How the Absurd "Dazzle" Camouflage Strategy Ended WWI Carnage

"Dazzle" camouflage had a short life, but an important one.
Christopher McFadden
Fantasy mock-up of the Royal Navy's most modern aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth sporting dazzle camouflage.-Eddie-/Reddit

Submarine warfare in the latter stages of the First World War would lead to one of the most interesting methods of camouflaging ships — dazzle camouflage, also known as razzle dazzle. In a seeming contradiction, vibrant paint schemes were applied to a variety of warships and merchant vessels in an attempt to protect them from the ever-present danger of German U-boats. 

But, was it effective? Let's find out. 

When was "dazzle camouflage" introduced, and why?

Just prior to the First World War, the Royal Navy had undisputed mastery of many of the world's oceans. But, that all changed with the outbreak of World War 1.

Suddenly the warships of the Royal Navy would have to contend with a new, and deadly enemy — German U-boats. These vessels would take their toll on the Royal Navy, and the British merchant fleet, over the course of war. And a terrible toll it would take.

dazzle camo ships
HMS West Mahomet in dazzle camouflage, circa 1918. Source: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

Over the course of the war, U-boats sank, or put out of action somewhere in the region 5,700 vessels, and killed more than 12,700 non-combatants.

The problem was compounded when, in January of 1917, The German Kaiser declared all-out unrestricted submarine warfare on any ship that came within the sights of German U-boats.

The first casualty was the HMHS Lanfranc, in the English Channel. A hospital ship, she was torpedoed by the German U-boat SM UB-40 on the 17th of April 1917, killing 34 (including 15 wounded Germans). This was widely seen as a tragedy and an outrage, as she was clearly marked, in accordance with the Hague Convention.

But, she not be the only one. 

Between March and December of 1917, British ships of all kinds were sunk, at a rate of 23 a week.

Something had to be done. 

One option was to attempt to camouflage ships — a tactic that proved to be very effective on land. At sea, however, things were very different. Not only that, but merchant ships and warships are very large, and they also tended to belch out quite a lot of smoke from their stacks when underway. 

dazzle camo logic
The logic behind the use of dazzle camouflage. Source: Chiswick/Wikimedia Commons

Various ideas were proposed, ranging from disguising ships as whales, cladding them in highly-reflective mirrors, or even, amazingly, attempting to camouflage ships as islands.

Yes, you read that right, islands. Thomas Edison actually proposed just that for American warships of the day. Unlike his other inventions, this idea didn't work very well.

Despite the range of ideas, nothing seemed to work. Enter Royal Navy volutneer reserve lieutenant Norman Wilkinson. A painter, graphic designer and newspaper illustrator by trade, this young man came iup with a very new and seemingly counterintuitive idea -- make the ships stand out!

While it sounds like he may have completely misundestood the concept of camouflage, his idea would catch on, and, as it turns out, was a stroke of genius.

His idea was to cover the hulls of ships with vibrant sripes, swirls, and other irregular shapes, akin to the very best cubist art works of the day. He would, in essence, turn the ships into a seemingly mad artist's blank canvas. 

The idea was, rather than hiding the ship from view, to confuse (or dazzle, hence the name) U-boat officers when peering at the vessel through their periscopes, making it more difficult to judge speed and distance. Sometimes also called razzle-dazzle, if the camouflage could cause even the slightest error in judgement when calculating the U-boat's torpedo firing solution, their toropedoes would either completely miss the target, or would strike the ships in less critical locations. 

dazzle camo HMS Olympic
The RMS Titanic's sister ship RMS Olympic in dazzle camouflage. Source: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

At the time, hitting ships with torpedoes was almost more of an art form than an exact science. U-boats and other submarines, would need to know the ship's size, speed, distance, and direction at a particular moment and then predict where it would be in the future.

They effectively needed to "lead the target" but with torpedoes rather than bullets. 

Once the torpedo was launched, the hope was that torpedo and ship would meet at the same location at the same time, seconds to minutes in the future. 

dazzle camo from periscope
Artist's impression of the difference in appearance of ships from a periscope's perspective. Source: U.S. Navy/cimsec

All this from a distance from further than 6,200 ft (1,900 m) and no less than 1000 ft (300 m). Not only that, but all calculations would need to be made within 30 seconds, as any longer and the periscope could be spotted by enemy warships — betraying the presence and location of the U-boat. 

Gunners had to get it right, as each U-boat only carried around 12 torpedoes per vessel. They were very expensive pieces of equipment too, and very slow once launched. 

So, any strategy to throw their aim off, even slightly, would give the target ship a fighting chance of surviving the encounter. A miscalculation of only 8 to 10 degrees would be enough. 

To this end, Wilkinson's "dazzle camouflage" patterns would incorporate large blocks of contrasting colors (like black and white, green and mauve, orange and blue), in geometric shapes, curves, and other shapes to make it more difficult to determine the vessel's shape, size, and most importantly heading. 

dazzle camo artists impression
Artist's impression of a dazzled convoy lit by moonlight, circa 1918. Source: Norman Wilkinson/Wikimedia Commons

Curves were used expertly to create false bow waves that would make the ship look shorter, or appear to be traveling in a different direction. Other designs could make the ship appear to be more than one ship, or make it look as if it might be traveling away from the observer. 

Similar strategies can be found in nature too — think of the zebra. 

However, this strategy was designed to work best from a periscope perspective. For this reason, it was usually only applied to ships likely to be targeted by U-boats. 

Wilkinson's idea soon caught on, and the first ship to be given the "dazzle camouflage" treatment was the HMS Industry. After testing her camouflage by asking coastguards and other observers to report their observations, the Admiralty was sufficiently convinced to roll it out it to other vessels.

Soon 50 troopships were similarly camouflaged, and later American ships also received the same treatment. Limited numbers of aircraft were also painted in a similar scheme too.

Some Royal Flying Corp's (the forerunner to the RAF) Sopwith Camels, and a handful of the Royal Navy's Felixstowe flying boats were duly painted in vibrant camouflage. Dazzle camouflage was also used on some aircraft during the Second World War as well.

Its effectiveness was hard to calculate, but at the very least, it appeared to reduce the incidence of friendly fire from anti-aircraft gunners. 

Why was "dazzle camouflage" stopped?

"Dazzle camouflage" was only used for a brief period of time after its first introduction. Almost as soon as it had appeared, it suddenly fell out of favor. 

But why?

One reason is that it was very difficult to assess just how effective it was, or if it had any effect at all. By the end of the war, somewhere in the region of 2,300 British ships had been "dazzle" painted. The Admiralty itself admitted that while it probably didn't improve a ship's chance of survival, it didn't hurt either.

But, there are some statistics.

modern dazzle camo
Dazzle camouflage is still used today, but mostly for artistic purposes. This is the MV Fingal painted by the Scottish artist Cara Phillips. Source: byronv2/Flickr

In the first quarter after dazzled ships entered service, around 72% of dazzled ships that were attacked were sunk. This compared to around 62% of non-dazzled ships. 

However, the second quarter saw something of a reversal of fortune for the dazzled ships. 60% of attacked dazzled ships were sunk compared to 68% of no-dazzled ships. 

Not only that, but during this period, more dazzled ships were being targeted than non-dazzled ships. Despite this, fewer of them were sunk.

American ships fared better. Of the 1,250 or so ships that were dazzled between March and November of 1918, only 18 were sunk. However, it is important to note that these ships were sailing in different seas compared to their British allies. 

Overall, the strategy seemed to be working, and insurance companies agreed. Premiums for dazzled ships were lowered, and the crews of dazzled ships appear to have felt safer. 

The end of the First World War saw the dazzled paint schemes replaced with the more sober grey. This was for a variety of reasons, including a lack of need (the U-boats were gone), and financial reasons (it was cheaper to paint them in a single tone). 

dazzle camo troopships
SS Osterley in dazzle camouflage. Source: Aussiemobs/Flickr

However, the outbreak of World War II saw a revival of the paint scheme in an attempt to hide the ship's class and size. Its use was limited during this period, and the dazzled ships were soon painted over after 1945.

The rise of effective radar systems also made camouflage, like dazzle camouflage, less effective, except in circumstances where belligerent forces still relied on optical range finders. Today, dazzle or disruptive camouflage can be found on some ships, like the USS Freedom, but is mainly only found on museum ships or artistic installations. 


What are some amazing examples of "dazzle camouflage?

Here are some interesting examples of dazzle camouflage. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. The USS Shawmut in dazzle camouflage

dazzle camo USS Shawmut
Source: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Formerly the Eastern passenger steamship, the SS Massachusetts, she was converted into minelayer during the First World War. Renamed the USS Shawmut, she was painted in dazzle camouflage to help protect her during mining operations. 

The ship would continue to serve for the U.S. Navy post-war and also served during the Second World War where she was hit by a torpedo at Pearl Harbor. 

2. RMS/HMT Aquitania painted in dazzle camouflage

dazzle camo aquitania
Source: ibiblio/Wikimedia Commons

HMT/RMS Aquitania was originally built as an ocean liner for the Cunard Line in the early-1910s. Shortly after entering service, WW1 broke out and she was requisitioned to operate as an auxiliary cruiser, then a troopship, and later a hospital ship. 

She served most of the war as part of the Dardanelles Campaign against the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Interwar, she returned to service as a cruise liner before once again entering military service as a troopship during the Second World War. She was scrapped in the late-1940s, ending an incredibly long and illustrious service history. 

To this day she remains the longest-serving Cunard liner of the 20th Century. 

3. The USS Antietam painted in Measure 32 dazzle camouflage

dazzle camo USS antietam
Source: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Here painted in Measure 32 dazzle camouflage, the USS Antietam is another ship given the dazzle camouflage treatment. Measure 32 was a Second World War standard that consisted of a mixture of polygons in black against a background of light gray or ocean gray polygons. 

It was used on most ships serving in the Pacific theatre during 1944. USS Antietam (CV-36) was an Essex-class aircraft carrier and was commissioned towards the end of WW2. 

She was later decommissioned in the 1960s and sold for scrap in the 1970s. 

4. Here is the HMS Belfast in Admiralty-pattern dazzle camouflage

dazzle camo hms belfast
Source: Dmitry A. Mottl/Wikimedia Commons

HMS Belfast, a town-class light cruiser of the Royal Navy, is another ship that was once painted in dazzle camouflage. Now permanently moored on the River Thames, London, she was the first ship to be named in honor of the capital city of Northern Island. 

She first launched on St. Patrick's Day in 1938 and would lead an illustrious career throughout and after WW2, until her retirement and transfer to the Imperial War Museum as a museum piece in the 1970s. 

After the transfer, HMS Belfast was repainted in Admiralty-pattern dazzle camouflage as seen today, 

5. The USS Freedom still uses dazzle camouflage today

dazzle camo USS freedom
USS Freedom in dazzle camouflage, 2014. Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr

While dazzle camouflage effectively became redundant after the Second World War, some modern warships do still use it to some extent. One example is the USS Freedom pictured above. 

6. The Japanese also used dazzle camouflage during WW2

dazzle camo myoko
Source: Trusler/Wikimedia Commons

The allied powers were not the only military forces to make use of dazzle camouflage during the First and Second World Wars. Here the Japanese heavy cruiser Myōkō can be seen daubed in dazzle camouflage while at anchor in Singapore, circa 1945.

The Myōkō served in various major fleet battles throughout WW2 but was seriously damaged by torpedoes during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Her crew managed to limp her into Singapore, where she was later scuttled by the Royal Navy in Malaya. 

7. The French also painted their ships in dazzle camouflage

dazzle camo glorie
Source: Royal Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Here is the French cruiser Gloire painted in dazzle camouflage, circa 1944. The Gloire was a light cruiser of the La Galissonnière class and first entered service in the late-1930s. 

During the Second World War, she initially stayed loyal to the Vichy Government, but joined the Allies in 1942 and fought alongside allied forces in various actions until the end of the war. Postwar, she was placed on reserve in the mid-1950s and was later scrapped in the late-1950s. 

Dazzle camouflage was an interesting, and simple, strategy to attempt to protect surface ships from the threats of submarine attack throughout both WW1 and WW2. While its utility is hard to ascertain, insurance companies and the sailors on board the ships were given a much-needed psychological boost. 

While some modern warships have a similar paint scheme, modern targeting technologies have effectively rendered this kind of camouflage largely redundant. 

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