An online database of camouflage used by 
United State Naval Warships during WWII

The Development of Naval Camouflage
1914 1945
Part I

By Alan Raven



(Article reprinted courtesy of  Plastic Ship Modeler Magazine issue #96/3)





These writings had their origin in the mid nineteen sixties when the author found it impossible to correctly the camouflage colors of various warships for the purpose of model making.  The subsequent search for information led to substantial research into the subject and to the realization that some writing on the subject was needed.


The previous thirty years have seen a small number of writings produced, some by this author, but none could be called major, or having in-depth coverage, and a percentage have been ambiguous and badly inaccurate.  It was originally intended to deal only with British camouflage of the WWII period, but subsequent thoughts, coupled with pressure from interested parties, meant that the American story was added, and the development of WWI camouflage.


The great bulk of camouflage at sea was employed by the American and British navies in the Second World War and this is reflected in the writings.  Although having widespread usage, camouflage was generally felt to be one of the minor aspects of the many wartime efforts and its effectiveness was very often difficult and sometimes impossible to prove, and because it played a peripheral role it is not surprising that definitive documentation on this subject is often very sparse or frequently non-existent.  On the American side there is much more documentary data than for the British.  Instructions for American camouflage came from the Bureau of Ships, an all-powerful body, and it was rare for their orders to be altered or ignored, and even more rare for unofficial designs or color be used, so that one can match up photographs to orders and prepared patterns in a logical manner with a minimum number of unresolved questions.  British use of camouflage is a much more fragmented affair, due mainly to the fact  that the camouflage section was part of a miscellaneous staff department, and did not have anywhere near the authority  that its American counterpart had.  The resulting instructions became more a set of recommendations and advice, rather than sets of orders, and when coupled with the independent nature of the average British captain, resulted in a six year period that saw everything from strictly correct usage to any number of individual ideas and colors being applied. Very often the unofficial or amateur idea was carried by only one vessel, and then sometimes  by whole commands, depending on the interest  or whim of individual and group commanders.  So prevalent were these practices that the British story has been extremely difficult to discover, and as a large percentage is without documentation, the author has spent many years in correspondence and interviews trying to find and piece the parts together.


The tracking down of the large number of colors used was a long and great search, one that the author believes has been successful in that almost every known color used by the British and American navies in the WWII period has been located in the form of either official color cards or written formulas.


These writings do not pretend to be definitive; the very nature of the subject precludes this, but for the first time the story is given some degree of depth and covers many of the side branches that people have wanted to know for years.  Inevitably there are areas on which little or no information was forthcoming, an example would be those colors and patterns worn by American PT boats manned and operated by the OSS in the Pacific in the 1943-44 period.  These type of gaps aside, the story given here is reasonably complete with a fair degree of accuracy and should answer most questions about this somewhat esoteric but visually interesting subject.




Camouflage has been used by man for as long as recorded history, with the most sophisticated forms employed in the military theater.  The type that most people are familiar with  is where a static object is disguised with netting, leaves, etc. to the point that it blends in with an unchanging background and becomes invisible.  Not surprisingly, this type of deception was and still is the most widely used and the most successful.


The successful camouflaging of mobile objects is substantially more difficult a task for the obvious reason that movement attracts the eye.  With a moving object practically dictates that painted camouflage has the most utility, because things such as netting, screens, etc., become loose, break-off, and the effect is lost.


To conceal movement on land against a background of some permanence such as desert terrain, where the range of colors, tones, and light conditions are reasonably constant one day from another, it is a distance that plays a major role.  The greater the distance form the observer to the object, the greater the chance of concealment or invisibility.  Generally speaking, the same factors apply to aircraft camouflage, and as with land camouflage, it is the need to achieve concealment to as close a range as possible that usually matters.


When one addresses the question of how to camouflage a ship at sea, the problems to be overcome in order to achieve a measure of concealment are greatly increased, and very often one has to deal with an infinitely variable two backgrounds; the sea and the sky, changes that are produced by weather which affects light conditions.   Because a vessel may be constantly moving from one area of ocean to another, there will be attendant changes in general weather patterns.  For example, the prevailing weather and light conditions in the North Atlantic are quite different than those of the Arctic, and a ship crossing from one to the other in the course of its operations will not have time to repaint into the camouflage that best suits the new area.  The problems of achieving concealment of a ship at sea meant that many of the camouflage types were designed so as to achieve one or more of a range of a whole range of other aspects of deception.


The types of sea-going camouflage are as follows:


I.                    Concealment or Invisibility to make the ship completely blend in with the sea and sky background.

II.                 Disruptive type not necessarily to conceal the ship but make the enemy think he is seeing a different size, type, or class of vessel; generally to make identification difficult.

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