World War I ushered in the submarine as one of the deadliest new elements of warfare. German or Austro-Hungarian U-boats wreaked havoc on Entente warships and shipping in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. In response to the submarine threat, Allied navies turned to new technologies and ideas—among them the use of specialized paint schemes to distort and confuse the appearance of merchantmen and warships.
U-boats could wait submerged until a target presented itself and then dispatch a ship in any of three ways. If the prey were an unarmed merchant vessel, the U-boat could surface and board the ship, remove the crew and any materials of wealth or intelligence value, then scuttle the ship. A variant of scuttling would be to surface and attack a ship using the submarine’s deck guns. Should the target vessel be a warship or armed merchantman, a submerged torpedo attack offered a third option.
To defend against U-boats, the Royal Navy introduced new tactics and weapons. Unarmed ships received deck guns and gun crews to provide a means to attack a surfaced submarine. The development of depth charges equipped warships with a means to damage or destroy a submerged submarine. Armed ships disguised as unarmed merchantmen, dubbed “Q-ships,” deterred U-boats from surfacing and attempting to close with a target. The tactic of convoying swept the seas of independent ships and forced U-boats to risk their own destruction while trying to sink shipping.
But with the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917, torpedo attacks and sinkings of merchant vessels skyrocketed. In late April 1917, artist-turned-Royal Naval Reserve Lieutenant Norman Wilkinson wrote to the Admirality with the idea to paint ships to distort their appearance and movement. Considering it impossible to paint a ship to make her invisible to a submarine, Wilkinson instead proposed increasing the visibility of ships.
The painting approach, in Wilkinson’s words, would use “large patches of strong colour in a carefully thought-out pattern and colour scheme, which will so distort the form of the vessel that chances of successful aim by attacking submarines will be greatly decreased.” Through creation and application of an array of such paint schemes, Wilkinson hoped to confuse submarine commanders sufficiently to cause them either to break off an attack, miss-aim a torpedo, or redirect a torpedo aiming point to a less vulnerable area of a vessel.
The Royal Navy began painting ships in the new designs—christened “dazzle” to distinguish them from camouflage—within months. Wilkinson became officer in charge of a Dazzle Section to test and develop new designs. The process started with model makers—men and women—making small-scale models of ships. These would be painted with various colors and then examined through a submarine periscope in a miniature theater using changing sky and lighting backgrounds. Once the team was satisfied with the design, the model would be given to a plan maker and transferred to a 1/16-inch profile plan for port and starboard sides of the ship.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the nation’s warships and merchantmen did not use dazzle schemes. In January 1918, Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, learned of Wilkinson’s work. In March, Wilkinson found himself in Washington advising the U.S. Navy. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Wilkinson and decided to replicate the British Dazzle Section in Washington.
An American Camouflage Section stood up over the next few weeks in the Bureau of Construction and Repair. Lieutenant Harold Van Buskirk commanded the section. It had two subdivisions. The first, design, was under Impressionist painter-turned-Naval Reserve Lieutenant Everett L. Warner and consisted of modelers and artists to create the dazzle patterns. The second subdivision, research, under Lieutenant Loyd A. Jones, consisted of scientists at Eastman Kodak Company to study camouflage models.
In the design subdivision, Ensign Kenneth MacIntire supervised a team of half a dozen model makers building scale models of ships. These then went to Warner’s team of artists, who applied a draft pattern and then placed the model in a specialized theater developed by Jones. Unlike Wilkinson’s approach, the American model theater featured an artificial sun and moveable sky so the models could be examined in differing light conditions on a turntable through a periscope. To further the scientific development of the American schemes, Warner devised a design method using anamorphosis through the arrangement of colored wooden blocks placed at an oblique angle against a ship model.
Once designs passed examination, Ensign Raymond J. Richardson’s drafting room would transfer the model’s patterns to type plans for the port and starboard sides. Through arrangement with the U.S. Shipping Board, the Navy’s dazzle design would be used for all American vessels. The research subdivision provided the plans to the Emergency Fleet Corporation, which in turn supervised the actual painting of ships. In the final eight months of the war, more than 1,250 U.S.-flagged ships received dazzle schemes from the Camouflage Section.
Did dazzle actually work? Of the 1,250 dazzled ships, less than 1 percent were lost. But during the same time, convoying took place, and defenses against U-boats increased. The British found no clear argument in favor of dazzle, but it also offered no negative effects while improving the confidence and morale of those merchantmen sailing on board dazzle-painted vessels.
In 1922, the Department of the Navy transferred 40 models, presumably from the Camouflage Section, all with different dazzle designs, to the Smithsonian Institution. These models are simply made and painted, carefully marked on the underside with the name of the vessel and the specific paint scheme displayed on the hull. In 2018, a private citizen donated a collection of 119 plans for World War I dazzle patterns. Together, these artifacts provide a window into a colorful time when a newspaper referred to the U.S. fleet as “a flock of sea-going Easter Eggs.”
—Dr. Frank A. Blazich Jr.,
National Museum of American History