Royal Air Force roundels
The United Kingdom's air forces - the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, the Army's Army Air Corps and the Royal Air Force use a roundel, a circular identification mark, painted on aircraft to identify them to other aircraft and ground forces. In one form or another, it has been used on British military aircraft from 1915 to the present.
When the First World War started in 1914 it was the habit of ground troops to fire on all aircraft, friend or foe, which encouraged the need for some form of identification mark. At first the Union Flag was painted under the wings and on the sides of the fuselage. It soon became obvious that at a distance the St George's Cross of the Union Flag could be confused with the Iron Cross that was already being used to identify German aircraft. After the use of a Union Flag inside a shield was tried it was decided to follow the lead of the French who used a tricolour Cockade (a roundel of red and white with a blue centre). The British reversed the colours and it became the standard marking on Royal Flying Corps aircraft from 11 December 1914, although it was well into 1915 before the new marking was used with complete consistency. The Royal Naval Air Service meanwhile briefly used a red ring, without the blue centre, until it was sensibly decided to standardise on the RFC roundel for all British aircraft.
The official order stated:
All aeroplanes of the RFC to be marked on the underside and on the rudder with concentric circles similar to those on the French machines but with the colours reversed, that is with a red circle inside a blue ring. The circles to be as large as possible. In addition a Union Jack 2ft x 1½ft will be painted on the wing tips outside the circles.
In 1915, with the roundel carried by all RFC (and RNAS) aircraft, the use of the Union Jack was in practice discontinued. The Royal Air Force has employed several versions of the roundel during its existence.
By 1917, a white outline was being used to make the blue of the outer circle easier to distinguish on a dark background (at that time PC.10 or PC.12 camouflage doping). Between the wars it was dispensed with, as most RAF aircraft were now silver-doped. During the late 1930s, with the reintroduction of camouflage, the outline was reintroduced, but in chrome yellow.
Use by other air arms
Many nations that had been a part of the British Empire and Commonwealth continued to use RAF roundels long after achieving independence, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and others until nationalism demanded unique roundels for each of those countries. South Africa replaced the red with orange (after having experimented with completely different colours), Canada changed the red dot into a maple leaf (in several different forms), Australia changed the red dot to a Kangaroo and New Zealand experimented with a gold, green and white fern inset in the red dot before settling on a red Kiwi. India briefly replaced the SEAC roundel (blue on blue) with a blue/white chakra, before adopting an orange/white/green roundel. Southern Rhodesia, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and Rhodesia used variations on the RAF roundel featuring assegais before adopting a green ring with a lion and tusk on a white centre in 1970.
|Type A||On all light-coloured surfaces 1915 to late 1929, and on dark surfaces with a 2" white border (similar to later type A2) on camouflaged surfaces 1915-1919. Colours used were to VB and VR specifications (with a number from 1 - 5 defining exactly which spec), colours did not change much however early versions were prone to fading. Prior to the introduction of the Type B night roundel, aircraft used on night operations had the white overpainted with the prevailing camouflage colour which was usually PC.10 or black. Due to the effect of orthochromatic film - the most widely available film during the first World War - rendering the blue very pale, and the red very dark in photographs, historians in the 1950s and 1960s incorrectly believed a white ring roundel had been used on home defence aircraft.|
|Type A||Used after late 1929 when colours were increased in saturation until replaced by Type B during summer 1938. Official names of colours changed to Identification Red and Identification Blue. As on the earlier Type A roundel, a white border was sometimes used, mainly on flying boats and some prototypes from 1923 to 1937 even when the aircraft was doped silver.|
|Type A||Duller colours (referred to as Identification Red (Dull) and Identification Blue (Dull) in official orders), used with Type A1 during WW2 but on light surfaces, primarily under the wings of fighters until replaced by type C in June 1942|
|Type A.1||On all camouflaged surfaces 1937 – March 1939 (e.g.: Supermarine Spitfire); on fuselage sides 1939 to replacement by type C1, July 1942. On some night bombers the white was overpainted with black to reduce visibility. Also used with bright pre-war colours, especially on trainers.|
|Type A.2||Outer yellow ring is thicker than used during WW1. Alternative to A.1 on some aircraft 1940–1942, including the Grumman Martlet as received from the factory, indicating that it was likely official despite the lack of orders describing it.|
|Type B||On some night flying aircraft, especially heavy bombers, 1918–1919. (Known at this time as the "night roundel"). On all surfaces of NIVO-coloured night bombers from 1923 until NIVO phased out; Used on camouflaged aircraft in all positions from Summer 1938 until superseded by Type A.1 roundels. Used on upper surfaces of many aircraft until 1947. On fuselage sides and upper wings of overall PRU Blue photo-reconnaissance aircraft 1940–1944 (e.g.:Photo-reconnaissance Spitfires) and aircraft with "High altitude" camouflage (e.g.: de Havilland Hornet) 1944–1947.|
|Type B.1||On some aircraft March–December 1939. Used on fuselage sides of some night-flying aircraft (bombers, e.g. Vickers Wellington; night fighters, e.g., Boulton Paul Defiant) late 1940–mid-1942. Often type B with additional yellow ring (proportions do not match Type A).|
|Type C||On light surfaces July 1942 – 1947; not used on upper surfaces 1942–1945.|
|Type C.1||On dark surfaces except upper surfaces July 1942 – January 1945; upper wings and fuselage sides of all 2 TAF bombers and photo-reconnaissance Spitfires, January 1945 to early 1947. Upper and lower wings and fuselage sides of 2 TAF fighters (e.g.: Hawker Tempest) January 1945 to early 1947.|
|(SEAC)||Used by units under South East Asia Command and in the CBI theatre in 1942. Red removed to avoid confusion with the hinomaru but retained on fin flash. Not used for very long before being replaced by light blue/dark blue roundel.
A blue/white roundel, sometimes with US-style white bars, was also used on Fleet Air Arm aircraft Blue/white roundels were also used by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), which simply over-painted the red dot in white, regardless of previous proportions.
|(SEAC)||Used by units under South East Asia Command and in the CBI theatre mid-1942–1946. Red removed to avoid confusion with the hinomaru. Initially red was overpainted with white but this compromised the camouflage and the normal roundel blue was mixed 50:50 with white. Many aircraft in the CBI theatre used roundels and fin flashes of approximately half the normal dimensions.|
|Type D||On all surfaces from June 1947 to this day, with similar proportions to the current roundel of the French Armee de l'Air. Colours reverted to Bright Identification colours but were matched to a new British Standard colour chart so colours were different from prewar bright colours. Note the different proportions from the Type A. The Type D was first used on ground equipment, including jeeps, and with a yellow outline on rescue launches.|
|Type D pale||A pale 'faded' version of the Type D. This was sometimes used when applied over anti-flash white. An intermediate (less faded) pale version was applied to some Vickers Valiants prior to the introduction of the definitive Type D 'faded' shading.|
|Low-visibility||Low-visibility roundel used on camouflaged aircraft since the 1970s (note different proportions from Type B).|
|Low-visibility||Low-visibility roundel used in conjunction with air superiority grey schemes since the 1980s. Colours are known as Salmon Pink and Baby Blue.|
Up until mid-1938, roundel sizes tended to vary widely, depending on the type of aircraft; the exception to the use of type A roundels for all aircraft was seen on the overall NIVO (dark green) painted night bombers (e.g., Handley Page Heyfords) which used type B roundels. Roundels used on aircraft painted in NIVO were duller than the normal colours. The size of the roundel was generally determined by the space available at the specified location, with a space of several inches around the edges. Some aircraft - primarily seaplanes, had a white outline around the fuselage roundel, even on silver doped finishes however this application was inconsistent so was probably not official. From 1929, the RAF switched to a new system of colour specifications, discarding the one used since the First World War, and as a result, the colour used for insignia changed, however the changeover period appears to have extended until at least 1932 for new production, and the old colours were not overpainted, but only gradually phased out as aircraft needed to be repainted.
During the Munich crisis of mid to late 1938, most RAF aircraft adopted green and dark earth camouflage with type B roundels of reduced sizes on all upper surfaces and the fuselage sides; though based on colour photos, these remained in the bright pre-war colours. FAA aircraft largely remained silver doped overall with type A roundels predominating. To illustrate the progression up to the end of the war the Spitfire will be used as a typical single seat-single engine fighter:
- 1938 – November 1939: The first production batches of Spitfires (K9787-K9814) were built with 37.8 inches (96 cm) roundels on the fuselage sides-these were centred 39 inches aft of the rear edge of the cockpit door. 56 inches (140 cm) type A1s were on the upper wings. From K9815, the fuselage roundels were moved back, to be centred 53 in aft of the cockpit door and 6 in above the main longeron, and reduced in diameter to 35 type A1. This position for the fuselage roundel was subsequently standard on all Supermarine and Westland built Spitfires and Seafires. The first 180 or so built (K9787–K9960) also had factory applied 50 in type A roundels under the wings. After K9960, there were no factory applied under-wing roundels until December 1940. With the change to type B roundels Spitfires built with type A1 roundels had were repainted by the squadrons creating a plethora of sizes and proportions.
- Between K9961 and N3032, the factory paint scheme required 15 in type B roundels on the fuselage sides and a 31.2 in roundel with a 10 in red centre was painted on the upper wings. From N3033–P9374, it was intended that 25 in type B fuselage roundels would be used, although few Spitfires saw service with roundels of this size.
Most RAF aircraft went through similar transitions, as a result of which there was little conformity, depending on when the aircraft was built and how squadrons over painted or repainted the roundels.
Second World War
By the beginning of the Second World War on 3 September 1939, RAF roundel sizes started to show more conformity. On 30 October, all commands were ordered to change upper wing surface Type B roundels to Type A. Further instructions ordered all but fighters and night bombers to have Type A under the wing tips. This was clarified in November to the effect that only reconnaissance maritime aircraft (e.g., Short Sunderland flying boats) would have the Type A on the upper wings but all aircraft would use the Type B on the sides.
A decision was made to make roundels more conspicuous and, in May 1940, the yellow outer ring was ordered to be added back to fuselage sides (along with red, white, and blue stripes on the fin). Where possible, the yellow should be the same width as the blue, but on Spitfires with their narrower fuselages a thinner ring was acceptable. Also in May, an order was made to put red, white, and blue roundels on the underwings of all fighters, with an addendum that where the roundel was on a black background it should be outlined in yellow. In June, orders were given for the half black/half-white underwing scheme to be replaced by "sky" Underwing roundels were dispensed with until August when they were ordered back.
It should always be borne in mind that because of the pressures of front-line service there were always exceptions to the standards set by the RAF and that deadlines were not necessarily met. Although type C and C1 roundels were meant to be in use by July 1942 some Spitfires displayed type A and A1 roundels as late as October:
- Late November/early December 1939 to June 1940: All Spitfire units were instructed to replace the type B fuselage roundels with type A roundels. This led to fuselage roundels which varied in size from 25 in to 30 in. Upper wings had been set at 55 in Type B with 22 in red centres until January 1945; Fuselage sides: 35 in type A; no fin flash; no underwing roundels.
- June 1940 to December 1940: Spitfires with the 35 in type A fuselage roundels had a yellow outer ring added, making them 49 in Type A1. All Spitfires built from June had standardised 35 in fuselage roundels, although many had non-standard 7-inch red centres applied at the Supermarine factory, instead of the proper 5 in. All Castle Bromwich built Spitfires had roundels with the correct 5 in centre spot; in addition all Castle Bromwich built Spitfires had the roundels centred 52.25 in aft of the cockpit door and 7.5 in above the main longeron. Although this was not much of a difference on the slim fuselage of the Spitfire it affected the "sit" of the roundel, making it noticeable in photos. As many Spitfires as possible had type A roundels painted under the wings, along with a pale green/blue camouflage colour. The under wing roundels varied widely in size and location depending on which Maintenance Unit (MU) prepared the aircraft before delivery to the squadrons. The Spitfire 1a of 19 Squadron shown in photo 5 has 25 in Type A under the wingtips, indicating it may have been processed by 6 MU. Fin flashes were painted on starting in late May 1940. These varied in size although they were mostly 21 in wide, divided in 7 in red, white, and blue strips, and covered the full height of the tailfin.
- December 1940 to July 1942: 35 in type A1 fuselage roundels, 50 in type A on lower wings. Fin flash standardised at 27 in high and 24 in wide, equally divided into 3 8-inch stripes.
- July 1942 to January 1945: 36 in type C1 fuselage roundels. 32 in type C lower wing roundels. Fin flash 24 in square with stripe widths of 11in, two in and 11 in.
- January 1945 to June 1947: On all 2 TAF aircraft Type B upper wing roundels were either converted to 55 in type C1 roundels or over-painted and 36 in type C1 roundels painted on. Under wing roundels were converted to 36 in type C1. The proportions of the rings and centre spot could vary depending on the skill of the painters carrying out the conversion.
Although the Spitfire is used as one example, because it was one of the few British aircraft to see front-line service before, during and after the Second World War, other aircraft types went through similar transitions. During the transition from A type to C type roundels some Hawker Typhoons displayed 42-inch type C1 roundels which were simply modified type A1s. After June 1940 the official sizes for roundels were:
|Type A||From June 1940: Single and twin engine fighters, light and medium bombers, dimensions could vary but generally 50 inches for lower wings.|
|Type A.1||From June 1940: Single and twin engine fighters, light and medium bombers 35 inches. Exceptions: Hawker Typhoon 42 inches, Westland Whirlwind 28 inches. Heavy bombers, transport aircraft 49 inches.|
|Type C||From July 1942: Single and twin engine fighters, 32 inches. Not used on Night Bombers or de Havilland Mosquitoes.|
|Type C.1||From July 1942: Single and twin engine fighters, light and medium bombers, General Aircraft Hotspur and Hamilcar gliders, 36 inches. Some night intruder Hurricanes and Spitfires had 18 in type C1 fuselage roundels in 1942. Heavy bombers, transport aircraft 54 inches.|
Many variations could be seen because of the problems involved in interpreting instructions or repainting aircraft in front-line service, but most production aircraft conformed to these basic dimensions.
SEAC and RAAF
In the China/Burma/India (CBI) theatre and Pacific it was decided in about May 1942 that the red centre spots on RAF roundels could be confused with the red hinomaru carried by Japanese aircraft. The inner red circle was removed after a RAAF No. 11 Squadron Catalina was mistaken for a Japanese aircraft by a US Navy Wildcat in the Pacific Theatre and attacked. As a result roundels were mostly modified in the field by painting over the red with white. Often the yellow outer rings of type A1 roundels were left intact. No British or American built aircraft had factory painted SEAC style roundels; all aircraft had to be repainted, and, in many cases re-camouflaged by Maintenance Units behind the lines or by front line squadrons.
- When Spitfire Mk VCs reached the CBI Theatre in November 1943 their type B, C and C1 roundels were all modified by painting out the red centre spots in white, the red of the fin flash was similarly painted over. When the Mk VIIIs arrived in early 1944 most of them had their roundels overpainted completely and replaced by 16 in diameter SEAC roundels with light blue centre spots (a mix of dull roundel blue and white) of approximately 7 in diameter. The fin flashes were replaced by 24 in high by 16 in wide versions, each light blue (leading edge) and roundel blue stripe being 8 in wide.
Spitfires were first used by the Royal Australian Air Force over Northern Australia in October 1943. The Mk VCs had their 36 in type C1 fuselage roundels modified to 32 in SEAC types by painting out the yellow outer ring in the camouflage colours and over-painting the red centre in white. The lower wing type C roundels and upper wing type Bs were also modified by over-painting the red centres in white. The red fin stripe was also painted out with white and, in many cases the blue was extended forward 1 in making equal widths of 12 in. RAAF Mk VIIIs had their roundels and fin flashes modified in the same ways, although some had their 55 in upper wing roundels overpainted and replaced with 32 in SEAC roundels.
All Royal Air Force aircraft carry a flash on the fin. This is either red/white/blue, or red/blue on camouflaged aircraft, with the red stripe nearest the leading edge. Aircraft painted anti-flash white in the nuclear strike role had a pale pink and blue flash, the same shades as the roundels, to reflect some of the thermal radiation from a nuclear explosion.
The Royal Navy and Army do not use the fin flash but have the words ROYAL NAVY or ARMY on the rear fuselage or fin instead. A current exception to this are the Harrier GR7s and GR9s of the Naval Strike Wing, which carry similar markings to RAF Harriers. The fin flash can be rectangular, slanted or tapered, depending on aircraft type.
In a situation similar to that of the roundels, the fin flash is also shared with the air forces of Australia and New Zealand.
The fin flash evolved from the rudder stripes painted on the rudders of early RFC and RAF aircraft during the First World War, the markings comprising blue, white and red vertical stripes doped on the rudder. However, with the performance of aircraft increasing considerably during the 1930s, the practice of applying painted markings onto the (then manually powered) control surfaces was discontinued because of the need to rebalance the controls - failure to do this could have adverse effects on the surface's aerodynamic balance, possibly leading to flutter of the control surface at high airspeeds. It was for this same reason that the positioning of the wing roundels was revised so that they no longer overlapped the ailerons.
In an attempt to conform to the appearance of French military aircraft, rudder stripes reappeared on aircraft (mainly Fairey Battles and Hawker Hurricanes) of the RAF based in France, starting in early September 1939. These stripes were painted in standard RAF colours in the order blue, white, red.
Fin flashes were officially adopted in June 1940. For the first six months there was no conformity in the width or height of the stripes and they were painted to cover as much of the fin area as possible. With one or two exceptions the order was red (leading edge), white, blue. In December 1940 type A fin flashes were standardised: height was 27 inches, width 24 inches, divided into three 8-inch-wide (200 mm) red, white and blue stripes (e.g.: photo six, the Sea Hurricanes show this standardised fin flash). On some aircraft, e.g.; photo reconnaissance Spitfires the fin flash was about half these dimensions.
In July 1942, with the adoption of the type C and C1 roundels the fin flash became 24 in square for RAF fighters, the stripe widths becoming 11 in red, 2 in white and 11 in blue. There were some exceptions; RAF Mustangs all used fin flashes which were 27 in high by 24 in wide. In early 1944 some aircraft types were painted in a "High-altitude" camouflage scheme and adopted type B roundels and fin flashes.
The then-current RAF fin flashes were also adopted for USAAF aircraft operating alongside British and Commonwealth forces in the Mediterranean theatre in 1942, appearing on US Curtiss P-40 fighters and B-25 Mitchell bombers.
Roundel and fin-flash colours changed several times during the First World War because of severe problems with fading. The third standard (VB3 and VR3) would be used until the early 30's when much brighter colours replaced the red and blue at the same time that rudder stripes were omitted. The red and blue were both duller and less saturated than later versions and varied considerably as paint was usually mixed locally. The actual switchover began in 1929 but new aircraft were still being delivered in 1932 with the earlier colours.
For the period from the early 30's until 1938, Roundel Red was close to FS 595 21136 and the Roundel Blue was slightly lighter and brighter than FS 595 15056. Trainer Yellow was close to FS 595 23538. Photo 2, a restored Bristol F.2 Fighter is a fairly good representation of the late interwar colours. On fabric covered aircraft these were glossy (as was the general finish) until dulled with age, even during the First World War.
In 1938, with the threat of war looming, new markings colours were introduced along with camouflage. The Blue was darker, becoming similar to FS 595 25050 while the Red became a slightly brownish brick-red, about FS 595 20109. The Trainer Yellow stayed the same shade but all colours were now matt. These colours remained standard for another eight years. To further complicate matters, old stocks continued to be used up - a series of colour photos of a Miles Master show wing and fuselage roundels (C & C1) in dull colours, while the fin flash remains in the bright pre-war colours, albeit with the later proportions. Other colour photos show a mixture of bright and dull colours being used on the same insignia - though all instances found have been of trainers.
Post war colours were specified by the new BS 381 colour standard and approximate the late pre-war colours except for special cases, such as anti-flash markings and the current low visibility markings.
Sopwith Snipe 1918. Late WW 1 roundels, similar to later type A with narrow white outer ring to provide contrast against PC.10 camouflage. Rudder stripes, blue, white, red.
Hawker Fury, 1935. Type A roundels, still overlapping the ailerons. No fin flash.
Sea-Hurricane Mk Ib, 1941 (?). Type A roundels under wings, type A1 on fuselage sides. Standardised type A fin flash used December 1940-June 1942.
Mosquito B. Mk XVI, 1944. Type B roundels upper wings, type C1 on fuselage sides. Type C fin flash used on aircraft from June 1942 – 1947.
RAAF Spitfire VIII showing SEAC style roundels and fin flash.
E E Lightning F.3, 1964. Type D roundels.
Avro Vulcan, 1988. Large low visibility roundels, upper wings and fuselage. Low visibility fin flash.
Harrier GR.7A Small low visibility roundels and fin flash.
Eurofighter Typhoon showing the pink and light blue of the low visibility roundels currently in use with the RAF.
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- Roundels of the World: United Kingdom