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Changing face of HMS Caroline down the years as camouflage secrets are stripped away

HMS Caroline present day
HMS Caroline present day
HMS Caroline 1939

By Amanda Ferguson

The true colours of a First World War ship docked in Belfast have been revealed by naval archaeologists.

HMS Caroline, the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland in 1916, was Royal Navy grey the day it was launched two years earlier.

A survey conducted by the restoration team on the Belfast-based vessel provides new understanding of paint colours used by navies more than 100 years ago.

It also shows the colour the ship was painted at the Battle of Jutland and subsequent moments in its history.

Captain John Rees, who leads the £14.1m conservation and interpretation project for the ship, dock, pump house and surrounding land at Alexandra Dock, says the paint findings provide a unique timeline for the ship.

"Because photography was black and white during much of the first half of the 20th century, it has been more or less impossible to determine the colours in which ships, vehicles and equipment were painted during World War One," he said.

Captain Rees also said the team had been able to review the entire colour history of the ship and accurately depict the schemes Caroline was painted in over its 100 years.

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"What is very reassuring is that the paint analysis and historical research work included the ship's hull and confirms that no anti-fouling paint has been applied," he added.

"Two paint sample reports confirm that the ship is free of organotin compounds... an environmental hazard associated with ships, to threaten the ecology of Alexandra Dock or indeed Belfast Harbour."

When the First World War ended HMS Caroline became a static training ship docked here.

But she was back in action during the Second World War, acting as a key base for operations to protect the North Atlantic convoys from U-boat attacks.

In 1945 she returned to her role as a static drill ship in Belfast until decommissioned in 2011, making her the longest ship in commission in the British Navy after HMS Victory.

The warship's future in the city is assured.

Jef Maytom, an historic vessels expert who discovered the paint samples close to the bridge, says the excitement generated by the new information cannot be understated.

"This finding rewrites the rule book for historians specialising in naval and maritime history and its representation. It is the equivalent of a palaeontologist being able to finally prove that dinosaurs were a specific colour or had feathers."


HMS Caroline, built on Merseyside in 1914, is the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland, WWI's longest, most strategically important sea battle and the only time the full German and British navies engaged directly. Weighing 3,750 tonnes and 446ft long, when built she was technologically ground-breaking. A maximum speed close to 30 knots enabled the Navy to respond to the threat of long range torpedo attacks on battleships, locating the enemy fleet and rapidly carrying news back to British battleships.   

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