Dazzle ships, also known as “razzle-dazzle” ships, were a type of naval camouflage first used during World War I. The idea behind dazzle camouflage was to use bold, geometric patterns and contrasting colours to break up the silhouette of a ship. This would make it more difficult for enemy vessels to accurately determine its speed, direction, and distance.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at dazzle ships in World War II and how the paint works.

Dazzle Ships of The Great War

The technique was developed by British artist Norman Wilkinson, who was commissioned by the British Admiralty in 1917 to come up with a way to protect ships from German U-boats. Wilkinson believed that by making ships more difficult to target, he could help reduce the number of ships lost to U-boat attacks.

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The patterns used on dazzle ships were often brightly coloured and featured bold, angular shapes, such as stripes, zigzags, and chevrons. The patterns were painted on the sides of the ship, including the bow, stern, and superstructure, and sometimes even on the smokestacks.

The British aircraft carrier HMS Argus with its dazzle camo in 1918.

While the effectiveness of dazzle camouflage is still debated, some historians believe it did help reduce the number of ships lost to U-boats . Even if the patterns did not actually confuse the enemy, they may have made it more difficult for them to accurately target the ship. In particular at night or in low visibility conditions.

Dazzle camouflage fell out of use after World War I, as improvements in naval technology made it less effective. However, the technique did have a lasting impact on the world of art and design, and has been celebrated as an early example of abstract art.

Norman Wilkinson

Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971) was a British artist and illustrator who is best known for his development of the dazzle camouflage technique during World War I. Born in Cambridge, England, Wilkinson studied at the Portsmouth and Southsea School of Art and the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

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After completing his studies, Wilkinson worked as an illustrator and poster designer, creating advertising materials for companies such as the London and North Western Railway and the London Underground. He also worked as a magazine illustrator, contributing to publications such as The Illustrated London News and The Sphere.

With the outbreak of World War I, Wilkinson became involved in efforts to protect British ships from enemy attack. At the time, traditional naval camouflage techniques involved painting ships in shades of grey or blue to make them blend in with the sea. However, Wilkinson believed that these techniques were inadequate and that a new approach was needed.

An official report on the SS Alban camouflaged in dazzle pattern in 1918.

Drawing on his background as an artist and designer, Wilkinson developed the dazzle camouflage technique. This involved painting ships in bold and eye-catching patterns of contrasting colours, such as black and white or blue and yellow. The patterns were designed to break up the lines and contours of the ship. This made it more difficult for enemy submariners to accurately determine the ship’s speed and size.

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After World War I, Wilkinson continued to work as an artist and illustrator, producing advertising materials, book illustrations, and other works. He also became involved in the British film industry, serving as a technical advisor and creating special effects for several films.

Dazzle Ships in World War II

During World War II, dazzle camouflage was used extensively by both the Allies and the Axis powers. The designs used on dazzle ships in World War II were similar to those used during World War I, but with some modifications. For example, the colours used were often more muted and the patterns were less geometric and more organic in shape.

Subtle. Dazzle in its simplest form. The USS Northampton with a painted fake bow wave.

One of the primary goals of dazzle camouflage during World War II was to confuse enemy submarines. The camouflage was intended to create an optical illusion that would make it difficult for enemy submarines to determine the direction of the ship. This was achieved by using a combination of contrasting colours and patterns. it was a layout made it more difficult for the enemy to distinguish the ship from its surroundings.

The effectiveness of dazzle is still one that’s discussed today. Some argue that the camouflage did little to actually confuse the enemy. They believe that the benefits of dazzle camouflage were largely psychological, helping to boost the morale of Allied sailors. Others argue that the camouflage was effective in making it more difficult for enemy submarines to accurately target Allied ships.

How ‘Dazzle’ Works

Dazzle camouflage makes it more difficult for enemy submarines to accurately plot and judge the direction of a potential target. The technique is based on the principle of disruptive coloration. This method uses colour and pattern to break up the outline of an object and make it more difficult to see.

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The patterns used in dazzle camouflage are designed to disrupt the lines and contours of the ship. These patterns are often made up of bold, contrasting colours, such as black and white or even blue and yellow.

A great illustration of how artist Norman Wilkinson intended dazzle to work.

The patterns used in dazzle camouflage were often hand-painted onto the ships using brushes or airbrushes. The paint used was typically oil-based and had a high gloss finish, which helped to create the illusion of depth and texture. The paint was often applied in multiple layers, with each layer adding to the overall effect of the camouflage.

One of the challenges of dazzle camouflage was creating a design that was both effective and aesthetically pleasing. The designs used on dazzle ships were often created by artists, who were chosen for their ability to create bold and striking designs. The artists were given a great deal of creative freedom in designing the camouflage, and were often encouraged to experiment with different colours and patterns.

Dazzle in Modern Day Use

Dazzle camouflage is no longer used for its original purpose of protecting naval ships from enemy attack. However, the bold and eye-catching designs of dazzle paint continue to inspire and influence artists, designers, and even architects today.

In recent years, dazzle paint has been used in a variety of modern applications, from commercial design to public art installations. For example, a number of street artists and muralists have used the principles of dazzle camouflage in their work. They create colourful and striking designs that break up the contours and shapes of buildings and other structures.

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In addition, some contemporary architects have used the principles of dazzle camouflage in their building designs. For example, the Camper Shoe Store in New York City features a façade that is covered in a bold and colourful pattern inspired by dazzle camouflage.

Dazzle paint has also been used in the world of fashion and design. A number of fashion designers and brands have incorporating bold and colourful patterns into their clothing and accessories. Additionally, some automotive designers have used dazzle paint to create eye-catching designs for cars and motorcycles.

HMS Tamar painted in the modern Royal Navy version of razzle-dazzle camouflage.

Beyond its use in art and design, the principles of dazzle camouflage have also been applied to military vehicles and equipment. For example, modern military aircraft are often painted to make them more difficult to detect by enemy radar.

Overall dazzle paint may no longer serve its original purpose. But, its bold and eye-catching designs continue to inspire and influence artists and designers in a variety of fields.