During the First World War, in an attempt to lessen losses to the German submarine threat, many ships were painted with bright geometric shapes and patterns. "Dazzle Ships" were widely used amongst both navel and trade vessels - when there was a fear that Britain could have its trade and supply routes cut off.
According to Wikipedia: "Unlike some other forms of camouflage, dazzle works not by offering concealment but by making it difficult to estimate a target's range, speed and heading." (The artist) "Norman Wilkinson explained in 1919 that dazzle was intended more to mislead the enemy as to the correct position to take up than actually to miss his shot when firing".
Top Right: In the dry dock at Liverpool is a "new" dazzle ship commissioned in part by Liverpool Tate and the Merseyside Maritime Museum and by the artist Carlos Cruz-Diez.
Above: Three First World War dazzle ships. All three photographs are courtesy of Wikipedia and not under copyright. Their original colours would have been white, black, green and blue.
Far Left: The "new" dazzle ship in dry dock in Liverpool 2014.
Painting of Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool, by Edward Wadsworth, 1919
The new Liverpool dazzle ship is on show until the end of 2015. It is free to visit and next to a number of fantastic free museums with lots of things of interest to anyone interested in World War One and World War Two.
Norman Wilkinson, as well as being a professional marine artist also joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve,a dry-fly fisherman and was a keen yachtsman. So he had a lot of relevant knowledge which helped him come to the conclusion that concealment would not work and confusion was a better plan.
His team set to work at the Royal Academy Schools in Burlington House - using model ships, painted in various designs, rotated on a turntable and viewed through a periscope. The best designs were then put into practice - and they had to be different to each other so that U-boat captains would not start to see a pattern. The designs also had to be painted all over the ship - even lifeboats and funnels - so that there was no break in the pattern.
Bristol and Liverpool were the main dockyards used. In 1917 all merchant ships were repainted in this style as were a number of naval ships. King George V even came to visit Wilkinson's studio and was shown the testing area. Looking through the periscope at a Dazzleship that was being moved, the king, to his own amazement, was unable to correctly guess its course.
How successful dazzle camouflage was is uncertain. There were too many factors present to do a scientific assessment of their merit - not least the multitude of designs and colours.
However, the U.S. Navy continued to use forms of dazzle painting designs in World War Two, despite new technology making some reasons to use dazzle camouflage redundant. Dazzle painting was also used by the Royal Navy in the Second World War, but to a lesser degree
Much of the information on this page is taken from the book: Churchill's Wizards - The British Genius For Deception 1914 - 1945 by Nicholas Rankin
Further information links:
Some "Dazzleship" techniques were used in World War Two - HERE IS A MINESWEEPER ADOPTED BY THE TOWN OF RAWTENSTALL