Earlier this month two remarkable ships were unveiled as part of the commemoration of the start of World War One, painted with striking designs known as dazzle camouflage. On the 14th July 2014 HMS President, which in fact wore just such a colour scheme back when it served in World War One, went on display at Victoria Embankment sporting a black, white and greyscale geometric design created by German sculptor Tobias Rehberger. Two days earlier, on 12th July, Venezuelan optical artist Carlos Cruz-Diez had debuted his own design, a vivid striped motif, on pilot ship Edmund Gardner. The ship is owned and was preserved by the Merseyside Maritime Museum, and the decoration played a dual part in the Centennial commemoration and the celebration of Liverpool’s Biennial. Both ships will remain on display until the end of 2015, and both are somewhat shocking to behold. How can such stand-out designs possibly be classed as camouflage?
The first definition of camouflage in the Oxford Dictionary is ‘the disguising of military personnel, equipment, and installations by painting or covering them to make them blend in with their surroundings’. Blend in- practically the opposite of dazzle, then. However, the dictionary then gives a further description of camouflage as ‘actions or devices intended to disguise or mislead’. That’s more like it.
Think of the natural world for a second. Zebra, leopard, tiger, giraffe. Each of these species is coloured in such a ludicrously bold fashion you wonder how it could possibly avoid detection in the wild. Yet they all do, largely because there IS no set colour scheme for the terrain these animals call home. Grasslands and forests are neither green, brown, yellow, black, white or orange, they can be all or none of these things. Adopting one colour would be useless, and the bolder the pattern, the more it mesmerises and focuses attention away from what prey or predator might need to know. How big is the animal? Is it facing forwards or backwards? How fast is it moving, and where are its eyes focussed? It can be hard to tell.
‘Dazzle painting’, then, was a way of confusing and misleading the enemy. The sea, like grasslands and forests, is never still and has no set colour scheme. One minute it’s green, another blue, black or silver. The shapes and shades are ever-shifting. There’s no way to blend in, but you can distort, and you can focus attention away from features you want to hide. Is the ship approaching or going away? Is it even one ship, or two? Cruiser or merchant ship? How quickly will it reach a set point? With the right colour scheme, once again it can be hard to tell.
Abbott H Thayer, a New England artist and amateur naturalist, was the first to study how animals use camouflage to avoid accurate detection by enemies, and he realised that where the background couldn’t be predicted, and therefore completely matched, it was best to ‘break up’ a figure and use counter-shading and high-contrast colour to distort its outline. He accordingly appealed to the British military at the start of WWI to abandon their khaki uniforms and adopt a more mottled blend of colours. He is widely regarded to be the founding father of camouflage.
Around the same time, according to the Canadian Nautical Research Society, naturalist John Graham Kerr started working on similar theories for disguising ships. He sent a letter to Winston Churchill in 1914, explaining his theories and their root in nature, but although Winston Churchill was interested, ultimately Kerr’s lack of influence meant that his ideas were not taken seriously by the Navy.
Finally, in 1917, a man with the right friends began looking at how ‘dazzle painting’ could be used to protect battleships and convoys from attack by the fearful German U-Boats. Rhode Island School of Design’s website explains that Norman Wilkinson, already a famous marine painter and designer of posters for the rail and maritime travel industries, realised while acting as a Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and patrolling the increasingly dangerous seas, that there was no hope of hiding a ship, if only because of the smoke stacks. Confusion was the only hope of defence. Curves, he realised, could create impression of a false bow wave. Patterns on the bow and stern could conceal which end of the boat an enemy was looking at. Shapes on the smokestack could suggest a ship was pointing in a different direction to its true one, while optical illusions could be used to create a false impression of its size.
Wilkinson’s much-admired name opened doors, and the navy first allowed him to test his ideas at Devonport Naval Base, then, when tests went well, asked him to get to work producing some designs. Wilkinson, who had not been given an office, turned to his Alma Mater, the Royal Academy of Art, and was given a classroom to work in. Vorticist Edward Wadsworth was hired to oversee the painting of ships in Liverpool Harbour, while in 1918 Wilkinson travelled to the US to share his ideas with the US Navy. The Allies were so pleased with his work that they applied his designs to 2,000 warships and 4,000 British Merchant ships during the course of the two World Wars, including the HMS Argus, RMS Mauretania, RMS Olympic and USS Hancock.
The reason the designs were effective at the time was because the torpedo systems were slower and less accurate than those we have today. To shoot a British ship, the German U-boats had first to clearly identify the target, then determine the its speed and the direction in which it was heading and launch the torpedo towards the spot where they believed the ship would be by the time the missile reached it. The Germans had to work all this out by peering through primitive view-finders. If they couldn’t make out how big a ship was, where it was going or how fast it was moving, they would likely miss. Furthermore, when a whole convoy was painted with the dazzle camouflage patterns, which masked the identifying colours, features and lines of the various models of ship, it was very hard to pick out a pre-determined target among the bunch.
This cheap and simple concealment technique was still used at the start of the Second World War, but by the end it had become obsolete. Radar had been invented, rangefinders had improved, and much faster launch systems meant that there was less of a time lapse between shooting at and hitting a vessel, so there was no need to calculate the ship’s speed. It has never been conclusively proven that dazzle camouflage was effective as a form of protection, since the convoy system came into play around the same time as the painting technique. Certainly, less ships were hit from then on. However the vivid designs are still used today by the car industry to shield the specifics of new prototypes from competitors in the case of photos being leaked, so there must be something to Wilkinson’s concept!