Royal Navy - A Brief History of Paints

1936-1945

Unfortunately, the British Royal Navy and in particular the appearance of paint colours is subject to a great deal of confusion and misinformation. The following is incomplete and simplified in some ways but can be used to spot likely misinformation.

This article and indeed the knowledge we at Sovereign Hobbies now have on this subject would not have been possible without the tireless and generous assistance, sharing of documentation found through many hours of searching in archives and sometimes impassioned debate with other individuals. These include Richard Dennis and Sean Carroll in the UK, as well as Michael Brown and Lindsay Johnston in Australia. By combining what records have been preserved in both the UK and Australian archives, we have been able to build a clearer picture, although there are many documents believed to have once existed which now appear either destroyed or lost, which could have perhaps altered some aspects of the following but more likely allowed us to be more definitive in some statements.

Beginning at the turn of the decade, the Royal Navy’s basic grey paints began to gain blue pigment, shifting them away from their original neutral grey appearance of only black and white pigments to greys with a blue tint. These would be iterated during the 1930s in a couple of ways, being finalised in 1936 in their ultimate appearance but also how they were made; that is to say each cwt (hundredweight) was mixed using a substantial and similar quantity of white pigment supplied as a stiff oil paste, liquified by adding linseed oil, thinners and liquid dryers and tinted using a complete ready-mixed can of blue-black paste. Different cans of blue-black paste were used for achieving the Dark Grey shade used by the Home Fleet versus the Light Grey used on Foreign Stations. In this pre-war period each was also enhanced by the addition of equivalent colour enamel paint, giving a somewhat harder wearing and glossy finish.

The Dark Grey, Home Fleet shade was found in the Rate Book of Admiralty Stores as Admiralty Pattern 507B. The Light Grey was listed as Admiralty Pattern 507C.

Admiralty Fleet Order 2680 dated 5th November 1936 describes the composition of the standard grey paints at this time, and further gives the distinct Admiralty Pattern numbers for the two different blue-black pastes and enamels used.

These greys were the paints ordered for use as follows (as per AFO 2796 27th December 1937):

Home: Dark Grey

Mediterranean: Light Grey with white topmasts. Capital ships (i.e. battleships, battlecruisers and aircraft carriers) were to have black supports for tops, struts, yards, and lower masts between tops and level of tops of funnels. On cruisers and anything smaller including depot ships these parts were light grey.

China: Light Grey with white topmasts, yards and tops. Supports to tops, struts, yards and lower masts between tops and level of tops of funnels for aircraft carriers and HMS Terror were black. Gunboats were white with yellow masts and funnels.

New Zealand: Light Grey with white topmasts.

North American and West Indies: Light Grey overall

Same document lists use of different paints for the following:

Aberdeen: White hull with buff funnel

East Indies: Hulls white with yellow (note, not buff) masts and funnels

 

507B Home Fleet Grey and 507C Mediterranean Grey

 

The year 1939 saw the Royal Navy gearing up for war. One of the first things to be confirmed in writing was that glossy peacetime paint finishes were superseded by matt finishes. Admiralty Pattern 507B, covered in the paragraphs above, was the glossier of the two main paints containing 10 pints of enamel per hundredweight as compared to 507C’s 6 pints. Admiralty Fleet Order 211 was issued on 19th January 1939 reintroduced a paint called Admiralty Pattern 507A to use – a pattern number which had last been used in the 1910s. AFO211 was explicit that 507A and 507B were the exact same thing except that the enamel was omitted from 507A.

A memorandum referenced M.013934/39 dated 18th December 1939 responded to a letter providing confirmation that:

“H.M. Ships on foreign stations are painted as follows (vide C.B.3016 (37), paragraph 261, and C.B.3016 (34), paragraph 179):-

Cruisers and larger vessels – light grey all over.

Destroyers – dark grey hulls and light grey upper works.

Submarines – royal blue on Mediterranean Station, and dark olive colour on China Station.

  1. All ships of the Home Fleet, including submarines, are painted Home Fleet grey, and a matt surface paint is employed both at home and on foreign stations.”

In 1940, AFO3935 Section (iii) ordered that:

“Finishing Coats. – The use of enamel is to be entirely suspended for the duration of the war in all ships, when stocks in the dockyards have been used up.

For internal work… … For External work two coats are to be applied. For parts visible from outside the ship, the finishing coats are to be matt paint.”

This order defacto suspended the use of Admiralty Pattern 507B, although it is clear from the above that the glossy 507B had not been favoured as an outer finishing coat for some time. Hence it can be seen that from a modern perspective of interpreting Royal Navy camouflage schemes, all interpretations which illustrate distinct tones of grey calling a darker one “AP507A” and a lighter one “AP507B” can automatically be dismissed as being false. Admiralty Pattern 507A and 507B were identical in appearance, except that the former was a flatter, more matt finish as compared to the latter’s shinier, glossier finish. Admiralty Pattern 507C Light Grey continued in use, just without the 6 pints of Admiralty Pattern 12 Light Grey enamel added per hundredweight of paint.

It must be noted at this point that not all paints applied to ships were Admiralty Pattern anything – these were specific formulations of linseed oil paint. Dockyards would also make equivalent colours. Contrary to the oft-claimed notion of dockyards mixing any old slop in buckets, the Royal Navy’s larger dockyards doing most of the work, such as Portsmouth, had substantial paint mixing facilities set up there. Portsmouth, for example, documented their own formulation which did not use the Admiralty Pattern 370A and 371 blue-black pastes which were shipboard stores principally, but did work to a specific formulation matched to shade cards which were issued to the dockyard. Civilian companies were in on the act from 1941 at least, likewise deriving the colour their own way but again working to shade cards issued to them. Nevertheless, as the war progressed, the Admiralty documentation uses the terms 507A and 507C fairly casually, so for ease I shall do the same from this point onwards. Please therefore interpret any reference to “507A” as “507A or equivalent”.

On 20th August 1940, Home Fleet Temporary Memorandum 288 was issued. Its opening business was to order the discontinuation of unofficial green and brown camouflage. The background context here is the so-called “Flotta Schemes”, which were improvised locally at Scapa Flow following the sinking of HMS Royal Oak to disguise ships which may be juxtaposed against the island of Flotta which may be observed from across the Flow from the Orkney mainland by German spies feared to be attempting to assist a repeat performance of U-47's deed. Part One of the document did acknowledge that “There is some evidence that in certain conditions of light and background, a form of camouflage or dazzle painting, using light and dark grey, may confuse identification and determination of course by observers, particularly by those in aircraft.”

The second point of business of HFTM288 was to reiterate the order that “Capital Ships and Aircraft Carriers of the Home Fleet are to be painted Home Fleet Grey. Cruisers, at the discretion of the Flag Officers Commanding Squadrons, may be dazzle painted as in paragraph 1 or painted Home Fleet Grey.”

Point three ordered that the decks of all ships, cruisers and above, were to be of a dark colour. The order then suggested a mixture of Japan Black, turpentine and liquid dryers as giving good results on wooden decks. Whilst clearly ordered, there is evidence that this order was ignored by some captains. Lastly, the memorandum instructed that the tops of gun turrets and other horizontal surfaces were to be painted to match the tone of the decks using non-slip deck paints.

The International Paint and Compositions Company Ltd appears to have been one of the earlier, if not the first, civilian contractor to begin supplying the Royal Navy in bulk. One of their earlier products recorded in surviving correspondence dated to July 1941 was a series of non-slip paints for decks, although it was clear in the letter that by this date the company was fully established as already supplying the non-slip paints. The company recorded that they were supplying non-slip deck paints in the following colours:

Dark Grey

Light Grey

Home Fleet Grey

Mediterranean Grey

Bronze Grey

Black

Whilst it’s obvious that Home Fleet Grey correlates to the colour of 507A and Mediterranean Grey is likewise 507C-coloured, it’s not explicit what Dark Grey and Light Grey are - almost always when written by the Royal Navy themselves the mean 507A and 507C. However, we believe these are likely BS381-32 and -31 Dark Battleship Grey and Light Battleship Grey respectively. Now would be a good point to cover Bronze Grey however, but first we need to back up to at least 1933.

1933’s edition of the Rate Book of Naval Stores listed Admiralty Pattern 631 as “BRONZE-GREY for flight decks of Aircraft Carriers”. Indeed it’s the only approved paint system for aircraft carriers. This bronze grey was a linseed oil paint made from ships’ stores as usual, and contained as pigments zinc white, black and a relatively huge quantity of ochre yellow. As any artists reading will already have arrived at, this mixes to make a filthy looking dirty dark olive, which in fact does not at all look out of place against the North Sea in overcast weather. As a point of interest, linseed oil paints do not make good surfaces for aircraft tyres particularly when wet, so the correct way to use Admiralty Pattern 631 Bronze Grey was to paint the flight deck red lead primer and allow to dry. Next, a second coat of red lead primer was to be applied and sprinkled with saw dust whilst wet, then allowed to dry. Lastly, the pattern 631 Bronze Grey was to be sprayed over the sawdust-impregnated primer to give a rough surface suitable for flight deck operations. Bronze Grey would appear to remain the only available paint for flight decks until the war began, and clearly remained in use until at least 1941. I therefore cast suspicion on modern assertions of dark grey flight decks, particularly on the inter-war carriers such as H.M. Ships Glorious, Furious, Courageous, Hermes, Eagle and Ark Royal, which I argue were more likely to have been Bronze Grey.

Royal Navy 1940 basic paints

 

During 1940, various surviving correspondences survive in The National Archives giving at least some insight into the inception of some focal point for the matter of camouflage, including the identification and recruitment of certain individuals with an interest, some experience and general inclination to improve things. This was against a backdrop of the recognised need for camouflage yet lack of centralised controlling body, and the resultant unofficial improvisation through 1940. Three types of camouflage developed in 1940 are particularly noteworthy.

First, there were the dazzle-type schemes which typically featured bold geometric shapes, and often appear to be based upon existing paints available in the naval supply chain; i.e. dark grey (507A), light grey (507C) and black. These types of schemes can be found on various destroyers, cruisers of the Home Fleet and Mediterranean and numerous capital ships including aircraft carriers. The Mediterranean appears to have been a particularly active region for these schemes and indeed many two or three tone dazzle or splinter-type schemes are colloquially referred to as “Alexandria Schemes”.

Second, Lord Mountbatten had his namesake pink devised, following a famous anecdote of observing a Union Castle liner allegedly disappear when painted pink. Mountbatten Pink was based upon a standard grey paint tinted with Vermillion Red pigment. Its appearance varied somewhat, but generally it could be described as a medium-dark tone. Plenty people appeared to think Mountbatten Pink a nonsense in objective terms, but nobody quite wanted choose that particular battle given the paint’s main proponent’s status and influence. Mountbatten Pink would for most of the war be tacitly acknowledged in various official documents, but none of the main Admiralty publications giving wide-spread guidance on camouflage went so far as to recommend it in favour of other camouflage systems.

Third, then Lt. Peter Scott of the RNVR (the so-called Wavy Navy thanks to their wavy rank stripes to distinguish them from regular naval officers) who was a keen yachtsman and artist devised a weird-but-wonderful camouflage for night time in the high latitudes of the north Atlantic. Reasoning that at night everyone is searching for black shapes, he convinced his captain to let him paint their destroyer white with geometric shapes in pale pastel colours from the waterline to part-way up the hull. It was so effective at simply not being what anyone was looking for that they promptly had a collision with another escort destroyer at night who hadn’t seen them. The word got around fast and soon the commanding officer of Western Approaches had Peter Scott drawing up similar designs for all his escort ships for him. The “Western Approaches type” scheme would endure for the remainder of the war, and furthermore, two of the pale pastel colours Scott devised for the purpose would be officially adopted and promulgated. These are sometimes referred to as “Peter Scott Blue” and “Peter Scott Green” but in most official documentation they are labelled and referred to as “Western Approaches Light Blue” and “Western Approaches Light Green”.

Meanwhile, the official team was getting going, with the retired Lt. Cdr Yunge-Bateman VR and the previously mentioned Grahame-Hall / Claude Muncaster apparently at or near the centre of it. Their efforts would begin to have a noticeable effect into 1941, whereupon an officially recognised set of camouflage paints would be promulgated, which we know took some months to properly penetrate the engrained practises and habits but which were soon available in quantity. We believe these were not generally mixed aboard ship but rather were civilian manufactured or manufactured by adequately capable dockyard facilities. We have never found pigment formulae for these paints but lots of shade cards were produced and issued to relevant parties. The civilian manufactured paints at least were supplied as oil-bound-water paints, a sort of early emulsion paint. There are records of adhesion problems with this paint. These standardised paint colours had the following designations:

MS1, MS2, MS3, MS4, MS4A, B5 and B6. The MS paints were greys, mostly with fairly subtle green casts whilst the B paints were blue greys. Each series is listed in order of darkest to lightest. It is highly likely that MS and B meant something and whilst any fool can fuel conjecture, the fact of the matter is that we’ve never found anything which explicitly defines what the letters stand for.

The promulgation of the MS&B series, which letters describe as “the standard camouflage colours” was aided by the camouflage team simultaneously devising a system whereby a ship could request a design to be drawn with sufficient notice. Our first known list of so-called Job Numbers lists completion dates in August 1941.

In the latter part of 1941, it was recognised that whilst unique designs were desirable to prevent the enemy from becoming familiar with the specific patterns, the size of the Royal Navy would make this quite unmanageable. To mitigate this, the team began drafting in parallel a guidance document outlining the basics of the camouflage principles, the paint colours to be used (with a particular emphasis on getting the tone correct as a minimum if they couldn’t exactly match the colour) and providing a substantial number of standardised designs for destroyers and smaller ships. The intent was that officers commanding small ships could compare their next posting, the climate and the prevailing threat, then choose the most appropriate design from the catalogue of illustrations and tell the subordinates “paint us like this”. The resulting document was promulgated as Confidential Admiralty Fleet Order 679 “Sea-Going Camouflage Designs for Destroyers and Small Ships” dated 9th April 1942. It included large, printed swatches of 507A, 507C, MS1, MS2, MS3, MS4, MS4A, B5, Western Approaches Light Blue and Western Approaches Light Green and combinations of each were featured in the design illustrations, along with White for the Western Approaches type. Interestingly, no swatch of B6 was provided nor did it feature in any of the standardised designs for small ships. The text of the document made a single reference to acknowledge B6 existing, under the section on Pennant Numbers and their colours. No mention was made in CAFO679/42 of Mountbatten Pink.

One final thing worth mentioning which is relevant to this time period is CAFO1112/42 which covered various theoretical issues on camouflage. Section V of this document however provided for emergency camouflage without a disruptive pattern design and without the proper paints. These would instead be made using only ship-board paint provisions, i.e. bonafide Admiralty Pattern 507A, 507C, white or mixtures of these. Essentially the advice was to approximate the average tone of the Admiralty Dark, Dark Medium, Light Medium or Light Tone designs with either the hull all a single paint or a darker hull and lighter upperworks in various permutations. Facsimile copies of CAFO1112/42 are available for free download on my website.

These so-called "Standard Camouflage Colours" would remain in effect until April 1943 whereupon a simplified set was promulgated. It is noteworthy that the Royal Canadian Navy continued using many of the 1941-1943 MS&B series paints well into the following year. For British ships however, including Polish & Norwegian operated vessels out of the UK, the regularity of repaints of warships would mean that few of these paints would remain by late summer / in to autumn of 1943.

Royal Navy 1941 through 1943 camouflage paint colours

 

 

During 1942, the surviving records in The National Archives make it clear that the Naval Section of the Camouflage Directorate were not content with the combination of Standard Camouflage Colours, 507A, 507C and the Western Approaches colours. Indeed as their understanding developed, partially through real-life observation trials and partially from the scientific method brought in by A.E. Schuil including objective measurement techniques and a testing tank for models which simulated various lighting and weather conditions, the team realised that tone was significantly more important than hue, and that the significant overlap in paints of similar tones as well as confusing nomenclature probably led to inadequate comprehension within the fleet.

Tones of Royal Navy 1941 to 1943 camouflage paints showing overlaps

The team began to devise a new set of camouflage paints, which we believe were more or less based upon the Standard Camouflage Colours from 1941, but with a new naming system and elimination of duplicate tones. These would now be classified in a more objective manner, allowing anyone familiar with the nomenclature to appreciate the appearance of the colour. These began with a single letter; G = Grey or B = Blue-grey followed by digits which describe the Reflectivity Factor (nowadays called Light Reflectance Value). A low number is darker and a high number is lighter. The new set of rationalised and simplified paints were known as:

G5, G10, B15, G20, B30, G45, B55. White would remain in use for use on Western Approaches schemes and for counter shading.

These new colours, along with formulae to create these colours from Rate Book ships’ stores items (i.e. Admiralty Pattern oils, thinners, dryers and pigment oil pastes) as “A.1 type paints” were promulgated in Admiralty Fleet Order 2106 on 13th May 1943. The fleet order specifically and explicitly stated that A.1/G10 was exactly the same as Admiralty Pattern 507A and that A.1/G45 was exactly the same as Admiralty Pattern 507C. At around the same time, CAFO679/42 and CAFO1112/42 were amalgamated, updated and the standard camouflage design plates for destroyers and small ships were overhauled and expanded in scope, encompassing coastal forces boats also and promulgated as Confidential Book 3098(R) “The Camouflage of Ships at Sea” dated May 1943 to provide a more contextual roll-out of the new G&B paint series to the fleet.

1943 rationalisation of Royal Navy camouflage paints - MS&B series change to G&B series

For reasons unknown, although it could potentially be a matter of preference and convenience, since G20 was the only G&B series paint to use any Admiralty Pattern 52P Ochre pigment, the colour B20 was invented and first officially acknowledged in AFO3113 on 15th June 1944. B20 was created by mixing equal parts B15 and B30. G20 would however remain authorised and available.

On 12th October 1944, Confidential Admiralty Fleet Order 2269 was promulgated. This order provided a series of new, much simplified design schemes identified by simple letters, e.g. Scheme A, Scheme B, and so on. These were mostly two-tone schemes and Scheme A perhaps the most famous example as many ships in the British Pacific Fleet were heavily photographed wearing it – although it was by no means a British Pacific Fleet scheme – it applied more or less world-wide at least in summer months. Other examples from this order include the white and B30 disruptive designs used on British landing craft during 1944 – included somewhat retrospectively at this point as “Scheme G”. This order is mentioned specifically though because it is the first order we have discovered dealing with surface vessels which also applies to submarines. For the purpose of submarines, one additional colour is introduced in this order; PB10 the last introduction of the war. The nomenclature partially breaks with tradition but it was made only from white and ultramarine pigments and gave a 10% Reflectivity Factor; for this reason we believe the “PB” prefix may have denoted something like “Pure Blue” to differentiate from the standing definition of “B=Blue-grey”.

Royal Navy 1944 - 1945 camouflage paints

Our main reason for this page is fuelled from the prolific numbers of very dubious digital “colourizations” of black & white original photographs as well as many highly suspect camouflage profile illustrations which feature heavy use of olives and green shades which have no historical justification. Indeed many illustrations are a hard clash with either written records of which paints were applied to certain ships or surviving original colour photographs and cinefilm. Whilst colour fidelity in photographs cannot be trusted for retrospective paint matching purposes, it’s certainly good enough to completely demolish certain claims. I hope that armed with this knowledge, the reader is able to at least start to ask the right questions when presented with images and claims of camouflage Royal Navy warships, including anachronysms (e.g. G&B series paints called out a year or more before they existed, and/or used in suspicious combinations with non-G&B series paints – Royal Canadian Navy excepted!) and shades which would feature lots of yellow and green pigments which the Royal Navy appeared not to favour.

 

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