Dazzle camouflage, known as razzle dazzle in the US or dazzle painting in the UK, was a form 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, who’d outlined the principle in a letter to the then First Lord of the Admiralty 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.”
Kerr argued both for countershading (following the American artist Abbott Thayer), and for disruptive patterning. 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”.
It consisted of complex patterns of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, interrupting and intersecting each other.
In a 1919 lecture, the marine painter 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.”
Dazzle was accepted and adopted by the British Admiralty and the U.S. Navy with little evaluation or practical visual assessment protocols for improving performance by modifying designs and colours. Each ship’s dazzle pattern was initially 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.
Following Churchill’s departure from the Admiralty, dazzle fell from favour and the Royal Navy reverted to plain grey paint schemes, 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”.
This however wasn’t the end of the story, with the British Army inaugurating its Camouflage Section for land use at the end of 1916, and again at sea in 1917, as a result of heavy losses of merchant ships to Germany’s submarine ‘u-boat’ campaign which to new desire for camouflage. 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.
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 and dazzle was also applied to 400 naval vessels.
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. As the war progressed, standard patterns were devised and applied to large numbers of ships. Even the great passenger liners were camouflaged for the duration of the War.
At the end of the the First World War, dazzle painting was discontinued, as the admiralty had never really liked painting their ships in such an flamboyant and non-military style.
Also, the introduction of effective air power made dazzle painting problematic, as it increased the ship’s visibility to aircraft. The US Navy reintroduced dazzle painting during World War II (after Japanese air power had been largely eliminated) to protect our ships from the renewed threat of enemy submarines. However, continuing improvements in radar and sonar eventually eliminated any need for submarine commanders to actually sight their targets visually. This meant that by the end of the war dazzle painting no longer served any useful purpose, and US warships were quickly repainted to a standard “haze grey” colour.