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Royal Navy Interwar China Station versus East Indies Station

It's frequent that the presentation of research findings is branded as "revisionism", or even just labelled as "new information". Sometimes it's no such thing, and is simply sweeping more modern errors aside and recognising that a lot of people knew all along what the truth really looked like.

One such modern myth is that the Royal Navy used white ships with buff upperworks on China Station between the first and second world war. This is quite untrue but the time at which people started to think this was so is probably within the last three or four decades. As with many of these issues relating to Royal Navy painting practises, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly who is to blame for this misunderstanding or when they first made the erroneous claim. Nevertheless, it's an idea which has definitely stuck in more recent years and is regularly copied without further question into new books to this day.

What has happened?

Well, it's hard to answer that too, but it seems that someone, somewhere, assumed that a specific practise somewhere implied a similar practise somewhere else, and perhaps this was somewhat rationalised by the subconscious awareness that the United States Navy really did use white with a buff-colour (called Spar) upperworks in the early to mid 20th century!

According to AFO3948 - Painting - Sloops Fitting out for Foreign Stations, issued 6th December 1919:

"It has been decided that Sloops fitting out for China and New Zealand Stations should be painted white with grey upperworks, as for Light Cruisers on the China Station.

2. The Sloops for the East Indies and Red Sea should be painted white, with primrose yellow funnels, masts and yards, i.e. similar to the Light Cruisers on the East Indies Station."

Note the wording implies the painting practise is already established by December 1919 albeit for different types of ship.

AFO1658 - Painting of H.M. Ships, issued 24th June 1927, gives general paint formulae categorised by Station, with a footnote under Section III which covers China and East Indies Station which notes that "Ships to be painted with white hulls, grey upper works, funnels, masts and boats" i.e. that's everything above the shearline.

In AFO2796 - Painting of H.M. Ships in Time of Peace issued 30th December 1937, the China Station is listed as ships being painted all over Light Grey except masts, yards and tops being in white and supports up to level of tops of funnels in black. Gunboats are listed separately. East Indies Station is still listed in this order with Hulls in white and Masts and funnels in Yellow.

The Rate Book of Naval Stores 1931 edition lists 507B as for use on ships with white hulls and grey upperworks.

The 1935 edition of Janes lists China Station as white hull with grey upperworks and East Indies Station as all over white but funnels, masts and yards in yellow.

With this in mind, it seems we have a mix of two problems. Firstly, buff isn't mentioned at all, anywhere in these. Primrose Yellow however is. Whilst the precise origin or mixture for Primrose Yellow is yet to be categorically proven, a colour by the same name did exist in the first edition of the British Standard, and this compares well with contemporary art of ships portrayed as white with yellow funnels and masts.

HMS Manchester as painted by Eric Tufnell (b. 1888, d.1978)

HMS Manchester in East Indies Station livery as painted by Eric Tufnell (b.1888, d.1978)

HMS Manchester builder's model

HMS Manchester's Builder's Model - as an aside, look how red the lower hull isn't!

Secondly, it seems that the attractive paintings of ships in white with yellow funnels and masts appear to have been presumed to be proof that the ships with white hulls and darker everything above the hull must also have been in the same yellow colour despite a total lack of any evidence whatsoever to support that.

This error may have been even easier to make due to a general lack of understanding of photographic film in use and the characteristics resulting from it. The majority of black and white film in use in Great Britain prior to WWII was orthochromatic. Orthochromatic film is sensitive to specific wavelengths in the visible spectrum and insensitive to others. This tends to make blue colours look very light but red and yellow in particular show up very dark. Because of this, or more precisely because of a lack of awareness of this, period photographs of ships on China Station particularly in the 1930s often show rather light upperworks whereas on East Indies Station the yellow funnels and masts appear rather dark and can be misinterpreted accordingly. This is the same reason why modern artwork and models often portray Spanish Civil War red, white and blue non-intervention stripes on British warship gun turrets backwards!

HMS Manchester on East Indies Station on orthochromatic film

HMS Manchester in East Indies Station livery on orthochromatic film

HMS Berwick on China Station

HMS Berwick in China Station livery

As if the paper trail of primary source documentary evidence itself wasn't enough to highlight that the entire notion of buff upperworks on China Station wasn't a classic case of 2+2=5, then it should be remembered that the fact China Station used white hulls with grey upperworks used to be common knowledge. It was published in Janes! Moreover, due to the lack of colour photographs from the interwar period, contemporary art work of East Indies Station ships is frequently used as proof of the idea, ignoring the contemporary art of China Station ships which supports the opposite argument!

HMS Hawkins on China Station by Eric Tufnell (b.1888 d.1978)

HMS Hawkins in China Station livery by Eric Tufnell (b.1888 d.1978)


Much of the issue appears to be confusion between East Indies and China Stations therefore.

  • If it's the entire superstructure that's uniformly darker, that's China Station and it was grey.
  • If the whole ship is white except the funnels, masts and yards, that's East Indies Station and the darker parts were yellow.
  • If it's a white hull with buff upperworks, it's a United States Navy warship and you're lost.

The evidence is right there in black and white, and yellow. And grey. It's time to put the white hull and buff upperworks myth to bed once and for all.

East Indies Station

East Indies Station - White all over except funnels, masts and yards in Primrose Yellow

China Station

China Station - White hull only, everything above the shear line in 507B Grey


Written by James Duff, Sovereign Hobbies, but with the subject matter brought to my awareness a few years ago by Richard Dennis.



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