Book Review: WW I British Aeroplane Colours and Markings, by Bruce Robertson

Bruce Robertson. WW I British Aeroplane Colours and Markings. Windsock Fabric Special No.2 (Albatros Publications Ltd., 1996) 56 pages, 11.75 x 8.25 in, 127 B/W photos, color artwork by R.L. Rimell. Price £15.95 (about $25.00).

This volume is the second Windsock Fabric Special concentrating on colors and markings of WW I aircraft. The title for this particular volume is perhaps a little misleading. The focus of this book is the application of color finishes to British aircraft and the markings aspect of this work concentrates on factory applied component markings, mostly as these relate to factory finishes. Certainly, this is an under-documented aspect of British aircraft. I learned a lot from this book, but from the perspective of many modelers, it may prove something of a disappointment. This book does not address any aspect of squadron or flight markings and does not describe any colorful finishes. What is covered in this volume? Bruce Robertson provides a meticulous description of the application of airframe finishes by British manufacturers.

Just as all other aspects of aviation technology made great advances during the war, the science behind aircraft finishes experienced a similar evolution. This evolution was driven by demands of large scale production. Early on, the Royal Flying Corps learned that it needed to protect its aircraft from the ravages of ultraviolet solar radiation and to conceal them from observation. Thus, the Protective Coverings, PC10 and PC12, were developed both as camouflage and as airframe protection. Robertson has found the original formulations for both of these coatings. In the four-page color center spread of this volume, he supplies photographs of surviving pieces of fabric finished with these coatings. The Royal Flying Corps did apply multi-color camouflage finishes to aircraft operated by day. But most of these were either experiments that were not used operationally or semi-experimental camouflages for special operations. Robertson provides text from reports on these experimental camouflages and supporting photographs. However, translating this information to a model would be difficult. The specific information on colors and machines they were applied to is lacking. Possibly the first documented use of a “low-visibility grey” camouflage scheme is a Sopwith Cuckoo torpedo bomber shown in both a photograph and a color profile. There is, however, useful information on a camouflage scheme that was applied to low flying aircraft used late in the war for ground attack, in particular the Sopwith Salamander. The formulas for the particular colors used on this machine are provided in the text, along with supporting photographs and a color profile and plan view in the color pages. While the first two items are most useful, I personally disagreed with the interpretation made on the color profile, but then this points up the difficulties with interpreting color placement on airframes from black and white photographs of this period.

The selection of photographs for this volume is quite good. While quite a few images of widely used fighter aircraft are well known from other publications on aircraft from this era, there are quite a few photos of lesser known training machines such as Armstrong-Whitworth FK3s. There are also several shots of Handley Page 0/400s and experimental machines, such as the Nieuport London triplane. Photo quality is very good overall and is alone almost worth the price of the book.

The book’s coverage of factory applied finishes and component markings is very thorough. There is information on the stenciled airframe codes that denoted the type of finish that had been applied. This was new information to this reviewer, though it would be difficult to apply these to models in anything other than larger scales, perhaps 1/48 and larger. Other sections in the book include details of the various trademarks that suppliers applied to propellors and engines.

This is a useful volume and includes a good mix of photos. It includes operational, experimental, training, and foreign airframes in Royal Flying Corps service. While most people think British WW I aircraft are a bit dull as far as finishes go, this volume gives a detailed overview on logic and method behind this dullness. The book is highly recommended, though its purchase price is a little steep for its size.

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© 1996 by Charles Hart. First published in Eagle Droppings, the Newsletter of the Rocky Mountain Chapter, IPMS/USA.