Unlike a submarine that can lurk beneath the waves, or an artillery tank that can camouflage itself among trees and the surrounding terrain, there is no hiding for a smoke-belching ship in the open waters of an ocean. So how does one go about camouflaging a ship during wartime?
That was the question that troubled Britain during World War 1. Germany’s U-boats were creating havoc in the Atlantic sinking merchant ships in alarming numbers. Ideas that were proposed included covering them with mirrors, disguising them as giant whales, draping them in canvas to make them look like clouds, or making them appear like islands. But Norman Wilkinson, a Royal Navy volunteer reserve lieutenant came up with an ingenious solution—instead of trying to hide ships, make them conspicuous; paint them with odd shapes and violent contrasts of colors so as to “dazzle” the enemy.
Dazzle camouflage on a World War 2-era ship.
“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,” Wilkinson, who was a painter, graphic designer and newspaper illustrator before the war, later told about his invention.
Dazzle camouflage, as Wilkinson’s concept came to be called, comprised of a variety of geometric shapes and curves—stripes, swirls and irregular abstract—in contrasting colors such as black and white, green and mauve, orange and blue. These shapes and colors can befuddle the captain of a U-boat peering through a periscope making it hard for him to determine the ship’s actual shape, size and direction. Bold shapes at the bow and stern can make it difficult to tell apart one from the other. Patterns disrupting the form of the ship made it hard to tell which was the front or the back, and even whether it was one vessel or two. The illusion is furthered by angled lines that make the smokestacks seem to be leaning in another direction. The curves on the hull could be mistaken for the shape of the ‘bow wave’ – created by water at the front of a fast-moving ship.
These two images demonstrate how dazzle camouflage can throw off a submarine commander’s senses. The camouflaged ship (Left) appears to be heading straight towards the observer, whereas in reality (Right) it is going off to the right.
For a U-boat gunner, looking to hit a moving target hundreds of meters away, the ship’s speed, distance and direction is essential knowledge. Accurately predicting the ships’ path is of utmost importance for a successful hit, as explained by Roy Behrens, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa: “If you’re a submarine aiming at a ship, you have to calculate how fast a ship is going, where is it going, and aim the torpedo so that they both get to the same spot at the same time.”
The gunner had typically less than 30 seconds to sight the target ship through the periscope, or risk the periscope from seen and giving away the submarine’s location. A typical U-boat also carried very limited number of very expensive slow-moving torpedoes, so getting the calculations right was important. 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.
Original WW1 ship models painted to test dazzle camouflage schemes. Photo: Imperial War Museum
Wilkinson developed hundreds of camouflage schemes. To determine the effectiveness of each, the Royal Academy of Arts created scale model of ships and painted them with the test patterns. They were then placed on a rotating turntable and viewed through a periscope, using screens, lights and backgrounds to see how the dazzle paint schemes would look at various times of day and night. Wilkinson even impressed King George V using one of these models. Looking through a telescope, the King announced that the ship was moving “South by west,” only to be surprised to discover that it was moving east-by-southeast.
“I have been a professional sailor for many years,” the King reportedly said, “and I would not have believed I could have been so deceived in my estimate.”
Artists of the Royal Academy of Arts applying paint on model warships. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
An artist testing a model vessel covered with dazzle camouflage.
In less than a year after the the Royal Navy started dazzling ships, some 2,300 British ships were painted with the camouflage, and by the end of the war, that number would swell to more than 4,000. The Americans also adopted dazzle patterns for camouflage, painting some 1,200 merchant vessels with Wilkinson’s design.
Statistically, it is hard to say whether dazzle camouflage worked. In the first quarter of 1918, for example, 72 percent of dazzled ships that were attacked were sunk or damaged versus 62 percent of non-dazzled, implying that dazzle did not minimize torpedo damage. But in the second quarter, 60 percent of attacks on dazzled ships ended in sinking or damage, compared to 68 percent of non-dazzled.
Dazzle camouflage was used again during World War II, by the US on their ships, and as an experiment, on a small number of aircrafts. But camouflage on aircraft was found to be less effective. Today, with electronic surveillance technology, dazzling a ship no longer offers any protection, but camouflage in general remains a vital part of land warfare.
A merchant ship sporting dazzle camouflage, in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo: Imperial War Museum
Vintage Postcard of the U.S.S. Leviathan Painted With A World War I “Dazzle” Camouflage
USS West Mahomet in port, circa November 1918. Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command