Dazzle camouflage

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"Dazzle Ships" redirects here. For the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark album, see Dazzle Ships (album).
USS West Mahomet in dazzle camouflage, 1918

Dazzle camouflage, also known as razzle dazzle or dazzle painting, was a family of ship camouflage used extensively in World War I and to a lesser extent in World War II and afterwards. Credited to artist Norman Wilkinson, though with a prior claim by the zoologist John Graham Kerr, it consisted of complex patterns of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, interrupting and intersecting each other.

Unlike some other forms of camouflage, dazzle works not by offering concealment but by making it difficult to estimate a target's range, speed and heading. Norman Wilkinson explained in 1919 that dazzle was intended more to mislead the enemy as to the correct position to take up than actually to miss his shot when firing.

Dazzle was adopted by the British Admiralty and the U.S. Navy with little evaluation. 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 were 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 were effective.

Dazzle attracted the notice of artists, with Picasso notably claiming cubists had invented it. The vorticist artist Edward Wadsworth, who supervised the camouflaging of over 2,000 ships during the First World War, painted a series of canvases of dazzle ships after the war, based on his wartime work.


HMS Argus displaying a coat of dazzle camouflage in 1918
HMAS Yarra in dazzle camouflage while sailing in the Persian Gulf, August 1941

At first glance, dazzle seems an unlikely form of camouflage, drawing attention to the ship rather than hiding it, but this technique was developed after Allied navies were unable to develop effective means to hide ships in all weather conditions.

The British zoologist John Graham Kerr, who first applied dazzle camouflage to British warships in WWI, outlined the principle in a letter to Winston Churchill in 1914 explaining that disruptive camouflage sought to confuse, not to conceal, "It is essential to break up the regularity of outline and this can be easily effected by strongly contrasting shades ... a giraffe or zebra or jaguar looks extraordinarily conspicuous in a museum but in nature, especially when moving, is wonderfully difficult to pick up."[1]

While dazzle did not conceal a ship, it made it difficult for the enemy to estimate its type, size, speed, and heading. The idea was to disrupt the visual rangefinders used for naval artillery. Its purpose was confusion rather than concealment.[2] An observer would find it difficult to know exactly whether the stern or the bow was in view; and it would be equally difficult to estimate whether the observed vessel was moving towards or away from the observer's position.[3]

Rangefinders were based on the coincidence principle with an optical mechanism, operated by a human to compute the range. The operator adjusted the mechanism until two half-images of the target lined up in a complete picture. Dazzle was intended to make that hard because clashing patterns looked abnormal even when the two halves were aligned. This became more important when submarine periscopes included similar rangefinders. As an additional feature, the dazzle pattern usually included a false bow wave intended to make estimation of the ship's speed difficult.

Dazzle camouflage was accepted by the Admiralty, even without practical visual assessment protocols for improving performance by modifying designs and colours.[4] The dazzle camouflage strategy was adopted by other navies. This led to more scientific studies of colour options which might enhance camouflage effectiveness. Broken colour systems which present units so small as to be invisible as such at the distances considered are neither advantageous nor detrimental to the dazzle effect; the visibility of the camouflaged vessel at a given distance would depend entirely upon such scientifically measurable factors as the mean effective reflection factor, hue and saturation of the surface when considered at various distances.[5]


Painting of Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool, by Edward Wadsworth, 1919
Further information: Camoufleurs

In 1914, Kerr persuaded the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to adopt a form of military camouflage which he called "parti-colouring". He argued both for countershading (following the American artist Abbott Thayer), and for disruptive patterning.[6] A general order to the British fleet issued on November 10, 1914 advocated use of Kerr's approach. It was applied in various ways to British warships such as HMS Implacable, where officers noted approvingly that the pattern "increased difficulty of accurate range finding". However, following Churchill's departure from the Admiralty, the Royal Navy reverted to plain grey paint schemes,[7] informing Kerr in July 1915 that "various trials had been undertaken and that the range of conditions of light and surroundings rendered it necessary to modify considerably any theory based upon the analogy of [the coloration of] animals".[8]

A painting by Norman Wilkinson of a convoy wearing his dazzle camouflage, 1918

The British Army inaugurated its Camouflage Section for land use at the end of 1916. At sea in 1917, heavy losses of merchant ships to Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare campaign led to new desire for camouflage. The marine painter Norman Wilkinson promoted a system of stripes and broken lines "to distort the external shape by violent colour contrasts" and confuse the enemy about the speed and dimensions of a ship.[9] Wilkinson, then a lieutenant commander on Royal Navy patrol duty, implemented the precursor of "dazzle" beginning with merchantman SS Industry. Wilkinson was put in charge of a camouflage unit which used the technique on large groups of merchant ships. Over 4000 British merchant ships were painted in what came to be known as "dazzle camouflage", and dazzle was also applied to 400 naval vessels.[10] In August 1917, HMS Alsatian became the first Royal Navy vessel dazzle painted.

All British patterns were different, first tested on small wooden models viewed through a periscope in a studio. Most of the model designs were painted by women from London's Royal Academy of Arts. A foreman then scaled up their designs for the real thing. Painters, however, were not alone in the project. Creative people including sculptors, artists, and set designers designed camouflage.[11]

World War I[edit]

RMS Empress of Russia as a troopship, wearing dazzle camouflage

Dazzle's effectiveness was highly uncertain at the time of the First World War, but it was nonetheless adopted both in Britain and America. In 1918, the British Admiralty analysed shipping losses, but was unable to draw clear conclusions;[12][13] with hindsight, too many factors (choice of colour scheme; size and speed of ships; tactics used) had been too varied for it to be possible to determine which factors were significant or which schemes worked best.[14] Thayer did carry out an experiment on dazzle camouflage, but it failed to show any reliable advantage of dazzle over plain paintwork.[15]

In a 1919 lecture, Norman Wilkinson explained:

The primary object of this scheme was not so much to cause the enemy to miss his shot when actually in firing position, but to mislead him, when the ship was first sighted, as to the correct position to take up. Dazzle was a method to produce an effect by paint in such a way that all accepted forms of a ship are broken up by masses of strongly contrasted colour, consequently making it a matter of difficulty for a submarine to decide on the exact course of the vessel to be attacked.[16]

World War II[edit]

An experimental scheme for merchant marine shipping

However effective dazzle camouflage may have been in World War I, it became less useful as rangefinders and especially aircraft became more advanced, and, by the time it was put to use again in World War II, radar further reduced its effectiveness. However, it may still have confounded enemy submarines. The US Navy implemented a camouflage painting program in World War II, and applied it to many ship classes, from patrol craft and auxiliaries to battleships and some Essex-class aircraft carriers. The designs (known as Measures, each identified with a number) were not arbitrary, but were standardised in a process which involved a planning stage, then a review, and then fleet-wide implementation.[17]

Not all USN measures involved dazzle patterns; some were simple or even totally unsophisticated, such as a false bow wave on traditional Haze Grey, or Deck Blue replacing grey over part or all of the ship (the latter being utilized to counter the kamikaze threat).[18] Dazzle measures were used until 1945; in February 1945 the USN Pacific Fleet decided to repaint its ships in non-dazzle measures against the kamikaze threat, while the Atlantic Fleet continued to use dazzle, ships being repainted if transferred to the Pacific.[19]

In the British Royal Navy, dazzle paint schemes reappeared in January 1940; these were unofficial and competitions were often held between ships for the best camouflage patterns. The RN Camouflage Department came up with a scheme devised by Peter Scott, a wildlife artist, which were developed into the Western Approaches Schemes. In 1942 the Admiralty Intermediate Disruptive Pattern came into use, followed in 1944 by the Admiralty Standard Schemes.[20]

Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine first used camouflage in the 1940 Norwegian campaign. A wide range of patterns were authorised, but most commonly black and white diagonal stripes were used. Most patterns were designed to hide ships in harbour or near the coast; they were often painted over with plain grey when operating in the Atlantic.[21]

Art history[edit]

HMS President painted by Tobias Rehberger in 2014 to commemorate the use of dazzle camouflage in World War I. Although a design this elaborate would not have been used in practice, it still requires more than a casual glance to work out which end of the ship is which.

The abstract patterns in dazzle camouflage inspired many artists. Picasso is reported to have taken credit for the modern camouflage experiments which seemed to him a quintessentially Cubist technique.[22] He is reported to have drawn the connection in a conversation with Gertrude Stein shortly after he first saw a painted cannon trundling through the streets of Paris.[3] Edward Wadsworth, who supervised dazzle camouflage painting in the war, created a series of canvases after the war based on his dazzle work on ships. In Canada, artists from the Group of Seven, notably Arthur Lismer, used dazzle ships in many wartime compositions.

In 2007, the art of concealment, including the evolution of dazzle, was featured as the theme for a show at the Imperial War Museum.[23] In 2009, the Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design exhibited its rediscovered collection of lithographic printed plans for the camouflage of World War I US merchant ships, in an exhibition titled "Bedazzled.".[24]

In 2014, the 14-18 Now Centenary Art Commission backed two new dazzle camouflage installations in the UK.[25] In the first, the former HMS Saxifrage, anchored since 1922 at Blackfriars Bridge in London, was painted by the German artist Tobias Rehberger in the manner of dazzle camouflage. And in the second, Venezuelan kinetic artist Carlos Cruz-Diez was commissioned to cover the Edmund Gardner pilot ship, in Liverpool's Canning Dock, with bright multi-coloured dazzle artwork, as part of the city's 2014 Liverpool Biennial art festival.[26]

Other uses[edit]

Today, patterns reminiscent of dazzle camouflage are in use to mask test cars during trials to protect details of coming car models.[27] For example, in Formula 1 during the 2015 testing period, the Red Bull RB-11 car was painted in a scheme intended to confound rival teams' ability to analyse its aerodynamics.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Murphy, Hugh and Martin Bellamy (April 2009). "The Dazzling Zoologist: John Graham Kerr and the Early Development of Ship Camouflage". The Northern Mariner XIX (2): 177. 
  2. ^ "Camouflage , Norman Wilkinson", Letters, The Times, Apr 04, 1939
  3. ^ a b Glover, Michael. "Now you see it... Now you don't," The Times. March 10, 2007.
  4. ^ Williams, David. (2001). Naval Camouflage 1914-1945, p.35.
  5. ^ Williams, p. 40.
  6. ^ Forbes, 2009. p.87
  7. ^ Murphy and Bellamy, p.178
  8. ^ Forbes, 2009. p.88
  9. ^ Fisher, Mark. "Secret history: how surrealism can win a war," The Times. January 8, 2006.
  10. ^ Murphy and Bellamy, p.182-183
  11. ^ Paulk, Ann Bronwyn. "False Colors: Art, Design, and Modern Camouflage (review)," Modernism/modernity. 10:2, 402–404 (April 2003). doi:10.1353/mod.2003.0035
  12. ^ Forbes, 2009, "Dazzled and Deceived".
  13. ^ Hartcup, Guy (1979). Camouflage: the history of concealment and deception in war. Pen & Sword. 
  14. ^ Scott-Samuel, Nicholas E; Baddeley, Roland; Palmer, Chloe E; Cuthill, Innes C (June 2011). "Dazzle Camouflage Affects Speed Perception". PLoS ONE 6 (6): e20233. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020233. PMC 3105982. PMID 21673797. 
  15. ^ Stevens M; DH Yule; GD Ruxton (2008). "Dazzle coloration and prey movement". Proceedings of the Royal Society B 275: 2639–2643. doi:10.1098/rspb.2008.0877. 
  16. ^ Newark, Tim (2007). "Camouflage". Thames and Hudson / Imperial War Museum. p. 74. 
  17. ^ Sumrall, Robert F. "Ship Camouflage (WWII): Deceptive Art" United States Naval Institute Proceedings February 1973 pp.67-81
  18. ^ "US Navy WWII Camouflage Measures". Shipcamouflage.com. Retrieved January 7, 2012. 
  19. ^ Brand, C. L. (February 26, 1945). "Camouflage Instructions - Carriers, Cruisers, Destroyers, Destroyer Escorts, Assigned to the Pacific Fleet". Navy Department Bureau of Ships. Retrieved April 8, 2013. 
  20. ^ Warneke, Jon; Herne, Jeff. "Royal Navy Colour Chips". Steelnavy.com. Retrieved January 7, 2012. 
  21. ^ Jones, Daniel H. "Kreigsmarine Camouflage 1939 - 45". Smmlonline.com. Retrieved January 7, 2012. 
  22. ^ Campbell-Johnson, Rachel. "Camouflage at IWM," The Times. March 21, 2007.
  23. ^ Newark, Tim (2007). Camouflage. Thames & Hudson with Imperial War Museum. pp. Inside cover. 
  24. ^ "Fleet Library Special Collections: DAZZLE CAMOUFLAGE". 
  25. ^ "Dazzle Ships - 14-18 Now". 
  26. ^ "Liverpool Biennial - 2014 - Carlos Cruz-Diez". Retrieved January 7, 2015. 
  27. ^ Rabe, Mattias (9 March 2015). "Lamborghini kör med vidvinkel-extraljus i Norrland" (in Swedish). Teknikens Värld. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  28. ^ Clarkson, Tom. "Formula One Testing:Tom Clarkson's Jerez Round-Up". BBC Sports (BBC). BBC News. Retrieved 22 February 2015. 


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