Capital Ship Paint Schemes of the Imperial German Navy in World War I

by Tom Tanner

One of the more difficult aspects of building models of German ships, especially those from World War I, is the lack of authoritative English language documentation on their outfit and color, and the difficulty finding foreign language books that may fill the gap. Luckily some e-mail inquiries of mine were answered by a model builder and historian in Germany named Peter Lienau, who suggested I get a copy of "German Warships 1815-1945 Volume I: Major Surface Vessels" by Erich Gröner and revised by Dieter Jung and Martin Maass. In a very methodical manner the book details the history and fates of all major German Navy combatants up to World War II and provides detailed, albeit small, drawings of most major vessels.

In response to a query I had on how to properly paint the SMS Hindenburg, Peter responded, "It's officially acknowledged that both, the Imperial High Seas Fleet (during WW1) and the Kriegsmarine (during WW2), were using the same colour schemes based on order of Apr-15-1896. So we can refer to a ‘Colour-Card' used by the Kriegsmarine-Shipyard Wilhelmshaven in 1944." Conveniently, a full color version of that chart is included in a book Peter sent me (autographed by the author!), "Anstriche und Tarnanstriche der deutschen Kriegsmarine," by Dieter Jung, Arno Abendroth, and Norbert Kelling, a very informative book on paint and camouflage schemes of the WWII German Kriegsmarine, it's only drawback is that it is written completely in German. But it more than makes up for that with detailed photos, some in color, of various WWII German ships, both combatant and merchant.

With the coming of war in 1914, heavy units of the German Navy were painted in a pattern adopted in 1896, referred to in Gröner's "German Warships" as "Colour Scheme No. 9". Used by most ships in home waters, it was based on the use of increasingly lighter shades of grey as you climbed from the waterline to the superstructure, with the hull below the waterline red-brown (referred to as Lfd. Nr. 5 on the above mentioned Colour-Card). The waterline on these capital ships was painted Anthracite Grey (Lfd. Nr. 1), and started at the lowest level of the armor belt (on battlecruisers this was about 2.4 meters (8 feet) below the designed waterline (or c.w.l.) and rose to a point 1.0 meter the c.w.l. This dark grey was also used for the inside areas of the Admiral's Bridge, Conning Tower, the Compass Platform, and on the decks of the superstructure if that area was covered by wooden gratings, while sheets of Linoleum covered various areas of other decks. The colour of the Linoleum was a reddish brown. Single "sheets" of Linoleum were fixed on the deck with 2" broad stripes of brass. The use onboard depends on the time of construction and the type. For example:

S.M.S. EMDEN (CL): foredeck and quarterdeck Linoleum, the lower deck amidship wooden.
S.M.S. BADEN (BB): Every horizontal area above the boatdeck (if not covered by gratings) and the platforms (if not perforated or covered by gratings).

The vertical hull area was painted Squirrel Grey (Lfd. Nr. 3), from the waterline up to the level of the main deck or main deck bulwark or forecastle outer edge, and the extension of this line in way of the enclosed main deck. For example, SMS Von der Tann, with it's raised forecastle, would have the superstructure aft of the break in the hull below the bridge painted this same grey if it stretched to the outer edge of the hull, up to the height of the forecastle. If the superstructure was recessed from the edge, then it was painted Silver Grey (Lfd. Nr. 4) like the rest of the superstructure.

Silver Grey was used on the vertical surfaces of the superstructure and funnels from the weather deck up into the mast-tops. It was also used at the horizontal edge of the main decks where the wooden decks ended and in the scuppers, and inside/outside of all masts, casings, ventilators, turrets and guns. As trim, a brown-beige (Lfd. Nr. 12) band 20 cm (8 inches) high was painted at the base of superstructure areas that bordered wooden decks. Funnel caps (if present) and parts of the masts were painted Jet Black (Lfd. Nr. 8).

This basic painting scheme was kept through out the war, but there are some details that help date photos of ships as being either pre-war, early-war, or late-war photos, and can help modelers place their replicas (along with hull/superstructure details) in specific periods. The main detail to look for is the color of the masts, aircraft indentification marks and after that the absence/presence of identification marks on the funnels.

Before the war, the Germans needed a method to distinguish specific vessels in the battle line. Since there might be two, three, four, or even five ships of the same class in the line, lack of a visual reference could become a problem during maneuvers. Thus the German Navy, like others, chose to paint horizontal stripes of either red or yellow on one or more funnels to distinguish individual ships, their squadron, and their place within the squadron. The designations (and number of stripes a ship may wear) changed as new ships were added and roles changed, but the use was continued during the war (more on that later).

Prior to the Battle of Jutland in May, 1916, the aft masts of German heavy units were painted Silver Grey up to a level equal to the funnel cap and from there up to the spotting top or crosstree/spreader the mast was Jet Black, with Silver Grey above that into the royals (extreme upper masts). After Jutland, the aft mast was painted completely Black, with the foremast painted Black from the level of the funnel cap up to a point 1.0 meter (3.3 feet) below the upper searchlight platforms.

During the war, it would appear from the photographs available of German ships that the practice of painting identifying stripes on the ships funnels had been abandoned. But appearances can be deceiving. In order to make life difficult for any Allied spies that may have worked out of the German fleet bases, the Germans forbid the use of identifying mark while within the sight of land - these marks were only applied after sailing and repainted over in grey before returning to port, and they were used only during major operations that may have resulted in engagements with the enemy, about 13 instances in all according to an essay by Dr. Rudolf Nagel in Schiff und Zeit #39 titled "Gefechtskennungen auf deutschen Kriegsschiffen im Ersten Weltkrieg" (Combat Engagement Identifiers on German Warships in the First World War) that serves as the basis for most of following material in this article. The most common identifier used was to paint the aftermost funnel either an almost pastel red or yellow-ochre, depending on the operation. For example, at Dogger Bank the battlecruisers kept their funnels grey while the escorting torpedo boats and cruisers painted their aft funnels red, while at Jutland all participating ships sported red on their aft funnels. One of the few examples showing this paint scheme is this detail showing SMS König at Jutland taken from a painting by Clause Bergen, a participant of the battle. Notice also the grey foremast while the mainmast is only grey to the level of the funnel cap.

Following Jutland, a test was performed with three ships of the Kaiser-class to see if, instead of the thin-skinned and vulnerable funnels, another part of the ship should be painted for identification purposes. The turrets were chosen because they were expected to survive more battle damage than the funnels. The first of the three ships was the SMS König Albert, whose forward (Anton) turret was painted Black on all sides and front glacis while the superimposed aft turret (Caesar) was painted White in the same areas. The same regions of SMS Kaiserin were painted in Red on Anton and in Yellow on Caesar, while SMS Prinzregent Luitpold's turrets were completely Squirrel Grey with Black crosses painted on the front, sides and back of Anton, Red crosses on Caesar. While these tests confirmed that Yellow and Red were the best choices for identification purposed, it was decided to continue painting the funnels instead of the turrets.

To allow German ships to be identified from the air, the tops of the main turrets and armoured conning tower were painted Jet Black. After identification problems were encountered during the occupation of the islands of Oesel and Dagö in October, 1917, distinctive White circles were painted on the uppermost turrets forward and aft on capital ships, (here Derfflinger sports an additional circle on her DORA turret) while smaller warships and merchant ships carried them on the forecastle and quarterdeck.

I hope some of you have found this material useful.


Axel Grießmer, "Große Kreuzer der kaiserlichen Marine," Bernard & Graefe Verlag, Bonn, 1996, ISBN 3-7637-5946-8 (in German)

Axel Grießmer, "Die Linienschiffe der kaiserlichen Marine," Bernard & Graefe Verlag, Bonn, 1999, ISBN 3-7637-5985-9 (in German)

Erich Gröner, Revised and Expanded by Dieter Jung and Martin Maass, "GERMAN WARSHIPS 1815-1945, Volume One: Major Surface Vessels," Naval Institute Press, 1989 ISBN 0-87021-790-9 (in English)

Dieter Jung, Arno Abendroth, and Norbert Kelling, "Anstriche und Tarnanstriche der deutschen Kriegsmarine," Bernard & Graefe Verlag, Bonn, 1997 ISBN 3-7637-5964-6 (in German)

Gerhard Koop, Klaus-Peter Schmolke, "Vom Original zum Modell: Die Großen Kreuzer Von der Tann, Moltke-Klasse, Seydlitz, Derfflinger-Klasse," Bernard & Graefe Verlag, Bonn, 1998 ISBN 3-7637-5673-5 (in German)

Peter Lienau, Numerous E-mails to the author

Dr. Rudolf Nagel: "Gefechtskennungen auf deutschen Kriegsschiffen im Ersten Weltkrieg," Schiff und Zeit, 39. Berlin (in German)

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Last Update on 04/04/2000.

This page © Copyright 2000, Thomas L. Tanner, Jr. unless otherwise noted.