Camouflage and markings of No. 74 Squadron RAF, Part 1

by Rick Kent

”I Fear No Man”

Throughout aviation history, tiger motifs have been increasingly popular, culminating in the contemporary Tiger Meets. I recently completed a series of profiles devoted to the very first Tiger aviation unit in the world – No.74 RAF Squadron. The unit was formed in 1917 and exists until this day, flying Hawks from RAF Valley at Anglesey in Wales. Many famous names like Mannock, Malan and Mason came to be associated with the Squadron.

To many people No. 74 will be better known as a Tiger Squadron. This name was first popularised by the book entitled Tiger Squadron written by J.I.T. ”Ira” Jones shortly after the First World War. Since then the eye-catching tiger head badge (matching the Squadron motto I Fear No Man), and the colourful yellow-and-black motifs were often carried by the unit’s aircraft during the peaceful periods of it’s 80 years long history.

This series of profiles shows all aircraft types that the Squadron used operationally, from the very beginning up to this day.

The Propeller Era


Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5A
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Claimarais, France, April 1918

Here is the first aircraft of the 74 ”Tiger” Squadron, RAF. 74 was first formed on 1 July 1917 with various training types before receiving its first operational fighters, the S.E.5A, in March 1918, going to France (St. Omer) on the 30th of that month. The unit remained in France until February 1919 when it returned to Britain from Halluin to Lopcombe Corner. It was disbanded there on July 3rd 1919.

A famous book entitled Tiger Squadron was written by Captain J.I.T. ”Ira” Jones, who was the Squadron’s Commander from December 1918 to February 1919, which told of the unit’s exploits in the First World War – hence the Squadron was known by that name from its earliest times. The Squadron destroyed 140 enemy aircraft between 12th April 1918, when it had its first dogfight, and the end of the war in November 1918.

They were not reformed until 1935, as shown in the following profiles.

The S.E.5A’s were finished in the standard PC10 khaki dope on the upper surfaces, whilst the undersurfaces of the wings and tailplane were clear-doped, giving the creamy finish on the linen fabric, which darkened with age and good old fashioned dirt. Also, of course, the British fin stripes were the same as French ones at that time – i.e. with blue leading and red trailing.

Hawker Demon
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Hal Far, Malta, November 1935

The second 74 Squadron aircraft was this Hawker classic. The unit reformed on board the transport ship Neutralia on 3rd September 1935 with Hawker Demon two-seat fighters. This was part of the British response to the Abyssinian crisis when quite a number of RAF squadrons went to the Middle East. 74 Squadron was destined for Malta as shown, but was not allowed to identify itself by number until 14th November for security reasons, being known only as Demon Flights at first.

As can be seen, the a/c were camouflaged in a locally devised scheme (which was based roughly on that originally invented for the Sopwith Salamander of WW I). The paints were locally produced, but the colours were very close to Dark Green and Dark Earth; the camouflage patterns varied a lot, as did roundels, some having just blue/red in varying positions, and yet others having full red/white/blue. The serial numbers were usually painted over, again for security.

The undersurfaces of this Demon were left in their original Silver (Aluminium) doped finish and the metal struts were left unpainted. The underwing serials were painted over. It also retains its red wheel discs, indicating a machine of ’A’ Flight. A photo of it appears in ”R.A.F. Squadrons” by Wing Commander C.G. Jefford, published by Airlife England, 1988, ISBN 1 85310 053 6, on page 22. This photo is in fact from the RAF Museum collection, which I catalogued myself when I was there, and I helped ”Jeff” in his research for the pictures. It shows that this a/c had just one red/blue roundel on the top of the right upper wing. The rear part of the exhaust is painted with a special white anti-glow paint, presumably to stop it from blinding the crew at night.

In July 1936 the Squadron was shipped back to England, arriving at Hornchurch in September. In April 1937 it re-equipped with Gloster Gauntlet single-seat fighters.

Gloster Gauntlet Mk.II
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Hornchurch, Essex, June 1937


This Gloster Gauntlet shows the standard RAF inter-war colour scheme of silver overall (except for the small black anti-dazzle in front of the cockpit) with the colourful style of markings used by fighter squadrons. The Gauntlets were the first 74 airframes to carry the tiger stripe markings on the fuselage and repeated across the top wing between the roundels. The tiger’s head badge is in the standard spearhead outline on the fin. The yellow wheels indicate an aircraft of ’B’ Flight. All these colourful markings were of course removed and painted over with camouflage with the Munich Crisis in 1938.

The Squadron received Gauntlets in April 1937 and kept them until February 1939 when it re-equipped with Spitfire I’s, remaining at Hornchurch in Essex not far to the east of London throughout the entire period.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk. I
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Hornchurch, Essex, May 1939

What a change from the pretty colours of the Gauntlet! Here’s one of 74’s early Mk.I Spitfires with the pre-war code letters JH and pre-war style camouflage and markings. The roundels on the tops of the wings were also red/blue over the Dark Green/Dark Earth camouflage. Code letters are light grey (that was not an official standard colour and varied a lot between the various Squadrons, being simply mixed from black or grey and white).

The undersurfaces are still in the original silver (aluminium doped) finish on the right side, and black on the left side with the dividing line straight down the middle of the fuselage, and red/white/blue roundels under both wings. All the serial numbers have been painted over.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk. I
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Hornchurch, Essex, February 1940

Another Spitfire Mk.I, but this one as they appeared early in the war. The most obvious change is to the code letters adopted on the outbreak of war: ZP. Secondly the reinstatement of the white in the fuselage roundel, but deletion of the underwing roundels. This aircraft has the proper black and white undersurfaces, divided down the centre of the fuselage yet again, the uppersurfaces remaining as before in Dark Earth/Dark Green. The serial number is still painted over.

The Squadron remained at Hornchurch until 27 May 1940, when it was sent up to Leconfield in Yorkshire for one week’s break, returning to Essex at Rochford (Southend) near the Thames estuary on 6 June. Note that both this and the earlier Spit have the early type thin radio aerial mast and wire aerial attached.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk. I
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Hornchurch, Essex, May 1940

Yet another different Mk.I Spitfire of 74 Squadron. This shows the colours used later in 1940, covering the period from the Battle of France until August when the undersides of fighters were changed to the Sky colour during the Battle of Britain. The fighter has the same basic camouflage scheme of Dark Earth/Dark Green upper surfaces with the black/white undersides, but the much modified fuselage roundel now has the yellow ring added (thinner than officially specified), and also the addition of the fin stripes. By this time, as can be seen, the serial numbers had been put back on.

The radio aerials remain the same as before but note the addition of the armoured glass windscreen on the cockpit canopy.

74 saw its first action of the war in May 1940 helping the hard-pressed squadrons in France with patrols over that country during which five pilots were lost in one week. The unit continued flying Mk.I Spitfires until September 1940, being heavily involved in the Battle of Britain during June and July especially.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IIA
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Biggin Hill, Kent, February 1941

Here is the Mk.IIA Spitfire with which 74 Squadron was re-equipped in September 1940 at Coltishall, before moving back south again to Biggin Hill in October for the closing stages of the Battle of Britain.

The Squadron destroyed 38 enemy aircraft in November/December 1940, moved to Manston in February 1941 and to Gravesend in May where it received Mk.VB Spits armed with 20 mm cannon, but moved to Acklington in the far north of England in July 1941 where it reverted to the Mk.IIA Spits until January 1942.

The colour scheme on this a/c is that used by RAF fighters in the winter of 1940/41 – still the standard Dark Earth/Dark Green upper surfaces but with Sky spinner and 18 inch fuselage band; the fuselage roundel is of the standard type adopted for Spitfires until summer 1942. The black undersurface to the left wing was only used through these winter months, before reverting back to the all Sky undersides introduced first in August 1940. The serial is in the standard 8 inch high characters and the codes are Medium Sea Grey. Only the roundel on the black wing has the yellow outline, the other side being the standard red/white/blue. Upper wing roundels are, of course, simply red/blue.

Note the different radio aerial, first introduced on Mk.I’s during the Battle of Britain (in particular no wire to the tail). The cockpit canopy has the armoured screen and rear view mirror as standard. The eight machine gun ports have canvas patches over them fixed on with red primer dope in order to keep dust out of the guns – these were obviously shot through when the guns were fired.

For those modellers interested, the only definite external difference (besides serial number) between Mk.I and Mk.II Spitfire is that the latter has a small bulged fairing below the exhausts on the right side,

which covered the cartridge-starter not fitted to the Mk.I.

As a final note on 74 Squadron in this period, it was commanded from August 1940 to March 1941 by the famous South African ace, Squadron Leader Adolph Gysbert ”Sailor” Malan, DFC.

Hawker Hurricane Mk. IIB
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Mehrabad, Iran, April 1943

As said 74 Squadron went to the far north of England (Acklington) in July 1941 where it reverted to Spitfire Mk.IIA’s. It kept these for defensive duties at various locations in Wales and Northern Ireland until embarking for the Middle East in April 1942, arriving in Egypt in June but with no aircraft!

Since it had no a/c it moved to Palestine (Ramat David) where it acted as a maintenance unit servicing USAAF B-24’s – how bizarre for a top fighter squadron from the Battle of Britain! At last, in December 1942, they received Hurricane IIB’s like the one shown in the profile, but only for service in Iran until May 1943 when they returned to Egypt for defensive patrols and conversion to Spitfire Mk.VB and VC in September 1943.

Very little is known of the markings of these Hurricanes: they almost certainly never carried any Squadron code letters, but some probably did have individual aircraft letters (probably in white). They were painted in the standard desert finish of Mid Stone/Dark Earth camouflage on upper surfaces with Azure Blue undersides, and red spinner as standard to all Allied fighters in the Mid East. Note, of course, the tropical carburettor filter under the nose.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk. VB
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Nicosia, Cyprus, September 1943

In September 1943 74 Squadron went to Cyprus with its Spitfire V’s in support of the abortive campaign to occupy certain of the Aegean Islands. In one notable incident on 29th September Flight Sergeant Wilson shot down a Ju 88 and caused two Me 109’s to collide with each other.

Like the previous Hurricane, this Spitfire is in the standard desert camouflage scheme; the only non-standard item is that the serial number is smaller than the usual specified 8 inches high, indicating that it has been repainted over the desert finish. The tropical filter under the nose certainly alters the look of the aircraft. Again there are no Squadron code letters.

The unit returned to Egypt in late October 1943 to re-equip with Mk.IX Spitfires.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IXC
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Dekheila, Egypt, February 1944

Here is one of the Spitfire IXC’s that 74 were re-equipped with in Egypt from October 1943 until April 1944 when they returned to the UK. Its colour scheme is just as that employed in Northern Europe; by this time there was no longer any need for desert camo in Egypt to be used as the war there was over. The scheme is Dark Green/Ocean Grey upper surface camouflage pattern with Medium Sea Grey undersides. Even the Sky spinner and band are retained, along with the individual a/c code letter (the Squadron still carried no code letters as identification). There are two slight differences from the standard scheme – it does not have the yellow wing leading edge; and the serial number has been repainted smaller so that it all fits on the Sky band.


Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk. IXE
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Schijndel, Nethelands, March 1945

This Spitfire is representative of the Mk.IXE version that 74 operated in 2nd Tactical Air Force after their return to the UK, from April 1944 to March 1945. They were naturally involved in the fighting leading up to the D-Day landings, the invasion itself, and all the way on into Germany in support of the 21st Army Group as fighter-bombers and bomber escorts. They first moved to Normandy (Sommervieu) in August 1944, advancing into the Netherlands during the winter campaign.

As can be seen, the Squadron were allocated the code 4D on their return from the Middle East. By the date of this illustration 2nd TAF had removed the Sky spinners (black instead) and fuselage bands (overpainted with camo, hence the slightly darker shade of the fresh paint), and also the roundels were the same in all positions – i.e. with yellow outline and the addition of white on top of the wings. The bomb is Dark Green, which was (and still is) standard for British ”live” bombs, the yellow ring around the front indicates High Explosive (HE) filling. The camouflage colours are identical to the previous Mk.IXC, but note the 6 inch yellow leading edge to the outer wing.

The wings are of the ’clipped’ variety without the elliptical tips – for the interest of modellers this was simply done by inserting a shaped wooden plug in place of the original tip. The ’E’ wings were fitted with two 20mm Hispano cannon and two 0.5 inch Browning machine guns, the latter being inboard of the former and so hidden in side view.

Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk. XVIE
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Drope, Germany, May 1945
Pilot: Sqn Ldr A. J. Reeves

This is the last Mark of Spitfire operated by 74 Squadron, the Mk.XVIE, which was a conversion of the Mk.IX fitted with the US built Packard Merlin engine. Although, apart from serial number, there is no definite external difference between the two marks (late Mk.IX’s had the cut down rear fuselage, and early Mk.XVI’s had the original type, and contrary to the belief of some authors they all had fixed tailwheels), the two Marks were not interchangeable simply by swapping over the engines. This was because the different engines had different electrical voltage systems and were slightly different in certain crucial measurements.

74 Squadron replaced its Mk.IXE’s with the XVI’s in March 1945, advancing from the Netherlands into Germany with them, being based at Drope from 16th April to 11th May, so the aircraft depicted is as it was only a few days before the end of the European War. The field at Drope was quite unsuitable really, being too small and very waterlogged. The Squadron returned to the UK only 3 days after the end of the war and commenced re-equipment with Gloster Meteor III’s immediately. The only colour difference between this a/c and the Mk.IXE above is that the Sky fuselage band is painted over on the underside with Ocean Grey rather than Medium Sea Grey. The only other external difference is the obvious cut down rear fuselage with ’tear drop’ canopy and whip radio aerial.

Continue to Camouflage and Markings of No. 74 Sqn RAF, Part 2

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 November 1999.