VVS Art Deco :  Oddities of Camouflage 1934-41
Part III
The Polikarpov R-5

During the latter half of the 1930's an explosion of curious paint schemes began to appear on Soviet military aircraft, some experimental, but many on operational machines. This series of articles will seek to profile some of the more extraordinary examples of these remarkable colorations, and where possible to detail the particulars of their use. It should be stressed that these color schemes are not at all typical and do not represent standard VVS practices, and should be applied by modelers only in the specific cases as described.

The R-5 Light Bomber

Nikolai Polikarpov's name is usually associated with high performance fighter aircraft of the 1930's. Indeed, he was responsible for many outstanding fighter designs. However, this perception is flawed, in that Polikarpov and his Bureau designed a host of successful types of aircraft, and none more outstanding and widely employed than the R-5 biplane. The R-5 was conceived as a Light Bomber, Liaison, and general utility machine for the Army, with secondary roles in training, reconnaissance, artillery spotting, and light transportation. In fact, the R-5 served brilliantly in all of these capacities, and further still in ways never imagined by Polikarpov's design team.

Series manufacture of the R-5 began at the end of 1929 as one of the primary production efforts of Zavod 1 in Moscow. Orders for the type were very large, and not until 1931 was production able to meet these requirements fully. By 1934 the R-5 was in very wide-spread service, both with the Army and in numerous civilian roles, and indeed civil orders were so numerous that at times non-military deliveries were seriously at odds with the fulfillment of military contracts. Between 1930-35 no fewer than 4,914 R-5s of all types were delivered; some sources have suggested a number even in excess of this. The popularity of the R-5 is clearly manifest in these figures.

Fine Grained Camouflage

During 1936 a series of camouflage experiments were directed at the ubiquitous R-5. These experiments are detailed in the Russian State Military Archive (RGVA) in fond 24708, and were outstandingly explained and published in M-Hobby magazine issue 9/97. We will not seek to replicate the work of authors Vakhlamov and Orlov here; rather, we wish to add to the work already published by them.

The first of these camouflage ideas, which was extremely bold, sought to employ a "pixellated" colouration to obscure the target. This technique was dubbed "melkopyatnistaya okraska", or 'small-spotted finish'. The idea, surprisingly, was not previously unknown. Indeed, in 1917 a type of colouration like this was seen on a Royal Navy trawler (I believe this was HMS Stalwart), one of the various examples of 'Dazzle Camouflage' which were famous from the First World War. The application of this scheme was in the form of small, sprayed 'dots'. Some of the examples in the photographic record in the RGVA seem also to have 'blotches', looking more like they had been applied with a sponge.

All images origianlly appeared in M-Hobby 9/97, and credit is due to that source.
melkopyatnistaya okraska Var.1 at the NIIIT this example shows "splotching" instead of 'sprayed' dots

The M-Hobby authors explained in detail the appearance of these colours through the descriptions in the fond 24708 material (which is sizeable). Having reviewed this material, and looking to further records, it occurs that an identification can indeed be made of the relevant aviation finishes used in these experiments.

'Colouration Experiments Are Us'

During 1935 and 1936 the NIIIT (RKKA) was very hard at work developing aircraft camouflage schemes. This organization, the Nauchno-Ispitatel'nim Institutom Ingeneroy Tekhniki RKKA (Scientific-Test Institute of Technical Engineering of the Red Army), was not previously known for work of this kind, and so their sudden participation in aircraft camouflage is inexplicable. In the fond 24708 material, it seems clear that the NIIIT was acting at the behest of VIAM (All-Union Institute for Aviation Materials), and much of the paperwork that passed between them seems to have been in the form of instructions from VIAM to the NIIIT.

What stands out in particular in these documents is that the NIIIT was in no way concerned with the development of aviation lacquers. That is to say, they were not concerned with the properties of the protective finishes and aviation dopes they employed; their goal simply was to devise suitable colouration. This kind of novel approach was very unusual, to say the least, and so far as can be seen it was never employed again. All organizations henceforth that developed maskirovka  (whether it was GUAP, NII VVS, VIAM, NKAP, UVVS, or others) were always fundamentally interested in the lacquers' properties and chemistry as well as the colouration. With such a free hand to experiment, it is not surprising that the NIIIT schemes were so bold and unique.

This arrangement also explains why the NIIIT was not very familiar with the lacquers they were using. In some cases, the staff mixed their own colours; this is quite clear in the archival material. But, in many cases VIAM supplied the NIIIT with lacquers for these experiments, often following requests for specific colours. And herein lies the discovery-- VIAM was supplying the NIIIT with batches of its brand new and latest aviation finishes: AII. AII aerolak was developed during the 1934-35 time-frame, probably with a view to both improve the chemical properties of aircraft protective finishes, and also to rationalize a system of aircraft finish that was absurdly confused. During the 1920s and early 1930s, the situation was rather that aircraft painting was conducted almost on a 'per factory' basis (meaning that Factory 23 might use lacquer "A" and "B", whilst Factory 21 might use lacquers "X", "Y", and "Z"), and we know at Zavod 1 in Moscow on a per manufacturing programme basis. The first variants of AII had just entered mass production in Moscow (Zavod 30) in early 1936, and indeed this is exactly what the NIIIT was getting for this work.

Variant No.1


In Variant No.1, five described colours were used to make up the melkopyatnistaya okraska : "Dark-Green-Black" (with the note, 'almost black'), "Green", "Light Green", "Yellow-Green" and "Brown".

The spotted scheme was applied over a typical military livery for the R-5. Zavod 1 mentions specifically the lacquer used for most military R-5 production in their records, this a single-colour scheme consisting of Protective Finish "3B" on the upper surfaces. It is likely that AEh-4 Blue was employed on the lower surfaces. The painting of the engine cowling pieces appears to have been almost random--some being painted, and others being left in unfinished metal sheet--at least until the middle of 1934, when painted units appeared to become slightly more common.

The description of the colours by the NIIIT staff is fascinating, also helps to identify the lacquers in use. It most interesting to see the NIIIT personnel describe, for example, their Black finish as "very dark green-black". There is almost always a note following this stating, 'well, actually black, in fact'. This is precisely the same description given of AII Black in Factory Production records, where the term "black-green" is used frequently. It is clear that AII Black must have had a slightly 'greenish' tint when wet (i.e. in the can), only to dry to the proper colour (black) when cured.

For the Variant No.1 scheme, it is clear that the known varnishes used were AII Green ("green"), AII Black ("dark-green-black"), and AII Brown ("brown"). The mysterious colours are the "light green" and "yellow green" shades. These paints looks to have been mixed by the NIIIT, themselves, after no suitable lacquer was supplied by VIAM. It is therefore impossible to know exactly what they looked like; the colours shown in the above profile are merely an estimation based on a comparison with the other known colours. It is possible, as certain papers in the fond material suggest, that "yellow-green" might be an Army paint known as "4B". This finish was the precursor to the famous Army "4BO" finish used so widely during the GPW.

Variant No.2


The Variant No.2 scheme also employed five colours, and in a slightly different pattern. Here the description is given as consisting of colours: "Dark-Green-Black" (with the note, 'almost black'), "Green", "Light Green", "Light Brown", and "Brown". The use of AII lacquers is again manifest-- AII Green, Black, Light Brown, and Brown. Presumably, the "light green" shade is the very same paint used with the Variant No.1 application.

It is very difficult to say, precisely, how many aircraft were finished with these schemes. From the photographs accompanying the fond 24708 material it seems that there are at least five distinct examples, and possibly as many as eight. The written evidence would tend to suggest a number even higher than this. What is quite specifically clear is that at least one example was taken by VIAM and shown to a host of testing organizations, including the NII VVS (who commented on the maskirovka). One example also was obtained by the LII, and this aircraft was flown to various locations (this is the example, no doubt, referred to by Kokkinaki during his time at Baku) for evaluation. As is evident, these examples were fairly widely demonstrated at the time.

Into Service?

The fact that a number of VVS pilots and institutions would have seen these examples of melkopyatnistaya okraska makes the following question very difficult to answer: were these schemes used by operational units of the VVS? Well, there are at least two photographs which are quite tantalizing as regards this possibility.

A photograph exists within the collection of the (late) Gosudarstvenniy Musey Aviatsii, at the Park Pobedi exhibit, showing an R-5 of the 657 LBAP on the Leningrad Front during the autumn of 1941. The photo is (or, was) object reference number "208/118-zh", and was displayed in the hall describing the military aspects of the defense of Leningrad. What the photograph shows us, to the best of my abilities to recreate, is seen in the following profile.

The photograph caption's identification seems to be quite authentic. The 657 LBAP was indeed serving around Leningrad at this time, and they were equipped with the R-5. I suspect that the date and timing details are entirely correct. The aircraft in the photo was armed, and seemed to be somewhat weathered (as if in service). It is true that no tactical number can be seen on the machine, but this condition is not especially unusual.

The scheme on the aircraft is, beyond doubt, comprised of dots of colour. Looking to the picture again, I think that what we see is, in fact, an example (or near copy) of melkopyatnistaya okraska Variant No.2. If this is so, it raises a profound number of questions about this camouflage. How many R-5s were finished in this way? How many of these were in service with the VVS? Did units replicate this finish themselves? If so, how? The appearance of the machine in 208/118-zh is absolutely in agreement with the photographs in the fond 24708 material, and shot using the same film type, as well. To my own mind, it seems the most reasonable conclusion that these facts are not a mere coincidence.

Further Influence

The effect of these experiements probably reached quite a bit further than the various testing fraternities. It seems pretty likely that one example was seen as far south as Baku; presumably it could have travelled further. Be that as it may, it is therefore all the more fascinating to examine another photograph showing an intringuing R-5. Here we turn our attention to a photo in the TsAMO fond 29 collection, item No. 179/7a. The aircraft in question is an R-5T (torpedo) version, and it is very unusually camouflaged.

The photograph caption is extensive, and continues on a piece of separate paper in handwriting (item #179/7b). This information states that this aircraft was operational in 1940 with an independent Naval bomber eskadrilya (OBAE) at Sevastopol. It goes on to describe that this aircraft was lost whilst attacking enemy shipping during the heroic defense of that city-fortress. Furthermore, the caption states that the aircraft was in service previously in the Far East against the Japanese.

All of the items in the caption's lengthy description seem entirely genuine. Indeed, there are a number of R-5s which were recorded and photographed in action during the defense of Sevastopol. Some of these photos have appeared in archival series of pictures depicting aircraft which belonged to the 33 OBAE. This unit did indeed operate in the Far East during the Khalkin Gol battles against the Japanese, and indeed also included a number of DB-3T torpedo bombers amongst its compliment.

These details are significant, because they might lead to an explanation of the colouration of this R-5. In the Khalkin Gol conflict, the use of aviation lacquer AEh-9 Grey on various VVS aircraft participating in that campaign is now well documented. Several I-153s used this colour in a disruptive application very much like this example. Had this R-5 served in that theater, this appearance of AEh-9 would be entirely predictable.

"Red 3" looks to have been finished at the time of manufacture with a common 3B over AEh-4 livery, this time with an unpainted cowl. The exact colouration of this example is a mystery. However, in my view the best evidence-- both the appearance of the image, and also the clues offered by the caption material-- would suggest that the light areas of the scheme are indeed AEh-9 Grey. Similar areas of AII Black have been applied also, forming a disruptive scheme. But, these applications have been further embellished by what looks to my eye to be a form of melkopyatnistaya okraska. The spotted pattern over the rear fuselage certainly looks like the NIIIT experiments, and also looks to have been completed in AII Brown. Coincidence or influence? That is the intriguing question. It is very disappointing that the wing upper surfaces are not in view in the photograph.

Other Ideas From the NIIIT

The work of the NIIIT with regards to the R-5 were not limited only to striking examples of melkopyatnistaya okraska. In fact, very conventional three- and four-colour schemes were examined by them. Of these, one scheme was illustrated in detail in the fond 24708 material.

The scheme here was described as "Light Brown" and "Dark-Green-Black" (with the note, 'almost black') over the factory colouration. Certainly the lacquers in use were AII Black and Light Brown. Though the form of this application was quite delightful, no further example of this pattern seems to have been completed, and no permutations of this colouration were examined by VIAM. Essentially, nothing more came of this one.

Still, it is most intriguing to wonder what influence this specific maskirovka might have had on other programmes? Students of VVS colouration will immediately recognize a clear similarity between this scheme and several worn by the U-2/Po-2, even down to the shape of the pattern. Moreover, the Il-4 used similar colours in a three-lacquer scheme (AII Green/Light Brown/Black), as did the Pe-2, the Li-2, and the Yak-4, just for starters. The long-term effect of these NIIIT investigations might actually have prefaced an entire genre of three-colour camouflage within the VVS during the years of the GPW. And that, no doubt, is extraordinary indeed.