The camouflage pattern isn’t really new to anybody who’s served in the military. Heck, even ordinary people know what camouflage is for, whether that be on a soldier’s uniform, military vehicles, aircraft, and military vessels.

In layman’s terms, the usage of the camouflage pattern draws from the need to blend in with the environment to avoid detection by the enemies. This is done by evaluating the type of terrain and the commonly found plants and shrubbery that exist in said environments. Camouflages typically have different colors, patterns, and materials so that they can effectively move without being compromised – this is true for all personnel, vehicles, aircraft, and vessels on active duty.

So, in World War I, why would military naval experts and artists opt to do the opposite by standing out?

Remember those vividly colored patterns they used to paint on ships and, to a lesser extent, on aircraft too? Wasn’t it counterproductive to razzle-dazzle a ship when the enemy can easily spot you in open waters?

Solving A Colorful Camouflage Problem

During the first World War, naval forces had the problem of disguising their fleet in the open waters as they were simply too vulnerable to enemy ships. The notorious German U-boats, at that time, were innovative and strong additions to the Imperial German Navy’s naval arsenal that sunk thousands of allied navy warships.

Before the idea of using the dazzled camouflage pattern for ships, the allied forces simply painted their fleets in varying shades of blue and blue-gray to mimic the colors of the waters. However, as all people in the Navy know, water from different oceans, densities, and at different times of day widely change. So much so, water is highly unpredictable as its colors can change whenever it is sunset, sunrise, or whenever there is a change in weather.

With hundreds of allied naval ships destroyed by the central powers, changes had to be made with their navigation systems and, of course, the paint of their fleets. Luckily, the allies were not just brilliant military strategists. They were also equipped with talented painters, one being Norman Wilkinson.

Master of the Camouflage, Mr. Norman Wilkinson

Norman Wilkinson painting a nautical-themed piece (Robert Perera Fine Art)

Mr. Wilkinson, a native of Cambridge, was a painter at heart and by profession. His illustration career started as a youngster when he had attended the Southsea School of Art. During this time, he also pursued his interests to know more about the oceans and anything maritime.

Because of these passions of his, he was a resident illustrator for The Illustrated London News and the Illustrated Mail in 1898. He would go on to illustrate for other British railway companies till World War I had broken out in 1914.

Willing to serve his country, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, which had over 30,000 men under its command. Many of these soldiers went on to have tours during the war.. In fact, Wilkinson would serve on submarine patrols along the Aegean Sea. During this time, the British were suffering naval losses due to the German U-boat’s successful deployment.

The Eureka Moment!

Contemplating a solution on how to disguise a ship in open water, it suddenly hit him (no pun intended) during a fishing trip in the Spring of 1917! Submarines use the range and speed of a target to calculate how it’s going to deploy a torpedo. Now, if the enemies cannot determine the range and the speed of a vessel that it’s targeting, the more likely it is that it would miss!  And it wouldn’t have to miss by much to totally miss either.  If you can’t hide a ship at sea he reasoned, you might be able to confuse a U-boat skipper using a periscope as to the ship’s range, bearing and speed and overshoot or undershoot his target with a torpedo.

The basic concept was to confuse the enemy and not to blend in. By painting the navy’s ships with alternating colors and lines that mask the real structure of the vessel, German submarines would have a more difficult time determining the ship’s size, bow, and stern. In effect, this would make it a hell of a lot more challenging for the Germans to effectively fire their torpedoes.

Another Brit, John Graham Kerr, came up with a similar design concept called the “disruptive camouflage,” wherein a warship was to be painted in such a way that it would break the strong outlines of the ship through painting in different shades, thus giving it more textures to mask the real structure of a vessel.

The two concepts were strikingly similar but not the same. Kerr wanted the ships to blend in with the sky and water, while Wilkinson wanted the warships to stand out. In the end, the British Navy went with Wilkinson’s idea, possibly due to the latter’s well-connectedness to the navy officials.

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A Camouflage Success or Failure?

By the end of the first world war, 2,300 British ships were bedazzled quite fabulously! The allied navies also took notice of the dazzle camouflage pattern, particularly the US Navy, where a total of 1,256 merchant ships and warships were decorated with the dazzle.

But was it successful?

According to reports, it was impossible to say whether the dazzle camouflage patterns were effective or not due to mixed results. In one study using data from the US Navy between March to November 1918, it was found that 96 ships were sunk over 2,500 tons, where 18 ships were dazzled merchant ships. No dazzled camouflaged military ships were sunk.

In the British Navy, vessels that were sunk by the enemy were comprised of 43% dazzled ships and 54% undazzled ships, suggesting that it might have worked. However, dazzled ships were attacked more than the uncamouflaged ships due to their increased visibility.

Tim Newark, the author of the book “Camouflage,” reported that at least one U-boat captain was indeed confused with the dazzled ships, making it somewhat successful:

“It was not until she was within half a mile that I could make out she was one ship [not several] steering a course at right angles, crossing from starboard to port. The dark painted stripes on her after part made her stern appear her bow, and a broad cut of green paint amidships looks like a patch of water. The weather was bright and visibility good; this was the best camouflage I have ever seen.”

During WWII, the refinements made to Dazzle patterns continued and were adopted by the U.S. Navy for its warships in all theaters.  And again, the results were mixed as the conditions of war make it a bit difficult to ask enemy submarine skippers if they actually were confusing to them.  Since 3 out of 4 German submarines were lost in combat the number of submarine captains to even interview was rather limited.  This is not to say that the idea of such camouflage was abandoned. Modern naval vessels may not use disruptive cammo anymore but they do a variety of stealth methods including limiting electronic signals emissions and coatings and design features to reduce their radar signatures.  So Ol’ Sir Norman was certainly on to something there.