SS "Plane Tree" Camouflage
Of all German camouflage, the "plane tree" patterns are the most
poorly understood. There are two main types of plane tree- numbered and
The most common and confusing are the numbered patterns. There
are three main patterns- 1/2, 3/4, and 5/6. Each is similar to the
others yet unique. Further muddling the waters, is the fact that each of
these three has two variations- "hand screened" and "overprint". Thus,
there are actually six numbered patterns- but in reality, there are
actually 12. What most collectors do not realize is that each plane tree
is comprised of two sets or screens- right and left. In typical German
fashion, there is actually a logical system in use, however asinine it
may be in practice.
Overview: In the 1930's, camouflage printing was in its infancy,
but was well developed. The German Army had been printing splinter
camouflage for several years, as had the Italians. The SS set up their
own research office for camouflage and they, as usual, came to different
conclusions than the army.
The SS team determined that discernable patterns were
undesirable. In roller printing, the design typical "repeats" itself at
regular intervals corresponding with the diameter of the roller. Roller
printing fabric looks very similar to printing newspapers. The most
common roller size was 18-19 inches. The team was concerned about the
Zeltbahns which are 185-190cm (about 72 inches) tall. Thus, any roller
printed pattern would "repeat" twice. They decided that the human eye
would be able to detect this anomaly.
The solution, was as ingenious as it was impractical. They used
the more labor intensive method of printing- hand screening. It's just
what it sounds like. Huge silk screens. The SS devised a pattern that is
approximately 55 x 72 inches. There are 3 screens (a fourth color is
the result of 2 screens overlapping). The "plane tree" patterns
incorporate the actual cutting lines for the zeltbahn within the pattern
itself. The base of and diagonal edges of the zeltbahn is indicated by
staggered blocks of the black. There are also crosses at several points-
these are to help align the fabric with the silk screens when it's on
the printing table. The numbers are at opposite corners- each repeat has
a 1-2, 3-4 or 5-6.
A Zeltbahn that was assembled "correctly" is cut along these guide
lines. The right and left panels should have matching numbers- 1-1, 2-2
and so forth.
The 1-2 pattern for the right side green. This pattern is also found on the right side brown panel.
This zelt was cut off register, thus showing the cut blocks at the base.
The photos: I used 3 original
zelts. Two overprint and one hand screen. One of the overprints was cut
too low (on the pattern) which exposes the cut blocks and the beginning
of the next repeat (see the 1 in the lower right corner.) The black
design remains the same on both hand screened and overprint.
Left and Right: What few people realize (I
didn't until we went to cut fabric to make zelts) is that one of these
"repeats" makes only one side. Two rights or two lefts. You cannot cut a
left and a right from one repeat.
"Properly" constructed plane tree zelts must be made from two different rolls of fabric.
This may cause a migraine: For example, there is a 1 right and 2 right.
If you have a zelt with both numbers (1-2, 3-4, or 5-6) then you can
see the entire pattern by using photoshop or cutting the zelt in half...
Essentially, the printer probably had two printing tables- one
running "right" screens and one running "left". Or, they printed the
green right side, changed inks, printed brown left on another roll, then
inverted the process. So, each plane tree (say 1-2) is made up of
two sets of screens.
Why are there three main plane trees? I suspect in an effort to
increase the randomness of the pattern and further avoid discernible
patterns, as ludicrous as it sounds.
Overprint: Originally, all three colors were
hand screened- a very slow and laborious process which was criminally
insane during an all-out War. This was reduced by 2/3's by hand
screening only the black. Then the brown and green (or light brown &
brown) oak leaf screens were used to overprint the black via roller.
Variations in the pattern: If you compare two
SS camouflage of the same pattern, small variations of the size of the
dots, edges of the "blobs" are apparent. This is due to the screens
being hand cut in WWII. Whether roller or hand screen, they were made in
the same way. The printer drew the pattern on an adhesive film, then
cut it out with a knife. The film was then bonded onto a fine mesh, thus
creating the screen (a large stencil). Screens wear out after so much
use and some shops likely had multiples. This also accounts for the
variations in dot size on "44 dot". One guy cut outside the lines,
another cut inside and so forth.
Collecting application: This information can help identify both originals and fakes, as well as explain the peculiarities of many authentic pieces.
The numbers: There is more confusion and
obsession with the numbers on plane tree than anything else. As the war
went on, cutting system for zeltbahns was disregarded and the fabric
was cut randomly. It's entirely possible to get a plane tree zelt with
no numbers or with oddly angled diagonal blocks- especially when a roll
of "right side" fabric was cut for left panels. I have repeatedly seen
people on forums poo-poo authentic zelts due to a lack of numbers or
declare them some hitherto unknown and rare design. There are plane tree
patterns without numbers, but in every case I've seen it was simply a
zelt whose panels were cut "incorrectly".
Printing Variations: Since
silk screens were hand cut in WWII (and probably for the next 50
years), the same pattern will vary slightly. To make them, the pattern
was draw on an adhesive film, and then it was cut out with a knife. This
created a stencil which was then bonded to a fine mesh to make the
screen. Screens wear out after so much use, or some nitwit forgets to
wash the ink off which dries out and ruins the mesh, etc, etc..
Thus, even two apparently identical items, same maker and year,
will show minor differences in the pattern if you lay them right next to
each other and compare point to point. They tend to be 85-95%
identical, but some spots are bigger or smaller, a few may be missing
and the cut blocks sometimes aren't staggered very much. Roller patterns
are the same way. This is also why 44 dot has "big & small" dots.
Different screens cut by different hands at different times.
Also, the ink was sometimes thinned more causing more bleed- ie:
fatter numbers softer edges on the blobs and so forth. Like the top
zelt in the pic below.
Who cares? From time to time I have seen people stress out after
they compare the same points in the pattern on a zeltbahn and a helmet
cover or cap and notice that the numbers (or blobs, spots, etc) are not
100% identical to one another.
This is to show you that they could both still be real- or both be fake or any combination thereof.
As usual, a picture is the best demo:
Smocks: Smocks cannot have numbers on their
bodies! As you can see from the photo, the numbers are at the edges of
the pattern. These can only land on the elbows or small parts cut later
(cuffs, pocket flaps, plackets etc).
Un-numbered Plane Tree: In typically clever
German fashion, the SS initially developed separate patterns for smocks.
These lacked the numbers as there was no reason for them- the smocks
had no center seam and wear not going to be combined with other smocks
necessitating an interlocking pattern. Only recently, I was examining my
smock in the "unknown planetree" (actually not true..) and found that
the this pattern repeats every 32 inches. Guess what is 32 inches? The
height of the front or back of a smock. Thus, no one will be able to
pick out the repeat of spots on a smock that is being worn.
The unnumbered patterns consist the afore mentioned "unknown",
lateral variant and polyspot. Polyspot appears to be the same.
I believe the intend was that they (as well as palm) were to be
exclusively used for garments, and planetree was to be used for
Helmet Cover and Camo Caps: The most popular fable is
that headgear was made from "scraps". Unlikely. When a zelt or smock is
cut, there is very little waste. Not enough to make much aside from some
rocker spring covers or visors. I know this first hand from making
smocks & zelts. In most cases, these items were made like everything
else- mass produced, and cut en-masse.
A smock is cut from a block of fabric
approximately 66" x 55". The only "waste" is in the corners- and this
barely yields the arms, cuffs, pocket flaps and placket.