Used extensively in World War I, Dazzle camouflage was a unique creation that saw the marrying of art with military strategy. At the outbreak of World War I the British Navy was having trouble hiding its ships from German U-boats because there was no sure way to conceal ships on the open seas. Due to constantly changing weather it was impossible to produce a camouflage that would consistently hide navies from the enemy sights. While painting ships grey did reduce visibility, ships would still leave a wake as they travelled and a revealing trail of smoke that resulted in British ships being sunk by the German Navy in devastating numbers.
To counter the extreme exposure and destruction that the British Navy was being subjected to, Dazzle Camouflage was created. Popular belief has Norman Wilkinson – an artist in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve – creating Dazzle Camouflage in 1917, however there is a potential point of contest, with others recognising John Graham Kerr as pushing this idea forward three years earlier. On the 24th September 1914 after the destruction of several British ships in only one day, Kerr wrote to Winston Churchill outlining some ideas on how to camouflage large ships, including a form of paint application that was similar to the dazzle camouflage realised by Wilkinson. In this letter Kerr describes the following method of camouflage:
“It is essential to break up the regularity of the outline and this can easily be affected by strongly contesting shades. The same applies to the surface generally, a continuous uniform shade renders conspicuous, this can be countered by breaking up the surface by violently contrasting pigments. A giraffe, or zebra, or jaguar looks extraordinarily conspicuous in a museum, but in nature when not moving, is wonderfully difficult to pick up. The same principle should be made use of in painting ships”.
This idea was well received by Churchill and passed to naval officers, however it was up to individual officer whether or not this principle was acted upon. In 1917 Wilkinson once again revisited the notion of disruptive colouring, and a much more organised and coherent effort was implemented across the navy to make use of, what is now known as, Dazzle Camouflage.
The purpose of this camouflage was not to hide the ship, but rather to utilise a form of obliterative colouring that confused and distorted its shape. This would mean that when German attackers sighted British ships in Dazzle Camouflage they would find it difficult to identify its type, size, speed and direction of travel, making it extremely difficult to target.
To commemorate this artist creation, as part of the ongoing events around the centenary of World War I the arts organisation, 1418 Now has commissioned the artists Tobias Rehberger and Carlos Cruz-Diez to recreate Dazzle camouflage in both London and Liverpool on the HMS President and the Edmund Gardner.
You can see a time-lapse video of these ships being painted here.
As to the Glasgow School of Art’s role in camouflage, during World War I many students were appointed roles where their artistic talents were utilised in the creation and execution of different forms of camouflage to protect their fellow soldiers from enemy fire.
Resources used in this post, and interesting articles regarding Dazzle camouflage not already mentioned are:
- The Guardian: First world war dazzle painting revived on ships in Liverpool and London.
- Bobolink Books: Dazzle Camouflage
- Fast Company: World War One-Era Ships Redone In “Dazzle Camouflage”
- The Dazzling Zoologist: John Graham Kerr and the Early Development of Ship Camouflage
- An Illustrated History of Unbelievably Camouflaged Ships
- Missed in History Blog and Podcast Episode: Dazzle Camouflage