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Dazzling Ships of the First World War

Throughout history the British military has collaborated with the most unusual partners when developing new technologies and concepts.  This article is about how a visionary artist’s invention led to a maverick camouflage solution that helped the Royal Navy during the First World War.

Cambridge-born Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971) was an established marine painter and poster artist prior to the outbreak of war.  Early in 1917, he had returned from Gallipoli and was serving in the Royal Naval Reserve on motor-launch patrols covering the south coast of England.  This work focused his attention on the protection of shipping from enemy submarines.

During the First World War Germany used submarines to blockade Britain and prevent vital food and supplies reaching her shores.  Between February and April 1917, the U-boats sank more than 500 merchant ships and by the second half of April an average of 13 ships were sunk every day. Britain was on her knees and the Admiralty needed a solution and fast.

Wilkinson wrote to the Admiralty outlining a plan to protect ships against the U-boat threat.  His concept became known as Dazzle painting, or Dazzle camouflage.  His idea was just as outrageous as marvellous: he wanted ships to be more visible to the enemy. His concept of painting bold colour designs onto the sides of ships was intended to confuse the enemy.

Wilkinson was aware that torpedoes were fired in anticipation of where a ship was heading.   Dazzle aimed to break up the constructional lines of the vessel making it difficult to determine its size, speed, range and course.  Sometimes the Dazzled ship would appear not as one, but two vessels.  U-boat commanders only had a short window to observe their prey before being spotted.  It was hoped that Dazzle might deter some commanders from attacking, or their aim would be disoriented and the torpedoes would either miss the target or, hit a less vulnerable part of the ship allowing it to escape.

After extensive trials on the store ship Industry the Admiralty implemented Wilkinson’s Dazzle painting scheme and he was placed in charge of the Dazzle department.  

The department was headquartered at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, London, and between June and September 1917 expanded into five studios.  A specialist Dazzle team of men and women were employed in various roles and supervised by Wilkinson.  The women were drawn from art colleges across Britain one of whom, Evelyn Mackenzie, later married Wilkinson and became an important figure in the department in her own right. 

The core team consisted of around 18 main Dazzle artists, many well known in Britain, from a wide range of backgrounds, experience, and age. The team included: the interior and figure painters Jan Gordon and Leonard Campbell Taylor, who produced remarkable watercolours of Dazzled ships in Liverpool, including Herculaneum Dock, which are now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum; also, the landscape artists Charles William Wyllie and Reginald Guy Kortright; the animal painter Bryan Hook; the versatile artist Oswald Moser; the hunting and sporting painter Charlie Johnson Payne ‘Snaffles’; the marine artists Julius Olsson, Frank Henry Mason and Montague Dawson; the illustrators and poster painters Christopher Clark and Steven Spurrier, the former created an awesome depiction of the Dazzled ocean liner Aquitania; and the Vorticist Edward Wadsworth, among others.

To test the Dazzle designs team members made ship models often no more than 8 inches in length with each side having a different design.  The models were tested in a purpose-built theatre by placing them on a turntable and viewing through a periscope to establish the most effective designs.  

The approved designs were developed into hand-coloured diagrams indicating port and starboard views, the upper-works and other details, that were printed and used by the Dazzle artists to supervise the painting of the ships in selected ports.  

The inspiration for the Dazzle designs was drawn from many sources including Wilkinson’s personal experience of seafaring (and the sinking of ships) and his observation of anchors, funnels, and scaffolding that were abstracted into Dazzle patterns as identified by Camilla Wilkinson, a granddaughter of the artist.  Intriguingly though he never acknowledged any inspiration from the art movements of Cubism, Futurism or Vorticism.  The stark black and white wood cuts of Dazzle ships by the avant-garde artist and former Vorticist Edward Wadsworth are among some of the finest artistic images inspired by Wilkinson’s scheme, although he was the second last to join the Dazzle department in February 1918.

The Dazzle department produced a remarkable mix of designs that included: violently contrasting colours contained with arcing, curving, diagonal, sloping and zig-zag lines, some resemble the teeth of a hand saw (derived from Wilkinson’s observation of a Bucket dredger), a chequerboard and vivid stripes.

Wilkinson noted that, “In the early stages of Dazzle painting a large range of colours was employed to achieve the end in view”, however, “experience showed that this could be attained by a much smaller number and, towards the end of the war the principal colours were black, white and blue, these being employed with various intensity”.  In fact, the Germans had developed a method of filtering out the vivid colours that forced the Dazzle team to focus on a restricted range.

Dazzle gained an international audience and was visited by officials from France and Italy to learn about the scheme.  Wilkinson and his wife were invited to visit the United States to supervise the setting up of Dazzle painting sections.  Initially the Dazzle designs were sent from London, however fairly quickly the U.S. became self-sufficient.

During the war Wilkinson had to defend his Dazzle scheme from those who queried its effectiveness.  Expert witnesses gave testimony to an enquiry that led to an Admiralty report in July 1918 specifying alterations to the scheme.  The Dazzling of Royal Navy vessels was also discontinued with the focus shifting to larger merchant ships.

The report’s finding of the scheme concluded: “…the statistics do not prove it is disadvantageous, and in view of the undoubted increase in the confidence and morale of Officers and Crews of the Mercantile Marine resulting from this painting, which is a highly important consideration, together with the small extra cost of per ship, it may be found advisable to continue the system…”

The convoy system, in which merchant shipping sailed together for mutual protection with or without a naval escort, was introduced at around the same time Wilkinson advocated his plan to the Admiralty.  From May 1917 the system was widely regarded as a greatly improved means of protection for British and Allied shipping.

The Dazzling of ships continued and by the end of the war thousands of merchant ships and hundreds of naval vessels (British and Allied) had been Dazzled.  After the war the artist Harry Hudson Rodmell, who was not formally part of Wilkinson’s scheme, created an upbeat watercolour showing workers painting over the Dazzle designs of a White Star Line ship, to restore her normal livery.

In 1922 the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors formally recognised Wilkinson’s Dazzle painting scheme for its morale boosting impact, rather than its outright effectiveness.  He beat off several rivals to be the sole claimant of the award of £2000. Intriguingly though the United States deemed Dazzle to be a success.

Dazzle-painted ships constituted the world’s largest public art and design display ever assembled. It’s legacy lives on and around the world Dazzle has been applied to buildings, cars, clothes and shoes, and continues to influence art, design and fashion. Investigations continue as to how Dazzle can be adapted for practical uses in times of peace and war.

About the author

Dr James Taylor

Dr James Taylor, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, is a former curator of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.  He is the author of Dazzle – Disguise and Disruption in War and Art.  Dr Taylor was also a guest curator of the exhibition of the same title at the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in 2018.  If you have any information on Dazzle painting, or the artists who worked as part of the Dazzle team please email JamesMSTaylor1@gmail.com

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