Paint Schemes of British and Commonwealth Warships of WW2 — Review

Paint Schemes of British Commonwealth Warships of World War 2 - Vol 1 coverMal Wright has been researching and drawing ships (and painting them1, and modelling them, and Wargaming with them) for more years than I have been a wargamer. I believe his researches into ships goes back some 40 years and apart from combining through dusty reference books long forgotten in the back of libraries and using the Internet for more recent searching, his researches have also included talking with many veterans whilst they were still with us. His discussions on that most mysterious of warship colours, Mountbatten Pink2 being a good example of this.

This book is then the first of what will hopefully be a series on warship colours throughout the Second World War, by Mal, via Pen and Sword Books.

Volume 1 deals with Destroyers, Frigates, Sloops, Escorts, Minesweepers, Submarines, Coastal Forces and Auxiliaries of the British and British Commonwealth fleets.

I have been fortunate to have access to a pre-publishing version of the book and I must admit, I can hardly wait for it to appear on the shelves. This version already has me checking the British and Commonwealth Warships I have at home waiting for paint.

The Second World War was where most of the world’s navies really started to use low visibility camouflage on their ships. This had been tried in the First World War, particularly the “dazzle” schemes of merchant vessels and later some US Navy vessels. The idea behind the earlier dazzle schemes was not so much to hide the vessel but rather to confuse U-Boats in particular on the vessels exact heading and speed. Whether this was actually effective or not is a matter of some conjecture and debate but there are a number of useful references on the World Wide Web to this.

By the time of the Second World War low visibility camouflage was being used on both the horizontal and vertical surfaces of ships to:

  • reduce visibility – trying to blend in with the sea and horizon
  • disguise the identity of ships (make big ships look smaller)
  • disguise the speed (false wakes designed to make the ships look like they are moving faster than they are)
  • or just confuse the viewer – either viewing at sea-level or from the air

To make the writing of a book like this even more difficult, whilst there were some “official” colour schemes and colour chips, what occurred in practice was a little different, with the vagaries of interpretation of the official instructions, the local availability of paint and so on governing what a vessel finally looked like.

There are 144 pages of diagrams in this book (and there are some example pages included here) with a total of 740 illustrations. In many cases, the paint scheme on a vessel may have changed several times throughout the course of the war, especially, for example, where a vessel may originally have been assigned to the Atlantic, then to the Indian and finally the Pacific Oceans. Mal attempts to cover as many of these as possible. He also discusses the changes in armament and electronics that affected the appearance of the vessel.

Rather than simply give an example of the colours of say, the P-class of destroyers, Mal gives two illustrations of HMS Petard (1942 and 1945 colours);  HMSs Porcupine and Panther. He follows this pattern throughout, giving several examples from each class and noting where there were significant changes to the appearance of ships through. As an example of diversity, the Q-class destroyers were originally a class of 8 destroyers built for the Royal Navy. Many were transferred to other navies. In Mal’s book he illustrates HMSs Quail; Quentin; Quilliam; HNMS Bankcert; HMASs Quickmatch; Quiberon; Quadrant; and HMS (later HMAS) Quality – all 8 vessels are illustrated.

The book starts with the old World War One destroyers still in service, then those built in the inter-war years leading into the World War 2 built destroyers. Mal covers all the ships and classes of vessels smaller than cruisers3. Mal even covers the coastal craft, trawlers, minesweepers and such that were such an important part of the war effort but often overlooked.

The best thing I have found about this book however

Four modified Flower-class corvettes from three navies
Four modified Flower-class corvettes from three navies

is that many of the schemes in there I have not seen before and I am sure that it would take me many hours of painstaking research to find them. I can also admit that I have never managed to catch Mal out yet (I thought I had with HMS Quality but reaslised that his illustration is the 1942 version whilst the official web-page for HMAS Quality shows the vessel probably in 1945 colours.

Now that I have had a chance to have a long look through the book, I can recommend it even more strongly than I did back on 7 March 2014 when I first recommended it.

It is available for pre-order (with appropriate discount) until, I guess, sometime in June. It’s release date is set for 30 June 2014.


1. Perhaps not painting the real ships but certainly painting models and maritime art works.
2. Mal relates that he remembers “one ex sailor laughing that HMAS Hobart arrived in Fremantle from the Mediterranean painted pink. In his story he said he thought it was because they had mixed undercoat into grey because they were short of paint, but as soon as the ship arrived in Sydney they painted it grey again. He had obviously never heard of the famous Mountbatten pink scheme and nor had I so I was unsure if he was just telling a tall tale. In later years I realised he what he had seen was a well used camouflage in the Mediterranean theatre of war up till late 1942”.
3. Cruisers, battleships, carriers and such will be covered in later volumes. I have seen some proof drawings of the odd battleship and can hardly wait for its appearance in print.

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