As employed by man, camouflage—that oldest of nature’s protective measures—is the technique of disguising equipment or installations with paint, nets, foliage, or other deceptive devices.
The origin of the many forms of camouflage used by the Navy dates back to the first ships of the Continental Navy, although the subject was not officially recognized by the Department until 1899. At this time, Robert DeForest Brush, a prominent artist known for his studies of protective coloration in nature, suggested a scheme of “protective coloration” that was intended to reduce the undesirable visibility factor that existed in the standard ship-painting system. Because of the lack of model and test facilities, however, nothing came of the idea. The subject appears not to have been considered thereafter until 1907, and no significant interest was shown until 1914 and the compelling threats of World War I. It was at this time that the technique was first referred to as “camouflage.”
To the practitioners of the art, the two basic forms of camouflage are “dynamic” and “static.” Dynamic camouflage is produced by erecting a shroud which makes the object difficult to see or to interpret. Although generally used for land installations, it has also been applied effectively at sea. Rigging canvas and metal to obtain deceptive obliquity in ships’ superstructures and stacks has often led to observers’ errors in estimating headings. Too, special-purpose types of camouflage such as submarine decoy vessels (“Q-boats”) concealed their guns in false cargo holds and deckhouses and even in lifeboats.
Static camouflage, which is intended to reduce visibility and/or confuse the observer, is most frequently achieved by the painting method. Since structural additions were cumbersome and actually interfered with operations, especially on warships, deceptive painting was the most practical method for use at sea. Paint could also be applied to a large number of vessels in a relatively short period of time and with little expense. Dynamic and static camouflage were combined on occasion: i.e., Q-boats and vessels with structural deceptions were dazzle-painted (a technique of optical distortion obtained by using boldly contrasting colors in geometric patterns); and some anti-range-finding systems used geometric painting patterns and structural appendages.
When, in 1914, hostilities began in Europe, both England and Germany were prone to disregard the so-called neutral rights of non-belligerent nations. England seized ships carrying material classified as contraband, while Germany waged unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking ships engaged in commerce with the allies. To protect their own shipping, the British Admiralty used a variety of camouflage schemes, and the Bureau of War Risk of the Treasury Department, therefore, considered it essential for U. S. vessels entering the war or submarine danger zone to be camouflaged.
As submarine warfare began to take its toll of American shipping and lives, the United States was faced with the increasing possibility of total involvement.
On 1 April 1917, the U. S. merchant ship Aztec was torpedoed and sunk, and our naval forces were mobilized, and on 6 April war was declared.
Immediately upon our entry into the war, several prominent artists proposed systems of camouflage to the Shipping Board and the Navy Department. Responsibility for the preparation and approval of designs was assigned to the Department, which established a Camouflage Section in the Maintenance Division of the Bureau of Construction and Repair. The Emergency Fleet Corporation, the government-owned corporation created to own and operate vessels acquired by the Shipping Board, managed the application of the designs to vessels under their control through district camoufleurs. Insurance discounts were arranged for ships treated with designs either approved or prepared by the Bureau. Naval vessels were painted by the respective ships force and/or navy yard, and the latter also frequently assisted the Emergency Fleet Corporation in painting their charges.
The Camouflage Section established a research center at the Eastman Kodak Company Laboratory, Rochester, New York, and even while operations were getting under way at the Bureau, six of the many early war systems were recognized and approved for immediate use:
1. Brush. A system of countershading, by which lighter surfaces were treated with darker tones, and those appearing darker or in shadow were painted white or very light tones. It was intended to merge all sharp structural lines and bring the object to a flat, even mass blending with the horizon. Colors: black, white, and grays.
2. Herzog. This scheme used broad color bands applied as arcs and circular forms frequently interrupted by change in direction, and avoiding straight lines. It was designed to produce a shimmering effect, like heat waves, on the reasoning that the eye is more confused by the use of irregular curves. Colors: blue, green, and violet/gray base.
3. Mackay. A low visibility system of either regular or disrupted patches of two colors on a base color. The theory was based on proper proportion of the colors exciting the optic nerves to interpret gray. The base color was dependent on local conditions of the horizon. Patches were proportioned so as to cause structural lines to blend at a specific distance, making the vessel difficult to observe. Colors: red, green, and violet.
4. Toch. Using contrasting colors in large diagonal streaks, reverse-curving forward, vertical and horizontal lines were broken up. Dark colors were concentrated nearer the water, which tended to reduce visibility at extreme ranges. A slight dazzle effect was produced at intermediate ranges. Colors: light blue gray, dark blue gray, dark green and light pink purple.
5. Warner. Various large, irregular patterns were applied in strongly contrasting colors or shades. The intent of the system was to destroy the regular contours of the ship and dazzle the observer. No attempt was made to reduce visibility. Colors: red, blue, green, and white, or contrasting grays.
6. Watson/Norfolk. A system intended to dazzle the eye and interfere with accurate range finding. Large, regular shapes, of at least three dark colors, broke up all vertical and horizontal lines.
As is evident in the first four systems, there was a wide divergence of opinion as to how to reduce visibility and/or attain invisibility. In reality, invisibility is impossible to achieve, since the sea and sky are subject to constant changes in color and light. The condition of the horizon is another uncertain factor, and these conditions also vary greatly in different geographic locations. Viewed from a submarine periscope, a ship is always a silhouette on the horizon; therefore, it makes little difference just how visible she is. The bow wave, stern wake, and smoke further complicate the degree of visibility. Finally, assuming that an ideal set of circumstances did occur to make a vessel invisible, she was likely to be detected by hydrophone if within range of attack.
The Admiralty had already come to this conclusion. Since a successful torpedo attack required ideal positioning of the submarine, camouflage which made the vessel’s course and speed difficult to determine was of considerable value. Lieutenant Commander Norman Wilkinson, RNVR, had developed dazzle-painting to a high degree of efficiency in this regard, and the Admiralty ordered all Royal Navy ships and escorts which were engaged in mercantile operations to be painted with specific camouflage patterns.
Upon their arrival in Queenstown, the camouflage of many U. S. destroyers was changed under the direction of Admiral W. S. Sims, U. S. Navy, to dazzle patterns supplied by the Admiralty. Lieutenant Commander Wilkinson was assigned temporary duty in the United States to assist in the organization of the camouflage section, and to expedite the production of effective dazzle designs. Research was to continue, however, on the low visibility systems.
The dazzle system finally adopted by the Bureau of Construction and Repair was generally similar to that of the British. Irregular patterns of strongly contrasting color were applied in a manner so as to break up horizontal and vertical lines. Few curves were used and the patches were of medium size. In the preparation of a design, models were made and studied in the laboratory from all compass points. Patterns and designs were arranged until the desired effect was achieved. Designs were transferred from model to drawing, and reproduced in color lithographs. Original colors used were blue gray, blue, white, and black; however, additional shades of blue gray and blue were added together with gray, gray white, green, gray green, and gray pink.
Because of the enormous number of vessels to be painted, it was necessary to establish a priority. A Bureau letter of 31 May 1918 to CNO provided for the following:
1. All transports should be camouflaged. This effort took precedence over all other types of vessels.
2. All destroyers, cargo, and supply vessels operating in the war zone should be camouflaged as rapidly as practicable.
3. Cruisers and gunboats should also be camouflaged as soon as practicable after the afore-mentioned types.
4. No camouflage was planned for battleships except in conjunction with anti-range-finding tests.
In regard to battleship camouflage, both the Admiralty and the Navy Department were of the opinion that the battle-line operation of these vessels nullified the effect of course and speed deception.
The responsibility and work undertaken by the Camouflage Section included full-scale tests of anti-range finding systems, reduction of visibility by lightening the standard Navy gray paint, and special measures for submarines and small craft.
Anti-range finding experiments were carried out with the battleship force. Although the painting of ships of the main battle force for course and speed deception was considered ineffective, a means of preventing accurate range finding was highly desirable. The schemes developed were referred to as the “Fleet System,” and were designed to break up the prominent lines of the vessel on which ranges were being taken. In addition, triangular appendages and pennants were arrayed vertically but irregularly in the superstructure, stacks and masts. These devices were combined with dazzle or low visibility painting schemes, and with a new pattern featuring a horizontal sawtooth design along the weather decks. The net results, as reported by the battleship force, indicated that the Fleet System had no advantage over the standard light gray paint.
Since the anti-range finding system seemed to be of little value, it was decided to test the effect of a lighter gray for that purpose. The low visibility systems used combinations of colors in patterns to produce gray for blending with conditions of the horizon. This required harmony with the colors chosen, a condition present for only a brief period during the day, if at all. On the other hand, gray itself harmonized with most conditions of weather and horizon that might be encountered. The gray in use had been lightened from war gray just prior to U. S. entry into the war, but because it dried to a darker tone, faded, and had a gloss which increased visibility, several new formulas and shades were tested by the battleship force. Some ships were painted with more than one shade, in a graded effect, with the darkest tones nearest the waterline and with very light tones in the masts. Visibility and the distance at which ranges could be taken, especially on masts and upperworks, were reduced. Eventually, after the war, a light shade of flat gray was adopted which was similar to the present haze gray.
The question of camouflage for submarines was somewhat different, since they presented a very low silhouette at surface trim and were usually viewed from a higher relative position. From the bridge of a surface ship, the submarine’s background was the water rather than the horizon. William Andrew Mackay, an eminent New York artist and expert in light and color, conducted various experiments analyzing the light reflected from the water around a submarine. Several boats were painted with striped patterns using the Mackay primary colors (red, green, and violet) and contrasting grays. Similar patterns were tried on only the periscope housing to reduce visibility while operating at periscope depth. It was generally concluded that the size of submarines in service was too small to carry an effective pattern.
Submarine detection from the air was also becoming an important consideration. After extensive aerial observations of craft painted various shades and tones of green, blue gray and black, the Bureau adopted the following painting schedule: superstructure deck, and horizontal portions of the pressure hull—black; sides of superstructure and vertical portions of the pressure hull—standard gray; conning tower and fairwater—light gray.
Various small craft camouflage systems were also evaluated. Low visibility and dazzle schemes were applied to submarine chasers, patrol boats, and minesweepers. Based on observations made on the surface and from submerged submarines, it was determined that the lighter grays were of value as low visibility measures and were recommended for further use. Dazzle designs were considered to be primarily for defense against submarine attack and to afford very little protection against surface gunfire. It seemed unlikely that a torpedo would be expended against these minor targets and, furthermore, the vessels were generally too small to carry an effective pattern; therefore, dazzle-painting of craft under 200 feet in length was not further considered.
The fact that camouflage was effective during World War I is supported by some interesting statistics. A total of 495 different designs were prepared by the Camouflage Section. Of these, 193 were applied to naval vessels and 302 were used by the Shipping Board. The USS Leviathan and 36 destroyers were painted to designs prepared by the Admiralty. Approximately 1,256 vessels were camouflaged subsequent to 1 March 1918. After that date, 96 ships were lost, of which 18 were camouflaged. Among the 18, 11 were torpedoed, 4 were lost by collision, and 3 were mined. Less than one per cent of the ships camouflaged were lost to torpedo attack.
Navy Department Archives
Navy Department Library
Navy Department Naval History Division
Library of Congress
All photographs are Official U. S. Navy from the author’s personal collection unless otherwise noted.
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Editor’s Note: Part II, “Camouflage (WW-II),” now in production, is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming issue of the Proceedings.