- A.N. Other
- History - general, Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2015 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
As Father Time catches up with us all strands of hair turn to lighter shades, perhaps not unlike warship livery which is again changing to a different shade of grey. Our small research team has compiled this article with information mainly taken from our archive and library.
Two years ago in December 2013 the then Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, announced that the RAN would progressively change the colour scheme of its surface fleet to meet modern war-fighting and regional environmental conditions. It was claimed that the new ‘Haze Grey’ paint scheme, using reflecting pigments, reduces the ship’s infrared signature and also the external shipboard temperatures by up to 20 degrees Celsius, compared to the current ‘Storm Grey’ colour. Research has also shown that the new polysiloxane paints provide improved durability and fire resistance over older polyurethane systems. The results are now being demonstrated as ships leave refits in their new livery.
So what is the history of paint colour adopted by warships? An analysis of paint samples taken from HMS Victory confirms that her now dramatic orange ochre scheme is unlikely to have formed part of her original hull colour. This was mostly black with varnished upper works, black pitch being used extensively as a hull covering on earlier ships owing to its preservative qualities. If we therefore had black ships when did they become grey? And has the shade of this colour changed over time?
Early Colour Schemes
Until the late 1800s the selection of colour schemes for warships was made without considering the need for concealment. British warships of those times had black hulls, white superstructures and buff (yellow) masts and funnels. Many contemporary German naval vessels were painted white overall, while the ships of other nations displayed varied colour schemes. In about 1895 when the first thoughts of war were looming and with considerable increases in the range of naval guns, the German High Seas Fleet was painted a uniform shade of warm grey. Their French counterparts were painted a dark grey.
During the Spanish-American War of 1898 the United States Navy turned to a neutral grey colour scheme for its ships and the Royal Navy followed suit in 1903. In 1912 Russian Fleet Instructions specified a two-tone scheme for both Baltic and Black Sea fleets, with a dark grey hull and light grey upper works.Subsequently all other major navies made similar changes, so that well before the outbreak of WWI grey was recognised as the appropriate colour for all types of warships excepting submarines, which were mostly black.
This simple form of aiding concealment helped reduce the range at which ships were visible in a wide range of sea and weather conditions, when applied generally to mid latitudes in the northern hemisphere. The risk of submarine attack led to the application of camouflage systems in an attempt to disguise and confuse attacking submarines, leading to the ‘Dazzle System’ which has been widely discussed elsewhere.
Colour Schemes from 1901
Early black and white photography tells us little about colour, so where better to start than artistic representation. Much valuable information can be found in ‘The Royal Tour 1901,’ based on the journal of the cruise of HMS Ophir by Petty Officer Harry Price, DSM. The author came from an artistic family and his brother was a Royal Academician. He possessed a copperplate hand of wondrous clarity and was an accomplished artist. At the time of his enlistment his trade was given as a painter and decorator. We must however be careful in observing colour from an artist’s palette, as this can vary with the composition, the amount of natural light and the need to provide contrast between sky and sea. There is also of course the desire of the artist to attract attention, which can lead to undue emphasis on certain features.
There are similarities between the circumstances of the 1901 Royal Tour and those of today. There was a new but now unglamorous elderly king, who had been too long in the royal waiting room. An appealing younger couple found favour on the celebrity stage – the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (later King George V and Queen Mary). Their nine-month tour of an empire on which the sun never set was immensely popular way of saying thank you for supporting the mother country during the Boer War. It was also of great importance to the Commonwealth as Their Highnesses officiated at the opening of the first federation parliament of the Australian states which took place in Melbourne on 9 May 1901.
The Orient liner Ophir was chartered for this tour as no existing royal yacht could span the distances between coaling ports. From the coloured painted sketches in Price’s journal we are able to identify numerous ships involved in this tour. As a commissioned ship Ophirhad a white hull and upper works and buff funnels. She was escorted from home waters by the cruisers HM Ships Diadem and Niobe with black hulls, white upper works and buff masts and funnels. En route they met Portuguese and Spanish men of war with similar paintwork to those of the Royal Navy. In the Mediterranean and through Suez as far as Aden they were escorted by a number of HM Ships, all with similar paint schemes to Diadem and Niobe.
At Aden they were met by HMS Racoon. This ship had a white hull and white upper works with a buff masts and funnel. This livery was maintained by other escorting ships of the East Indies Squadron and China Squadron. At Singapore they were joined in the anchorage by other men of war, a Dutchman in similar livery to the Royal Navy, and an Italian with a white hull but brown masts and funnel. A picture of a Frenchman and Japanese warships is also shown. For the first time we see ships painted grey overall with the exception of funnel tops which have black bands.
Later the royal yacht is met by ships of the Australian Squadron, namely HM Ships Royal Arthur, Ringarooma, Wallaroo and Mildura.All had black hulls with white upper works and buff masts and funnels. On the Australian Station they meet a Russian cruiser with a white hull and buff funnels with a black band at the top, and an American cruiser also white hulled with brown upper works, masts and funnels. A German cruiser has a white hull with buff upper works and funnels. We also met His Majesty’s Colonial Ships Cerberus and Protector with a black hulls, white upper works and buff funnels.
On a voyage to New Zealand they encountered heavy seas before being met by a squadron comprising HM Ships Archer, Pylades, Sparrow and Torch, all in the traditional livery as per Royal Arthur etc. On the homeward voyage at Albany, accompanied by Royal Arthur, St George and Juno, they were saluted by Australian troops in a white hulled SS Britannic on their way home from the wars in South Africa.
On leaving Australia under varying escorts the Ophir made for Mauritius and then South Africa and Canada before proceeding home. On reaching home waters they were met by the Channel Squadron of six battleships and six cruisers.
The flag ship was HMS Magnificent and Petty Officer Price has a picture of her in what he terms ‘War Paint’. He says: ‘Magnificent in full war paint black and grey, and she looked much more formidable than if she was painted in the ordinary naval colours of black, white, yellow and red.’ From these comments it is assumed that this is the first occasion that Price, a seasoned petty officer, had seen a British warship sporting grey livery.
The Duke and Duchess were officially welcomed home by their Majesties in their Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert. She notably had a black hull, white upper works and buff masts and funnels. The author and artist also shows a sketch of HMS Victory, which was then afloat, with black hull highlighted with white gunports.
Colour Schemes from 1914
Mal Wright is another commentator who says at the commencement of WWI Royal Naval capital ships used a colour scheme officially termed ‘Battleship Grey’ which was very dark, almost charcoal grey. This was changed during the first year of the war to ‘Mid Grey,’ partly because of a shortage of dark pigments. However, the new shade proved popular and was retained. When camouflage was first introduced at the time of the Dardanelles campaign it was usually confined to vertical lines of pale grey over dark grey on the funnels and upper works.
Earlier classes of Torpedo Boat Destroyers were black, but dark grey for newer vessels. Eventually, by 1917 most were painted mid grey. HMA Ships Parramatta and Yarra originally had black hulls but after delivery to Australia these were soon changed to grey. Early submarines were black but during WW1other schemes were tried including dark grey, dark green, mid grey and pale grey.
The practice in many ‘Tiddly Ships’ of painting areas around anchor cables and turret tops Brunswick Green continued in many ships throughout the war years. In coal burning ships metal decks around the funnels were painted black, but this was discontinued on oil fuelled ships. Corticene was a mid-brown linoleum-type decking used in many RN ships as an alternative to wood. The Germans used a similar material but coloured pale tan.
Tales from HMS Caroline
The cruiser HMS Caroline is unique to the Royal Navy, remaining in commission from shortly after her launch in 1914 until 2011, and is now being retained as a museum ship. In May 2015 during her restoration it was revealed that during the past one hundred years she had received thirty-eight shades of grey paint, ranging in colour from beige-cream to a rather dark grey at the time of her launch in 1914. An example of these changes is shown on the colour chart on the inside of the back cover of this magazine. The above clearly demonstrates that the colour and consistency of grey paint applied to warships has varied over time.
During the inter-war period the ingredients and formula for mixing Pattern 507C Grey Paint was laid down in Admiralty Fleet Order 1658/27, with similar guidance contained in Commonwealth Navy Order 109/1934. Larger ships where a Painter rating was borne were expected to mix their own paint to the given formula, but smaller ships could draw quantities from Garden Island Dockyard which was mixed to the same formula.
Since WWII the British Standard for ships’ hulls was BS381C Light Grey and a similar Australian Standard was AS1700 42 Storm Grey. Decks are painted BS381C 632 Dark Admiralty Grey, also known as Australian Standard AS1700 N63 Pewter. The Royal Navy experimented with other shades from the mid 1950s with a blue grey tinge, but in 1968 they standardised on BS381C 676 Light Weatherworks Grey for their hulls.
In the 1950s the RAN adopted and retained ‘Storm Grey’ with its greenish tinge. ‘Storm Grey’, a British Navy colour suited to overcast skies of the North Atlantic rather than Australia’s tropical waters. During her conversion to the anti-submarine role at Cockatoo Island Dockyard in 1954 HMAS Queenborough was the first RAN vessel painted Storm Grey. For more than sixty years this colour has served us well and our ships have stood out when berthed with those from other navies. The new colour ‘Haze Grey’ refers to the contrast between the dark blue of the sea and the lighter blue of the sky, which on the horizon merges into a strip of grey. Ships painted this new colour will therefore blend better into the horizon.
The Seamanship Manual
Early editions of that masterpiece of information on ship’s husbandry, the Admiralty Seamanship Manual, are surprisingly reticent on this topic other than advising on the organisation required for painting ship. Gems from Volume II of a 1923 edition include:
The annual service allowance for a fully commissioned ship is eight coats of grey paint for outside and weather parts, two coats of white for inside parts, and one coat biennially of grey and white enamel for definite spaces. The shade of grey used for outside work is laid down.
While the supply of paint at these times appears copious the quality was possibly not of the highest standard. Usually two coats were required and then, when ships were measured by their appearance there was a continuous touch up process.
From Colonial times to the present day the colour schemes adopted by ships serving on the Australian Station has been one of constant modification and change. The new, lighter shade of ‘Haze Grey’ should be well suited to our environmental conditions.
Admiralty Seamanship Manual Volume II, London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1923 Edition.
Gardiner, Richard & Brown, David K. (Editors),The Eclipse of the Big Gun: The Warship of 1906-1945, London: Conway Maritime Press, 1992.
Price, Harry, The Royal Tour 1901, Exeter: Webb & Bower, 1980.
Wright, Mal, Warship Colour Schemes of World War 1, accessed 1 October 2015, http://www.gwpda.org/naval/s1200000.htm