Dazzle Ships

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

During World War I, the heavy loss of merchant ships to attacks by German submarines (U-boats) prompted naval authorities in Great Britain (and later the United States) to search for ways to protect shipping which was vital to the war effort. One idea was to deceive the Germans by painting ships in unusual geometric patterns known as “Dazzle Painting,” “Razzle Dazzle” or “Dazzle Camouflage.” By the war’s end, over 4,000 British merchantmen and 400 warships sported the new paint schemes. The United States Navy adopted the idea in 1918 and several designs were suggested.

The intent of dazzle painting was not to hide the ship, but rather to confuse the enemy as to what they saw. The contrasting colors and irregular patterns were designed to distort the size and profile of a ship as well as its course and speed. Camouflage pattern expert Alan Raven says, “Stated simply, the theory for dazzle design is as follows: take the starboard side, divide roughly into two, and paint the fore part a dark color. This is repeated in reverse of the port side, the fore part being light, the after part being dark…. A color line must not follow or terminate with any line or break in the structure, but do just the opposite and suggest a completely false line. A good example of this is the bow line; taking the basic principle to work from, the dark panel on the starboard side must not end at the bow but be taken around onto the port side before it meets the light panel. “

The idea may have been inspired by nature. For example, the stripes on a zebra hardly disguise the animal but might confuse a predator in pursuit. Credit for dazzle design is given to the artist Norman Wilkinson who was commissioned by the Royal Navy to supervise the painting of the ships. In 1918, he served as a consultant to the US Navy in Washington. A zoologist named John Graham Kerr also claimed credit for the idea. The British Admiralty decided in favor of Wilkinson's claim. As to whether the idea worked, there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other.

Other examples of stealth and deception at sea include false gun ports on whalers (so they looked like warships) and underwater travel (submarines).


Questions for Further Thought

  1. Can you think of other types of deception used in warfare?
  2. What ideas from nature may have inspired camouflage?
  3. How might radar make dazzle painting ineffective? Why don't you think dazzle painting is still used today?