Warship Colour Schemes of World War I

Courtesy of Mal Wright (GALLOPINGJACK@bigpond.com).


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 it might get worse as the War went on. The new shade proved better.

Torpedo Boats and Destroyers were usually black for earlier classes, but dark grey for newer vessels. 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' 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.

If you check out the art work section on my page, you'll find a painting of HMS KING GEORGE V. in 1918. She is depicted in the typical scheme of the time, including the idea of painting some turrets very dark grey and marking them with white calibration marks so that other ships could see the direction the guns were trained on, even if they were unable to see the target themselves. This was deliberately varied from ship to ship in all classes. So the turret painted like this can be different from ship to ship, which helped within the squadron, when identifying units in low visibility. The placing of aircraft flying off platforms was similarly varied.

Corticene was a mid brown linoleum type decking used on small ships in areas where the crew required a good foot grip as timber would have been too heavy. Corticene 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. The Germans used a similar material but it was a pale tan in colour.

Strips of cortecine often ran along the decks of some ships particularly to torpedo tubes and etc.

It was the custom to paint the horizontal metal decks directly around the funnels, black on ships that used coal. This was discontinued on oil burning ships.

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. Holy stoning 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 expected they used a similar system to the British. (They did not).

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. On the Mediterranean station it was more common for canvas to be painted white in British Major ships and for a lot of pre-war practices to be continued.

The official colour was the same mid grey as the Home Fleet, however in some notable cases this can be seen to be modified into a camouflage using light grey. The Dardanelles is a good example of this. It was usually confined to up and down lines of pale grey over dark grey, on funnels and upper works. The same applied to the INVINCIBLE at the Battle of the Falklands. False bow waves were also common in the Mediterranean more than with the Home Fleet.

Hull pennant numbers on smaller ships were not constant and were changed from time to time to confuse the enemy. They varied from white, to red or black. I understand that 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 went to Camouflage schemes in a big way, 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 might be used, sloping in different directions or painted in chevrons....all on the same ship. The variety of colours changed according to the role of the ship. For example 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 pink, grey, black, and white in a 'crazy quilt' style.

I have never seen any evidence of Destroyer sized ships painted in this fashion. Some were however painted with a dark grey hull and lighter grey upperworks. Black waterlines were usually discontinued, although once again, 'tiddly ships', with the Grand Fleet sometimes did so.

Camouflage does not seem to have been as commonly used in the Mediterranean, partly because the brighter conditions seemed to make it harder to achieve the desired results. 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' 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.

Submarines went through various schemes, starting with black. They later tried dark grey, dark green, mid grey and pale grey.


Officially mid grey hull with light grey upperworks and funnels. I've already mentioned the decks above. Most water-lines were painted green, rather than black. Later in the war a darker grey hull was introduced and the light grey upperworks retained. 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. Canvas remained white for some time but 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.

As with the British, it was common for large areas of horizontal deck around the funnels to be painted in matt black.

Torpedo boats were painted black for most of the war. Later they went to mid grey and light grey or a combination of both.

German submarines started out painted in mid grey. They later adopted dark grey decks and in some cases styles of disruptive camouflage. Mid grey with dark grey decks and light grey conning tower seems to be the end of war standard.


The Turkish major ships were normally painted in a pale khaki and the wooden decks being less scrubbed were browner. This was because of their role as a mostly coastal navy. 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. Torpedoboats were normally black or later Khaki.


Italy used very dark blue grey in the early period, but went to pale grey later. 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. Torpedoboats were black, but later went to pale grey or mid grey.

Austro-Hungarian Navy

Pre-War these ships were painted in dark Green. This continued through at least the early part of WW1. Some of the models in the Arsenal Museum in Vienna are shown in this scheme. Decks were pale wood. Cortecine 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. Water lines were red. Later when grey was adopted they became mid green.

Torpedoboats were also painted in dark green.

During the mid war period Austrian ships changed to a light grey. This was undoubtably to take advantage of the frequent misty conditions in the Adriatic at some times of the year. At the same time most destroyers and torpedo boats changed to pale grey.

Austrian submarines were usually painted pale grey all over.


French large warships were usually painted in a mid grey.

Many ships adopted false bow waves to confuse submarines.

The decks were wood, but although clean, were not holystoned and therefore more faded wood colour.

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 in used cooking oil left over from the gallery. This can be seen in black and white photographs, where some turrets appear very much darker than the rest. Which turrets this was done to 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, but on ships that were coal fired (most) black was often used around bunkers. The Destroyers delivered from Japan were in mid-blue-grey.

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, 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 direction of target movement.

Waterlines were black or red.


Japanese warships that went to the Mediterranean were painted in standard Japanese mid blue grey, with canvas also overpainted 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 ships.

United States

American warships adopted similar paint schemes to those of the Royal Navy when serving with the Grand Fleet. Others 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 confusion patterns involving a strong and contrasting mix of colours. US involvement was too short for many other changes to take place.

Last Updated: 12 July, 1999.

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