Australian Army Vehicles and Camouflage in WWII
A very interesting photo of a 1939 Ford 30 cwt Lorry taken from a 1942 camouflage publication. It is one of the few colour photos known to exist of Australian camouflage of the period. Note how the this colour blends in with the brickwork of the building in the background. The sand and khaki green are the more typical of the camouflage colours on Australian vehicles during WW2
This article was written by Laurence A. Wright, who was astute enough as a teenager during the Second World War to make notes on all his vehicle spottings around the Sydney area. He followed this interest even during his Army service, and has a depth of knowledge of Australian military vehicle development which is second to none. His interest has spanned more than 60 years.
This article is not about what the camouflage instructions said, or a list of
dates and references to various vehicle camouflage pamphlets of WW2. It’s about
how vehicle camouflage actually was in those days, by a person who was rather
interested in the passing vehicle scene, at that time. I have to say that if
people think all the various camouflage instructions applying to the painting of
vehicles were faithfully carried out by all units in Australia they are
During WW2 a number of instructions appeared in one form or another concerning the camouflage painting of vehicles. Some of this material is preserved in the Australian War Memorial library and is well worth a look. However, this material should be looked at in the light of what was intended, but not necessarily how everything turned out. Even a quick look at vehicle photographs on the Australian War Memorial website (www.awm.gov.au), will show that things quite often weren’t “according to the book”.
Instructions that are issued by a headquarters sometimes take time to reach to the lower levels. Sometimes there is a hitch of some sort somewhere along the line and the message doesn’t reach everybody concerned. Sometimes there was a shortage of suitable paint for the job. Sometimes perhaps some misunderstanding. Sometimes maybe a lack of enthusiasm. Maybe someone had different ideas. It was always understood too, that circumstances could alter cases.
Pre-WW2 army vehicles were generally painted gloss defence green, often with black mudguards. As WW2 began, new vehicles were painted khaki-green. During this particular period, there appeared to be some problem with the colour of roadster cab tops and body canopies. These appeared in shades that varied between dark khaki and a light mustard colour.
An Australian-built Machine Gun Carrier Aust No.2A in a single green colour. The number plate is one of the “C” (Commonwealth) plates, with red C and black numbers. The driver wears the two piece Australian AFV Suit with tan boots.
Vehicles taken to the Middle East in early days were khaki-green, but also a
few may have gone in defence green, owing to some ex-Militia vehicles being
taken to make up a quota. There was a bit of dabbling with vehicle camouflage in
Australia, but until Japan entered the war, they were generally defence green or
( Editor’s note: Pre –WW2 the Australian Army had only a very small Permanent Force, a vast majority of available forces being of the part-time Militia. The Militia was restricted from serving outside Australian territories. When war was declared, a special force for overseas service had to be raised – the Second Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF). This force was all volunteer in nature, and comprised personnel from the Permanent Force, the Militia and volunteers off the street. Vehicles were allocated in Australia to either the AIF or Militia, and were painted and numbered accordingly, using two different registration number series.)
Eventually, vehicles destined for the AIF in the Middle East were turned out here in sand colour. Australian sand colour seemed slightly more yellow than British sand colour. AIF vehicles overseas used local camouflage patterns, which varied according to where and when, but basically they were to British ideas. Vehicles for the 8th Division arrived in Malaya usually in khaki green, although it seems some did arrive in sand colour and drove around in that colour for a short while. A local camouflage appears to have been applied to most AIF vehicles in Malaya.
This is a 1940 Chevrolet 30-cwt GS somewhere in the southern half of Australia during a training exercise. I would say latter part of 1941. It is in sand colour and as it has a C- plate, I would say it had expectations of going to the Middle East as an AIF vehicle, but didn't. It is possible that some C-plated vehicles that were handy were grabbed to fill a ship and were then replaced from AIF stocks-to-be. Original from a magazine of the time.
It was possible to see sand coloured vehicles with units in Australia. Some of these were with AIF units in training, and some appear to have been left as a swap for a Militia vehicle taken for the AIF. After December 1941, Militia units not already on full-time duty were mobilised and all units wanted vehicles. Many of the vehicles issued out to units at this time had been earmarked as AIF and were in sand colour. So for a while it was common to see vehicles painted sand colour running around the local scene. It was assumed by some people at the time, that the sand colour was camouflage for the units that were protecting the local beach areas! These vehicles eventually received new camouflage by the unit, often a disruptive pattern of khaki green added to the sand. In later years, sometimes when a canopy was removed from a truck, the canopy frame could be seen, still in sand colour.
When camouflage became the order of the day in Australia most vehicles were in unit hands, so it was the unit personnel who had to do the work. Some units were quick off the mark, whereas others were quite slow, some still at it in August 1942. Possibly the great rush on Ordnance for paint, brushes and rags, took some time to fulfil.
In early 1942, it was not unusual to see an army vehicle proceeding on
business with a camouflage outline drawn on the body in chalk. The driver, I
presume, was waiting for paint or for time to paint it. Of course by that time
vehicles were coming out of manufacturing plants already camouflaged and were
fairly standard, but at that stage appear to have been in two colours only.
Some camouflage seemed to fade quickly and some became rather patchy. Around that time of course, paint was in great demand. Some more turps (mineral turpentine) added to the paint made the paint go further, but of course made it thinner. Matt paint, at least in those days, faded a lot faster than gloss and stained more. 1942 was a mad-rush period and quantity was very important. Perhaps the quality of some paints may have suffered under the strain. The Australian sun is a great destroyer of paint, so perhaps a number of these factors were the reason that many vehicles had rather daggy paintwork. Possibly this actually gave the vehicles a better camouflage effect.
I would say that most of the vehicles camouflaged by units were in two colours only; a dark sandy yellow and the original khaki-green. It was common for units to add sand to the paint to give it a rougher finish. The amount of sand added to the paint varied, maybe according to the size of the painter’s hand. Canvas seems to have been a bit of a problem in that when painted, it generally showed a different shade to the rest of the vehicle.
|A Chevrolet Lorry 30 cwt GS (Aust) 1941 with 134 inch wheelbase sometime in 1943. Two-colour khaki-green and sandy yellow camouflage. Note the variation of the camouflage colours on the canopy. The vehicle belonged to 117 AGT (Australian General Transport) Company at Kensington pony track, later site of University of Technology /University of New South Wales.|
As AIF units began arriving back from the Middle East beginning in early 1942, their vehicles could be seen in various overseas colours. Sand in various shades; presumably sun affected, some light greens, browns and greys. Vehicles from refugee ships cargo were often still in “foreign” colours; mostly British khaki shades and what looked to be black, but mare have been a very dark green. Some of these vehicles ran around in these colours for a long time. Some were eventually sold at “disposals” still in these colours, having sat for a long time in the latter part of the war in ordnance vehicle parks.
Around the Sydney area in late 1942 and early 1943, it was possible to see much variation in vehicle colours, and shades, even in the same unit. For example, a searchlight unit in Sydney suburb of Willoughby, had most vehicles in khaki green and sandy yellow camouflage, a 1939 Chevrolet 30-cwt still in defence green, and an ex-refugee British Army Thornycroft Searchlight Lorry in British camouflage of a medium shade of khaki and a colour that appeared to be faded black. A field artillery regiment at Pymble had a third colour that looked to be dull red metal primer. The Austin Ambulances owned by 2nd Ambulance Car Company were British khaki. A tent colouration unit at Willoughby had a commercial dropsides utility that was almost a chocolate colour. Canteens Service had a Ford Sedan with all the right army signs, but was gloss black. A workshop unit at Waitara had a Chevrolet 1-tonner camouflaged green and what looked like silver frost!
Camouflage colours are somewhat difficult to identify exactly by official name. In print, one sees mention of Sydney Sandstone, Light Earth, Dark Earth, Darwin Stone, Khaki-Green No3, Vehicle Brown, Dark Green, Vehicle Grey, and so on. The name often doesn’t seem to fit its appearance. A colour with the name of “green”, may have had the appearance of mud. The names and diagrams shown in army publications do seem to fit the camouflage on some later vehicles, but I feel that as some vehicles were being turned out according to the latest in camouflage, camouflage painting of vehicles was on the way out.
An example of instructions issued to units is shown in this example. On 16 June 1942, the Camp Commandant, Point Walter Camp, mentioned in his Routine Orders -
“Disruptive painting of vehicles – Attention is drawn to the practice of painting vehicles in two colours only, relying on the original lemon portion of the canvas hood as the third colour. This colour is too light to give effective camouflage under West Australian conditions. The following camouflage colours are recommended as an extremely effective combination - Dark Green (M), Khaki Green (J), Light Earth (W). Action will be taken to complete the painting of vehicles as above immediately."
Note that this message started off as a recommendation and finished up as an
order! One could also mention the West Australian early three colour schemes,
some vehicles with the light greens and a touch of Orange, the ex-Middle East
with “sand” that was almost white.
From late 1943, vehicle camouflage began to be not that important and most in the army appear to have lost interest in it to a large extent. Vehicles after reconditioning appear to have received a one-colour repaint. Also, units repainting their vehicles generally didn’t bother with camouflage but painted them all over in whatever variety of green they still had or received. It was not unusual late WW2 to see another colour or camouflage painting, starting to show through an over-paint. This often gave a piebald effect to a vehicle. A vehicle often received a replacement canopy cover that was either in camouflage, or in some cases, brand new and almost a mustard coloured khaki.
From 1943 I used to occasionally study the vehicles sitting in 3 Ordnance Vehicle Park at Ryde. There was a great variety of colours to be seen on vehicles in there. Occasionally one or more ex-Middle East, still in sand colour, were seen. Some were still this colour when sold by the Disposals Commission late in the war and after the war.
In later years some vehicles did come from the assembly lines in three colours, but I think they were all Dodge and International from my sightings. Maybe Ford and General Motors with their original orders were still churning out two colours and Dodge and International because of later orders were following the new “official” three-colour look. The mind boggles!
It is obvious that despite the best intentions of those who brought out vehicle camouflage diagrams even as late as 1944, that for most people, camouflage painting was as dead as the Dodo. If it was on it stayed on until the vehicle was repainted. If it wasn’t camouflaged nobody cared. It was common by that time in Sydney to see cars and 12-cwt utilities with a chrome grille, front bumper and trim. It can be seen in photographs, even on some vehicles in New Guinea.
|A Staghound Armoured Car undergoing tests. It appears as though all armoured vehicles tested in Australia had to push down a tree – even though this one seems to have stopped the Staghound. This vehicle is finished in a sand and khaki green two colour finish. Staghounds retained their seven digit USA number throughout their service in Australia (the last were retired in about 1968).|
I think that the introduction of eggshell finish as a replacement for matt paint helped to show that camouflage for vehicles was not that important. This paint came up to a good shine with the application of some kero or other available polishing agent and many were the cars and utilities around the cities that received a shine to their camouflage this way!
Although a bit of an aside from camouflage, but was shown about the same respect, the colour of General Officers’ cars is worth a quick look. According to the “good book”, cars of General Officers were to be coloured black and carry a Commonwealth number plate front and rear. You won’t find many that complied with this instruction, in colour or number plate. Most in fact clung to their AIF plates, and cars were anything from white to grey to camouflaged to two-tone.
I end this article with extracts from a unit War Diary that concerned the earnest efforts of a young officer to see that the good word was spread to those he thought would be very interested in the subject of vehicle camouflage.
11 May 1943 - the Officer Commanding of 1 Division Camouflage Unit contacted SOE II, 2 Aust Army, to obtain correct camouflage colours for 2 Aust Army. They were: Gas Resisting Paint, Vehicle Green 865-003 and Vehicle Light Grey 865-002.
15 May 1943 he reported that, “ 1 Aust Division is using wrong colours and wrong quality to camouflage vehicles. The correct colours are….” (the aforementioned colours).
24 June 1943, he says that he has prepared colour boards for painting of Motor Transport as laid down in 1 Division Circular No. G4008. Colours are Dark Grey, Dark Green and Medium Green. Medium Green is obtained by mixing 50-50 Dark Grey and Dark Green.
8 June 1943, he says, “Commenced painting one vehicle in new camouflage colours.”
Well, I think he was pushing it uphill somewhat, but he was only doing his job. Unfortunately I suppose, he just didn’t have the rank necessary to make people jump.
|A Chevrolet Lorry 3 ton GS (Aust) in Australia sometime 1941. The Lorry carries an AIF registration plate - white numbers on a black background. The L is not visible, being in red. The Driver is wearing Khaki Drill and brown shoes, so the lorry would be a dark khaki, maybe similar to winter Service Dress. The driver went as AASC to Malaya and became POW. The truck remained in Australia and was reallocated a C number. (Chev40.jpg)|
|A Chevrolet Van 12-cwt GS (Aust) in the Middle East, presume sometime 1941. British camouflage of fan-shaped sand and blue (usually a grey-blue and a darker blue). Good example of how we in Australia followed the British style in the Middle East. (Chev12cwt.jpg)|
|An AEC Matador at the Mechanisation Experimental Establishment. This vehicle, still carrying Middle East camouflage and signs is being trialled. Note the mixture of a service dress (winter) jacket and khaki drill trousers on the fellow standing next to the truck. (Matador.jpg)|
|A Ford 1 ton Utility in single colour camouflage in Australia around 1944. This dark colour has been painted over a two colour pattern, which still shows though on the mudguard and canopy. The number on the bonnet is in one of the many styles seen, this time having a dash between the second and third digits. (1ton44.jpg)|
|A Chevrolet Staff Car in two colour camouflage in 1944, The two colours appear to be quite dark. The vehicle carries a bridge classification sign of 2 (Black on yellow) and chrome|
Article Text and Photographs
Copyright © 2001 by Laurie Wright
Page Created 04 November, 2001
Last Updated 03 November, 2001
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