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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 unnumbered.

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.
Absolute insanity.
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 Zeltbahns.


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.