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What was Dazzle Camouflage and did it work?

PortandTerminal.com, December 1, 2019

Camouflage is usually about blending in, but some of the most unusual camouflage during World War I wasn’t designed to do that. Instead of attempting to hide a ship, the goal was to conceal the ship’s course through flashy misdirection.

LONDON – In the early days of modern warfare, ships protected themselves from German U-boats with wild, eye-distracting painted patterns called dazzle. The idea was, by creating giant, optical patterns on an object such as a ship, it makes it hard to track where and how quickly that object is moving.

You have probably seen examples of how high contrast patterns can create optical illusions before. The example below is a popular one. Contrary to what your eyes may be telling you, the black lines in the image below are parallel to each other. The high contrast pattern deceives your eyes into thinking otherwise.

Contrary to what your eyes may be telling you, the black lines are parallel to each other

Norman Wilkinson

Wilkinson poses in front of his painting with a model demonstrating his dazzle camouflage idea

The idea of dazzle camouflage is credited to Norman Wilkinson. Wilkinson was both a Royal Navy volunteer and a visual artist, a skill-set that made him ideally suited to coming up with the concept.

In 1916 during World War I, British ships were being torn apart by the German U Boat offensive. One-fifth of Britain’s merchant ships, ferrying supplies to the British Isles, had been sunk by the end of 1916.

This illustration from 1916 depicts a German submarine attacking an American merchant ship. Germany and Austria-Hungary sank almost 5,000 merchant ships during World War I, killing approximately 15,000 Allied sailors. 

Traditional types of camouflage were ineffective. You couldn’t hide a ship at sea from an enemy U Boat.

Wilkinson’s insight was that, “Since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer – in other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as the course on which she was heading.

Dazzle camouflage worked tried to disorient enemy U Boats by painting ships with high-contrast patterns that it made it difficult to estimate a target’s range, speed and heading. In doing so, targetting of the vessel became more difficult.

Artist’s conception of a U-boat commander’s periscope view of a merchant ship in dazzle camouflage (left) and the same ship uncamouflaged 

“If you’re a submarine aiming at a ship, you have to calculate how fast a ship is going, where is it going, and aim the torpedo so that they both get to the same spot at the same time” said Roy Behrens, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, and author of several books on Dazzle camouflage.

Wilkinson’s idea was to “dazzle” the gunner so that he would either be unable to take the shot with any confidence or spoil it if he did. “Wilkinson said you had to only be 8 to 10 degrees off for the torpedo to miss. And even if it were hit, if [the torpedo] didn’t hit the most vital part, that would be better than being hit directly.” Behrens added (Source: Smithsonian)

Dazzle was adopted by the Royal Navy in the UK and later by the United States Navy. Each ship’s dazzle pattern was unique to avoid making classes of ships instantly recognisable to the enemy. 

In WWI, over 4000 British merchant ships were painted in dazzle camouflage. Dazzle was also applied to 400 naval vessels, starting in 1917.

Did it work?

At the time, it was only an educated guess that this dazzle camouflage would work. More recent research says that yes, dazzle camouflage does work, but not very well for ships at sea.

Ships it turns out move too slowly for the technique to make much of a difference. At best it turns out, the technique offers about a 7% “deception” for faster-moving objects according to research done by Nicholas Scott-Samuel, of the University of Bristol in 2011.

The use of dazzle camouflage was carried over from WWI to WW2 but its days were numbered. Any potential advantage offered by Dazzle Camouflage became less useful as rangefinders and especially aircraft became more advanced, and, by the time it was put to use again in World War II, radar further reduced its effectiveness.

Legacy

As it turns out, dazzle works well for confusing cameras, too, which is why carmakers still use it on test cars whose specific contours and shape they want to conceal. Camera’s autofocus works by detecting shapes by color and light; dazzle makes it tough for it to focus on the underlying shapes of a car’s body.

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