service Regulation) for the Do 335 compiled about this time but not issued until late December stipulated that the plane was to be camouflaged in RLM 81/82, the propellers in RLM 70, and the underside in RLM 65 (presumably because the directive of Sammelmitteilung Nr. 2 that it be finished in RLM 76 could not be incorporated in time).

By the beginning of 1944, Allied bombing had increasingly disrupted industrial production, which forced paint manufacturers to shift to smaller, more dispersed plants. As a result, RLM 81 and 82 could have different hues, even if the same nominal designation. Nor do any official descriptions or color card samples survive. Paint manufacturers (which relied on the RLM two-digit color code for identification) were obliged, therefore, to provide their own names. Dornier referred to both RLM 81 and 82 as Dunkelgrün; RLM 81 was described by Messerschmitt as Braunviolett and by Blohm & Voss as Olivbraun, although both agreed that RLM 82 was Hellgrün. RLM 83 is even more enigmatic, a Dunkelgrün that must have been intended to replace RLM 74 in the RLM 74/75 scheme and so provide a green-gray combination more suitable for defensive ground camouflage. It seems likely, too, that RLM 81/82/83 were reissues of the nearly identical RLM 61/62/64 that had appeared in the Farbtontafel of 1938and used pigments that could be produced in Germany.

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 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)

Variations

 

82
Late War
(No color chip)

Hellgrün
(LightGreen)

Variations 

 

83
Late War
(No color chip)

Dunkelgrün
(Dark Green)

 

Variations

 

The Farbtontafel of 1938 was the first color table to be issued by the RLM and set the standard for those that followed: paint chips pasted on an outlined chart and identified by a numeric designation. Samples not available at the time of printing (or issued after November 1941), such as the desert colors RLM 78 and 79, were represented by loose sample cards, which were stuck on a blank page in the manual.

Such a card is 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 (2004), whose facsimile of the original includes matte paint chips. No single chart ever represented all RLM colors, however. Ries, for example, 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 (2005), 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 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 may be a variation of RLM 76 but more likely is a distinct but unnamed color of its own.

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 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 became 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, too, that RLM colors did not necessarily match those applied by the manufacturer or subcontractor. Paint formulations could vary from one batch to another and colors thinned or combined, especially toward the end of the war or 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. Attribution also is complicated by the fact that most photographs used in identification are in black and white, which makes it difficult, for example, to distinguish between RLM 70, 71, 81, and 83. Color photographs, which may seem more reliable, are affected by shifts in the dyes of the film, which themselves had different light sensitivity. And when published, photographs are 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 haze and mist introduce a 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. 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. 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 from the original aircraft in daylight. For the flight simulation enthusiast who wants to "skin" a plane, it is a simpler proposition: one need only sample from a standard 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). 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) by Michael Ullmann; Camouflage of the Dornier Do 335: A Critical Re-evaluation (2000) by Michael Ullmann; 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.

In 2007, Tomáš Poruba announced that eight cans of paint abandoned at a Czech factory for the production of the Bf 109G had been found, two of which still retained their original labels. One seems to read .81, although the paint itself is dark gray-green. Large color cards also were found at the Prague Ruzynē airfield after the war, one of which is identified on the back as Nr.82. Poruba has long intended to publish a color chart incorporating these discoveries in Focke-Wulf 190D: Camouflage & Markings, Part III, but the volume has yet to appear.

See also Annotated Bibliography.

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