Ship camouflage is a form of military deception in which a ship is painted in one or more colors in order to obscure or confuse an enemy's visual observation. Several types of marine camouflage have been used or prototyped: blending or crypsis, in which a paint scheme attempts to hide a ship from view; deception, in which a ship is made to look smaller or, as with the Q-ships, like merchantmen; and dazzle, a chaotic paint scheme which tries to confuse any estimate of distance, direction, or heading. Counterillumination to hide a darkened ship against the slightly brighter night sky was trialled in diffused lighting camouflage.
Ship camouflage was occasionally used in ancient times. The 3rd century book Imagines notes that Mediterranean pirate ships may be painted blue-gray for concealment. Vegetius writing in the 4th century says that "Venetian blue" (bluish-green, the same color as the sea) was used in the years 56–54 BC during the Gallic Wars, when Julius Caesar sent his speculatoria navigia (scout ships) to gather intelligence along the coast of Britain. The ships were painted entirely in bluish-green wax, with sails and ropes the same color. The sailors and marines were also dressed in "Venetian blue".
Early modern camouflage
In the Age of Sail, deception was often used by ships, and paint was applied ad hoc by ships' captains for temporary tactical advantage. A ship might be painted to look like another, it might have its cannon ports hidden by painted canvas to look harmless, or it might have additional cannon ports painted on to appear more powerful. As one example among many, for one of his battles during 1778–1782, American privateer Jonathan Haraden hid the guns of his ship the General Pickering, to appear as if it were a slow merchant ship. Haraden allowed his ship to be approached at close range by a much faster British privateer, then he quickly pulled the painted canvas away and delivered a full broadside, capturing the enemy.
In the American Civil War, camouflage paint was applied by both sides during the Union blockade of 1861–1865. Blockade runners aiding the Confederates sometimes painted their ships all in mist-gray, to hide themselves in coastal fog. One Union blockade crew may have painted their rowboat white, and its oars, and wore white clothing for a night reconnaissance patrol up an enemy-held river.
In the 1890s, German and French fighting ships were being painted gray. American interest in ship camouflage was given official funding in 1898 during the Spanish–American War when white, light gray, and medium gray paint schemes were evaluated for their ability to hide a ship as seen against the distant sky on the horizon. Artist Abbott Handerson Thayer investigated countershading color schemes to "paint out" natural shadows.
First World War
British ships began being painted gray in 1903; but lighter shades were preferred to minimize solar heating in warmer climates.
In World War I, the increasing range of naval guns, and the great fear of high-speed, long-range torpedoes used against warships and merchant ships caused a significant increase in the use of ship camouflage.
Patterned ship camouflage was pioneered in Britain. Early in the war, zoologist John Graham Kerr advised Winston Churchill to use disruptive camouflage to break up ships' outlines, and countershading to make them appear less solid, following Abbott Handerson Thayer's beliefs. Kerr was not an effective political campaigner, and his ideas were abandoned on Churchill's departure from the Admiralty, while his postwar legal action failed. His successor, marine artist Norman Wilkinson, successfully promoted the idea that Kerr's camouflage sought invisibility rather than image disruption. Under Wilkinson, the Admiralty researched and issued a large number of "razzle-dazzle" designs, which became known simply as "dazzle", to counter the threat from submarines. Models were made and painted, often by women artists, and tested in a laboratory by viewing through a periscope. After trials, in October 1917 the Admiralty ordered all its merchant ships to be painted in dazzle patterns. The purpose of dazzle camouflage was not however motion dazzle but visual deception, as Wilkinson later 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. ... making it a matter of difficulty for a submarine to decide on the exact course of the vessel to be attacked.—Norman Wilkinson
In 1913, American camouflage experiments included a submarine painted in a three-color pattern of broad vertical stripes designed by William Mackay, using white stripes to separate green and blue stripes.
Wilkinson visited the United States to advise the U.S. Navy on ship camouflage. Dazzle schemes were used on merchant ships and smaller warships. Battlefleets continued to be painted in various shades of gray.
- Mackay Low Visibility System was violet with red or green patches or speckles.
- Mackay Disruptive/Low Visibility System had solid blue on the lower hull, with green, orange and white in bold, undulating shapes above.
- Toch Disruptive/Low Visibility System had parallel, curving diagonal stripes of gray, green, purple, red, brown and white. Used for troop transports.
- Warner Disruptive Dazzle System had large, curving shapes in red, blue and green, mixed in with white or gray shapes. Used for troop transports
- US Navy Dazzle Painting was similar to the Admiralty system, but used medium size polygons and more muted colors.
Second World War
Some two-color paint schemes attempted to harmonize with both sea and sky near the horizon. The US Navy painted some ships dark gray with white structures above bridge level. Both the US Navy and the Royal Navy painted ships dark gray on the hull and light gray on the superstructure and turrets. USN measure 12 was a graded System with sea blue low on the hull below the first continuous deck, with ocean gray above that. The top of the masts were painted haze gray. This measure was modified with ocean gray above navy blue low on the hull below the first continuous deck (painted parallel to the waterline rather than the main deck). This bold contrast on a horizontal line near the horizon reduced visibility to surface observers and created the illusion of greater range. This camouflage was considered most effective for gunnery engagements with surface units or shore batteries in areas where aerial observation was unlikely. It was used in the Atlantic and European coastal waters from the end of 1942 through the end of World War II. It was worn by shore bombardment ships in the Pacific from late 1944 after the destruction of Japanese naval aviation capability at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Similar Admiralty standard schemes were applied beginning in 1944 when it was assumed enemy forces would have radar. Ships were painted light gray overall, except for a sea blue patch low on the hull, either between the main gun turrets or the entire length of the hull.
In 1935, the United States Navy Naval Research Laboratory began studies and tests on low visibility camouflage for ships. Some measures were deceptive, like a false painted bow wave to give the impression of high speed at all times. Measures making cruisers resemble destroyers were discontinued after causing station-keeping confusion among ships operating in formation.
Color schemes included light gray, haze gray, ocean gray, and black. Haze gray was found to provide reasonable protection in the widest range of conditions, and became a standard US Navy paint scheme after World War II. Ocean gray also became a standard paint scheme after the war. Although black is still used for submarines, it was discontinued on destroyers after determining black ships remained more noticeable than gray ships on even the darkest nights.
The US Navy painted some ships sea blue overall for concealment from aircraft. During the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, ships painted completely blue came under attack less often than ships wearing two-colors. On the advice of United States aviators the blue color was darkened and used extensively in the western and southern Pacific from mid-1942 through 1945 to minimize detection and identification by enemy aircraft. Dark blue also proved effective under artificial illumination during night actions. Upper surfaces of aircraft operating from carrier decks were painted a similar shade of blue. Sailors were ordered to wear dungarees rather than white uniforms when topside.
The Thayer system was white with large polygonal patches of light sea blue (called Thayer Blue.) This measure was most useful in Arctic latitudes with extended twilight and frequent fog and cloud cover. Purity of color was important for full realization of the Purkinje effect where some colors appear lighter and some appear darker at low levels of illumination. Darkening the pattern increased course deception, but increased visibility at night and in haze.
Measure 32 was a medium pattern of obtrusive polygons in navy blue or black, against background polygons of lighter grays and greens. This measure emphasized mistaken identity and course deception to complicate submarine attack. Patterns were carried across the bow, and light gray was used aft to blend with the wake. This measure was based on the World War I dazzle system modified by observations in the western Pacific; and was applied to most surface ships in the Pacific during 1944 and 1945. Different patterns were devised for classes with large numbers of ships so the pattern would not identify the class of ship.
Between the world wars, Royal Navy ships were painted dark gray in the Home Fleet, light gray in the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas, and white in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific. Many Home Fleet ships were painted medium gray during 1939 and 1940 to decrease visibility from the peacetime dark gray.
In the first year of the war British captains largely painted their ships as they saw fit. HMS Grenville is believed to have been the first ship to adopt a disruptive camouflage paint scheme in December 1939, and several G-class destroyers of her flotilla used a similar scheme of contrasting stone colored polygons. When concern arose about German aerial reconnaissance of Scapa Flow, some Home Fleet ships were painted with disruptive Flotta schemes of dark brown, light gray, and light green polygons from April to August 1940 for concealment and identity confusion in port. Most Home Fleet ships had been repainted medium gray by December 1940.
The Royal Navy painted Mediterranean submarines dark blue in 1940 to reduce submerged visibility to aircraft.
Captain Louis Mountbatten's 5th Flotilla of K class destroyers were painted Mountbatten pink in 1940. Mountbatten observed a Union-Castle Liner disappear from convoy during an autumn sunset because of the company's unusual lavender-mauve-gray hull color. Mountbatten reasoned the color would be effective camouflage during dawn and dusk periods, and devised a similar shade by mixing medium gray with a small amount of venetian red. Its effectiveness was much disputed; but it was applied to other destroyers, a few cruisers, and numerous small warships which maintained the scheme through 1944 for use in coastal waters.
No Admiralty camouflage section was established until October 1940. Admiralty camouflage schemes promulgated in 1941 were not universally adopted because of difficulties with operating schedules and shortages of some paint pigments. Nearly all destroyers and larger ships wore an Admiralty disruptive camouflage scheme by late 1942; but Commonwealth captains executed official camouflage schemes with greater variation than was customary with American measures.
Initial Admiralty disruptive camouflage schemes employed polygons of varying shades of gray, blue and green so at least two of the colors would blend with background sea or sky under different light conditions. Schemes devised for capital ships emphasized identity confusion rather than concealment. HMS Queen Elizabeth became the first ship to receive an official camouflage scheme in January 1941. As more ships received similar schemes through 1941 it became evident the polygons were too small to be differentiated at effective camouflage ranges. Simplified Admiralty light and dark disruptive schemes were promulgated in 1942 to use larger and simpler polygons with no more than four colors. Light disruptive schemes were intended for use in the higher latitudes where skies were often overcast. Dark disruptive schemes used darker colors providing more effective disruption where bright sunlight could be expected. Boundaries were sometime mottled between the various color patches. (e.g. HMS Belfast as preserved in London)
The Admiralty Western Approaches scheme evolved from a camouflage scheme applied to HMS Broke in June 1940 at the suggestion of naturalist Peter Scott, who was serving aboard that ship. Broke was painted white with large polygonal patches of light gray, light sea blue and light sea green. Broke achieved some notoriety in a collision where the captain of the other ship claimed to have been unable to see Broke. Escort captains observing Broke experimented with similar schemes including polygons of dark gray or dark blue for increased disruptive contrast, while others tried painting their ships entirely white to emphasize concealment. The Admiralty omitted light gray from Peter Scott's scheme. White with large polygonal patches of light sea blue and light sea green was adopted in mid-1941 for use exclusively on destroyers and smaller ships engaged in anti-submarine operations. This was a very effective scheme under typical North Atlantic weather conditions of fog and overcast. Captain-class frigates were delivered painted white with a pattern of sea blue and light grey in an American Western Approaches variant. These were colors used in American camouflage measures; but the pattern was unique to ships produced for the Royal Navy and was replaced by Admiralty schemes and colors during refit. The Home Fleet destroyer scheme was similar to the Western Approaches scheme but used darker shades of blue and gray on the rear third of the ship, to assist in station-keeping. British decks were usually dark gray.
The Admiralty's informal approach changed when a branch of the Naval Research Laboratory was established at Leamington Spa under Commander James Yunge-Bateman to test ship camouflage schemes experimentally. Painted models were floated in a large tank and examined against different backgrounds, using theatre lamps to simulate varying lighting conditions.
An experimental coating able to change colour was tested on Royal Navy submarines. On suggestion by Professor Leslie Cromby, lead oxide was applied to the hull, enabling it to become black on application of a solution of sulphite and sea water for night operation. For day sailing, a solution of hydrogen peroxide and sea water would be applied, producing sulphate and returning the hull to a white colour desirable for diurnal conditions.
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German Kriegsmarine ships before the Second World War were either light gray overall or had dark gray hulls. Many retained this scheme during the war. Others had dazzle camouflage, usually in combinations of pale gray, dark gray and sea blue. Smaller ships operating in the North Sea or Baltic Sea were painted white or a very pale gray to blend in with daytime mist and nighttime phosphorescent organisms. Larger ships often had false bows and sterns painted in a different shade from the rest of the hull to create the impression of the ship being at greater range from the observer. German decks were a very dark gray.
Italian ships of Mussolini's navy retained its pre-war scheme of light gray overall for its smaller ships, but the larger units mostly had dazzle camouflage of dark gray, light sea blue, light sea green and light gray. Italian foredecks had a high-visibility pattern of red and white diagonal stripes so that their own aircraft would not attack them.
Japanese ships largely retained their pre-war dark gray paint scheme, although some major units like aircraft carriers changed to a dark sea green. Some aircraft carriers had their flight decks painted in a dazzle camouflage, but this seems to have been ineffective.
The Royal Canadian Navy experimented with variable diffused lighting camouflage of one side of ships to match horizon light levels and minimize silhouettes during prolonged arctic twilight or aurora borealis.
The French Navy used light gray before the war and under the Vichy regime. Free French ships that operated with the British adopted one of the British schemes. Those that were refitted in American shipyards were usually repainted in the American Measure 22.
After the Second World War
After the Second World War, the universal adoption of radar made traditional camouflage generally less effective, and led to development of stealth ships, a form of radar camouflage. However, camouflage may have helped United States warships avoid hits from Vietnamese shore batteries which used optical rangefinders. USS Freedom (LCS-1), a class of littoral combat ship, is said to be the first U.S. Navy ship to have camouflage reminiscent of that used in the World Wars.
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