The following article is still copyright by Mal. Wright and is reproduced here with his permission. It provides a summary of the colour schemes applied to the warships of various nations.
Colour Schemes of WW1 Warships
By Mal.Wright. © Revised 2003.
Note 15 April 2018: This post has been updated from the original to include a colour chart, also courtesy of Mal. While the chart was originally prepared for the British and Commonwealth Warship during the Second World War, the colour chips are near enough for the colours used in the First World War.
The chart also is, of course, copyright by Mal. Wright.
At the commencement of WW1 the British were using a grey officially termed “Battleship Grey”. This was very dark, almost charcoal grey and can be easily Spotted in early photographs. During the first year however, this was changed to ‘mid’ grey, partly because of the shortage of dark pigments and the realisation that shortages might get worse as the War went on. The new shade proved better. In the mid war period, many Battlecruisers, had a panel of dark grey, or dark blue, amidships on the hull. This did not reach to the bow or stern. The length being usually, from fore turret to aft turret. It was intended to give a ‘shortening’ effect, when viewed at a long distance, to confuse the enemy as to range. New Zealand had a white ensign painted on both sides of her foretop. Black waterlines were discontinued in some areas, although major units, with the Grand Fleet usually continued the practice.
Torpedo Boats and Destroyers were usually black for early classes, but dark grey for newer vessels. Units of the ‘L’ class entered service in black, but soon changed to grey. War built units usually completed in ‘Mid Grey.’ By 1917 nearly all Destroyers and smaller were grey. Only a few torpedo boats continued in black, until the war’s end. On ‘Tiddly ships’ (Fancy) the practice of painting the metal areas around the anchor cables in Brunswick green was continued and most turret tops were in dark, flat, Brunswick Green on capital ships. Some may have used dark grey. After Jutland, the idea was adopted, of painting some turrets of Battleships and Battle cruisers, very dark grey. These were then marked with White calibration marks so that other ships could see the direction the guns were trained, even if unable to see the target, themselves.
Which turrets were painted this way, was deliberately varied from ship to ship in all classes, which helped within the squadron, when identifying units, in low visibility. The placing of aircraft flying off platforms was similarly varied.
Cortesine was a mid brown linoleum type decking used on small ships in areas where the crew required a good foot grip but timber would have been too heavy. Cortesine was also used on larger ships as an alternative to wood on high areas such as the bridge and bridge wings, where men had to stand for long hours on watch. This was to protect their feet from the cold of metal decks. Strips of Cortesine often ran along the decks of some ships particularly to torpedo tubes and etc. These formed an impression of footpaths running along the deck. Unlike other nations there is no evidence that the metal strips holding these down, were polished. On older ships that used coal, It was the custom, to paint the horizontal metal decks directly around the funnels black. This was discontinued on oil burning ships. Those with grey decks normally had the horizontal surfaces in a darker shade.
Wooden decks were ‘holy stoned’ daily, and took on a very whitish colour on British ships. German decks were slightly darker due to different timber, but similarly cleaned each day. Holystoning consists of virtually ‘sandpapering’ the wood fresh each day, with special stones. The task was hated by crews and they were delighted when, in smaller ships, such as cruisers, that spent a lot of time at sea, the practice was discontinued for the period of hostilities. It continued on Capital Ships, partly to give the crew something to do in a very boring daily routine.
British Capital ships often carried triangular black/grey metal or canvas sections projecting between the funnels and from masts. This was intended to confuse German range finders as it was thought they used a similar system to the British. (They did not).
British ships had carried an extensive system of coloured bands on their funnels pre WW1 and this was continued during the period between the wars. However, it was not widely used during either war. Destroyer leaders sometimes did have a black or red band on their fore funnels to help identify them from other units in a flotilla but the practice was not used for ships larger than destroyers.
Canvas was painted grey in home waters, using the same paint as the rest of the ship Because of the nature of the material it took on a slightly lighter appearance than when used on metal. The canvas on ships boats appears to have remained mostly white, or a pale grey. On the Mediterranean station, it was common for canvas to be painted white for British Major ships and many other pre-war practices to be continued.
The official over all colour for the Mediterranean, was the same mid grey as the Home Fleet, however in some notable cases this was modified into a camouflage by applying light grey or white, over it. The Dardanelles is a good example of this. It was usually confined to up and down lines of pale over dark, on funnels and upper works. The same style was applied to the INVINCIBLE at the Battle of the Falklands. False bow waves were also more common in the Mediterranean than with the Home Fleet.
Hull pennant numbers on smaller ships were changed from time to time to confuse the enemy. They varied from white, to red or black. Toward the end of the war there were so many ships in service that the practice of changing them was discontinued (It was confusing their own side).
When the British adopted Camouflage schemes, it was not intended to hide the vessel, but to confuse the viewer as to its direction of heading, speed etc. For this reason colours such as black and white stripes, chevrons or checks, might be used, sloping in different directions. All on the same ship. The variety of colours changed according to the camouflage design. Light cruisers used on patrol duty in the North Sea were painted in lighter colours because of the notoriously varied visibility and fogs. HMS FORWARD was painted in a mixture of sea-sick-green, pale mauve, grey, black, and white in a ‘crazy quilt’ or ‘Dazzle’ style.
Only a few British Destroyers were painted in this fashion. The practice where it did occur seems to be limited to Convoy escorts, particularly Flower class sloops and other late war types.
Experiments were carried out early in the war, to try to conceal ships. It was decided fairly quickly that the varying light conditions a ship could experience from day to day, hour to hour, meant that no scheme could suit all. The only reasonable successful schemes, such as the American Mackay style, were most effective in dull conditions, over 8,000 yards. In these conditions the ship could indeed be hard to see. However if the ship was that far away, it was already safe from submarine attack.
The danger zone for U Boat attack was less than 6,000 yards. At such a range it was impossible to hide a ship on the open sea. Therefore if the ship could not be hidden, then the next best thing was to confuse its appearance and deny submarines the chance to easily determine its course and speed. Therefore while many WW1 dazzle schemes may appear to make the ship more visible, and be of quite lurid designs, it must be kept in mind ‘why’ they were painted that way.
It was extensively used in the Atlantic. Due to the huge shipping losses of 1917, orders were issued for ALL merchant ships to be painted in ‘crazy quilt’ or ‘Dazzle’ camouflages. This was carried out from very small ships to the largest liners. It was also carried over to Seaplane Carriers with the Grand Fleet and other auxiliary vessels, convoy escort sloops etc.
Atlantic type dazzle camouflage does not seem to have been as commonly used in the Mediterranean, partly because brighter conditions made it harder to achieve the desired results. However Monitors on duty in the Aegean area, were often painted earth brown, or khaki. This made them hard to see against the coast, if being attacked by a U Boat approaching from seaward.
Submarines went through various schemes, starting with black. They later tried dark grey, dark green, mid grey and pale grey. Two Royal Sovereign class Battleships were camouflaged. One fully, and one only from the hull up. It must be remembered that WW1 camouflage schemes were intended to confuse enemy submarines as to the course and direction of the ship. It had been decided it was impossible to actually hide a ship from observation. Hence, bright patterns and colours abound often in check and stripe combinations.
Commonwealth countries used the same schemes as the British fleet however most Australian destroyers appear to have mid grey hulls, and light grey upper works.
Officially mid grey hull with light grey upper works and funnels. I’ve already mentioned the decks above. Most water lines were painted dark grey, rather than black. Later in the war a darker grey hull was introduced and the light grey upper works retained. This was rather more complicated in its application than might be thought. At the lowest points it was darker and as it got higher on the hull, became a lighter grey. The same applied to painting of the upper works. The effect was not all that noticeable and from most photographs one would not even know this had been done.
None the less photographs taken at the right angle, and light conditions show it more clearly. There were a few problems keeping up the neatness of German paint schemes from 1917 onward due to a shortage of pigments and paint in general. At Scapa Flow, the interned fleet was allowed to deteriorate quickly, due to not only small maintenance crews, but also paint lockers that were almost empty. However, photographs of ships at Scapa Flow do tend to show the darker grey hulls, to greater effect.
The Germans went through very little changes in their schemes…. they were not at sea often enough to have as much experience with visibility problems as the British. However, recognition was important, so before leaving harbour secret orders would be issued. As soon as the ships were out of sight of land the crew painted the AFT funnel, in the colour these orders stipulated. For example at Jutland, the aft funnel of all German warships were painted dark red. At Dogger Bank they were painted in light blue.
This was similar to the WW2 German practice of painting one or two turrets in a special colour for certain operations, as a recognition guide.
As a further means of air recognition, Battleships and Battlecruisers had a large white circle painted on the fore turret from 1917. If two turrets forward, it was on the upper one. Many ships carried this on the aft turret as well. The practice was extended to large cruisers but only occasionally seen on smaller ships. If used, it was on the foredeck in front of the guns.
Canvas, remained white for some time. However, was eventually painted pale grey. It is possible that the ‘white’ canvas was in fact just the difference in light between metal and canvas surfaces painted in light grey. This could have been corrected later by darkening the grey to make it appear the same. Lifeboats were mostly rich brown and canvas covers, if used, were grey.
As with the British, Cortesine was used on many ships instead of wood. It saved weight but was not as cold underfoot for the crews, as steel. The German version was a bright tan with a reddish touch. Rich reddish brown would suffice on a model. It would normally be found on bridge decks, lookout positions etc. German light cruisers often had more Cortesine than wood.
As with the British, it was common for large areas of horizontal deck around the funnels to be painted in matt black. Masts were painted grey up to the level of the funnel tops, then black above that. If the ship had fighting tops, these were in pale grey.
Torpedo boats and Destroyers were painted black for most of the war. An excellent result can be obtained by using ‘grimy black’ found in railway hobby colours. If you can’t find that, then an extremely dark charcoal grey gives the right effect. Later they went to mid grey and light grey or a combination of both. They were generally easy to spot from British Destroyers as they normally had a stump foremast and tall main mast carrying radio aerials.
German submarines started out painted in mid grey. They later adopted dark grey Decks. Mid grey with dark grey decks and light grey conning tower seems to be the end of war standard. Many surrendered U Boats appear to have various forms of mottled camouflage schemes on the conning tower and above water, vertical surfaces. The German navy did not use camouflage schemes on surface ships.
Turkish major ships were normally painted in a pale khaki and the wooden decks being less scrubbed were darker. This was because of their role as a mostly coastal navy. Pale, Yellowish khaki, concealed them against coastlines in their area of operation. Under German influence, some ships were re-painted grey. Canvas was painted in khaki as well, but this was far from standard. Waterlines, where painted in, were red. Torpedo boats were normally black or later Khaki. The sun bleached decks, not the crews and many of the ‘fancy’ maintenance ideas of other navies were not practised. Water line colour appears to have been red.
Italy used very dark blue grey in the early period, but went to pale grey later. In some cases ships in northern Italian waters, were painted dark grey during winter and pale grey during summer. The turret tops were painted in dark grey in all schemes. Many upper deck horizontal surfaces were painted dark grey. Black was commonly used around the funnels and areas where coal was loaded. The shade of pale grey was so pale as to appear almost white in some photographs. Decks were smartly cleaned and appear very pale as with British and German ships that had been holystoned.
Torpedo boats were black, but later went to pale grey or mid grey. Some destroyers adopted a camouflage scheme of blue grey and pale grey, of very similar form to that used by Italy in WW2. Recognition of individual units was achieved through a two-letter combination. AO for example being a shortening of ‘Ardito’. These letters were often in RED, but occasionally in black.
Pre-War these ships were painted in dark Green. This continued through at least the early part of WW1 for some ships. However, Capital ships had started to convert to light grey in the weeks before war was declared. Some of the models in the Arsenal Museum in Vienna are shown in both schemes. However a diorama of the fleet in 1917 shows all ships in pale grey.
Decks were pale wood. Cortesine does not seem to have been as much used. it was probably not considered important, as Austrian major ships rarely stayed at sea long enough for anyone to get uncomfortable! I know of only one instance where the Battleships ‘over-nighted’ at sea, during the war. The Cortesine was light tan.
Water lines were red if the ship was in dark green. Later when grey was adopted they became mid green. Lifeboats were pale grey, but with light tan canvas tops. The shade was similar to that of the wooden decks.
Torpedo boats were also painted in dark green for most of the war, particularly smaller types. But this appears to be a darker, almost black shade. From 1916 onward, destroyers were painted in the same grey as capital ships and new construction torpedo boats adopted the same colour.
Identification of units was achieved with numbers or number and letter combinations 20% of the ships length, back from the bow. Some smaller torpedo boats had these numbers further forward due to hull design constraints.
When Austrian ships changed to a light grey, this was undoubtedly to take advantage of the frequent misty conditions in the Northern Adriatic at some times of the year. This type of weather condition was less common in the southern Adriatic.
Austrian submarines were usually painted pale grey all over. Some appear to have dark grey decks.
French large warships were usually painted in a mid to dark grey during the war. Pre WW1 they were in pale grey or dark grey, depending on station. At the turn of the century, they had black hulls and white upper works, with ochre funnels. However, this became brownish ochre for upper works and funnels, prior to the change over to grey. During the previous century they had black hulls, with yellow brown or white, upper works, depending on where they were stationed.
Many ships adopted false bow waves to confuse submarines. These normally comprised a white, wavy line at the bow, but a few ships had a solid section of white hull forward, with a jagged edge marking the end of it, before the forward turret. In some ships such as the Requin, which was used in the defence of the Suez Canal, the forward gun was also painted white and the front of the turret (with part of the side) in white with again a jagged edge toward the aft end of the painted area. The rest of the turret was painted black.
The decks were wood, but although clean, were not holystoned and therefore more faded wood colour. Some were wiped over with used cooking oil to preserve them and provide protection from seawater.
Because of the French practice of making defaulters serve out punishment by hard labour, it was common for some turrets on major ships to appear in a shade of ‘Bronze brown. This was achieved by having the defaulters scrub the outside of those particular turrets with used cooking oil left over from the galley. This can be clearly seen in black and white photographs, where some turrets appear very much darker than the rest. Which turrets this was applied too, varied from ship to ship.
Torpedo boats were painted in dark grey or black. Destroyers and torpedo boats, later adopted mid grey. Upper surfaces were usually hull colour. On ships that were coal fired, (most) black was often used around bunkers. The Destroyers delivered from Japan were in mid-blue-grey.
It was common for funnel markings to be used as a means of recognition. Large letters in black or white, abbreviation of the name, on torpedo craft as a means of recognition. Black, or white, being chosen to contrast with the main scheme in use. On most French warships squadron and flotilla markings on funnels were quite prominent.
In some cases sections of the bow and stern was painted black, and then followed by a sawtooth pattern of white on the inner side. The ‘teeth’ were into the edge of the black. This was to confuse submarines as to speed and course. Waterlines were black or red.
Japanese warships that went to the Mediterranean were painted in standard Japanese mid blue grey, with canvas also over painted in grey. Waterlines were black. They were very neat and tidy vessels that created a good impression on all that served with them.
The Australian destroyers of the ‘River’ class worked with the Japanese and seemed to hold them in much higher opinion than French or Italian vessels. The Japanese units managed to remain smart looking, yet spent much more time at sea than other navies.
There was quite a lot of use of dark reddish brown Cortesine, held down by strips of polished brass. Generally, the Japanese tended to follow British practice in the presentation of their ships, except for the bluer shade of grey.
American warships adopted similar paint schemes to those of the Royal Navy when serving with the Grand Fleet. However, some Battleships had an area of black and white patches on the bow, presumably to cause confusion as to speed. The wood used on the decks was darker than that on European vessels. However although kept clean and washed down with salt water daily, it was not polished and was permitted to fade into a pale greyish wood colour. Cortesine used on US ships was a dark rich chocolate in colour. Its placement was much the same as with other navies. Water lines were red.
In the previous century, the peacetime colours had been a white hull, cinnamon brown upper works and funnels of cinnamon, or yellow. However, this was never seriously considered a war scheme and all ships were quickly painted in mid grey at the beginning of the Spanish American War. Apart from a few years prior to 1910, they had adopted grey permanently by WW1.
Most ships were painted in a standard mid grey, but the USN seems to have adopted camouflage amongst its smaller warships with some enthusiasm. Destroyers were often camouflaged in ‘Dazzle’ type, confusion patterns involving a strong and contrasting mix of colours. They also experimented with and tried, various low visibility schemes etc.
US involvement was too short for many other changes to take place.
Ships serving in the Baltic were painted in a mid grey, tending toward the dark. Canvas was grey also. Decks were scrubbed wood, but not holystoned. Waterlines were usually painted in green, but red was also used on occasion.
Turret tops appear to be the same shade as the hull and masts are black above the funnels. Boats were brown and if they had canvas covers, these appear to be brown as well.
Russian ships do not seem to have used camouflage at all. Destroyers appear to be mostly of a shade lighter than the larger ships, however this could be the result of photographic quality. They appear to have black decks on coal burning vessels as was common in other navies.
Ships serving in the Black Sea were painted as above, except in pale grey. Ships serving with the Arctic and Vladivostok squadrons appear to be painted in dark grey. During the Russo Japanese war, many ships at Port Arthur were over painted in a pale cinnamon colour. However this does not seem to have been used in WW1.