Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Thoughts and Notes on Foreign Military Camouflage

My previous post on the subject of camouflage started with the news that the US Army has admitted that its idea about what was supposed to be the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) was a flop, and is attempting to develop a replacement.  It also discussed the development of camouflage in the US military in recent times.

US soldier in MultiCam pattern

That post received a lot of attention (there are many camouflage enthusiasts out there, for a variety of reasons) and I received some questions about foreign patterns.  I can’t begin to fully cover the subject – there exists a huge number of variations around the world now, though many patterns are shared, but the variety is increasing at an accelerated pace.  I will provide some limited information and anecdotes on the subject, based entirely on my own current knowledge, because that is a voluminous subject that can be, and is, pursued in whole web logs.

In terms of general history, the idea of camouflage began to be investigated by the French in World War I, but not really applied to uniforms.  The word 'camouflage' is French, rather obviously, and is derived from a slang term for playing a practical joke.  The Italians actually were the first to field early camouflage patterns but these were first limited to shelter halves and ponchos, starting in the late 1920s.  These items became more prevalent once World War II started in earnest, and some German units picked up on these ponchos quickly, particularly after the Italian official capitulation in 1943 (though a civil struggle continued within Italy until the end of the war) and Italian material became available to German units in Italy.  The same Italian design continued in use with the Italian military up into the 1990s, with small variations depending on units.

 Italian camouflage (1930s - 1990s)

I mentioned previously that I was assigned or seconded to various foreign units over my military career, but this mostly took place in the 1970s and 1980s, when camouflage was not so extensive as it is now.  (Practically everyone then still wore some variation of an olive green, brown, tan or grey field uniform, so camouflage was still rather exotic.)  The most significant of my foriegn assignments was with the Italians, primarily the San Marco Battalion (now a regiment) – their Marines – in the mid- to late-1980s.  I often became, for obvious reasons, the liaison with American units when they were involved in bi-lateral training with the Italians (most often with my original service of the US Marines) while the US military was by then clothed in standard woodland pattern camouflage. 

Italian San Marco pattern of the 1980s

San Marco retained a version of the Italian camouflage that had a sort of slate bluish-grey in place of green, and a darker tan, and some US Marines remarked that it seemed an odd coloration to them.  But I soon found myself one cold pre-dawn morning sitting atop a high terrain elevation at Capo Teulada on the southwest coast of Sardinia, an Italian military training area that was also used for amphibious landings.  I was with a few US Marines as part of the Advance Force Operations (as the name implies, we were some of the folks who came in advance of the main attack), as we gazed down at the awesome sight of a joint US/Italian Amphibious Task Force sailing into the anchorage and conducting an assault across the beach, as the skies slowly became lucent.  I pointed out to the Americans how the Italian Marines quickly blended in quite effectively to the flora in the area, but the Americans looked like little bits of the Black Forest moving through the brush.  As I mentioned before in my previous post, the idea of a universal pattern is unfeasible (barring some new technique or system), and this recollection is one that first comes to mind, among other examples, when I think on the subject.  (The Italian military at the time was divided – well, they are Italians after all – about whether they were strictly limited to potential operations only within Italy, such as in the case of an attack across Europe by the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact, or whether they might actually be used for operations outside Italy.  In the meantime, their camouflage system worked well for their purposes.)

In the early 1990s, the Italians shifted to a variation of a woodland pattern for a period of some ten years or so, before shifting to the present Vegetato pattern, which at first glance would appear to be similar to the idea of CADPAT or MARPAT pixilation, but it is instead digitized at the borders of the color splotches, rather than pixilated, and is thus a somewhat simpler idea.  This design is becoming popular in a number of countries, such as a Chinese woodland version, and I look at it as one of the main basic variations used around the world.

Italian Vegetato

With the typical Italian flair for fashion, the San Marco and the COMSUBIN (Italian Naval Commandos, who have dressed in a traditional green which always brought to my mind British Racing Green) have opted for a different pattern for the field:

San Marco and COMSUBIN pattern 

As for the Germans and their uniforms, they were quite taken with their World War II experience of using the Italian camouflage, as well as their limited use of their own Splittertarn pattern and some designs used by the Waffen SS, such as the Platanenmuster.  (The Germans had previously experimented and introduced a lozenge-type camouflage on their aircraft toward the end of World War I.)  The Germans ended up with a variety of some ten or so small-issue experiments with camouflage toward the end of the war.


Platanenmuster (summer) 

After World War II, the new, reconstituted German army reverted to a variation on its historic feld-grau field uniforms, but their fondness for camouflage was slowly revived with trials held in the 1970s to select a new pattern for the Bundeswehr, which resulted in the popular Flecktarn pattern, another category of its own of basic camouflage design.  (They weren't able to actually introduce it for wide-spread use until the 1990s.)

German Flecktarn

The idea has been copied by several countries, including Japan and China (used in a Plateau or 'Tibet-tarn' design, for example).

Chinese 'Tibet-tarn' or Plateau pattern

A slight variation on the design, and a large variation in terms of color, is the Swiss Leibermuster introduced in the 1950s.  It struck me as somewhat startling for a camouflage pattern, with its stark red splotches, but it seemed to work well with the fallen leaves of the country.  The pattern was largely replaced in the 1990s by the same design using more woodland-type colors, though some Swiss units still retain it.

 Swiss Leibermuster

The British used a variation of woodland-colored camouflage with some units in World War II, particularly their parachute and commando troops, and the design continued with those units in their field smocks into the 1970s, but the British began to introduce the Disruptive Pattern Material (DPM) in the 1960s. 

British Disruptive Pattern Material (DPM)

This incorporates basic woodland colors but the design has a more slashing effect to it, as contrasted with the US woodland splotches, and has evolved through some small variations over the years.  Desert variations appeared in the 1980s with several desert-tone colors, but this was simplified to two colors by 1990 – just in time for Operation Desert Shield – because some Arab militaries, like Iraq, had picked up on the older version.  While I saw primarily the new simplified British version during the subsequent Operation Desert Storm, there were a few of the older examples on British troops in Saudi Arabia.  The DPM pattern has been widespread, particularly in Commonwealth countries.  Like the Americans, though, the British have picked up their own very similar version of MultiCam, called in their case the Multi-Terrain Pattern, for use in Afghanistan, as I discussed in my previous post.

One cannot address the topic of famous camouflage without including the classic French contribution of the 'Lizard' pattern.  Initially developed in 1947after the reconstitution of the French army, it was issued as a standard uniform pattern for elite troops in 1953, and made famous in America (at least to my mind) after the release of the classic movie Lost Command in 1966, dealing with a history of the French Paras in Indochina and Algeria, and based on the great novels The Centurions and the lesser-known The Praetorians by Jean Lartéguy.  (Both book and film were well respected among unconventional American military thinkers in the 1960s and 1970s, and has a resurgence now.  Unfortunately, both books have been out of print for years, though perhaps there is cause for hope.)  The design is based on shadow patterns in canopy jungle, a series of horizontal slashes of green and brown on a dungy khaki background.  (Yet even the French were slow to extend its use throughout other special units.  I worked with a variety of those units in the 1970s and 1980s, and they still used olive field uniforms.)  A variation is still in use by the French, after a good recent SOFREP article on the new Polish special forces unit AGAT (a Ranger-like complement to the better-known GROM) in jungle training in French Guyana shows their instructors clad in a lizard-pattern field uniform.

Original French Lizard pattern

The pattern became more well known later with the 'Tiger Stripe' pattern of the Vietnamese special units (particularly their Marines) and their US advisors.  Other countries to pick it up include the Portuguese starting with their colonial wars in Africa, Lebanon (though I wouldn’t call any of their units particularly special), Greece, Cuba (a grey version), and some Russian units (the Russians are seen sporting a variety of different camouflage types these days).

Vietnamese-style Tiger camouflage

Another distinctive design is from Australia, independently designed when the Australians dismissed the British DPM pattern as not adaptable to the area.  Their Disruptive Pattern Combat Uniform (DPCU) includes a nod to the US camouflage in use in the Pacific Theatre during World War II.  Aussie troops that I’ve worked with nicknamed it ‘frogskins’ or ‘jellybean’.  A later desert coloration (DPDU) in use in Afghanistan has been referred to as ‘hearts and bunnies’.  Due to complaints about this desert variant, the Australians have announced that they will also be using the MultiCam version by Crye Associates (as will the Polish units).

Australian Disruptive Pattern Combat Uniform (DPCU) pattern

Australian Disruptive Pattern Desert Uniform (DPDU)

As I said, this post is just my quick take on the groupings of different approaches to camouflage in the world militaries.  Take note, though, that the industry is becoming increasingly focused on new pixilated patterns that have been first introduced by Canada in its CADPAT (copied with their assistance by the US Marines in their MARPAT), but such corporations as Hyperstealth and Crye are producing a larger number of variants, concerned with concealment not just within the visual spectrum but infra-red as well, that can be fine-tuned and spot-produced to specific areas.

Update:  Congress attempts to make sense of the kaleidoscope of US combat uniforms, and MultiCam expands to other countries.


  1. A concise short history of camouflage. Well done.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. That was a nice display of the best camo pattern I have seen off lately. These are looking great. I think I will buy one of them as was looking for such pattern since long.


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