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Why Ships Used This Camouflage In World War I

It was called “dazzle camouflage”, and the irregular shapes were paired with bright colors, like
this blue. So when artists painted scenes like this or
this, they weren’t just playing with paint. They were showing the final defense that hundreds
upon hundreds of ships used…against torpedoes. British artist Norman Wilkinson painted scenes
like these and specialized in nautical pictures. He ran the Royal Navy’s camoufleur program. Yes – “camoufleur.” One who…camouflages. Previous camoufleurs had tried shades of grey
or blue, but Wilkinson suggested dazzle: unpredictable patterns, with a range of colors. There were some really bright ones. Hiding a ship was hard. The ocean and sky were constantly changing
colors, and that made it hard to pick a single shade of paint that could help a ship slip
by unnoticed. But it was possible to hide what the ship
was doing. The U-Boat submarine and torpedoes were the
big new threat in World War I. But the u-boat had limitations. To shoot a torpedo, you needed to know the
angle, distance, and speed of the ship you were shooting at. The ship was moving and so was the submarine. Now imagine a ship through a periscope from
a thousand meters away. When you…dazzled…a ship, you made it hard
for u-boats to know where to aim. Here is a normal boat and a dazzled boat. On the normal boat, you can see the bow and
stern, and you can gauge key attributes to guess at the speed. It’s a lot harder on the dazzled boat. Lines like these were false waves, so it was
hard to guess which direction was the bow, or front of the boat, and where it was going. The colors made it hard to tell how quickly
the boat was moving from one point in the view to another, or to use a rangefinder to
guesstimate its distance. Everything looked…sort of wrong under dazzle
patterns, which made a ship’s course tough to assess. Is it going this way? Or is it going this way? A few degrees could be the difference between
life or death. You could see it, but you couldn’t guess
direction or speed to guide your torpedo. Dazzle patterns were always different and
kept top secret. The starboard and port sides were designed
to be unpredictable. Modelers even tested visibility using tiny
boats and simulated periscopes, just to see what was most confusing. This is warfare at its cutest. Even experts were fooled by the direction
of the ship. Out in the ocean, tricking a torpedo saved
lives. Dazzle camo inspired people from all disciplines
as it traveled worldwide. One zoologist claimed to have invented it,
inspired by zebras, British artists with cubist-inspired backgrounds
became camoufleurs, and photo-scientists in America made their
own models too, like in this 1919 MIT thesis. Even the sister ship to the Titanic became…dazzling, when it was turned into a troopship. At the end of World War I, periscopes and
weaponry improved, as well as strategies to deter u-boats. On the other end, dazzle paint was hard to
maintain. Radar furthered the decline of dazzle’s
utility, though the camo was used in World War II on ships and even on planes. Dazzle inspired fashion trends at the time
and the artists who painted it on ships. Norman Wilkinson made this painting of the
dazzled ships he helped make mainstream. The u-boat’s rise and particular weaknesses
opened a unique window in history, like a camouflage loophole. For a brief period, it made sense to stand
out. Paint fades. But even today, dazzle lives up to its name. So if you look at these dazzle ships and think
about cubism, you aren’t wrong to make the connection, and you aren’t the only one. Pablo Picasso tried to take credit — eh,
he might have had a point.
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