During World War I, the intensified use of Allied naval camouflage was a necessary response to the effective use of torpedo attacks by German U-boats (submarines). (At its peak in 1917, U-boats sank an average of 23 British ships each week.) The British (and the French to some extent) were the first to make serious use of course deception camouflage, proposed in 1917 by a painter, Norman Wilkinson, who christened it dazzle camouflage. In the following year, Wilkinson’s expertise was loaned to the US for one month, with the result that a Camouflage Section was formed, with the goal of providing protection for both military and civilian vessels (the latter known as merchant ships). Above right are WWI US camoufleurs painting experimental designs on wooden ship models in Washington DC, at the unit’s Design Subsection. Seated at the table are American artists (left to right) John Gregory, Frederick Waugh, and a person named Nash. The person standing has yet to be identified. Six steps in designing ship camouflage “Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream.”
                            —W.S. Gilbert (HMS Pinafore)
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dazzle-painted ships
Examples of Naval Camouflage from World Wars I and II

compiled by Roy R. Behrens
copyright © 2009http://www.uni.edu/artdept/behrens.htmlshapeimage_6_link_0
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Step 1       Devising a Distortion Plan Step 2       Building & Painting a Model Step 3        Assessing its Effectiveness Step 4        Making a Construction Plan Step 5         Painting the Actual Vessel Step 6        Observing the Ship at Sea Below I’ve tried to make a list of some of the steps in the process of designing ship camouflage, as practiced in particular by various camoufleurs in World War I. There is a brief narrative for each step, in addition to visual examples.—RB Designers and artists refer to this as the thumbnail stage. It is the time to use research, brainstorming, daydreaming, thumbnail sketching and so on, to produce a wide range of approaches to solving a particular problem. Critical at this stage is the act of defining the problem, since an unclear or wrong definition can forestall an effective solution. Early in World War I, for example, Allied ship camouflage was hampered because its practitioners asked: “How can we hide a ship?” A breakthrough came in 1917, when British artist Norman Wilkinson redefined the problem: It wasn’t possible to hide a ship on the ocean (its smokestack would give it away if nothing else), so that a far better question to ask was: “How can we prevent a ship from being struck by a torpedo?” As a result, the problem of Allied naval camouflage changed from invisibility to course deception (i.e., devising means of confusing U-boat gunner’ efforts to torpedo ships from a distance).
At the left is a US government photograph (c1918) of a trio of camouflage artists. The two men in the photo appear to be constructing wooden ship models, while the woman on the right is applying camouflage designs to the ship models, completed examples of which can be seen in the wall case behind her. Below that is a photo of a camoufleur looking at various models.
     In November 1919, in an article in Everybody’s Magazine on “Fooling the Iron Fish,” Design Subsection supervisor Everett L. Warner recalled: “The work began in the model-making room where about half a dozen skilled men under [US artist] Ensign Kenneth MacIntire were kept constantly busy in the production of miniature wooden models, which were accurately made to a fixed scale from the blueprints of the vessels required…[the largest of the models] measured twenty-two and a half inches in length.” MacIntire’s model-making facility is actually shown in a photograph on the first page of this website; he’s the second person from the left. The two photos at left are probably not of Warner’s unit, but possibly of the New York branch of a US Shipping Board camouflage team, headed by US artist William Andrew Mackay.
      Warner: “[Having been constructed, the wooden model] was next turned over to a designer, who studied its peculiarities and, after applying a tentative pattern, carried it into the testing theatre for further study.”DazzleCamouflage.htmlshapeimage_23_link_0
At left is a finished example of a dazzle-painted model ship (shown beside a model simply painted with “battleship gray”). Warner: “[In the testing theatre] we had a rather elaborate equipment consisting of a periscope and a turntable placed at such a distance from it as to represent two thousand seven hundred yards, according to the scale we had established for our vessels. Different types of skies were painted on a strip of canvas which was so arranged on rollers that the designer, without leaving his post at the periscope, could vary the background and at the same time by means of the turntable place his vessel at any desired angle.”
Among the most wonderful artifacts from WWI-era dazzle-painting are the colored lithographic plans of how a camouflage pattern should be applied to an actual ship. In the Design Subsection, these large diagrams were made in the drafting room (see photo on first page of this website), of which R.J. Richardson was in charge. Warner: “Sometimes the first tentative design [on a ship model] proved sufficiently deceptive to be made permanent with hardly any changes, but more often repeated changes were necessary before the design was approved and the painted model was handed over to Ensign Richardson, who had charge of the drafting room and was responsible for transferring the patterns to previously prepared special or type plans.”DazzleCamouflage.htmlshapeimage_25_link_0
Above is a dazzle-painting plan for a World War I British vessel, designed by Norman Wilkinson’s team (c1917). At right are two of 455 colored lithographic plans for WWI US ship camouflage (shown here are two sides of the same vessel) that were rediscovered (c2007) in the collection of the Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design. Fifty of these have been posted on the RISD Dazzle website. These plans had been given to RISD in 1919 by one of its alumni, a Providence artist named Maurice L. Freedman (1898-1983) who had worked for the US Shipping Board as a district camoufleur in Jacksonville FL during WWI. Images courtesy of the Fleet Library.http://www.risd.edu/dazzle/shapeimage_26_link_0
What was it like to apply a camouflage pattern to an actual ship in the harbor? Here is an eyewitness account of it by MIT graduate Richmond Knapp Fletcher (c1920): “The camoufleur’s principle job was to superintend the marking off and painting of the ships, following designs sent out by the Navy Department. When not thus engaged, we worked at new designs on small ship models, studying them in a marine theatre equipped with a periscope lens. A complete knowledge of the theory of these designs was essential since the design supplied for any given ship seldom fitted the ship exactly, which meant that a certain amount of originality and initiative was necessary in marking off a vessel. This work was generally done in a hurry, between the docking and sailing of a ship. We often worked from 7 am to 9 pm with perhaps five or ten minutes for meals. It was s continuous round of exercise on rope ladders, ‘bosun’s chair,’ swinging stages, scaffolds, and up and down ropes hand over hand. We lived in an atmosphere of grease, steam, coal and dust, and everywhere, wet paint. It was exciting while it lasted, but I doubt if there were any camoufleurs who were sorry when it was over.” The top two photos in the left column are two views of the same ship, the USS Sara Thompson (c1918), before and after the application of its camouflage. In the top photo, one can see slight indications of its chalk markings, while the third photo in that column shows a vessel being marked. In the two remaining photos, a ship is being painted. Even after a ship’s camouflage had been designed and implemented, there was still other work to do. There was a need for determining if a camouflage scheme was effective in an ocean setting. Further, it was important for the Design Section to know if the camouflage painters (hired by the US Shipping Board) were making effective conversions of the original camouflage plans to specific ships. As a result, a number of artists (among them Thomas Hart Benton and Louis Bouché) were assigned to make drawings and paintings of camouflaged ships in the harbors, including domestic and foreign. contact Courtesy Fleet Library RISD
Click here for a roster of artists, architects, theatre designers, zoologists and others who contributed to camouflage in the 20th centuryCamouflageArtists.htmlshapeimage_34_link_0
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OUR BLOG we also publish a camouflage blog new SHIP SHAPE: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook (an anthology of writings about ship camouflage during WWI) (2012). Quick international shipping.