During the First World War, France experimented with hand-painted camouflage designs for some of her troops fighting in Europe. Produced by the Army's Section de Camouflage, under Eugene Corbin, several styles were tested, including uneven blotches, spots and stripes. These hand-made uniforms were most often worn by snipers and reconnaissance elements operating on the front lines, and were never adopted or mass produced to any degree.
During the Second World War, airborne and commando elements of Free French Forces frequently donned the hand-painted "brushstroke" camouflage Denison paratrooper smocks common with the British and other Allied Airborne Forces. With the rise of nationalist movements immediately following the end of WW2, vastly under-equipped French forces found themselves quickly re-engaged in a different kind of conflict in the First Indochina War (1946-1954). Heavily supplied by her former wartime Allies, many elite French units serving in Indochina wore surplus American M1942 spot pattern jungle uniforms or British m42 windproof camouflage uniforms, often custom-modified or locally tailored to French standards from original cloth. By 1951, however, France began implementing her own brand of camouflage, the tenue de leópard (leopard uniform), influenced by the WW2 era British brushstroke design. This pattern would become a symbol of French airborne and commando troops (and, indeed, of the French Army as a whole) for the remainder of the century, despite the fact that widescale French use of the pattern was discontinued at the end of the Algerian War.
Throughout the period ranging from the 1960s into the early 1990s, French military forces, like many of her European counterparts, were officially clad in plain olive green. Periods of development by private companies, particularly in the early 1980s, led to a handful of experimental patterns such as those produced by Texunion in 1981 and 1983, but it was not until the events leading up to Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-91 that the French government once again embraced the idea of clothing military personnel in camouflage uniforms. Since the early 1990s, French forces have retained camouflage clothing as their standard operational uniform.
French Camouflage Patterns
Early French Camouflage
- An example of early hand-painted camouflage developed by the 'Section de Camouflage' during World War One is seen here.
- France actually produced a copy of the WW2 German splinter pattern camouflage zeltbahn shortly after the end of the Second World War. The shelters were used by French troops fighting in Indochina, although the splinter shapes in the French pattern are all connected, whereas some on the German version can be seen to stand alone.
- Produced in France using original WW2 era German printing screens, the 1950 reversible pattern zeltbahn incorporates splinter type shapes in green on a khaki background on one side, brown on khaki on the other.
- Emerging in the early 1950s, the patented Luceber parachute produced for the French Army was printed in a unique pattern of black and green squiggles on a sandy background. Although only used on parachute shrouds, these were often hand-cut into personal neck scarves by French military personnel and worn as a kind of cravat.
The first postwar French camouflage patterns began to emerge around 1951. One of the most commonly encountered of these patterns, and one particularly associated with the Algerian War (1954-1962), is the striped or brushstroke pattern referred to in many historical and collecting circles as "lizard" pattern. This term is actually a reference to a nickname given to French paratroopers who wore the patterns during the Algerian War; the French themselves tended to refer to this series of camouflage designs as camouflee de leópard (leopard camouflage), and the uniforms as tenue de leópard (leopard uniforms) or tenue de saut camouflée (camouflage combat uniforms). French "leopard" camouflage saw production from 1951 until the middle of the 1970s, and as a result there are a varied number of designs, color combinations and fabrics that may be encountered by the researcher or collector. A reasonable attempt to document and classify these patterns was published in the French militaria magazine Uniformes Hors Serie No 14 and No 17, part of which is reprinted for public use by collector Gilles Gorgues and can be downloaded on his website: Vonstuck Camouflage The classification system established in these articles establishes an alpha-numeric code for each distinctive camouflage design; however, it should be noted that additional patterns have since been documented which do not fall within the system. Therefore, the classification system is in need of updating, or restructuring, which will hopefully occur at some point in the future.
- Within the French categorization system, the pattern seen here has been classified as "A1" and variations can be found on the earliest Troupes Aéroportée (Airborne Troops) uniform, the TAP Mle 47, as well as some later models.
- A slightly later variation of the lizard pattern, incorporating reddish-brown and olive green or reddish-brown and moss green strokes on a pale green base, is seen here and taken from a Mle 1947/53 TAP smock. This variation has been classified as pattern "A2" within the French categorization system.
- The variation seen below has been classified within the French system as Model "B1." The color scheme of this pattern resembles that of the earlier A1 pattern found on shelter quarters, but the shapes have changed considerably.
- Found primarily on the treillis toutes armes (TTA) or "All Arms Uniform" is the variation seen here, classified as pattern "C1" within the French categorization system.
- The pattern classified as pattern D is typified by that printed on shelter quarters from the Algerian War period. This design incorporates rust and light green horizontal brush strokes on a sandy background, and is printed only on one side. Historical evidence shows some elite French units had items such as berets personally tailored from this fabric, but there is no indication that any widespread production of uniforms were ever created for French forces using this color combination. However, the drawings themselves and the Type D pattern can be encountered on combat clothing using a different coloration.
- The version seen here, incorporating broad, pale lichen-green and purple-brown strokes over a khaki base, is a variation of design and color categorized as "D Tropical" within the French categorization system. Variations of the colorway were also used on the later treillis toutes armes (TTA) or "All Arms Uniform."
- Another lizard variant pattern, seen here, probably dates to the Algerian War. This is from a privately tailored jacket, similar to the treillis toutes armes version of 1958, and appears to be the variation classified in the French system as pattern "E1."
- With the introduction of the final version of the French TAP or Airborne uniform and the All-Arms (TTA) camouflage uniform came a fairly standardized version of the leopard pattern. Seen here are two examples of the final French lizard pattern camouflage, taken from a Mle 1947/56 TAP uniform and a tenue de combat camouflée Mle 1947 toutes armes (or Mle 1958) uniform. These patterns (and their copied derivatives) are classified within the French system type "F1."
Other French Camouflage Designs
- The Groupement des Commandos-Marine (Marine Commando Group) was an elite French Naval unit that traced its origins to the Free French Commando units of WW2. Between 1956 and 1959, historical photographs illustrate many members of this unit wearing a paratrooper smock printed in a unique "blotch" camouflage pattern, nicknamed "frogskin." The pattern has never emerged again and was unique to this particular unit.
- Introduced circa 1990 was this three-color desert pattern, nicknamed Daguet (Operation Daguet being the French name for the First Gulf War/Desert Storm). It consists of sparse horizontal stripes of brown and tan on a sandy background and has served as the primary desert uniform pattern of French military forces.
- The desert camouflage design has changed a bit since originally issued, although the colors remain reasonably consistent. Current issue Daguet pattern camouflage looks like that in the tile below.
- Shortly following the introduction of a desert pattern came the universal adoption of a camouflage uniform designed for wear by French forces in Europe. The pattern chosen, officially Centre Europe (CE), draws heavily on the coloration incorporated into the US m81 woodlan design, but retaining the thicker and heavier French stripe pattern.
- A variation of the above CE woodland pattern has been documented in use by the Groupes d'Intervention de la Police Nationale (National Police Intervention Group) or GIPN. This version has a grey colorway and is primarily issued as a one-piece operational coverall.
- The Centre d'Entraînement aux Actions en Zone Urbaine (CENZUB), or Urban Zone Combat Training Center of the French Armed Forces was opened in 2006 in Aisne, and provides a training ground for conducting urban warfare exercises. The training cadre act as Forces Adverse (FORAD) or what we could call Opposing Forces (OPFOR) in English. These FORAD soldiers have been documented wearing two different types of camouflage, each with a blue colorway. The first is modeled on a flecktarn design, while the latter appears to be based on woodland drawings.
- Mountain units attached to the Commandement des Operations Speciales (Special Operations Command) wear a three-color pattern designed for operations in the Alpine regions of France, as well as snow-covered landscapes elsewhere. The pattern blends olive green and pinkish-tan shapes on a white background.
Experimental French Camouflage Patterns
- In 1981, the French firm Texunion developed a "spot" or "dots" camouflage design that was tested but not adopted by the French Army. This pattern would prove the basis for the German flecktarn design and its derivatives.
- Again in 1983, Texunion proposed another variation fo the "dots" pattern using a different coloration. This was also rejected by the French Army.
- As part of the FELIN (Fantassin à Équipement et Liaisons Intégrés) or Integrated Infantryman Equipment and Communications system, several camouflage designs were tested for the combat clothing component between 1997 and 2000. One of these designs was a unique spot pattern, manufactured as a prototype but never adopted.
Other Camouflage Patterns Worn by French Armed Forces
- During WW2, Free French Commandos and Airborne troops frequently wore the British Denison smock. An example of the pattern is seen here, taken from a 2nd model wartime smock.
- France received considerable postwar aid from both Great Britain and the United States, including surplus camouflage uniforms. Many of these uniforms made it to Indochina where they were employed by elite French Commando, Airborne and Legion units, either in their original designs, or custom-modified to French standards in designs such as the favored Bigeard cap. The uniforms were also worn, to a lesser degree, by French troops during the Algerian War. The British M1942 windproof pattern, a variation of the brushstroke design, was known as Survêtement ‘42 in official nomenclature, but nicknamed "sausage skins" by many French military personnel.
- Likewise, large stocks of surplus American jungle camouflage uniforms, printed in the reversible M1942 spot pattern, were donated to the French fighting in Indochina. Examples of both sides of the pattern can be seen here.
- Jungle warfare/commando instructors at the French Army Jungle School in French Guiana have worn a commercial tiger stripe camouflage pattern for many years.
- Although technically a "commercial" design (produced by the German company Tac-Gear), the snow camouflage pattern seen below has been adopted and is currently in use by the 13e Régiment de Dragons Parachutistes (13th RDP) of the French Army. A derivative of the Danish m/84 pattern, which in turn was derived from the original German flecktarn design, the pattern incorporates black and olive green blotches on a pure white background.
- W. Palinckx: "Camouflage Uniforms of the German Wehrmacht" (Schiffer Publishing Ltd, Atglen PA, 2002) p. 265-266
- D Peterson: "Wehrmacht Camouflage Uniforms" (Windrow & Greene Ltd, London, 1995) p. 30