As with all countries that have had powerful fleets, German ships during World War II had distinctive features both in their choice of camouflage colors as well as their color schemes. But the Kriegsmarine camouflage history started from the relative simplicity of trivial grays.
It was 1896 when the best-known color scheme of the German Navy, comprising two shades of gray, appeared for the first time. It was later used in World War I, and then after some time was inherited by the Kriegsmarine. Ship hulls were painted in a dark gray color (Dunkelgrau 51), the superstructures and vertical elements of the guns—in bright gray (Hellgrau 50), the underwater body—red, and the waterline—gray. Auxiliary and small ships were usually painted in black color, with the addition of some small white elements. Later, the camouflages of all these ships were standardized. The color of the deck depended on the coating: steel—black varnish, whilst for wood—clear varnish.
Starting from 1916, and during the first years of World War II, for most of large ships, the horizontal lines on main battery turrets had the same color as that of the superstructures, with their roofs being of black color. Originally, white circles were drawn on the turret roofs to help easily identify ships from the air. Later on, the system became more elaborate—only some part of the turret roof could be covered with paint; in addition to the black coloring, gray, red, yellow colors were applied, and the circles were complemented with white lines. During the civil war in Spain, German ships serving in the conflict zone carried the three-colored German Imperial Flag painted on their roofs.
With the outbreak of World War II, the Kriegsmarine switched to a standard two-colored scheme 50/51. The first uniform camouflage was massively used during the Norwegian Campaign in April 1940 on destroyers and cruisers. The standard scheme and identification markings were complemented with gun mount roofs painted in yellow color, and later on—in red color. In June of the same year, in addition to this scheme, the vertical parts of guns, funnels and superstructures of some ships were covered with splinter marks.
On February 22, 1940, due to the lack of coordination between the Luftwaffe and a division of Kriegsmarine ships, destroyer Z-1 was accidentally sunk by a friendly aircraft, while another destroyer, Z-3, struck a mine in the chaos that unfolded. On April 3, before Operation Weserübung, the ships received a directive that ships' decks in the bow and stern areas were obliged to have a swastika drawn in a white circle on a red strip. Subsequently, the crews of ships applied the identification intended for aviation in a completely different manner.
During her Atlantic raid of 1939, Admiral Graf Spee was painted using a standard 50/51 scheme, but uneven patches of different shades of dark gray were applied to her superstructures and guns. During the raid, the camouflage was slightly modified due to the re-painting of the ship's superstructures. Additionally, two fake waves were painted on her sides to prevent the enemy from identifying her speed correctly.
By the summer of 1941, destroyers got a new scheme, where large black or dark gray patches of even geometric shape were applied over the standard painting. The scheme was also experimented on. For example, half of the hull of Z-8 was painted using the 50/51 scheme, while her lower part was covered with numerous chaotic fine black lines.
Another commonly used color scheme was the Baltic Strip: with black and white diagonal strips applied over the standard 50/51 coloring. This scheme impeded identification of the ship and complicated determination how far away she was. The scheme was supplemented by making the bow and stern of the hull dark gray. Additionally, a fake white or light gray wave could be applied to the bow and stern. However, in 1942, the Baltic Strip was taken out of use.
In 1940, camouflage patches that incorporated various shades of gray were applied over the 50/51 schemes on some ships. For example, Gneisenau had only her hull painted this way, whereas Admiral Hipper was painted entirely using this pattern. This scheme very much resembled the spotty, fine-grained camouflage created during World War I as part of the blinding schemes research.
Quite often, the Germans used the method of false perspective in their patterns, which involved part of the hull and superstructures being colored a variety of shades from light gray to almost black, and for this purpose fake waves were painted at the bow and stern. The contrasting color of the ship's ends in comparison with the rest of the hull aimed at confusing the enemy’s perspective of the ship's dimensions. Often, all of these elements were applied to create a combined camouflage or along with more commonly used schemes.
Kriegsmarine often preferred to use splinter-pattern camouflage, deployed for the first time in the winter of 1940 on cruiser Admiral Hipper. The ship had two contrasting shades of gray, while its spots resembled chaotically scattered geometric figures of various shapes and sizes. Later, a modified version of the scheme was applied to various ships, usually with the addition of a third color. Ships operating in northern latitudes were often painted using this pattern.
When France was occupied, destroyers based in Brest began to use the schemes derived from the modified Baltic Strip—without the white line, and with complementing black lines to form triangles. An attempt to revise this camouflage is also partially seen on Z-14, where the Baltic Strip is applied in a non-standard way, and with distorted elements of chaotic shapes painted at the center of the ship's hull. The ship also lacks the addition of a fake wave.
By 1942, the coloring of destroyers and a number of cruisers underwent further standardization changes with the appearance of Gaussian camouflage. Over the base color 50/51 or monotonous gray color; long black, dark blue, or gray strips were applied across the ship from a single point at the waterline. The strips could refract or diverge. This scheme often used waves and white spots near the waterline to confuse the enemy.
We should also mention concealment camouflages, also often used by the German Navy. However, these schemes varied depending on where each ship was based, as well as the season, so their description could take some time. But let us take a look at two of these. The first was used for battleship Tirpitz in the summer of 1942: her starboard had spotted camouflage with various shades of gray, while the ship's aft and forward ends were painted white. This coloring was designed to hide the ship in the fjords. Since it was intended for “parking”, and not for missions out at sea, the portside that faced land was painted monotonous gray, with the exception of its ends, with dark gray coloring. The second scheme we’ll look at was used for battleship Scharnhorst: originally, the ship was painted dark gray, except for the light gray aft and forward ends, but later, on top of this painting the contour of destroyer Z-15 was represented on the ship's sides.
By 1943, destroyers got the striped camouflage variants called «starting point»: dark gray strips were painted over the monotonous gray ships. They started from an invisible point above the center of the ship and diverged in straight lines from bow to stern. Having crossed a provisional border on the ship's sides, the strips turned black.
Transport and auxiliary ships had different variants of distorting camouflages that derived directly from the famous Razzle Dazzle camouflage. Numerous schemes were created, and it would take quite an effort to find two identical styles, similar in form and color. After the war, this pattern was especially appreciated by the Americans, who knew how to approach naval camouflages from a scientific point of view.