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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Dazzle Ships

Imagine how much fun it would have been to go from painting pictures of ships to painting on ships; and not just painting them, but using them as movable, three-dimension" canvases" for some of the wildest, most Cubist paintings ever created. Now, imagine yourself as a German U-boat captain during WW I. You pop your periscope just above the surface, and this is what you see--

Dazzle painting was a form of camouflage particularly effective in moonlight.

"Was zum Teufel?!!" (What the hell?) It's dusk, getting darker by the minute, you have what appears to be a whole damned convoy of British merchantmen parading across your bow before your befuddled eyes. You have only a few precious seconds to ascertain your target's, range, speed, and heading. But how do you manually set a torpedo's range when all those damned stripes are screwing up your optical periscope adjustments. Not only that, it's down to sheer guesswork in trying to ascertain target headings or speed. In some cases, German U-boat captains couldn't even tell for sure how many ships they were looking at. That was how it was supposed to theory. Norman Wilkinson, the artist who helped promote the idea called it the Dazzle system of camouflage. The British Admiralty called him a "nut." They had long tried camouflaging their ships to lessen the likelihood of their being seen. The problem was, a paintjob that was effective at night stood out like a very sore thumb during the day. A destroyer painted a daytime sky blue was about as invisible as a moonlit iceberg when seen at night. In short, it was impossible to make a fifty-ton ship appear to "disappear."
The Brits called it "Dazzle," the Yanks termed it "Razzle Dazzle.")
The original idea came from the British zoologist, John Graham Kerr, (also an American artist, Abbott Handerson Thayer, who proposed a similar theory having to do with color) for the application of disruptive camouflage to British warships during the First World War. In 1914 Kerr sent a letter to Winston Churchill, then serving as First Lord of the Admiralty, explaining that they were going about in all wrong in trying to camouflage ships environmentally when the light and weather at sea changed almost momentarily. Instead, the goal should be to confuse the enemy (not conceal the target), by disrupting a ship's outline. Their ideas were received with something less than enthusiasm. John Graham Kerr, was, of course, no artists so he turned to the marine painter, Norman Wilkinson. Together they approached the admiralty in person. Somewhat to their amazement, they were received with surprising enthusiasm. By that time, the British navy and merchant marine were losing ships to U-boat attacks at an astounding rate. The admiralty were willing to try anything. The men made their case and Wilkinson soon found himself in the enviable position of directing the whole project. Making it all the more difficult, no two ships could be painted alike lest the Germans use their outlandish markings to identify them as to type, size, and capabilities.

WW I Ship Camouflage, Arthur Lismer

Some of Wilkinson's designs.
The British navy gave lip service to testing the scheme but in truth, they didn't have the time nor the patience. Having little to lose, testing would be under real wartime conditions. Of course Wilkinson didn't literally go down to the shipyards and start slapping around paint all over ships in dry dock. Besides, the whole theory rested upon what would later come to be called Op Art--retinal fatigue--tricking the enemy's eyes, not to men-tion the optics of their peri-scope adjustments. Such de-signs, while not quite scientific, did follow certain rules having more than a little similarity to the cutting edge Cubist style of the time. Picasso even tried claim-ing he invented disruptive cam-ouflage. Wilkinson's job was to create the designs on paper, based upon the size, type, and nature of the beast. Every effort was made to disguise the size and shape of the vessel, even to the point of creating ridiculous optical illusions. Stripes were a favorite motif, as were checker-board patterns, fake bow waves, and efforts to make the stern look like the bow. In some cases, ships were painted to look like two vessels.

All color photos have been retouched, either then or in recent years.
Few color photos exist from the WW I era.
Dazzle Ship in Dry Dock,
1919, Edward Wadsworth
Perhaps the most famous ship to receive the "Dazzle" treatment was the RMS Olympic (below), which served as a troop ship during the war. Unlike her younger sister ship, the ill-fated Titanic, the Olympic enjoyed a long, illustrious career after the war, spanning 24 years from 1911 to 1935. Her serviced during the War, gained her the nickname "Old Reliable." Repainted, the Olympic re-turned to civilian service after the war, serving successfully as an ocean liner throughout the 1920s and into the first half of the 1930s. Her Dazzle paintjob may have saved her from a fate worse than that of her sister ship. The problem with disruptive camouflage from the beginning was that there was virtually no way of positively proving its success in reducing the number of ships lost. There were simply too many factors coming into play for any valid numerical evaluations. One couldn't exactly take a poll of former German U-boat captains (those few which survived) or try to allow for all the changes in tactics on either side.

Unlike her sister ship, the Titanic, the RMS Olympic enjoyed a long
and illustrious career, both during and after the First World War.
Dockyard, Portsmouth, 1918, J. D. Fergusson
However, those artists who took part in designing such optically disruptive designs, found that paintings of the ships they may or may not have saved from destruction becoming quite popular after the war. Painters such as Herbert Barnard John Everett, Edward Wadsworth, J. D. Fergusson (left), Arthur Lismer, and of course, Norman Wilkinson himself, each contributed colorful, sometimes nearly abstract, versions of their work. Edward Wadsworth Dazzle Ship in Dry Dock (above, right) dating from 1919 (after the war) is especially "dazzling." The merchant ship by an unknown artist (below) is almost sea sickening.

Merchant Vessel at Sea During Choppy Weather in a Dazzle Camouflage by an unknown artist.
Convoy, 1918, Herbert Barnard John Everett

The U.S. Navy carried over the principles of
Dazzle camouflage with their WW II vessels.


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