Tuesday 17 May 2016

Curtiss Hawks, China and French Gray

Back in 2013 I blogged a two-parter on Curtiss Hawk monoplanes for China, here and here. I had not planned to blog about the earlier biplane Curtiss Hawks operated in China because there is already "so much out there" but a little serendipity came into play when Mark Smith kindly emailed me a snippet from Dana Bell posted at Hyperscale:-

" . . . the colors applied to Hawk IIIs being exported to China in 1936. A few weeks back I tripped across Curtiss' export application, which included notes that the finish was to match Berry Brothers French Gray 1258. The blue for the insignia was to match Berry Curtiss Blue 1263."

In Ref 2. it is asserted that all the Hawk IIIs were originally destined for the Cantonese Air Force and subsequently taken over by the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF). The aircraft of the Cantonese Air Force were painted grey, usually depicted as a cool light grey as with the Old Man's excellent model of a Cantonese Curtiss Hawk I here, whose build report also usefully explains the confusing relationship between the Republic of China and the semi-independent enclave of Canton.

Dana Bell suggested that the aircraft were probably re-painted green in China with, presumably, the under surfaces remaining in the French Gray - or not! Photographs of the Hawk III in Chinese service show a very dark - and quite glossy - overall colour (see heading image) or a lighter, duller colour with a lighter painted undersurface. Tonal effects in monochrome photographs can vary and be quite confusing as these images of the same Curtiss Hawk III 'Ningbo Special' demonstrate. Therefore where exactly that French Gray comes in - or doesn't - is puzzling.

Berryloid 1258 French Gray

Thanks to Michael McMurtrey who kindly passed on these images via Mark Smith and to Ed Seay Jr. of M-A-L Hobby Shop in Irving, Texas who kindly gave permission for the original chips to be examined and photographed we now have some idea of what Berryloid French Gray 1258 might have looked like. And it appears a distinctly greenish grey! That this is not just age related yellowing distorting blue into green is suggested by delving into the history of the colour 'French Grey' and the fact that the current BS381c 630 French Grey is quite similar to the Berryloid colour, being a distinctly greenish grey. 630 is a Munsell Green Yellow and very close to FS 16376 in appearance.

Like the Zero's amber grey in monochrome photographs this colour might appear either quite light or more mid-toned and could even be described by some as "khaki". It is not far off the light greenish-grey colour of Royal Hong Kong Police summer uniforms which were always described as "khaki" in official documentation.

Berryloid Curtiss Blue 1263

Berryloid Curtiss Blue 1263 for the national insignia is less surprising but is a rather lighter and greyer blue than the expected standard for RoCAF insignia.

Serials, Deliveries and Units

There is disparity in the designation of the first Chinese Hawk biplanes with Ref.2 insisting on Curtiss Hawk I whilst Refs.3 and 4 use Curtiss Hawk II. According to Ref.1 the Chinese Nationalist government placed an order for 17 Curtiss Hawk Type 1 (Landplane Design 35-A) with Curtiss manufacturer serial numbers 11733 to 11749 and series serials H-47 to H-63 which were delivered in June and July 1933. Another 14 aircraft were delivered in August 1933 with the s/n 11770 to 11783 and H-66 to H-79. In addition to those Ref.3 attributes the delivery of another 18 aircraft without engines and manufacturer or series numbers from 15 March 1933 to 8 May 1933.

The Curtiss Hawk III (design 68-C) "China Demonstrator" was delivered in March 1936 with the manufacturer serial number 12095. This aircraft was reportedly painted overall olive drab with an aluminium interior and Chinese insignia on upper and lower wings, each side of the forward fuselage and rudder. This was followed by an order for 59 s/n 12096-12154 (Ref.1) or 60 s/n 12096-12155 (Ref.3) aircraft delivered from 16 May to 7 August 1936. Those aircraft were described as being painted overall 'khaki' with aluminium interiors and standard Chinese insignia. In addition 11 aircraft s/n 12175-12185 were delivered to Canton, according to Ref.3 from 1 May to 17 July 1936. The Canton aircraft were painted 'French Gray' with aluminium interiors and 'semi-standard' Chinese insignia (presumably incorporating the outer red ring).

According to Ref.3 a further 30 Hawk III were delivered from 12 April to 7 June 1938 with the s/n 12726 to 12755. According to Ref.1 this was an order for 29 sets of parts to build the Hawk III at the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation (CAMCO).  The "missing" aircraft was probably another demonstrator aircraft delivered to Canton in May, 1936.

The Hawk IIIs were assigned to the 7th Fighter Squadron at Sinsiang, 4th Air Group's 21st, 22nd and 23rd Fighter Squadrons based respectively at Chih Chiachwang, Taming and Tsinan, and to the 5th Air Group's 24th and 25th Fighter Squadrons based at Tsinan. The 5th Air Group's 28th Fighter Squadron operated the Hawk I from Nanchang and the Canton Hawk IIIs were taken over as the 29th Fighter Squadron at that city. At first the aircraft were identified by large white four-digit numbers painted on the fuselage sides, the first two digits identifying the squadron and the last two the individual aircraft number. By the end of September 1937 six of the Canton Hawk IIIs had been shot down and only one of the three surviving aircraft was serviceable. In addition to assembling the Hawk aircraft from parts a number of crashed aircraft were salvaged and re-built by CAMCO and at Shiuchow.  

The Duality of French Gray  

Originally French Gray was the description used for a distinctly light blue grey colour, evidenced by early recipes for the paint colour. In the 18th Century the pigments used were a lead white base to which were added Prussian blue, vermilion (red) and charcoal black to the lead white base, resulting in a very slightly purplish light blue-grey. The 19th century edition of John Smith’s 'The Art of Painting', an English housepainting manual, suggests that French Grey could be created as follows:-

“Take white lead and Prussian blue, or blue verditer; and, to make a more beautiful and pleasant colour, take a small quantity of Lake or Vermilion”

By way of a slight digression, in 'Chromatography; or, a Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of their Powers in Painting' (1835) the chemist George Field had made a distinction between grey and gray, now largely reduced to a matter of transatlantic spelling. Whilst grey was asserted to be a simple mixture of black and white, the presence of a third subsidiary pigment resulted in a gray. In the case of French Gray it was held that a small amount of red or ultramarine pigment made the grey 'warm' and more attractive. This distinction has been effectively lost by common usage and British or American conventional spelling.

Samples in various early publications show a cool light grey, only very slightly blueish, and nothing like the greenish-grey Berry or BSi colour. At what stage perception transitioned to include a greenish grey is unknown but BS381 of 1930 includes # 30 French Grey which is also a greenish grey closely similar to the Berryloid and current BS381 colour. However the uniform facings of the British Army's 21st Lancers were also officially 'French Grey' and the light blue-grey hue attributed to the term is apparent from their extant uniform artifacts and imagery.

French Grey facings for the 21st Lancers

The duality in the perception of this colour is therefore problematic, especially when it comes to the prototype Spitfire, happily OT for this blog*, also reported to have been painted in 'French Grey'. An earlier incarnation was reportedly finished in a greenish-grey primer. Does the description of French Grey refer to that or to the supposed light blue-grey Supermarine seaplane colour in which it later appeared?

No answers here I'm afraid, just more stuff to ponder about. My suggestion for a Chinese Curtiss Hawk III model would be to apply the French Gray first as a primer coat and then reveal it selectively through wear of the overall dark olive green camouflage. For two tone subjects whether the under surface should be represented as the French Gray or painted in the Chinese sky blue is a matter of personal choice.

* The Republic of China had attempted unsuccessfully to purchase Spitfire I from the British. If sold those would probably have been the earliest models with flat canopies and two-bladed props but it is interesting to speculate what the outcome might have been had Chinese Spitfires faced the appearance of the Mitsubishi Zero over Chungking in the summer of 1940.


Ref 1. 'Curtiss Fighter Aircraft - A Photographic History 1917-1948', Dean F H & Hagedorn D, (Schiffer 2007)
Ref 2. 'A History of Chinese Aviation - Encyclopedia of Aircraft and Aviation in China until 1949', Andersson L, (AHS of ROC 2008)
Ref 3. 'The Curtiss Hawks', Shamburger P & Christy J, (Wolverine Press 1972)
Ref 4. 'The American Fighter', Angelucci E with Bowers P (Orion 1987)


Ken Glass said...

Thanks for this posting, Nick. Please cite Munsell equivalents for Berryloid 1258 French Gray & Berry Curtiss Blue 1263.

Ken Glass

Straggler 脱走兵 said...

Hi Ken, sorry but unfortunately I have no equivalent Munsell values for those two colours, only the FS595 comparison images shared above!

Gary Lai said...

Here is Cantonese Air Force Curtiss Hawk II, I think which is paint French Grey. http://gkjlai.pixnet.net/blog/post/232069526-1930%E5%B9%B4%E4%BB%A3%E5%BB%A3%E6%9D%B1%E7%A9%BA%E8%BB%8D%E7%9A%84curtiss-hawk-iiv

Straggler 脱走兵 said...

Thanks for that link Gary! Very interesting!


Gary Lai said...

Here is another photo of same plane. But looks darker then other photos. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152431329703456&set=gm.867782823286216&type=3&theater

WD said...

Thanks so much for posting this info Nick!


Ronnie Olsthoorn said...

Very interesting article, Nick!

For your interest, here is a 1947 painting of a Chinese Hawk I:
Note the grey underside of the torn-off wing.
In comparison, this painting from the same year shows the undersides of an I-16 correctly in light blue:
And just to prove that artwork can't be trusted... I-15s in incorrect light grey :)