Military Wiki

USS West Mahomet in dazzle camouflage, 1918

Dazzle camouflage, also known as razzle dazzle or dazzle painting, was a family of ship camouflage used extensively in World War I and to a lesser extent in World War II. Credited to artist Norman Wilkinson, it consisted of complex patterns of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, interrupting and intersecting each other.

Unlike some other forms of camouflage, dazzle works not by offering concealment but by making it difficult to estimate a target's range, speed and heading. Norman Wilkinson explained in 1919 that dazzle was intended more to mislead the enemy as to the correct position to take up than actually to miss his shot when firing.

Dazzle was adopted by the British Admiralty and the U.S. Navy with little evaluation. Each ship's dazzle pattern was unique to avoid making classes of ships instantly recognisable to the enemy. The result was that a profusion of dazzle schemes was 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.

Dazzle attracted the notice of artists, with Picasso notably claiming cubists had invented it. The vorticist artist Edward Wadsworth, who supervised the camouflaging of over 2,000 ships during the First World War, painted a series of canvases of dazzle ships after the war, based on his wartime work.


HMS Argus displaying a coat of dazzle camouflage in 1918

HMAS Yarra in dazzle camouflage while sailing in the Persian Gulf, August 1941

At first glance, dazzle seems an unlikely form of camouflage, drawing attention to the ship rather than hiding it, but this technique was developed after Allied navies were unable to develop effective means to disguise ships in all weathers.

John Graham Kerr, who first applied the principle to British warships in WW I, outlined the principle in a letter to 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."[1]

While dazzle did not conceal a ship, it made it difficult for the enemy to estimate its type, size, speed, and heading. The idea was to disrupt the visual rangefinders used for naval artillery. Its purpose was confusion rather than concealment.[2] An observer would find it difficult to know exactly whether the stern or the bow was in view; and it would be equally difficult to estimate whether the observed vessel was moving towards or away from the observer's position.[3]

Rangefinders were based on the coincidence principle with an optical mechanism, operated by a human to compute the range. The operator adjusted the mechanism until two half-images of the target lined up in a complete picture. Dazzle was intended to make that hard because clashing patterns looked abnormal even when the two halves were aligned. This became more important when submarine periscopes included similar rangefinders. As an additional feature, the dazzle pattern usually included a false bow wave intended to make estimation of the ship's speed difficult.

Dazzle camouflage was accepted by the Admiralty, even without practical visual assessment protocols for improving performance by modifying designs and colours.[4] The dazzle camouflage strategy was adopted by other navies. This led to more scientific studies of colour options which might enhance camouflage effectiveness. Broken colour systems which present units so small as to be invisible as such at the distances considered are neither advantageous nor detrimental to the dazzle effect; the visibility of the camouflaged vessel at a given distance would depend entirely upon such scientifically measurable factors as the mean effective reflection factor, hue and saturation of the surface when considered at various distances.[5]


Painting of Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool, by Edward Wadsworth, 1919

In 1914, British scientist John Graham Kerr persuaded then-First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to adopt a form of disruptive camouflage which he called "parti-colouring". A general order to the British fleet issued on November 10, 1914 advocated use of Kerr's principle. It was applied in various ways to British warships such as HMS Implacable where officers noted that the pattern "increased difficulty of accurate range finding". However, following Churchill's departure from the Admiralty, the Royal Navy reverted to plain grey paint schemes.[6]

The British Army inaugurated its Camouflage Section for land use at the end of 1916. At sea in 1917, heavy losses of merchant ships to Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare campaign led to new desire for camouflage. The marine painter Norman Wilkinson promoted a system of stripes and disrupted lines "to distort the external shape by violent color contrasts" and confuse the enemy about the speed and dimensions of a ship.[7] Wilkinson, then a lieutenant commander on Royal Navy patrol duty, implemented the precursor of "dazzle" beginning with merchantman SS Industry. 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 in what came to be known as "dazzle camouflage", and dazzle was also applied to 400 naval vessels.[8] In August 1917, HMS Alsatian became the first Royal Navy vessel dazzle painted.

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. Painters, however, were not alone in the project. Creative people including sculptors, artists, and set designers designed camouflage.[9]

World War I

RMS Empress of Russia as a troopship, wearing dazzle camouflage

Dazzle's effectiveness was highly uncertain at the time of the First World War, but it was adopted nonetheless. In 1918, the British Admiralty analysed shipping losses, but was unable to draw clear conclusions;[10][11] with hindsight, too many factors (choice of colour scheme; size and speed of ships; tactics used) had been varied for it to be possible to determine which factors were significant or which schemes worked best.[12] The artist Abbott Handerson Thayer did carry out an experiment on dazzle camouflage, but it failed to show any reliable advantage of dazzle over plain paintwork.[13]

USS Nebraska in an experimental camouflage scheme

In a 1919 lecture, 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. [14]

During both World Wars, former ocean liners owned by British steamship companies such as Cunard Line were re-commissioned as an integral part of the British war fleet. These auxiliary ships were refitted with armament and repainted in the same manner as other fleet ships. For example, the Canadian Pacific Steamships' RMS Empress of Russia and White Star Line's RMS Olympic, former passenger liners, were given the "dazzle" treatment when used as troopships.

World War II

An experimental scheme for merchant marine shipping

American naval leadership thought dazzle effective and, in 1918, the U.S. Navy adopted it as one of several techniques.

However effective the scheme was in World War I, dazzle camouflage became less useful as rangefinders and especially aircraft became more advanced, and, by the time it was put to use again in World War II, radar further reduced its effectiveness. However, it may still have confounded enemy submarines. The US Navy implemented a camouflage painting program in World War II, and applied it to many ship classes, from patrol craft and auxiliaries to battleships and some Essex-class aircraft carriers. The designs (known as Measures, each identified with a number) were not arbitrary, but were standardised in a process which involved a planning stage, then a review, and then fleet-wide implementation.

Not all USN measures involved dazzle patterns; some were simple or even totally unsophisticated, such as a false bow wave on traditional Haze Grey, or Deck Blue replacing grey over part or all of the ship (the latter being utilized to counter the kamikaze threat).[15] Dazzle continued to be used until the end of World War II.

In the British Royal Navy, dazzle paint schemes reappeared in January 1940; these were unofficial and competitions were often held between ships for the best camouflage patterns. The RN Camouflage Department came up with a scheme devised by Peter Scott, a wildlife artist, which were developed into the Western Approaches Schemes. In 1942 the Admiralty Intermediate Disruptive Pattern came into use, followed in 1944 by the Admiralty Standard Schemes.[16]

The German Navy first used camouflage in the 1940 Norwegian campaign. A wide range of patterns were authorised, but most commonly black and white diagonal stripes were used. Most patterns were designed to hide ships in harbour or near the coast; they were often painted over with plain grey when operating in the Atlantic.[17]

Museum ships

Museum ships HMS Belfast, moored in the River Thames in London, United Kingdom, HMCS Sackville, moored in Halifax Harbour in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and USS North Carolina, moored in Wilmington, North Carolina, United States, and the USS Hazard in Freedom Park at Omaha, Nebraska are painted in the dazzle camouflage they used during the Second World War.

Art history

RMS Olympic in dazzle at Halifax, Nova Scotia painted by Arthur Lismer

The abstract patterns in dazzle camouflage inspired many artists. Picasso is reported to have taken credit for the modern camouflage experiments which seemed to him a quintessentially Cubist technique.[18] He is reported to have drawn the connection in a conversation with Gertrude Stein shortly after he first saw a painted cannon trundling through the streets of Paris.[3] Edward Wadsworth, who supervised dazzle camouflage painting in the war, created a series of canvases after the war based on his dazzle work on ships. In Canada, artists from the Group of Seven, notably Arthur Lismer, used dazzle ships in many wartime compositions.

In 2007, the art of concealment was featured as the theme for a show at the Imperial War Museum. The evolution of dazzle was re-examined in this context. In 2008, the Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design announced the rediscovery in its collection of 455 lithographic printed plans for the camouflage of US merchant ships during World War I. These documents were donated to the RISD library in 1919 by one of the school’s alumni, designer Maurice L. Freeman, who had been a camouflage artist for the U.S. Shipping Board in Jacksonville, Florida. Portions of the collection were publicly shown at the RISD library for the first time from January 26 through March 29, 2009, in an exhibition titled "Bedazzled."

See also


  1. Murphy, Hugh and Martin Bellamy (April 2009). "The Dazzling Zoologist: John Graham Kerr and the Early Development of Ship Camouflage". pp. 177. 
  2. "Camouflage , Norman Wilkinson", Letters, The Times, Apr 04, 1939
  3. 3.0 3.1 Glover, Michael. "Now you see it... Now you don't," The Times. March 10, 2007.
  4. Williams, David. (2001). Naval Camouflage 1914-1945, p. 35.
  5. Williams, p. 40.
  6. Murphy and Bellamy, p.178
  7. Fisher, Mark. "Secret history: how surrealism can win a war," The Times. January 8, 2006.
  8. Murphy and Bellamy, p.182-183
  9. Paulk, Ann Bronwyn. "False Colors: Art, Design, and Modern Camouflage (review)," Modernism/modernity. 10:2, 402–404 (April 2003). doi:10.1353/mod.2003.0035
  10. Forbes, 2009, "Dazzled and Deceived".
  11. Hartcup, Guy (1979). Camouflage: the history of concealment and deception in war. Pen & Sword. 
  12. Scott-Samuel, Nicholas E; Baddeley, Roland; Palmer, Chloe E; Cuthill, Innes C (June 2011). "Dazzle Camouflage Affects Speed Perception". pp. e20233. Digital object identifier:10.1371/journal.pone.0020233. PMC 3105982. PMID 21673797. 
  13. Stevens M; DH Yule; GD Ruxton (2008). "Dazzle coloration and prey movement". pp. 2639–2643. Digital object identifier:10.1098/rspb.2008.0877. 
  14. Newark, Tim (2007). "Camouflage". Thames and Hudson / Imperial War Museum. pp. 74. 
  15. "US Navy WWII Camouflage Measures". Retrieved January 7, 2012. 
  16. Warneke, Jon; Herne, Jeff. "Royal Navy Colour Chips". Retrieved January 7, 2012. 
  17. Jones, Daniel H.. "Kreigsmarine Camouflage 1939 - 45". Retrieved January 7, 2012. 
  18. Campbell-Johnson, Rachel. "Camouflage at IWM," The Times. March 21, 2007.


External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).