Dazzle painting

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SS Leviathan leaving New York Harbor in 1918, under a dazzle paint camouflage scheme

Dazzle painting was a type of camouflage created for surface ships as a means of protection from attack during World War I.


During the First World War, Great Britain depended on convoys of ships carrying supplies and war material from North America; normally painted in "haze gray", the ships stood out due to the constantly changing color environment of sea and sky, and were frequent targets of attack by surface raiders, warships, and the new submarine.

Proposals to camouflage ships at sea, i.e. to make them blend into the background, were met with disappointment because it was impossible to make it happen. British naval officer and artist Norman Wilkinson suggested a different approach: each ship would be painted in bold geometric patterns, shapes, and colors; the idea being to break up the pattern of the ship itself, and confuse the range finders on enemy warships as to the vessel's heading, speed, and direction.

What followed was, for all intents and purposes, a "nightmare" of design. The ships themselves became the largest canvas of modern art; SS Leviathan, an American troop transport (and former German luxury liner) became a garish pattern of saw-toothed edges and curves; French cruiser Gloire became a horizontal assemblage of zebra-striping (some troop liners painted a silhouette of a smaller vessel, such as a destroyer, on the side against a grey background, to make submarine captains shoot at something else or aim at a smaller target.). So effective was dazzle painting that sinkings dropped, and at one point the captain of a destroyer sent to escort Leviathan across the Atlantic was so confused by the coloration that he had to circle the ship three times in order to determine the direction she was headed.

World War II

The colors that were present in dazzle painting were dropped in favor of a mix of black, white, and gray for most naval vessels and transports. Bismarck had for a short time three angled black/white stripes on her sides, as well as a false bow wave on her bow and false wake on her stern; these were painted out as she left Norway on her only voyage. With the adoption of radar on warships, camouflage patterns were rendered ineffective except with regard to submarines. By the end of World War II, nearly all warships returned to a single grey color.