Camouflage and markings of Gloster Gladiator

by Rick Kent

Gloster Gladiator in Profile

Throughout aviation history, few aircraft reached the level of design elegance equal to that of British biplanes at the peak of their development in the 1930s. Classic designs like Hawker Hind, Fury or Gloster Gladiator all prove the point.

The Gladiator was produced between 1935 and 1940. There were three major versions Mk.I, Mk.II and the Sea Gladiator. 746 had been made.

The first part of this profile collection is devoted to pre-war period. The second one covers wartime markings.

Pre-war Period

Gloster Gladiator Mk. I, 73 Squadron RAF, Debden, Essex, September 1937

 The Gladiator above is one of the early pre-war aircraft in the colourful markings still in use at that time. 73 Squadron operated them from June 1937 to July 1938 when they were replaced by Hurricanes. There are several points that modellers should note about the Gladiators in general as follows:

Although the Mk I was supposed to have a spinner on the front of the propeller this was often removed, as the above picture shows;

Another difference concerns the radio aerials – on the original Mk I these were ”Y” shaped, going out to two separate ”pegs” near the wingtips, as on this one – the Mk II had a single ”peg” on the centre section of the upper wing as did the Sea Gladiatior, but the Mk I’s were also modified in this way in later life

Both the Mk II and Sea Gladiator were originally built with the three-bladed metal propeller, but most had these replaced by the original two-blade wooden prop in service. So it’s really a case of having a photographic reference for any particular aircraft to see how these things were. Like most things in this life, nothing is simple is it?

Gloster Gladiator Mk. I. 72 Squadron RAF, Church Fenton, Yorkshire, June 1937

 More colourful pre-war style of RAF fighter markings on display. 72 Squadron with their red/blue bars (repeated across the top wing between the roundels) were the first Gladiator Squadron from February 1937. They re-equipped with Spitfires in April/May 1939.

Something that should be mentioned is that RAF wooden propellers were painted a shade of grey very similar to Medium Sea Grey – this I know from having seen many original examples during the time I worked for the RAF Museum.

Gloster Gladiator Mk. I, 87 Squadron RAF, Debden, Essex, October 1937

 Here is a Gladiator Mk. I in the original pre-war colourful markings of 87 Squadron. There is an interesting story attached to the markings: in WW I the Squadron used a symbol like a letter ’S’ turned through 90° as its identity marking; when official badges were introduced in the RAF in the 1930s this was taken and turned into a snake (as can be seen on the fin); in the Squadron marking on the fuselage and wings the black bar represents a tree branch and the green wavy line intertwined around it is the snake.

The preserved Gladiator in the RAF Museum, Hendon, has these markings on it. The blue-painted fin of this aircraft indicates that it was flown by the commander of ’B’ Flight of the Squadron (’A’ Flight had red).

87 Squadron operated Gladiators from June 1937 to July 1938, when they were replaced by Hurricanes. After WW II, the Squadron continued to use a similar marking, firstly on Meteors and then on Javelins.

Gloster Sea Gladiator Mk. I, 802 Squadron Royal Naval Air Service, H.M.S. Glorious, August 1939

 This one is a pre-war Sea Gladiator. The yellow chevron marking indicates HMS Glorious as does the ”G” in the code; the ”6” is the code for 802 Sqn, and the ”A” is the individual aircraft ident letter. The black fin might indicate the squadron commander’s mount but I couldn’t confirm this – just a guess as the letter is ”A”. Only a few months later 802 and all their Sea Gladiators went down with Glorious in the defence of Norway when she was sunk by the Scharnhorst on 8th June 1940.

The bulge under the centre section is the dinghy housing applicable only to the Sea Gladiator, as is the arrestor hook further aft.

Gloster Gladiator Mk. II, 615 Squadron RAF, Kenley, Surrey, August 1939

 This time a Mk II with three-blade propeller as you can see and also in the camouflage introduced at the time of the Munich Crisis with pre-war code letters. The undersurfaces were, as prescribed, half white/half black, so on the left side they were black. 615 Squadron operated the Gladiator up to May 1940, beginning re-equipment with Hurricanes in April.

Gladiator Goes to War

In the first two years of the war the Gladiator performed valiantly in the European, African and Mediterranean theatres. A design under withdrawal, it nevertheless took part in the Battle of France and equipped one squadron in the Battle of Britain. The Gladiator’s immortal fame was gained overseas, including operations in Norway, Malta and the Western Desert. The Gladiator was also sold for export, seeing service in many other countries.

In World War II combat, the Gladiator was really a relic of an era past, outgunned and outperformed, but never outmanoeuvred.

Wartime Camouflage

Gloster Gladiator Mk. II, 263 Squadron RAF, Lake Lesjaskog, Norway, April 1940

 This Mk II Gladiator is one of the first ones of 263 Squadron that went out to Norway in the Spring of 1940. As you can see, the colour scheme is a little different from the usual: some of these aircraft were repainted on board ship by Royal Naval personnel along with their own Skuas, using the early wartime Naval style camouflage of Dark Green and Medium Sea Grey uppersurfaces with Sky Grey undersurfaces. This was felt to be much more appropriate to the prevailing weather conditions in Norway at that time of year than the usual green & brown shades. The serial number has been painted over, a common feature on many RAF airframes just before and early in WW II. Note that the original Mk II metal three-blade propeller has been retrofitted by the Mk I style two-blade wooden prop.

When 263 went back to Norway (Bardufoss) in late May/early June 1940, the aircraft were in the standard brown-and-green colour scheme, more suited to summer weather. Of couse, on this second trip all their remaining aircraft were lost during the evacuation when HMS Glorious was sunk. The Squadron reformed with Hurricanes and then Whirlwinds from June 1940.

Gloster Gladiator Mk. II, 615 Squadron RAF, St. Inglevert, France, April 1940

 A Gladiator from the Battle of France. It’s a Mk.II of 615 Sqn, still with the original metal 3-blade prop. The camouflage is Dark Earth and Dark Green all over the uppersurfaces – not the specified mixture of dark & light versions of these colours. That was not uncommon on a lot of biplanes around that time. Also note the additional patch of dark green where the serial number has been painted over on the fuselage. Also the aircraft has roundels under the wings as specified for all RAF aircraft operating in France at the beginning of the war; those in the UK did not carry them unless they were likely to fly over France.

615 operated Gladiators up to May 1940, re-equipping with Hurricanes from April while still in France.

Gloster Gladiator Mk. II, 247 Squadron RAF, Roborough, Devonshire, November 1940

 This is a Mk II but with Mk I style 2-blade prop. The colour scheme is the official standard one for biplanes from ca. August/September 1940: Dark Green and Dark Earth uppersurfaces; Light Green and Light Earth lower fuselage sides and top of lower wing; finally Sky (Duck-Egg Green substitute in this case) undersurfaces, with roundels underwing.

247 Squadron operated Gladiators through the Battle of Britain from August 1940, when it was reformed, to February 1941 when re-equipped with Hurricanes and moved. The reason was that Roborough airfield, which is the one for Plymouth and thus was vital to the defence of the Royal Navy base there was not big enough to operate even Hurricanes never mind Spitfires. So, 247 was, of course, the last UK-based frontline fighter Squadron to operate the Gladiator.

Gloster Gladiator Mk. I, 80 Squadron RAF, Pilot: F/O G. T. Baynham, Amriya, Egypt, December 1939

 One of the early camouflaged Galdiators in North Africa. Although December 1939, the war didn’t start there until 1940 when Italy declared war. Note the locally-made tropical sand filter on the carburettor intake. The camo is standard for the time. 80 Squadron eventually re-equipped with Hurricanes from June 1940, though they retained Gladiators until April 1941. The undersurfaces of this machine are in the half black/half white scheme.

Gloster Gladiator Mk. I, 112 Squadron RAF, Helwan, Egypt, May 1940

 This Gladiator of 112 Squadron is in the full warpaint as worn in the early stages of the North African War – 112 first got Gladiators in June 1939 and retained them until July 1941, and even flew a few ancient Gauntlets with them from March to June 1940… Then it was re-equipped with Tomahawks on which the famous sharkmouth Squadron marking was introduced, reportedly copied from the Me 110s of ZG.26, Luftwaffe! So, as well as Egypt, 112 fought with its Gladiators in Greece, Albania, Crete and then back to Egypt.

Gloster Sea Gladiator Mk. I, Fighter Flight Malta, RAF, Hal Far, Malta, July 1940

 This aircraft (named Charity) was shot down on 29th July 1940. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant J. L. Waters, was severely burned.

The fighter is one of the famous trio of Faith, Hope & Charity that defended Malta, so is an RAF aircraft, not Fleet Air Arm. Thus it has Fleet Air Arm colours of Dark Slate Grey, Extra Dark Sea Grey and Sky Grey, but note that the dinghy housing has been removed from the lower centre section, as has the arrestor hook (though the fairing for the latter is still there). The aircraft also retains the metal 3-blade prop. Fighter Flight Malta was redesignated 261 Squadron on 2 August 1940, by which time it was flying a mixture of Gladiators and Hurricanes.

Just an anecdotal aside – the Phantoms based in the Falkland Islands after the war with Argentina were coded F, H, C and D, which stood for Faith, Hope, Charity, and Desperation!! I believe this still continues on the Tornados out there.

Gloster Sea Gladiator Mk. I, 805 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service, Crete, May/June 1941

 A Sea Gladiator of 805 Squadron which participated in the desperate and hopeless defence of Greece and Crete. It has the 2-blade wooden prop fitted in place of the original 3-blade metal one. This machine, and many of this type didn’t have the metal spinner fairing fitted ahead of the prop hub itself. The colour scheme is the one which was adopted as standard for Naval aircraft after the early part of the war – Extra Dark Sea Grey and Dark Slate Grey upper surfaces with Sky undersurfaces. The dull red codes were quite common on Royal Navy aircraft.

Gloster Gladiator Mk. II, 1/Lentolaivue 16, Suomen Ilmavoimat, Äänislinna, Finland, July 1942

 Finland’s urgent need for aircraft caused by the outbreak of the war against the Soviet Union led to the purchase of 30 Gloster Gladiator Mk.II fighters from England in December 1939.

During the Continuation War (1941-1944), LeLv 16 operated Gladiators in the first or two flights, scoring one air victory and losing ten aircraft, four of which in combat missions, two in accidents and four owing to technical attrition.

I took the details from a nice photo in the book Suomen Ilmavoimen Maalaukset Ja Merkinnät (Finnish Air Force Camouflage and Markings).


Rick Kent is a modeller, IPMS:er and a productive aviation artist. His speciality are computer-generated aircraft profiles.


This article was originally published in IPMS Stockholm Magazine in October 1999.