Until relatively recently there was a prevalent belief that the RLM greys scheme of 74/75/76 had been introduced much earlier to the Messerschmitt 109E production line than was previously thought. This belief had its roots in the large number of RAF crash reports during the Battle of Britain which describe downed 109’s painted in various grey or blue-grey shades. In addition to this a school of thought had interpreted monochrome photographs to suggest that the original colours could be determined by whether the ‘splinter’ camouflage appeared to be high contrast or low contrast. High contrast and the aircraft was deemed to be in the earlier 71/02/65 scheme; low contrast and the aircraft was supposedly painted in the new greys 74/75/76.
This belief in the application of greys to late production 109E’s has resulted in many illustrations and models of the 109 aircraft delivered to Japan being shown in the 74/75/76 ‘greys’ scheme.
The RLM Colours
Whilst it is not possible to provide a full treatise on Luftwaffe colours, a brief summary of the chromatic characteristics of the colours discussed in this article may be helpful to those readers unfamiliar with the subject.
RLM 02 Grau - a mid toned, warm, slightly brownish grey approx Munsell 7.5 Y 5/1 or 34201 (too brown)
RLM 65 Hellblau - a dull sky blue - approx Munsell 10 B 7/6 (too dark) or FS 35488 (too grey)
RLM 70 Schwarzgrün - a black green - approx Munsell 5 G 2/1 or 35042
RLM 71 Dunkelgrün - a dark olive green - approx Munsell 5 GY 3/1 or 35042 (too grey)
RLM 74 Graugrün - a dark greenish grey - approx Munsell 5 B 4/1 or FS 23162
RLM 75 Grauviolett - a mid toned violet grey - approx Munsell 5 PB 4/1 or FS 36118
RLM 76 Lichtblau - a pale grey blue - approx Munsell 5 B 7/2 or FS 35526
RLM 02 is often depicted as a pale neutral or cool greenish-grey in sharp contrast to RLM 71. In fact the colour is mid toned and warm with a distinct brownish chroma. It is lighter than 71 but both colours share a similar chromatic intensity. Viewed side by side there is less contrast in the 71/02 vs 74/75 schemes than is suggested by some artistic depictions. The RLM 02 paint colour has been analysed here and here.
Merrick & Kiroff
In 2004 the publication of Kenneth A Merrick and Jürgen Kiroff’s ground-breaking and comprehensive analysis of ‘Luftwaffe Camouflage And Markings 1933-1945’ challenged the prevailing beliefs about 109E camouflage. Merrick makes a convincing case that the various greys and blue-greys reported in 1940 were unit or field applied schemes using non-standard colours or colour mixes. During this same period the new greys 74/75/76 were undergoing testing and evaluation on specific aircraft but were not introduced on the production line. In fact Merrick maintains that all late production 109E’s continued to leave the production line in the 71/02/65 scheme, as indeed did the first F’s until the new greys were introduced in April/May 1941:-
“It has often been suggested that the greys 74, 75 and 76 made their first broad scale appearance during this period (August to November 1940), but in looking at individual applications it can be seen that the range of greys was sufficiently diverse to dissuade such a contention. The three new colours were in existence , and undergoing the usual stringent RLM tests before being approved for general use, but had 74, 75 and 76 been available one would also have expected these three greys to be used together, rather than as a single colour added to existing greens or mixes of yellow-greens. Also, had these colours been in use, why then did the remaining Bf 109 E production cycle continue with the then standard 71/02/65 scheme - a scheme that was also used for the initial batch of Bf 109 F aircraft?”
“An RLM order, dated June 24 1941 ratified the changeover to an official RLM camouflage scheme incorporating the new colours 74, 75 and 76 in conjunction with 65. By August 15, 1941, Messerschmitt had set forth its new painting chart for the Bf 109 F calling for camouflage colors 74/75/76 with a fuselage mottle of 02/70/74."
Because of this the question of the delivery date of the 109s to Japan, variously reported and previously significant in determining their colour scheme, is no longer as relevant. However, this aspect will be further addressed in Part 2 of this article.
Merrick’s conclusions were echoed by researcher Paul Lucas in his analytical article ‘Enigmatic Emils’ published in the British magazine ‘Model Aircraft Monthly’ in September 20043:-
“By August 1940, various shades of grey were being reported as being present on wrecked Bf 109s examined by RAF Intelligence officers following their loss over the UK. As there was no standard procedure for recording colours, colloquial terms such as “battleship grey” and “cloudy grey” were used in reports. This has led to speculation that the later grey finish adopted by the Luftwaffe, RLM 74, 75 and 76 might have been introduced from the late summer of 1940 although the general consensus of researchers who have delved into this subject is that any grey finishes which were being used on Bf 109s at this time were most likely experimental schemes which originated at unit level, ultimately leading to the adoption of the grey scheme of RLM 74, 75 and 76 during 1941.”
The presence of a factory applied fuselage mottle is also sometimes cited as evidence of the greys scheme, but Merrick challenges this belief as well:-
"No factory camouflage pattern so far located for the Bf 109 E series shows addition of mottling for the side surfaces, but photographic evidence points to this as having been introduced at production centres by about May 1940."
Indeed a photograph of Bf 109 E-4 W.Nr.2782 at the point of manufacture, still bearing its fuselage radio call-sign codes GA+HP, clearly shows the factory applied fuselage mottle, almost identical in appearance to that seen on the Japanese 109’s. This is the earliest known photograph to provide evidence of mottling applied at the point of manufacture and this particular aircraft was shot down over Biggin Hill on August 30 1940.
It is probable therefore that the 109s were delivered to Japan in the standard factory finish of 71/02/65 with a dense factory applied fuselage mottle consisting of colours 71 and 02. The presence of wing hinomaru occupying the same inboard positions as Luftwaffe crosses suggests that these markings might have been applied at the German factory before delivery. It is unlikely that standard position Luftwaffe crosses were over-painted on arrival in Japan because there is no evidence of the existence of over-painted fuselage crosses or tail swastika. At the time of their delivery the national insignia for IJAAF aircraft was plain hinomaru on upper and lower wing surfaces only. That information may have been conveyed in a number of ways to the factory paint shop who then applied them in the usual Luftwaffe cross positions. Perhaps the Japanese did not ask for this but the factory did it anyway. In this case the colour used may have been RLM 23 Rot, a bright strong red between FS 31350 and 31302.
Addition of Japanese Markings
In flight photographs taken in Japan reveal that the 109s were first test flown in their delivery scheme with only the addition of narrow white/red/white fuselage bands and, possibly later, single digit identification numbers painted on the fin in white. These white/red/white fuselage bands were commonly used to designate test or experimental aircraft and sometimes the number of stripes indicated the number of the aircraft being tested. In one of the in-flight photographs of 109s in Japan it is just possible to discern two such fuselage stripes.
Subsequently, probably during the summer of 1942 following the Doolittle raid on Japan and prior to the order issued in September 1942 calling for yellow IFF strips, wing leading edge IFF strips were added. These appear to be the same colour as the hinomaru, red, which seems to have been the case for the early IFF strips introduced on the Japanese mainland for home defence aircraft.
Towards the end of 1942 hinomaru with white borders were added to the fuselage sides. These additions broadly follow the pattern of the developing markings practice for all IJAAF aircraft.
Photographs of the aircraft displaying these markings are taken by some as indicating the aircraft had been wholly over-painted with Japanese colours, but this conclusion should be considered with caution. On the subject of the interpretation of monochrome photographs, Merrick warns:-
“A photographer captured often one view only of an aircraft, and lighting conditions can make perceptions of the assumed colours bewildering, often misleading, at times.”
It is the case that the study of many 109 photographs throughout the period 1940 to 1942 reveals no discernible pattern of high or low contrast camouflage effects indicating the use of specific colours. On the contrary these differences are more likely the result of lighting conditions and photographic exposure times. The angle of reflection on the upper surface of the 109 wing and the reflectivity of the paint colours results in many monochrome photographs where the wing appears at first glance to be painted in a single colour. Only by the closest examination of some photographs will a splinter pattern be discernible and in some cases not at all. In addition, lighting conditions and exposure will affect the appearance of the fuselage mottle. A study of 109 photographs in a range of publications will make this apparent.
It is quite possible and indeed probable that during their service life the Japanese 109s sported re-touched paint-work and/or individually re-painted components, particularly fabric flying surfaces, using indigenous colours, but no firm conclusions about this may be drawn from the available data.
From the evidence available it is probable that when delivered the JAAF 109s were finished and flown in the standard 71/02/65 scheme for the Bf109E. To complete this brief exploration excellent profiles of the Japanese 109 in the 71/02/65 scheme are presented by kind permission of the artist Srecko Bradic.
Part 2 of this article will explore the delivery of the 109s to Japan and their place within the broader topic of German technical input to Japanese fighter projects.
Image credit: Profiles © Srecko Bradic; photos author collection; model unknown web (if it's yours please holler and I'll credit it!)