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The History of Invasion Stripes

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Used extensively for the first time on Allied aircraft during D-Day, black and white invasion stripes were designed to aid identification of friendly aircraft in the air and on the ground. This article explains the background to these markings and some of the early ideas tested by the Allies and their use on D-Day. Also find out about Swiss Air Force neutrality bands and the red and white stripes painted on Fw 190Ds by the Luftwaffe's Jagdverband 44 (Platzschutzstaffel).

Early Ideas

Spitfire with white stripes intended for use during Operation Rutter

During 1942 there was pressure for a second front to be opened to help take the pressure off the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Whilst unable to launch a full scale invasion the go ahead was given on the 4th April 1942 for plans to be drawn up for a raid on Dieppe in Northern France. With so many aircraft involved, and the expected Luftwaffe response, the need for quick identification would be crucial. This would see the Supermarine Spitfires taking part painted with white stripes on the front of the aircraft to just before the cockpit and on the tail fin.

'Operation Rutter', as it was known, was scheduled to take place on the 7th July 1942, but with a Luftwaffe bombing raid taking place shortly before this date on the raiding force the element of surprise was lost. The following month on the 19th August and now known as 'Operation Jubilee' the Dieppe raid took place.

The Origins of Invasion Stripes

Starting on the 9th July 1943 'Operation Husky', the Allied invasion of Sicily, began. As part of the invasion force 144 Douglas Dakotas carry paratroopers flew in at just 400 feet over the invasion fleet and beaches, who were briefed that this airborne drop was happening. On the ground the American forces had been coming under sustained attacks from the air and as the Dakotas past overhead the first two formations made successful drops. Tragedy would then strike as one gunner opened fire on the aircraft, this would have the unfortunate consequence of all shore troops and offshore ships also opening fire on the aircraft. The aftermath of this was 23 Dakotas shot down with 37 damaged, 83 people died whilst 318 were injured.

With the invasion of Europe planned for June next year, codenamed 'Operation Overlord' but more commonly known as D-Day, a solution was needed to avoid a repeat incident. One idea considered to solve the problem of identifying friendly or enemy aircraft was already fitted to a large number of aircraft, the friend or foe (IFF) transponder. This would be a non-starter as due to the sheer amount of aircraft that would take part in the invasion the system would be unable to cope. In the end the solution used would be low tech.

'Operation Starkey' Identification Stripes

Westland Whirlwind with Operation Starkey identification stripes

This was a fake invasion operation carried out by the Allies between the 16th August 1943 and the 9th September 1943 with one of its aim to entice the Luftwaffe into combat in large numbers. To aid identification of friendly aircraft two black and two white stripes were normally painted onto the lower and upper wings of the aircraft, for fighters these would measure 18 inches and for bombers 24 inches. Some aircraft had the edge of the wing painted black, covering the Royal Air Force roundel, as well as the nose painted white.

The idea to paint, as means of identification, black and white stripes on aircraft wasn't a completely new idea as when the Hawker Typhoon entered service on the 11th September 1941 they resembled the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 when viewed from certain angles leading to a few 'friendly fire' incidents. This would see black and white stripes being painted under the wings only.

Invasion Stripes During D-Day

D-Day would see the idea expanded on and in the memorandum issued by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force on the 18th April 1944 it stated that Allied aircraft taking part in the invasion of Europe, 'Operation Overlord', would have five stripes on both wings and on the rear fuselage without covering national markings. There were some exceptions, such as most of the four-engined heavy bombers used by the Allies, this was for two reasons. One, these aircraft would operate mainly at night and two, the chance of misidentification was low as the Luftwaffe had very few four engined aircraft.

The layout of inviasion stripes on a fighter aircraft (Hawker Typhoon)

The size of the invasion stripes were to vary according to aircraft size. Single engined aircraft would have stripes 18 inches wide whilst twin-engine aircraft would have 24 inch wide stripes. Night fighters, four engined bombers and sea planes wouldn't need to have the stripes added. Whilst a few tactical reconnaissance aircraft which were operating at low level were excused from painting the stripes on the top of the wing. The idea was simple and allowed gunners to make quick decisions on whether the aircraft flying over was friend or foe.

The go ahead for the idea was given on the 17th May 1944 by the Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. However the order to paint the stripes would not be given just yet. This was so the Luftwaffe would be unaware of the idea and paint them on their own aircraft. To test whether the stripes added to the aircraft would work and to allow gunners on the ships to see what they looked like, on the 1st June 1944 a few painted aircraft flew over the fleet involved in the invasion of France.

With 'Operation Overlord' due to begin on the 5th June, but delayed in the end until the 6th, security around the idea was tight, it wouldn't be until the 3rd June that the order to paint troop carriers was given whilst other aircraft got their orders the following day.

When D-Day occurred a total of 14,574 sorties would be carried out by the Allies and with the Luftwaffe's lack of presence over the invasion beaches and ships, as well as the invasion stripes, played a part in cutting down 'friendly fire' instances, however 127 aircraft were lost to a number of causes. As the invasion progressed and airfields in France established the stripes on the upper parts of the aircraft were ordered to be removed a month after D-Day. Eventually as the Allies progressed eastwards they would be removed from all aircraft before 1944 was over.

No. 453 Squadron, RAF Spitfires with invasion stripes. ©

Jagdverband 44 and the Swiss Air Force during World War 2

Jagdverband 44 Fw 190D with red and white stripes

The use of special aircraft markings as a means of identification wasn't limited to the Allies nor were the colours black and white. Jagdverband 44, which was formed in February 1945, were a Luftwaffe squadron who used the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter which were vulnerable to attack during take-off and landing so the unit formed the Platzschutzstaffel (airfield protection squadron) using Fw 190Ds, painted red with white stripes on the underneath of the aircraft, to protect the Me 262 during these phases.

The Swiss Air Force would also adopt what were termed 'neutrality bands', which were red and white markings painted on the wings and fuselage of Swiss aircraft, as due to its location in the heart of German occupied Europe incursion by both Allied and Axis aircraft was inevitable. If it was just a single aircraft the Swiss Air Force would seek to intercept and force the aircraft to land and intern the crews. However as they were operating the Messerschmitt Bf 109 misidentification would still occur, despite the neutrality bands. One such incident on the 5th September 1944 would have tragic consequences when a North American P-51 Mustang of the United States Army Air Force encountered a Swiss Air Force Bf 109 and shot it down, killing the pilot.

Swiss Air Force neutrality bands
Messerschmitt Bf 109 E-3, Swiss Air Force (1940)

Korean War and the Suez Crisis

The Korean War (1950 - 1953) would see the black and white stripes re-appear to help with aircraft identification, in this case mainly on aircraft operating with the Fleet Air Arm and Australian Fleet Air Arm. In the early phase of the war American 4th Fighter Interception Wing North American F-86 Sabres would also be painted with the stripes.

Three years after the Korean War from the 29th October 1956 to the 7th November 1956 aircraft of the Royal Air Force would be involved in the Suez Crisis as part of 'Operation Musketeer'. This would see identification stripes painted on its aircraft but with the colours changed to 3 yellow and 2 black stripes on the side of the fuselage and either underneath or on top of the wings. The size of the stripes for single-engined aircraft would be 12 inches whilst for other aircraft it would be 24 inches. These were first applied to RAF aircraft on the 30th October 1956. These would also appear on Fleet Air Arm, Armee de l'Air, French Aeronavale and Israeli Air Force aircraft.

Westland Wyvern with yellow and black stripes
Westland Wyvern S Mk.4 - No. 830 Naval Air Squadron, Fleet Air Arm (1956)

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