Based on an item in the Smithsonian newsletter at:
When the British Wanted to Camouflage Their Warships, They Made Them Dazzle
In order to stop the carnage wrought by German U-Boats, the Allied powers went way outside the box
By the end of 1916, German U-boats had sunk one fifth of Britain’s merchant ships, ferrying supplies to the British Isles. Desperate to grind down the Allies and bring an end to the costly war, the Kaiser declared unrestricted submarine warfare on January 31, 1917, promising to torpedo any ship that came within the warzone. Between March and December 1917, British ships of all kinds were blown out of the water at a rate of 23 a week, 925 ships by the end of that period.
How to camouflage ships at sea was one of the big questions of World War I. Though protective colouring and covers worked on land, the sea was a vastly different environment. Ships moved through changing light and visibility, they were subject to extreme weather, they belched black smoke and bled rust. Any sort of camouflage would have to work in variable and challenging conditions.
Norman Wilkinson, pictured above, came up with an idea that people initially had trouble accepting: the ships should be made more visible. Wilkinson’s innovation, what would be called “dazzle,” was that rather than using camouflage to hide the vessel, he used it to hide the vessel’s intention. Later he’d say that he’d realised that, “Since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer – in other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as the course on which she was heading.”
In order for a U-boat gunner to fire and hit his target from as far as 1,900 meters away (and not closer than 300 meters, as torpedoes required at least that much running distance to arm), he had to accurately predict where the target would be based on informed guesses. Compounding the difficulty was the fact that he had typically less than 30 seconds to sight the target ship through the periscope, or risk the periscope’s wake being seen and giving away the submarine’s location. Typical U-boats could only carry 12 very expensive and very slow torpedoes at a time, so the gunner had to get it right the first time.
“A submariner a submarine aiming at a ship had to calculate how fast a ship is going, where is it going, and aim the torpedo so that they both got to the same spot at the same time. Wilkinson’s idea was to “dazzle” the gunner so that he would either be unable to take the shot with any confidence or spoil it if he did.
Wilkinson used broad swathes of contrasting colors—black and white, green and mauve, orange and blue—in geometric shapes and curves to make it difficult to determine the ship’s actual shape, size and direction. Curves painted across the side of the ship could create a false bow wave, for example, making the ship seem smaller or imply that it was heading in a different direction: Patterns disrupting the line of the bow or stern made it hard to tell which was the front or back, where the ship actually ended, or even whether it was one vessel or two; and angled stripes on the smokestacks could make the ship seem as if it was facing in the opposite direction.
Both the British and the American navies used Dazzle camouflage for ships with reported varying success. Each ship's dazzle pattern was unique to avoid making classes of ships instantly recognisable to the enemy. The result was that a profusion of dazzle schemes was tried, and the evidence for their success was at best mixed. So many factors were involved that it was impossible to determine which were important, and whether any of the colour schemes was effective.
Dazzle was again used in World War 2, including by the German Navy.
Dazzle also attracted the notice of artists such as Picasso, who claimed that Cubists like himself had invented it. Dazzle played a role in the development of abstract art and in the 1960’s Op Art movement.
Australian minesweeper HMAS Wollongong
Comparison of Dazzle ship and non-Dazzled, as seen through a periscope
Name of boat unknown
Name of boat unknown
USS West Mahomet
HMT Olympic, RMS Titanic's sister ship, in dazzle camouflage while in service as a World War I troopship, from September 1915
HMS President, painted by Tobias Rheinberger in 2014 to commemorate the use of dazzle in World War I
Legendary pop artist Sir Peter Blake, who designed the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album sleeve, was commissioned to “dazzle” a Mersey ferry as part of WW1 celebrations
Dazzle Op Art fashion, 1960's
More 60's op art