The story behind dazzle ships, the Navy's wildest-ever paint job

In 1917, while Britain’s Royal Navy was plagued by Germany’s formidable U-boat offensive, visual artist Norman Wilkinson realized that traditional camouflages wouldn’t help British ships avoid the onslaught. So he proposed the “extreme opposite.”

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Wilkinson, a volunteer in the Royal Navy at the time, had the idea for “dazzle ships,” or ships painted with high-contrast patterns intended to disorient U-boats.

He wrote the admiralty of the Royal Navy, and soon found himself in Devonport, painting scale models.

Impressed with his ideas, and desperate to save lives as the war in the Atlantic raged, the Royal Navy adopted this novel paint scheme.

Camouflage is meant to make an object blend in with its surroundings. In contrast, the dazzle pattern used stark lines and hard contrasts to make it difficult to judge the speed and orientation of the ship.

Dark and curved lines towards the bow and stern gave way to bright patches, which make it difficult to estimate the exact dimensions of the ship, it’s speed and direction of travel, and its type. U-boats hunted enemy ships by periscope in those days, so a dazzle pattern could effectively skew the enemy’s targeting.

During World War I, no scientific inquiry could be conducted into the effectiveness of the dazzle ships. But a study from the School of Experimental Psychology found that dazzle paint on moving Land Rovers made rocket-propelled grenades 7% less effective, according to the BBC.

“In a typical situation involving an attack on a Land Rover, the reduction in perceived speed would be sufficient to make the grenade miss by about a meter,” Nick Scott-Samuel, the researcher who led the study, told the BBC. “This could be the difference between survival or otherwise.”

Here’s how the dazzle pattern was designed to fool enemy submarines:

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Here is the dazzle paint on the HMS Badsworth.

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The HMS Furious. World War I ended in November 1918, and all of these pictures were taken between 1917 and 1919.

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The HMS Argus.

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The HMS Kildangan.

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The HMS Nariana.

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The HMS Pegasus.

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The HMS Rocksand.

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The HMS Underwing.

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Britain’s Royal Navy was not alone in employing the dazzle design. The USS St. George was one of many US ships to receive the paint job.

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USS Wilhelmina.

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USS West Mahomet.

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USS Leviathan.

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USS West Apaum.

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USS Charles S. Sperry.

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USS Orizaba.

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The USS Smith.

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The USS Nebraska.

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The dazzle paint continued into World War II. Here’s the USS Wasp, and other US aircraft carriers at Ulithi atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

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Photo: US Navy

Reportedly Pablo Picasso saw a dazzle-painted cannon at a parade in Paris. He claimed that that patterning was influenced by cubism, a school of art he had recently helped pioneer.

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