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)



bow or stern, thus producing for the observer a false heading, a condition that greatly enhances the chances of a submarine attack failing.




A very simple effect to produce and sometimes one of the most effective.  A simple bow wave is painted onto the ship’s side at the bow in white.  A ship proceeding slowly will then be believed to be moving at a much higher speed.




At sunrise and sunset there is often a particular set of light conditions in effect where a strong red color is present.  Therefor a medium camouflage with a percentage of red as part of the color will enhance concealment during the above two periods.




The effective tone of the camouflage should match the effective tone of the land background, or the patterns of tone of same.





Not until WWI was well under way was any thought given to warship camouflage.  There had been some experiments performed in 1902 but none had been conducted on a scientific basis.  The author believes that the first recorded instance of painted sea-going camouflage applied to British vessels were those high speed paddle wheel steamers running Federal blockade during the American Civil War.  The final run into southern ports was always done at night, preferably on overcast or moonless occasions.  The British owned “runners” were often painted overall light grey, which gave a degree of invisibility from Federal blockaders waiting outside such ports as Wilimington and Charleston.


Although deemed successful, the Royal Navy did not consider taking up this color as a means of night time camouflage, because throughout the Victorian period, the navy, (as far as appearance was concerned), wanted their ships to have a smart and attractive look, one that reflected their position as the world’s premier navy, plus the not to be forgotten fact that Queen Victoria liked “her” ships to be painted with black hulls and buff upperworks.  By 1902-3 three battleships, (HANNIBAL, MAJESTIC, and MAGNIFICENT), were subject to trials using combinations of grey, green, brown, and black.


The dark grey proved to be the most successful and was subsequently adopted on a fleet wide basis, but in order to retain a degree of individuality it was allowed for ships from different ports to choose their own shade of grey, so that Devonport vessels could be distinguished from Portsmouth based ones.  This accounts for the many variations of grey seen in photos of Royal Navy ships in the period leading up to WWI.  The major exception was the overall black carried by destroyers and gunboats, black then being considered an excellent anti-searchlight color.


Shortly after the war started a suggestion was put forward as to how a ship might be painted to make ranging difficult by use of contrasting colors.  This idea was taken up by the Admiralty; unfortunately only one large vessel was available at the time, the battlecruiser INDOMITABLE, which was based at Malta.  At this time (December 1914), she was painted in compliance with an order issued in September of that year, which stated that all warships, (with the exception of TBDs which were painted black), have their hulls and upperworks light grey.  The mix for this light grey was one part black to twenty parts white.  Upon receiving the necessary instructions the INDOMITABLE was painted up in a two tone camouflage of light grey and white.  The base color was the official light grey with white applied in large irregular shaped blotches evenly over the hull and superstructure.  The trials for this camouflage took place in mid-December within sight of the Malta coast and observations were made during the hours of darkness as well as during the day.  Being a very light toned scheme and observed in sunlight and moonlight, the colors and patterns did not give any measure of concealment to the ship and the official report from the senior naval officer said as much.  It is believed that the INDOMITABLE was the first naval vessel to carry camouflage during WWI.  Although officially judged a failure, she retained this scheme for some months after joining the Grand Fleet in 1914.  The use of white patches on the upperworks and funnels was carried by several vessels operating in the Mediterranean during 1915, including the Pre-Dreadnought AGEMEMNON, the monitors RAGLAN and LORDCLIVE, and the battlecruiser INFLEXIBLE.  The effect of INDOMITABLE’s camouflage was not limited to the Mediterranean vessels; several destroyers of the Dover Patrol sported similar camouflage for a short time in the early months of 1915, until ordered back to overall black.


During the early months of 1915 a suggestion was made that false bow waves be painted onto ships so as to give a wrong impression of speed; shortly afterwards an order was given that all warships except destroyers be so painted.  Unfortunately he order was worded  in such a manner that it was taken to apply to destroyers as well, and so for a short period during the first half of 1915 several destroyers sported false bow waves.


In 1915-16 a large rectangular panel of dark grey was applied to a few of the larger ships, including INDEFATIGABLE and QUEEN MARY.  This particular idea was to deceive the enemy into believing that a second ship was alongside.  This measure should not be confused with a black identification panel which was carried by some destroyers during the same period in order to determine whether the vessel was friend or foe.


In the summer of 1916 two experiments took place.  In one, the cruiser CARYFORT was painted in a two color camouflage which consisted of painting the hull from the waterline to a point midway up the hull a medium light green, and from that point upward covering the remainder of the hull and the whole upperworks, including the masts, a medium light blue.  The green was meant to blend in with the sea and the blue to blend in with the sky.  When trials took place the weather did not produce the required background to match the colors of the ship so after a few hours of trials, all on the same day, the scheme was written off as a failure.  The second experiment involved the cruiser CALLIOPE which was painted overall in a shade of grey green and, like the CARYSFORT trials, was deemed to be unsuccessful.  These experiments caused the Admiralty to believe that it was impossible to effect the visibility of ships and all vessels were to continue to conform to regulations in respect to paintwork.


By 1916 several small changes had taken place in destroyers.  At the outbreak of war destroyers were painted  black overall and they stayed this way until 1915 when the masts and sometimes the funnels became

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