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Blackburn Skua and Roc colour schemes.

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The one thing I get most correspondence about is the colour schemes worn by Skuas and Rocs. There was a lot of contradictory evidence on the subject. this has largely been cleared up by Stuart Lloyd's book  "Fleet Air Arm Camouflage and Markings - Atlantic and Mediterranean Theatres 1937-1941" which came out in 2008.

Prior to the outbreak of World War Two Skuas had a "silver" dull aluminium finish - All the photographic evidence points to Skuas being delivered from the Blackburn Factory with this bare "aluminium" looking finish with just "type A" red-white-blue style roundels (the walkways at the wing root were black). It has been suggested that this was not silver at all, but a very light grey, "Cerrux Grey", a protective finish manufactured by the Cellon company. It is certainly noticeable in all the photos of Skuas from the this time that the surfaces gave off very little reflection.

Cellon Company Advert
This 1939 advert for the Cellon company gives weight to the theory put forward by Ian D. Huntley that Skuas were produced with a finish of "Cerrux Grey".

In contrast the majority of Rocs delivered from the Boulton and Paul factory were delivered already painted in a camouflage scheme. Once issued to Fleet Air Arm squadrons Skuas were painted with bright identification stripes which varied from squadron to squadron.  Flight and squadron leaders seem to often have had additional stripes on the rudder. 

Skua Card

This contemporary postcard is probably an accurate representation of one particular Skua (the serial number L2882 is correct).

Unit three letter identity codes (Air group(Carrier)- Squadron- Individual Aircraft)  were painted over the fuselage band.

The following codes are noted for the four squadrons that used Skuas for combat duties.

800 Squadron - a time with single identification letters then A6

801 Squadron  - a period with no codes at all, then U6 then A7

803 Squadron -A7 (in use at the time of the silver Skua "photo shoot" as in photo below) - then A8 (at time of Königsberg + Scharnhorst attack) then S6

806 Squadron - L6

Pre-war shot of 803 squadron. Fuselage band was blue-red-blue. ID letters A=Ark Royal, 7 = 803 Sqdn, G = Individual aircraft letter.

Pre-war shot of 803 squadron. Fuselage band was blue-red-blue. ID letters A=Ark Royal, 7 = 803 Sqdn, G = Individual aircraft letter.

At the outbreak of war there seems to have been no hurry to camouflage the Skuas in a disruptive pattern. Skuas operating from the Ark Royal   retained what looks like an overall dull silver aluminium finish for the latter months of 1939, including the period the carrier operated in the South Atlantic searching for the Graf Spee.

By the spring of 1940 most Skuas had adopted camouflage. This was a scheme called "S1E" and was detailed for the Skua in Air Diagram AD1173 issued in March 1939 (reproduced on page 106/107 of Stuart Lloyd's "Fleet Air Arm Camouflage and Markings"). This detailed a camouflage scheme of Extra Dark Sea Grey and Dark Slate Grey on the top of the wing and extending 1/3 of the way down the fuselage with all undersufaces, fuselage sides and rudder in Sky Grey. The Extra Dark Sea Grey had a bluey tinge to it. The term "Dark Slate Grey" is misleading, since most people looking at this colour would identify it as a shade of green.(Those people lucky enough to own copies of the wartime produced "Aircraft of the Fighting Powers" will find the colours illustrated by colour chips on page XXIII of volume V).   The discovery of a rare colour film of a Skua from early 1940 (see below for an example) illustrates this S1E scheme well.

Skua L2991, Image courtesy of Øyvind Lamo.

This rare colour image of a Skua is courtesy of Øyvind Lamo who runs the Operation Skua website. It shows Skua L2991 (8Q) from 803 Squadron. It was hit by gunfire in a dogfight with a Heinkel 111, over Åndalsnes in the Romsdalsfjord, on April 26th 1940. The aircraft made it to Ålesund, near the coast, and ditched in the harbour there. Still afloat it was towed to a shipyard nearby, and lifted ashore. The pilot, Lt.Cecil Howard "Kik" Filmer, survived and  after the war he went to live in Durban in South Africa. He died on 15th July 2007 at the age of 92. The Observer/Gunner Petty Officer K.G. Baldwin was hit during the dogfight, and killed.

 Jamie Tindall's rendering of the Skua camouflage scheme for Microsoft Combat Flight Sim 2

Jamie Tindall's rendering of the Skua camouflage scheme for Microsoft Combat Flight Sim 2. .

When Skuas operated as fighters in defence of  Scapa Flow and other naval bases they became an adjunct of RAF Fighter Command, so they adopted the RAFs scheme meant to aid the Royal Observer Corps to easily identify friendly fighters at height through binoculars. This entailed the port underside of the wing being painted black and the starboard white. When this half black/white scheme was used it was usual for there to be no underwing roundels (although there seem to have been many exceptions). This black/white underside scheme was adopted very early in the war, even before adoption of the S1E scheme, and black/white undersides are a feature of the otherwise silver/grey Skuas operating from the Ark Royal in the search for Graf Spee in 1939 (a photo on page 145 of Stuart Lloyds "Fleet Air Arm Camouflage and Markings" clearly shows that that it was a gloss black on the Ark Royal Skuas at this stage, probably because of a shortage of the regulation matt black).  When the Skua squadrons adopted S1E the black/white underwing markings were retained and they were worn by most of the Skuas involved in the early Norwegian campaign and the Dunkirk operations, but had been overpainted by the time of the attack on Scharnhorst.

Skua Underside

This picture of a Skua being recovered from the sea off Bermuda reveals some interesting points - Note how the undercarriage and flap recess on the port side are painted black - This shows that at one stage the underside of the port wing was painted black - also it is just possible to make out the outline of a roundel on the port wing, showing through the overpainted light underside paint.

The three-letter identity code was carried vertically on the rudder. The "carrier group" identity letter was ordered to be dropped before the start of the Norwegian campaign, and some squadrons dropped the squadron code as well (for example in the colour photo above the Skua only carries "Q" the individual aircraft identification letter). So for the initial stages of the Norwegian campaign (April 1940) the rudder fin would usually be a light grey with either one individual aircraft code letter at the base, and perhaps an additional Squadron number above it.  From May 1940 red-white-blue flashes started to be applied to the fixed part of the aircraft fin. It also became usual for the fuselage roundel to have an outer yellow ring (style "A1"). At this stage the individual aircraft code letter was usually retained at the base of the fin painted over the fin flashes. The movable rudder was still in the light grey colour. The fin flashes were a feature of Skuas operating in the Narvik campaign and the attack on the Scharnhorst (May -June 1940).   

There is good article "Plumbing the Depths" in the December 2011 edition of Scale Aircraft Modeller written by Matt Willis about the camouflage scheme of Skua L2896 which was shot down in the raid on the Scharnhorst, and recovered in 2011. The aircraft had the letter "A" in Green with a Black background on the Fin and the underside paint seems to be a distinct pale blue colour, not the sky grey that might be expected, leading to speculation about the colour being mixed from blue and white to cover up the black/white undersides previously used. This pale blue colour covered the inderside of the wings, the extreme bottom of the fuselage and the area of the fuselage under the tailplane (Click here to see a side profile on the Norwegian Luftartsmuseum website). The presumption is that many of the other Skuas on the Raid would have carried similar paint schemes.

From June the moveable rudder started to be camouflaged in the darker upper-surface camouflage scheme and the aircraft identification letter was moved to the fuselage side. At the same time the black and white underwing identification colours were being ordered to be overpainted with the colour "sky" (sky was a duck-egg-green colour distinct from the sky grey).

The colour scheme of the Skuas, with the dark camouflage only covering the top third of the fuselage, was similar to that used by German Bf109s. During the Dunkirk actions there were alarming instances of losses to friendly fire by Skua Squadrons involved. - As 1940 wore on the photographic record shows that on many Skuas the dividing line between the top dark camouflage and the lighter underside had crept down to halfway down the fuselage and was often wavy, rather than the ruler-straight demarcation usually used earlier in the year (for examples see page 112, 121  and 125 of Stuart Lloyd's "Fleet Air Arm Camouflage and Markings").

To complicate matters it seems that those Skuas and Rocs allocated to the RAF administered Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Units (AACU) were often camouflaged in the standard RAF brown and green colours, with the dark camouflage extending all the way down the sides of the fuselage. Such aircraft had usually started off with an all-over black and yellow "target tug" scheme and the black and yellow undersurfaces were usually  retained by Skuas and Rocs operated by the AACU. 

Skua with all-over black and yellow "tiger stripe" finish.

Skua Target Tug underside

Skua L3007 in target tug "tiger stripe" colours. Contrary to some reports L3007 was not the first Skua delivered in this scheme, there is a photo of L2996 in the same scheme at Blackburn's airfield at Brough ( L3007 was itself later repainted in the S1E colour scheme).

Jamie Tindalls impressive target tug colour scheme for Microsoft Combat Flight Sim 2.

This is an impressive colour target tug colour scheme by Jamie Tindall for Microsoft Flight Sim 2.

In August 1940 Fleet Air Arm aircraft were ordered to switch to the new officially promulgated "Temperate Sea" scheme (Air Ministry Memorandum S5506) - This was upper surfaces of  the familiar extra dark sea grey  and dark slate grey  and underside of  sky . As mentioned earlier the extra dark sea grey had a distinct blue tinge and the dark slate grey would have been identified as a dull green by most observers. Sky was meant to be a pale duck-egg green, but shortages of the regulation paint meant it was often mixed locally from whatever was available, resulting in duck-egg blue and light blue shades. S5506 also formalised the fin flash into a rectangle 24 inches long and 27 inches high (e.g. red white and blue stripes 8 inches wide). However the demarcation line between the upper camouflage and the lower was still not formalised and Skuas and Rocs sported a range of variations. It was only when DTD 144 was issued in March 1941 which specified that the dark upper camouflage should extend down the sides of the fuselage to meet the camouflaged upper surfaces of the wings.

ASR Skua

This Skua on ASR duties (picture above) features a demarcation line between the upper and lower camouflage that curves down to meet the wing root.

Skua L2950

Skua L2950 in immaculate condition. Presumably cleaned up and repainted to go on display alongside a captured Bf109 in the city of Hull, not far from the Blackburn factory where the Skua's were produced. The stencilling on the fuselage and tailplane are particularly evident. Note the extra armoured glass and metal side-plates added to the windscreen of Skuas starting in the second half of 1940.

The use of fin flahes means this photo was taken after May 1940, but it is impossible to tell from the photo if the aircraft were in early camouflage or the later "temperate sea" scheme. Note the difference in styles of Roundel - "A" type, "B" type and "B" type with "A1" yellow outer ring. There seems to be little standardisation.

Rocs in formation -It is impossible to tell the difference on black and white photographs between the "temperate sea" scheme, and the RAF brown and green scheme.

Roc L3090

Nice view of a Roc with type "A" roundels on both the wings and fuselage. Notice the line where the tail assembly joins the fuselage. The production of the tail assemblies of both the Skua and Roc were sub-contracted to the General Aircraft Company and brought in as complete units.

By 1941 it had become usual for the two-figure squadron/individual aircraft code to be applied to the leading edge of the wing near the fuselage - This was presumably to help with quick identification of individual aircraft in the cramped space of an aircraft carrier hanger. In the photo below, a still from the film "Ships with Wings", showing a Skua with wings folded on the lift of HMS Ark Royal you can see the code "6K" marked on the leading edge of the wing.

A still from the film "Ships with Wings". You can see the code "6K" on the leading edge of the wing.

When the Ark Royal operated Skuas in the Mediterranean in 1941 it would seem that the undersides of the wings and the extreme underside of the fuselage were painted a darker shade - leaving the sides of the fuselage light grey (see photo below). The RAF in the western desert had found that a light underside made the aircraft stand out against the dark blue cloudless skies, and so had adopted a darker "azure blue" for the underside of their aircraft. This may be the FAA adopting the same strategy. However, it could equally be just an interpretation of  S5506, with the underside painted sky but the fuselage left Sky Grey.

Another still from "Ships with Wings", showing a Skua below deck on the Ark Royal. You can clearly see the bottom of the fuselage is a different colour to the sides.

In Matthew Willis' book "Blackburn Skua and Roc" there are a series of fascinating photos of Skuas and Rocs in what seems to be an all-over matt black finish with low-visibility type "B" roundels (pages 40-43 in my edition). These photos were apparently taken at Eastleigh airfield (now Southampton airport) in the winter of 1939/40. Just why such a colour scheme was necessary at this particular time is a mystery. If it was a year later there would be an easy explanation as at the time there was a plan for a Skua dive-bomber attack on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest harbour to be carried out at night (but with a full moon). 

One controversial colour scheme that has caused a lot of discussion over the years was reported as having been applied to a single Skua used by Blackburn for ditching trials. This apparently had red stripes. The colour notes in the instructions for the 1939 "Frog" model refer to a red and silver striped scheme identical in layout to the yellow and black target tug scheme. Putnam's "Blackburn Aircraft" also makes reference to the same scheme and illustrates it with a photo of one of the "target tug" aircraft (L3007 seen in pictures above). By reference to other photos of the same aircraft it is almost certain that the aircraft illustrated in the Putnam book is in normal target tug livery of yellow and black.- My thanks to Kim Elliott for showing me the Frog instruction sheet for reference.

For further reading on the subject

The most in-depth guide to Skua colours and camouflage schemes are articles written by  Ian D. Huntley for Scale Aircraft Modelling magazine. They appeared in the November 1987, December 1993 and May 1994 edition. I am indebted to Nikos Tselepides for making me aware of these articles (via Jamie Tindall).

Click here to order online.

Matthew Willis' magnificent book "Blackburn Skua and Roc" has by far the best collection of photos of the Skua. It has a section of colour photos including the remains of L2980 in the FAA museum and further colour images L2991 at Alesund in April 1940. There are no less than 33 colour profiles by Kjetil Aakra.

Fleet Air Arm Camouflage and Markings, Atlantic and Mediterranean Theatres 1937-1941.

Stuart Lloyd's masterly work "Fleet Air Arm Camouflage and Markings - Atlantic and Mediterranean Theatres 1937-1941" is a good reference and has lots of high-quality black and white photos of Skuas and Rocs in service, along with 6 colour profiles of Skuas and Rocs. It is the most complete reference yet to the orders issued by the Air Ministry and Admiralty regarding the colour schemes worn by Skuas, Rocs and the other FAA aircraft of the period.

Model Aircraft Monthly - October 2007 Edition features a potted history of the Skua by Tony O'Toole which has more colour shots of L2991 along with a page of photos of L2942 after its internment in Sweden.

As mentioned earlier the article "Plumbing the Depths" by Matt Willis in the December 2011 Scale Aircraft Modeller Magazine has details of the scheme used on Skua L2896 recovered from Tronheim Fjord in 2008..

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