How to Dazzle the Enemy

Trying to camouflage an aircraft carrier is about as hard as it gets. So do you make an enormous piece of military hardware ‘disappear’ into its surroundings? How about doing the exact opposite and cover it in an array of wildly contrasting colours and bold patterns, making it completely unmissable?

It’s a technique which was used on naval vessels in both World Wars, going by the unlikely name dazzle camouflage.

SS Empress of Russia, 1918 in dazzle camouflage

The SS Empress of Russia, in 1918. A striking display like this wasn't just about being fabulous.

The characteristic dark and light contrasting stripes, diagonal lines and curves of dazzle camouflage were meant to confuse the enemy by distorting the lines of a ship when viewed through a submarine’s periscope and making it harder to aim accurately for artillery attacks.

The idea of using camouflage in combat had some early supporters as World War I broke out, but at first there was limited interest from military and political leaders. However a British naval officer and marine painter called Norman Wilkinson developed dazzle camouflage layouts to paint on warships; painting of the first vessel was completed in 1917. The US and other countries adopted the flamboyant paint schemes for their naval vessels, but any value from dazzle camouflage became marginal by World War II with advances in technology for the accuracy of rangefinders and (in particular) radar.

So did dazzle camouflage really make a warship harder to hit with a submarine torpedo? It seems that no one has a clear answer, in part because the wide variation of colours and patterns used on the naval craft made it difficult to establish which dazzle painting schemes were the most effective.

Photo credit:
Copyright National Museums Liverpool (Stewart Bale Collection, Merseyside Maritime Museum)

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