Razzle Dazzle…not quite the term you’d associate with military warfare. However, Dazzle camouflage was a unique and controversial paint scheme used extensively by British and U.S. warships in World War I and into World War II. Not just an oddity by name (aka “dazzle painting” or simply “Dazzle”), but its principal function was just as eccentric. We are accustomed to thinking of camouflage as a form or pattern to conceal the presence of an object that its applied to or worn. Dazzle however, takes a different aim.
Dazzle’s principle purpose wasn’t to conceal, but to actually stand out and did so quite radically. See, blending into most land environments has been quite successfully tackled over the decades, but out at sea is another story. Hiding a ship is difficult as the sea and sky conditions are constantly changing, making it difficult to select just a single shade or two of paint for a vessel. So, if visually concealing a ship at sea wasn’t feasible, how about utilize a method to hide what the ship was doing.
Dazzle’s camo design was formed around a series complex patters of geometric shapes in contrasting colors interrupting and intersecting each other. Creating an optical illusion to the natural eye that aimed to confuse rather than to conceal. These designs made it difficult for the eye to decipher a ship’s range, speed and heading. Essentially it was to mislead the enemy as to what a ships course and speed was, making it difficult to accurately engage weapon systems at distance. These patterns were always different and kept top secret. While there are no color photos of these ships due to the camera technology at the time, we know from official documents and models that the primary colors used were black, white, blue, green and even bright neon’s.
Its creation is credited to British marine artist and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officer Norman Wilkinson. Norman explained in 1919 that he had intended dazzle primarily to mislead the enemy about a ship's course and so to take up a poor firing position. After initial testing, Wilkinson's plan was adopted by the British Admiralty, and he was placed in charge of a naval camouflage unit, housed in basement studios at the Royal Academy of Arts. There, he and about two dozen associate artists and art students (camoufleurs, model makers, and construction planners), devised dazzle camouflage schemes, applied them to miniature models, tested the models (using experienced sea observers), and prepared construction diagrams. Soon after British warships were being razzled and dazzled, and it wasn’t long after until it reached U.S. shores as well.
While the camo found flourishing success during World War I, and even into WWII to a lesser extent, its utility died-off soon after the wars. The paint scheme was difficult to maintain and with the advancement of technologies such as rangefinders, radar, and aircraft targeting systems, its utility was rendered obsolete on the battle seas. In the end, over 2,000 ships were dazzled and still lives on having influenced much of popular art over a century later.