Give em the ol’ razzle dazzle

“How can a ship be made more difficult to see from a distance through a periscope?” – Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971)

Norman Wilkinson invented this new way to confuse enemy troops using vivid geometric camouflage.

Dazzle camouflage….One of the most aesthetic tools of war ever employed. With shapes and stripes decorating the surfaces of war vessels and merchant ships

A strikingly different sort of your regular idea of what camouflage might be….Picasso claimed this to be a product of the Cubist influence. Others attributed it as a play on the chaos of Italian Futurist art.

Vorticists from Britain actually participated in the concept’s development, housed in the basement studios at the Royal Academy of Arts, with approximately two dozen associate artists and art students (camofleurs, model makers and construction plan preparators) devising dazzle camouflage schemes and applying them to initially miniature models with the thinking that the pattern applied, with paint, to the mainframe of the ship would visually be able to confuse the direction in which the vessel was heading. The majority of British fleet ships (and planes too) were painted with Dazzle camouflage in order to protect the ships/planes from enemy attack.

War artist Arthur Lismer, a Sheffield lad, captured the return of the troopship SS Olympic (centre) to Halifax harbour following the First World War. Olympic’s multi-coloured dazzle camouflage, added in 1917 at the height of the German U-Boat threat, was intended to make the ship more difficult to identify and target. The painting also provides a glimpse of the busy Halifax dockyard, Canada’s principal wartime naval base. Pressed into service in 1915, Olympic became one of the war’s most famous troop ships. Affectionately known as “Old Reliable,” Olympic would carry over 200,000 British, American, and Canadian troops to and from the fighting fronts.

The USS Leviathan at a pier in Hoboken, N.J., on April 19, 1918. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

After the United States entered the war, it too similarly experimented on thousands of ships with defensive paint schemes, calling its version “razzle dazzle”. One type, the “Mackay Low Visibility System” was based on the idea that such high contrast would be completely overwhelming to the optic nerves that the ship wouldn’t even be perceived, this was according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. The most popular tactic involved painting a wave on the sides of the ship to deceive the enemy about which direction the boat is going. Increasing the size of the painted wave could also give the impression that the ship was smaller than it actually was.

There’s no real definitive answer as to how effective dazzle camouflage actually was, as it was implemented with other defensive features alongside.

After the war ended, sensor technologies and optics improved vastly, so all the boats were repainted, and the Dazzle style camouflage disappeared beneath layers of marine paint. All that remains of the era are the photographs and paintings depicting a time where art and technology combined forces, creating wacky artworks on the war at sea.