Dazzle Camouflage

December, 2001

During World War I, the British and Americans faced a serious threat from German U-boats, which were sinking allied shipping at a dangerous rate. All attempts to camouflage ships at sea had failed, as the appearance of the sea and sky are always changing. Any color scheme that was concealing in one situation was conspicuous in others. A British artist and naval officer, Norman Wilkinson, promoted a new camouflage scheme. Instead of trying to conceal the ship, it simply broke up its lines and made it more difficult for the U-boat captain to determine the ship's course. The British called this camouflage scheme "Dazzle Painting." The Americans called it "Razzle Dazzle."

UPDATE: Most references report that dazzle painting designs were derived from the artistic fashions of the time, particularly cubism. I have recently (2009) received conflicting information from Colin Biddle, who wrote his thesis on dazzle painting. He says that " ... there is no connection to cubism nor to abstract artistic movements of the time such as Futurism and Vorticism. It was purely an idea of Wilkinson's ... Only after many trials of differing patterns and combination of colours did the Royal Navy go ahead with the dazzle idea. Much poor reportage has been forthcoming on this assuming that the art movement of the time was responsible. This is the myth." Mr. Biddle's thesis is available in the library of Hereford College of Arts, Hereford, Herefordshire, UK, 2008.

U-boats did not aim their torpedos directly at a ship to sink it. Because the target was moving, it was necessary to aim ahead of its path in order for the torpedo to arrive in the correct spot at the same time as the ship. If the torpedo is too early or too late, it will miss. The primary goal of dazzle painting was to confuse the U-boat commander who was trying to observe the course and speed of his target. As you can see in the photo of the French Cruiser "Gloire" on the left, contrasting diagonal stripes can make it hard to see just which direction the ship's bow is pointing. The American merchant ship "Mahomet" is another example. How many bows can one ship have?

Artists were enlisted to draw up the camouflage designs. Early in the war, designs were drawn for individual ships, with each ship having its own distinctive pattern (see the drawings at left). As the war progressed, standard patterns were devised and applied to large numbers of ships. An example is the type 24 design. (Note that the designs for opposite sides of the ship can be quite different from one another.) Even the great passenger liners were camouflaged for the duration of the War.

It is unfortunate that there are no color photographs of these WWI ships. People who witnessed convoys of dazzle painted ships reported that the scene was quite dramatic. Imagine sailing across the North Atlantic surrounded by dozens of brightly painted ships, each in different colors and patterns. If you compare the colored drawing with the black and white photograph of the ship "War Clover", you can get an idea of how much we are missing. (Aidan Hall sent me a colorized photo which gives a great idea of how these ships would have looked in real life. Thanks, Aidan.)

At the end of the the First World War, dazzle painting was discontinued, as the admirals had never really liked painting their ships in such an un-military fashion. Also, the introduction of effective air power made dazzle painting problematic, as it increased the ship's visibility to aircraft. The US Navy reintroduced dazzle painting during World War II (after Japanese air power had been largely eliminated) to protect our ships from the renewed threat of enemy submarines. Examples include the US Navy cruiser "Alaska" and the destroyer "Yarnall". However, continuing improvements in radar and sonar eventually eliminated any need for submarine commanders to actually sight their targets visually. This meant that by the end of the war dazzle painting no longer served any useful purpose, and US warships were quickly repainted to a "haze grey" color.

During the First World War, dazzle painting was quite widely publicized. The bold designs and bright colors caught the imagination of both artists and the general public, particularly in England. As shown in the picture at the left, artists began to incorporate dazzle painting into their work. It was featured in a wide variety of art, including drawings, cartoons, clothing, and even vehicles. So, whether or not razzle dazzle camouflage was originally derived from the art of the period, it came to have a significant effect on that art, and on fashion designs as well.

And, it gave us a great name for our Tiki 38 sailboat! Actually, Jim wanted to paint our boat in a razzle dazzle pattern, but a calmer head — Jamie's — prevailed.

A visitor to this site wrote to me in October, 2008 to ask if anyone could recognize this "mystery ship." She wanted to identify it as she has an old photograph of the ship which has been in her family for a long time. The photographer is identified as M. Rosenfeld, N.Y. and the back of the photo has a note which says "France regular". It did not take long for Stephen Roberts to identify it as the American freighter "Agawam" which was built by the Submarine Boat Company of Newark, NJ. The "Agawam" was one of 150 small freighters (Design 1023) that were built there. It was delivered to the Shipping Board in December, 1918. Mr. Roberts believes the photo was probably taken during sea trials in New York during November, 1918. Mystery solved. Thanks Stephen.

(NOTE: The World War I photos on this page were scanned from the museum catalog "'Dazzle Painting', Kunst als Camouflage, Camouflage als Kunst", by Albert Roskam / Stichting kunstprojecten, 1987, Uitgeverij Van Spijk, ISBN 90 7 1893 02 2. All photos are believed to be in the public domain — if you know otherwise, please let us know.)

— return to the 2001 Journal Archive.