British and Commonwealth Warship Camouflage of WW II, volume II by Malcolm Wright

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  • Warship camouflage goes back to the First World War as a means of concealing identity, heading and speed, and confusing an enemy range taker. Here Malcolm Wright takes us through the schemes used in World War Two and explains how they varied by station according to climate; fog demands one treatment, brilliant sunshine another.

    Volume II of this series covers battleships, battlecruisers, monitors and aircraft carriers. Volume I on destroyers, frigates, sloops, escorts, minesweepers, submarines, Coastal Forces and auxiliaries came out last year. Seaforth have excelled themselves with reproducing Wright’s artwork, but he himself is beyond all praise for his amazing grasp of detail, and extraordinarily excellent draughtsmanship. Behind this lies years of research so that calibres of guns, types of radar aerial and other fittings are depicted exactly as they were at a particular point in time. This brings out particularly well the differences between particular ships of the same class, and assists their recognition in other texts. Wright acknowledges the difficulty of deriving a categorical version from sparse photographic resources, often of poor quality, or, may I suggest, with features such as aerials blanked out by censors. The schemes shown often differ from official Admiralty standards and reflect local initiative and shortages of the right paint, as much from pre-war parsimony as from exigencies of war.

    The detail is incredible as it takes each ship through her wartime life - for instance there are thirteen elevations of HMS Valiant. The target audience is the model builder, which is where the author himself started. However there is interest here for anyone with a interest in our naval history, as besides the drawing there is economical but detailed narrative: for each ship there is a summary of all her engagements and refits and the alterations undertaken in the latter. Just one example is an account of the career of the old battleship HMS Centurion when she was masquerading as the newest one, HMS Anson. Many ships ended up employed in ways completely at variance with the strategic and tactical concepts driving their design and construction. The book as a whole is a most useful companion to Jane’s.

    As to the Light Fleet carriers, it might be worth remarking that Pioneer and Perseus were both completed without sponsons in order to use the Panama Canal, a consideration that also unhelpfully limited the beam of the nevertheless extraordinarily successful Colossus and Majestic classes whose hull design, with its rather unusual echeloned machinery spaces, was allegedly based on a Shaw Savill liner. While postwar service is generally out of scope for this book, Perseus trialled the original steam catapult and went on to be the VIP host ship for the 1953 Fleet review; Warrior tested the lunatic idea of landing a Vampire wheels-up on an experimental rubber deck, which left out of account the time taken to get it back on its wheels again and out of the way for the next aircraft to land on. After Korean War service she trialled a (half-)angled deck.

    Regarding the escort carriers, the Archer/Atttacker class were British versions of the American Bogues and the Rulers of the (slightly later) Casablancas. Campania survived to be an exhibition ship for the 1951 Festival of Britain.

    Cavils: the picky will spot that the deck plans of Nelson and Rodney show their sheet anchors to port as does one port-side view of Anson. The scrapping of Victorious was a Labour (Denis Healey) political decision, the relatively minor fire (in a CPO’s mess) was just used as an excuse.

    Besides the ships, there are neat little drawings of the various aircraft embarked, which are a treat in themselves. The Walruses and so forth were taken out of battleships and cruisers after a disastrous petrol fire in HMS Liverpool in 1941 made the Admiralty doubt their worth.

    The war over, away went the camouflage and the RN went back to proper sailoring, starched ice-cream suits under sun-bleached awnings covering enamelled gun turrets, bone-white teak and gleaming bright work. This book shows you warships at war. 4.5 out of 5 from me.

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