SPITFIRE MARKINGS AND CAMOUFLAGE
The subject of Spitfire camouflage and markings is a huge one, this page gives only a brief overview.
The low-resolution and limited colour palette of the images are due to them being drawn in the 1990s for use on Amiga and DOS PCs.
Serial Numbers and Squadron Codes
RAF aircraft usually carried two sets of characters. The first was in quite small black or dark letters near the tail on both sides of the fuselage. This was that aircraft's serial number and would stay with it throughout its service life, the only problems arise when one good airframe was made out of two damaged ones! The other was a three (very rarely four) letter code in large light characters (a light grey was the official colour specified) arranged around the fuselage roundel. The first two letters were the code of the squadron the aircraft was with, for example, "XT" was 603 Squadron in 1941. The remaining letter was the individual code of that aircraft within the squadron. So if you were with 603 Squadron and were told to take off in "baker" aircraft you would walk out to the aircraft with XT-B on its side. Since most squadrons would only have eighteen aircraft at maximum there was no need for any other letters, on the odd occasion that a squadron did acquire more than 26 aircraft it might start again with "AA". The squadron markings of an aircraft would change any time it was acquired by a new unit. The RAF would change the squadron code if it ever thought the Germans had managed to tie the code to a particular squadron, so the code of a squadron might have changed during the course of the war. The codes were deliberately painted on as large as possible so that pilots could identify planes from their squadron, to form up into formation again after a dogfight. The only exception to this code-scheme were Wing-Commanders, that is the officers who commanded a Wing of two, three or more squadrons, usually flying from a common airfield, or "clutch" of airfields. Thus the famous Douglas Bader was allowed to have the letters "D-B" painted on the side of his Spitfire VA because he commanded the Wing flying from Tangmere Aerodrome. Bob Stanford-Tuck, commander of the Biggin Hill Wing had a Spitfire with "RS-T" on it.
Colours and Camouflage
The first Spitfire, the prototype K5054, was first flown unpainted. Later a finish of "float-plane blue" was applied.
The first Spitfires to reach the RAF were painted in a camouflage scheme of brown (called "dark earth") and dark green. The very first few Spitfires in service with No 19 Squadron had silver undersurfaces, but this was soon replaced with a scheme where the undersides were painted with one-half black, the other white, with the dividing line running from nose to tail, sometimes only the underside of one wing was painted black, leaving the fuselage underside white or silver. The idea behind this underside colour scheme was to aid the identification of RAF fighters at height through binoculars by the Observer Corps and anti-aircraft artillery. With this scheme, there were usually no roundels under the wings.
Spitfire underside markings from 1938 until 1944 (gif animation).
Click here for an explanation of why the black and white underside colour scheme was adopted.
Above: The half-black, half-white undersides used by Spitfires during the Battle of Britain.
Spitfires were delivered from factories in this scheme until the start of June 1940. In that month Fighter Command squadrons were instructed to paint the entire underside of fighters a duck-egg green colour called "sky". During the following months there were shortages of the official colour so a range of available paints and locally mixed colours were often used, resulting in varying shades of light-blue and duck-egg blue. From August 1940, underwing roundels were introduced.
Spitfire MkI 19 Squadron, the first squadron to fly Spitfires.
At the end of November 1940, the black-painted port wing undersurface was reintroduced as standard. This time the rest of the undersurface was "sky" and underwing roundels were carried, that on the starboard undersurface usually being outlined in yellow to make it stand out. This scheme was worn through the winter of 1940/41 until April 1941.
Spitfires in Brown and Green camouflage. Note the type "A1" fuselage roundels.
The upper-surface brown and green camouflage saw the RAF through the Battle of Britain and into 1941. With them now taking the fight to the enemy and having to cross the Channel or the North Sea to do it, the brown part of the camouflage stood out against the sea. So it was changed to a dark grey colour called "Ocean Grey", a scheme of grey and green being equally good over land or sea. At the same time, the lower surfaces were painted a lighter shade of grey, called "Medium Sea Grey". During the early war years, it had been normal for the propeller spinner to be painted black, from late 1940 this was increasingly switched to "Sky" and in early 1941 a thin band of "Sky" was painted around the rear fuselage as an aid to identification. To aid quick identification of aircraft joining up with a formation from the rear, yellow leading-edges to the wings were introduced.
Spitfires - One dark earth and dark green with type "A1" roundel and one ocean grey and dark green with type "C1" roundel.
Spitfires employed in the reconnaissance role often employed special camouflage. High-altitude aircraft were painted a dark shade of blue overall (known as PR blue). Low-level aircraft were sometimes painted a pale pink, this unusual colour proved very good at hiding the aircraft against a background of low cloud, particularly on missions flown flown early in the early morning or late evening.
Spitfire Mk V of early 1942 - After the switch to grey and green camouflage but before the adoption of "type C" fuselage and underwing roundels with their reduced white band. Note the yellow leading-edge of the wing with dull red fabric patches over the machine-gun ports.
In the Middle East, Spitfires were painted with "sand and stone" upper surfaces for operation over the desert. The undersurfaces were a much darker blue, "azure blue" to suit the more intense blue of the sky in that theatre of war.
The RAF symbol of concentric red white and blue discs, known as a roundel, was carried on the top and bottom of the wings and the side of the fuselage. The roundels on the top of the wing had the white missing leaving only red and blue (the so-called "type B" roundel). This helped the aircraft be less easily seen, particularly if it was on the ground. The roundels on the side of the fuselage and under the wing (the latter not always present) were of the normal "A" type. The fuselage roundels were then surrounded by another ring of yellow to make it stand out from the background camouflage (this was known as the "A1" roundel). From mid-1942 the roundels on the side of the fuselage and under the wings had the white band reduced in thickness (called the "type C" roundel or "Type C1" if it had a thin yellow ring around it).
In the Far East, the roundel had the red centre removed to stop it from being confused with the red disk "Hinomaru" emblem of the Japanese.
During the period of the "phoney war" Spitfires did not carry any national markings on their tails. In light of increasing incidences of "friendly fire", these were introduced in May 1940 in the form of fin flashes of red, white and blue stripes (red always towards the front of the aircraft). At first, each colour was 7 inches wide (meaning the total flash was 21 inches wide) and went all the way to the top on the non-moving part of the fin. Later, each stripe was increased to 8 inches wide (24 inches total width) but was limited to only 27 inches high, stopping short of the top of the non-moving fin. Later still (May 1942), the height of the flash was reduced to 24 inches and the width of the central white stripe was reduced to only 2 inches while the other stripes were expanded to 11 inches to retain the 24-inch overall width.
Grey and Green Camouflage Spitfires - Note the type "C1" roundels on the RAF example.
For D-Day and the invasion of Europe Allied aircraft had black and white "invasion stripes" painted on the wings and fuselage. This helped identify them as friendly to their own anti-aircraft guns, at this stage considered often to be more of a danger than the all-but-defeated Luftwaffe. In the early stages of the invasion, these stripes were carried on the top and bottom of the wings and right around the fuselage. Later, these stripes were often removed from the top of the wings and the top of the fuselage and some Spitfires only retained them on the bottom of the fuselage. A black-and-white stripe scheme had also been applied to some Spitfires the previous year, during September 1943, as part of a deception plan called "Operation Starkey" to make the Germans think that a landing to take the French port of Boulogne was to take place. The black-and-white stripes for "Starkey" had been painted over the wing roundels, covering them up, whereas the D-Day stripes were painted further inboard, leaving the wing roundels visible. The Operation Starkey scheme did not have any stripes on the fuselage.
Above: Spitfire Mark IX with black and white "D-Day Stripes". It sports non-standard size and font for the Squadron codes and has the Free French Cross of Lorraine ☨ insignia near the cockpit.
Grey and Green Spitfires - Notice the lack of red centre to the roundel on the Indian example.