Stripes and more stripes

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

As the allies gained air superiority over the skies of Europe, the issue of avoiding fratricide (shooting down their own aircraft by accident)  became even more important. While it was important in aerial combat, pilots were generally (but certainly not always) able to identify the enemy before they fired, and the biggest danger came from ground fire.

This was emphasized during the invasion of Sicily when, on July 11, 1943, a force of 144 C-47 transports conducted a night parachute drop in support of the invasion. The aircraft arrived shortly after an axis air raid and the C-47s were fired on by the ships of the allied landing fleet. Twenty-three C-47s were shot down and 37 damaged, and the entire airborne operation was disrupted.

Much the same thing happened at various times during the invasions of Italy. With D-Day coming and a large number of allied ships supported by thousands of allied aircraft, the issue of fratricide became an important and vexing one. A simple and reliable method of rapid and unambiguous identification of low-flying allied aircraft had to be found.

There was a technical solution – a radar system call IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) – but it had two disadvantages. First, few of the guns would be radar guided, and second, the huge number of allied aircraft would overwhelm any technical means.

Fortunately, a solution was at hand. Since 1942, German Focke Wulf FW-190 fighter bombers had been regularly crossing the English Channel to carry out harassing “tip and run” low level raids on a variety of British targets. They had proven too fast for RAF Spitfires to catch, but in early 1942, a new RAF fighter, the Hawker Typhoon, entered service.

Despite many teething problems, the Typhoon was very fast and able to run down the FWs. Unfortunately, it looked very much like the German fighter and soon found itself the victim of a large amount of unwelcome attention from British anti-aircraft gunners. To avoid this, black and white “recognition stripes” were painted under each wing.

The stripes were alternating black, white, black, white and black with the white stripes 24 inches wide and the black stripes 12 inches wide. The stripes were officially abandoned Feb. 7, 1944, but were not removed from the Typhoons that carried them.

The stripes proved so visible that it was decided to use them to mark allied tactical aircraft for D-Day. There were a few careful and highly secret tests of various patterns; the final pattern was three white and two black bands wrapped around the rear of an aircraft fuselage just in front of the tail and around the upper and lower surfaces of the wings from front to back. For single engine aircraft, the stripes were 18 inches wide. For twin engine aircraft, they were 24 inches wide.
While there was a small scale test of the final markings, for security reasons they were not painted on the aircraft until June 4 to 5. In many cases, the ground crews did not have time to mask the stripes and they were simply painted on by hand. The result was that, especially the first day of the invasion, most of the stripes were very ragged and often incorrectly applied.

The stripes were so successful they were used in later conflicts such as Korea, where in 1951 most F-86 Sabres had black and white stripes (later changed to yellow) to distinguish them from similar looking Soviet MiG-15s. Probably the most bizarre use was by the Germans themselves. Focke Wulf 109D-9s protecting German jet airfields had their entire belly painted bright red with white stripes to identify themselves to German gunners protecting the airfields.

For questions or comments, contact Dr. Michel at