Monday 6 September 2021

Soviet Camo that Came Too Late

The appearance of tanks on the battlefield in September of 1916 quickly forced many to reconsider some preconceived notions about their use. The first to make changes were the British, who pioneered the concept on the battlefield. The pair of wheels that aided in turning the tank was quickly dropped. There were two other important changes: one was the use of fascines and logs for crossing obstacles, the second was camouflage. WWI marked a turning point in the use of camouflage. Previously uniforms were bright and colourful, but now being hidden was very important. Camouflage was used in uniforms, artillery, and military vehicles. This did not mean that camouflage would entirely displace single tone paint schemes, but tanks were repainted soon after they were involved in their first battles. The use of camouflage decreased after the end of WWI. Most major tank building nations dropped the idea of widespread camouflage, with the exception of the French, who kept on using it. The Germans also returned to three colour camo in the late 1920s. A second wave of camouflage swept through all nations in the mid-1930s. Some tanks remained in camouflage at the start of WWII, but the Germans dropped it, moving from Feldgrau Nr.3 (don't be misled, this is actually a shade of olive green) and then black-gray RAL 70121 as the base coat.

A T-28 tank with three colour camouflage developed for the Middle Asian Military District, summer of 1939.

Tank camouflage was introduced very quickly in the Red Army. Famous avant-garde artist Aleksandr Rodchenko began working on tank camouflage in 1920. His work gave the USSR its first two tone tank camo, although it was relatively rare and almost completely forgotten. This did not mean that the Red Army gave up on camouflage, far from it. The Military Engineering Directorate of the Red Army dedicated a lot of effort to concealment, but the dull base coat was often enough. Tanks were painted in the same "protective green" as artillery at first.

The issue of concealment came up in the 1930s. The main developer of this topic was the NIIIT (Scientific Research Institute of Engineering Vehicles of the Red Army) formed in 1934. Work was slow at first as it was spread between multiple organizations. The 3B tone that NIIIT created to replace the "protective green" was not as good. It turned out that it was quickly noticeable, prompting a replacement before there was even time to ship it to some factories. Camouflage was rarely applied.

This camouflage pattern was the foundation for what the NIIIT developed in early 1941.

In 1939 the Automotive and Armour Directorate of the Red Army (ABTU) took matters into their own hands. Voroshilov initiated research into new paint even earlier, in 1938. The result was the 4BO colour (4th Basic). This colour is the cause of many arguments between specialists, including scale modellers. For a colour it was quite varied, as it was produced as a thick paste diluted with linseed oil. 4BO took a long time to dry completely, plus the chrome oxide contained in the paint had a tendency to wear off over time. Since the main component of 4BO was ochre pigment, it became yellower. As a result, the "ideal" 4BO can only be replicated for a certain period, especially since the shade could vary with the process of application. Some factories applied two layers of 4BO instead of iron oxide primer, as a result of which their tanks looked lighter. Nevertheless, the ABTU reached their goal. The new base colour was much better than 3B. 4BO was introduced at tank factories in 1939 and was later also used in artillery. On the ABTU's orders the NIIIT also developed several variants of camouflage patterns. Trials were conducted from August 15th to August 29th, 1939. These experiments laid the foundation for development that lasted until the spring of 1941.

4-colour camo was initially proposed, but this idea was rejected.

The camouflage tested in the summer of 1939 was similar to what Rodchenko developed in 1920. This time the pattern had a much more serious foundation based in multiple experiments. The percentage of the surface that camouflage spots were applied to, their type, and method of application were strictly regimented. The 3-colour pattern was also not the first one that was used. The first attempt was with 2-colour camo with either dark brown or black spots (6pn on Wilhelm Ostwald's palette). This colour was initially taken as the base for camouflage spots. However, the T-28 tank tested in August of 1939 had spots in a different colour: light sand yellow (3ie). This paint scheme was developed for the Middle Asian Military District (SAVO). 4-colour camo (with the addition of dark brown, 4ig) and even 5-colour camo were tested. However, things changed in early 1941 and a completely different palette was used than initially planned.

Camouflage that laid the foundation for the mass production variant and its author, Military Engineer 3rd Class F.F. Kolosov

Even though the topic of camouflage fell silent, the NIIIT was not wasting time. They continued to work both on colours and their application. Various schemes were tested on models. The ABTU (GABTU as of 1940) also changed their mind several times. 4-colour camo with small spots was discarded in favour of the large spot scheme developed for the SAVO and applied to the T-28 tank. The NIIIT requested T-50, T-34, and KV-1 drawings for testing their camouflage patterns. It was also necessary to develop a recipe for the paint and instructions for painting. Development of winter camouflage was a whole different story, since simple application of water soluble white paint was not the best idea. This topic deserves a separate telling. 

These were the colours used in camouflage. 4K disappeared only to be reborn after the war as "Army Gray" that is often used to paint German tanks and guns in museums.

The first variant of the 1941 camouflage scheme was ready in April. The lead developer of this camouflage was Military Engineer 3rd Class F.F. Kolosov. The new scheme included some ideas from the camo tested in 1939. 4BO was the basic colour, covering 60% of the surface area. 6K brown-black covered another 20% of the tank. As in 1939, this colour was the main one for camouflage patterns. The scheme initially developed for the SAVO was adapted into a 3-colour pattern. This is where a new addition was made: 7K gray-yellow (later sand yellow) made up the remaining 20%. 7K was a successor of the 3ie colour. This colour is as different from classic sand yellow as Feldgrau Nr.3 is different from gray. 7K could be replaced with gray (4K) to imitate clay earth, offering two varieties of the 3-colour camouflage.

A camouflage pattern for a T-50 tank that was never used.

The draft camouflage was approved by the NIIIT on May 5th, 1941, and sent out. Acting Chief of the Main Military Engineering Directorate of the Red Army Major General I.P. Galitskiy signed the documentation on May 14th. Later these patterns ended up with the GABTU where they were approved with a few changes. The changes removed the 4K gray, leaving just one variant: 4BO base coat with 6K and 7K spots. A letter from the GABTU instructing production to switch to these patterns arrived on V.A. Malyshev's desk on May 19th. These instructions primarily touched the T-34, T-50, and KV-1 tanks. What happened next is an interesting question.

One of two known T-34 tanks with L-11 guns and a camouflage pattern applied.

The number of vehicles that required camouflage patterns grew to 4, with the BA-10 armoured car making up the final one. Even though the camouflage patterns were sent to the factories, they were not applied there. The situation can be described as a grassroots revolution. Army units received camouflage paint themselves, first the Military Academy of Motorization and Mechanization (VAMM), who applied it to their T-34 tanks with L-11 guns. The most famous of these tanks was the T-34 that became bogged down near Tolochin. This was not the only tank of its type. Another vehicle with the same 3-colour camouflage was photographed knocked out on a forest road.

A knocked out T-26 tank in camouflage. This is far from the most exotic application.

 The VAMM clearly followed instructions that came from the NIIIT and GABTU. Their tanks were painted properly. This was an exception rather than the rule, as camouflage anarchy reigned in the summer of 1941. The main carriers of camouflage in July-August were not T-34, T-50, or KV-1 tanks. These were the T-26 and sometimes BT tanks. Tanks of this type were most common around Uman. They could use two or three colours. The shape of the spots is a whole different matter. They could be striped like a zebra (the T-26 in Kubinka had this camouflage for some time, with the author's involvement) or have any shapes up to a "heart" on the turret of the BT-5 tank.

ZIS-30, the only wartime Soviet vehicle that received camouflage paint at the factory in large numbers.

Most tanks that fought near Uman were encircled and lost, although the Main Military Engineering Directorate of the Red Army (GVIU) did learn of their fate. This information was hardly calming, especially when they learned about the anarchy that engulfed not just armoured cars, but other wheeled vehicles. On August 27th, 1941, the new chief of the GVIU Major General L.Z. Kotlyar sent a letter to the chief of the GABTU, describing the chaos and suggesting urgent production of instructions and posters on camouflage. The letter was too late, as Lieutenant Colonel Ye.M. Rozanov's book titled "Camouflage of Tanks" was approved for publication on August 14th. It included a description of camouflage patterns. The main problem was not here, as tank factories never began applying camouflage. Like the MDSh smoke bombs, it was only a few months too late. By the fall of 1941 the dust would have settled and the Red Army's typical tanks would bear 3-colour camouflage.

Camouflage was also applied to the GAZ-64 at the factory.

It's possible that camouflage could have vanished like the MDSh and be reborn later, but another factor kicked in. The Artillery Committee approved the usage of camouflage on artillery on July 20th, 1941. 4K resurfaced here, but the finalists were again 4BO, 6K, and 7K. Artillery began to be painted in camouflage after a small delay, in the fall of 1941. This camouflage also trickled down to armoured vehicles. Gorkiy became the center of Soviet camouflage. Two factories used it: GAZ and factory #92. The latter produced ZIS-30 tank destroyers. It is known that 100% of these vehicles used 3-colour camouflage. Camouflage was also applied to the GAZ-61-416 truck and GAZ-64 reconnaissance car. These vehicles also used 3-colour summer camo until the winter. Application of camouflage at the GAZ factory was also touched by anarchy.

There was another place where camoufalge was used en masse in 1941. Operation Countenance began on August 25th, 1941. The goal of this operation was knocking Iran out of the war. Despite official neutrality, Shah Reza Pahlavi actively courted German attention, which worried the British. The main British forces were located in Egypt and Syria at the time, so the main effort fell to the Transcaucasian Front formed on August 23rd, commanded by Lieutenant General D.T. Kozlov. The Front's main type of tank was the T-26, and many of these tanks also had 3-colour camouflage. Some anarchy could also be observed here, but mostly tanks used regimented camo. Tanks of the SAVO ended up using camouflage most often. The SAVO's 2-colour camo became the foundation for 3-colour camo.

Camouflage was rare in 1942, but it still appears.

Camouflage on tanks still popped up later, but it was a rare sight. Artillery was a different matter. Camouflage could be seen on all manner of guns, from the 45 mm anti-tank gun to the 203 mm B-4 howitzer. Camouflage was also used on cars.

To conclude, a few words on the inventor of the camouflage pattern. Kolosov, already a Military Engineer 2nd Class, was assigned as the Assistant Chief of Staff of Reconnaissance for the Volkhov Front. Kolosov reached a great success here in the art of maskirovka. He designed dummy tanks, deciphered aerial photography, and performed a lot of work directly linked to his area of expertise. His work directly aided the breakthrough of the blockade around Leningrad. For this he earned the Order of the Red Star. Other medals and orders followed. Kolosov ended the war as an Engineer-Colonel. His service ended in 1965. Judging by his medal cabinet, Fedor Fedorovich Kolosov continued to excel in his work.

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