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Dazzle Ships

September 6, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I get very excited when the world combines disciplines in an unexpected way. Recently, I came across a children’s book entitled, Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton and illustrated by Victo Ngai. Not only is this book elegant, descriptive, and interesting, it talks about the combination of art and war in a way that I had never seen before. The book interested me mostly because of the art, but also, the perspective and combination of disciplines. The idea of dazzle ships combines lessons of history, gender studies, art, science, warfare and even popular culture.

The idea for dazzle ships arose during World War I when Britain was losing up to eight ships a day to German U-boats. The losses weighed heavily on the British, who were often known for their naval expertise. Initially, U-boats captured or sank unarmed merchant or cargo ships. They held these ships hostage by using a system which involved turrets (a movable enclosure that protected guns) and torpedoes. The torpedoes were only useful, however, from a distance and a fixed location. They had to be fired using data points such as the opposing ship’s speed, location, and direction. While torpedoes function based entirely on informed guesses at a distance, the guns, on the other hand, were only useful at close range which made the torpedoes useless. So, when the British began arming merchant ships, the Germans resorted to using torpedoes alone to sink ships.

Roy R. Behrens, an expert on camouflage, explains that many people in various countries arrived at the idea of distortion, dazzle, and camouflage, around the same time. He notes: “As early as 1915 (before the US joined the war), an American muralist named William Andrew Mackay collaborated with US Navy commander Joseph O. Fisher at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in designing disruptive (not low-visibility blending) schemes for American submarines. It is not clear if the two were acquainted with Kerr’s experiments, but we do know (according to Mackay, and from photographs) that their camouflage made use of ‘stripes and bars, and there evolved the first principles on which modern camouflage is based’” (6) .

It was also about this time of desperation that British lieutenant-commander Norman Wilkinson (also an artist) proposed painting British ships in dazzling colors and patterns. The idea was not exactly to camouflage the ships, but to disorient the viewer. Camouflage is better used for stationary objects, but distortion works on bodies in motion. “Whereas concealment has to do mainly with motionless objects, distortion is concerned for the most part with objects in motion. The moving object cannot, as a rule, be hidden, but it can be made less definite, more puzzling, a more ‘tricky’ and difficult target, by certain arrangements of color and pattern” (quoted from Gerald H. Thayer “Camouflage in Nature and War” in Brooklyn Museum Quarterly. Vol 10, 1923, p. 161.) In other words, dazzle works because of the way that the human eye is able to organize information.

Whoever arrived at the idea first, both the British and U.S. Navies began developing dazzle ships. They experimented on small wooden replicas painted with bright colors and designs. For this task, the United States Navy sought women with experience in landscape painting who were then employed to dazzle a variety of ships. (It is interesting to note that: Camouflage artists are known as camoufleurs or camofleuses (which also recalls the idea of the previous -ess suffix discussion!). Experts in periscope viewing tested the small models and those which successfully disoriented the viewers were then transferred to large battleships. The idea was that the dazzle would confuse the U-boats, making it impossible to correctly gauge direction or speed. The sea’s constant motion and humidity are inherently disorienting. Also, ships emit noxious oils and smoke. Therefore, the painted designs intended to capitalize on movement and disorder.

These dazzle ships took advantage of the way that the human eye works. It navigates by focusing on definable shapes. So, dazzle ships worked more like an optical illusion, which made the human eye inefficient, and the periscope viewer could hardly render a knowledgeable guess about size, shape, distance and direction. This Smithsonian article claims that “By June 1918, less than a year after the division was created, some 2,300 British ships were dazzled, a number that would swell to more than 4,000 by the end of the war.”

Of course, the idea of dazzle did not end with the war. Rather, cubist painters and others picked up on these trends and they became so fashionable as to even decorate swimsuits for a time. I was surprised to find Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (OMD) wrote a song about them as late as 1983! This seemingly simple children’s book astounded me by its combination of art and history, but also by the rich illustration and depth of knowledge. My gratitude to Chris Barton and Victo Ngai for introducing me to these marvelous ships and their complicated history.

You can find more information at the following links:
HENI Talks 10 min video: https://henitalks.com/talks/dazzle-how-a-british-artist-transformed-the-seas/

Behrens essay about camouflage and its misconceptions:
http://www.bobolinkbooks.com/Camoupedia/DazzleCamouflage/dazzle.html

Public Domain Review with a number of images:
https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/dazzle-ships/

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