The WWI Camouflage Strategy That Was So Bizarre It Was Actually Genius

Image: via Wikimedia Commons

It’s 1917, and World War One rages on. Britain depends on merchant shipping for its survival, but German U-boats are causing havoc on the high seas. Indeed, British trading vessels are being sunk at the rate of 23 a week by the Germans. But one day an artist called Norman Wilkinson has a brain wave; he believes he knows how to conceal large ships from the prying periscopes of U-boat commanders.

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At the outbreak of World War One in July 1914, many people believed the fighting would end by the Christmas of that year. Of course, though, that was an entirely false hope, and the war turned into a grinding conflict of attrition that stretched on for four long years.

Image: National Maritime Museum

From the outset of the war, a key concern for the British was the security of their maritime supply routes. You see, the country depended on its merchant fleet to bring in both food and essential war supplies from the U.S. and other countries.

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Of course, the Germans were well aware of this fact. And they found a highly effective means of disrupting Britain’s merchant shipping: the U-boat. Subsequently, in May 1915, the devastating potential of this underwater weapon was horrifyingly demonstrated in the Atlantic Ocean to the west of Ireland.

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Yes, a merchant vessel was about to face the full force of a German U-boat. Bound for Liverpool, England, the ocean liner RMS Lusitania had left New York’s Pier 54 at the beginning of May 1915. Aboard the ship were close to 2,000 passengers and crew. And while most of the people on the vessel were British and Canadian, there were also more than 100 American nationals on the ship.

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The Lusitania had, in fact, made many similar journeys in her lifetime. Indeed, the Cunard Line vessel – that dated back to the very start of the 20th century – had already made in excess of 200 voyages across the Atlantic. But as well as transporting her human cargo on this particular crossing, the ship was also carrying 750 tons of ammunition and a variety of other materials to England. And the Germans would later try to use this military consignment as a justification for the fate that befell the ship at their hands.

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You see, as the Lusitania reached waters 750 miles from Ireland on May 6, 1915, another vessel was in the same area; it was a German submarine, designated U-20. And the next day, the U-boat’s captain, Walther Schwieger, scanned the horizon through the sub’s periscope and spotted a large ship: the Lusitania.

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Schwieger now took his U-boat down to a cruising depth of 36 feet and headed for the Lusitania. Then, once the U-20 was at a range of a little over 2,000 feet, Schwieger launched a torpedo, which shot through the water towards the helpless liner.

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Schwieger described what happened next in his log book, too. “Torpedo hits starboard side right behind the bridge… The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard very quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow,” he recorded. And in less than 20 minutes, the stricken Lusitania had sunk beneath the waves.

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Image: Norman Wilkinson

The ship had gone down around 10 miles from the Irish coast, and 1,198 of the 1,959 aboard lost their lives – including 128 of the Americans who had sailed on her. Understandably, then, there was an international outcry as a result – especially from the U.S., which wasn’t even at war with Germany at the time.

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What’s more, this tragic incident illustrated all too clearly just how vulnerable ships could be to the menace of German U-boats. But it was actually later in the war when British merchant shipping losses reached crisis point. You see, after the sinking of the Lusitania, the Germans were nervous of further offending the U.S. whose neutrality suited them well.

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For a time, then, the Kaiser’s navy concentrated on operations in the Mediterranean – rather than on the maritime routes across the Atlantic. But as the war dragged on, the Germans returned to more desperate measures. And as a consequence, in 1917 the Germans recommenced all-out submarine warfare against British shipping in the Atlantic.

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The results were almost immediate from a German point of view, too. Indeed, in February 1917 U-boats destroyed close to 500,000 tons of vessels. And they repeated that feat the following month, before April saw a staggering 860,000 tons of merchant shipping sent to the bottom of the sea. Meanwhile, a further 1.3 million tons of supplies were lost through May and June.

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The downside for the Germans, though, was that in April 1917 America – partly spurred by unrestrained U-boat attacks – went to war with the nation. But the situation for the British was becoming dire. In fact, in the same month that the U.S. joined the fight against Germany, Britain’s wheat stocks had dwindled to levels that would last the country for less than two months.

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Something had to be done, then; Britain just couldn’t afford to lose that many ships and their valuable cargoes. And that was where Norman Wilkinson’s brainwave in the spring of 1917 came in. Before we take a closer look at Wilkinson’s radical idea, though, let’s get to know the man a little better.

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Wilkinson was born in the English city of Cambridge in 1878. After attending London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School, he went on to study at Southsea School of Art. And he subsequently became a respected painter – often choosing maritime themes for his works. Wilkinson was also well known for the posters that he designed for various British railroad companies.

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Image: via Wikipedia

But upon the outbreak of World War One, Wilkinson – a keen amateur sailor – joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves. And with the rank of lieutenant commander, he served in Gallipoli and Gibraltar before captaining an 80-foot mine-sweeping vessel sailing out of the naval base at Devonport on England’s south coast.

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It was after he’d spent a couple of days on leave, though, that inspiration struck him. That’s right: a completely revolutionary idea for the camouflaging of ships at sea then came to him out of the blue. And camouflage was an important issue indeed – one that had much exercised the cleverest minds of the U.S. and British navies.

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Later, in a February 1919 interview with New Zealand’s Wanganui Chronicle, Wilkinson was to recall the moment when inspiration had struck him. “It just came. I was sitting in a railway carriage deploring the fact that the black of our transports was an ideal color for the guidance of enemy submarines when the idea of a protective color scheme came into my head,” he told the newspaper.

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Wilkinson’s idea, then, was this: if you could find a way to make it difficult to spot large vessels while they were on the water then it would go a long way to limiting the terrible damage that German submarines were visiting on British shipping. Yes, since the war had started, everybody from artists such as Wilkinson to eccentric inventors and even naturalists had been coming up with ideas for camouflaging ships.

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Unfortunately, though, most of these ideas had been hare-brained at best. One suggestion was to cloak vessels with mirrors. And Thomas Edison, no less, came up with the idea of having ships look like islands, complete with trees. In fact, this was actually tried on S.S. Ockenfels, a German-built ship. But as she sailed into New York Harbor, her island disguise fell apart.

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On the face of it, though, Wilkinson’s idea seemed as crazy as some of the other crackpot schemes that had previously been promoted. His method of camouflage in fact didn’t even attempt to hide the vessel. Indeed, if you look at one of the ships decorated in what came to be called dazzle camouflage, you’ll see that the vessel stands out like a sore thumb.

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But Wilkinson’s aim was not concealment; it was confusion. If you like, Wilkinson’s method was to play mind games with the U-boat captains. That’s right: he wanted to bamboozle the Germans as they peered through their periscopes and tried to identify their targets on the surface of the sea.

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Indeed, in his 1969 book A Brush with Life, Wilkinson described his theory of dazzle camouflage. “I suddenly got the idea 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,” he wrote.

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“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 to the course on which she was heading,” Wilkinson continued. And what you have to remember, of course, is that a German submarine crew member would have had a very limited view of the sea surface when the vessel was underwater. Yes, all they could see was what appeared through the narrow lens of the periscope.

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Other factors added to the problems involved in sighting a ship on the surface too. For instance, the submariner might have less than half a minute to spot and target a ship because of the danger of the periscope itself being spotted. And the U-boat could come no closer than a little over 300 yards to its target or the torpedoes wouldn’t function properly. So anything that could disrupt the submariner’s targeting might well be a lifesaver.

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Once Wilkinson had come up with his idea, then, he took it to the British high command. And spurred by the huge scale of damage that was being suffered by merchant shipping, the authorities decided to let Wilkinson develop his seemingly counterintuitive idea. Consequently, some empty studios at London’s Royal Academy of Art were requisitioned, and Wilkinson was given a staff of 19 including artists and model makers as well as art students.

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The students – all women – had the job of coloring in patterns by hand. What’s more, every design had to be different so that U-boat sailors wouldn’t become accustomed to the camouflage. And each motif also needed to be matched to the particular contours of an individual ship.

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Then, late in 1917 Wilkinson set up a test of his camouflage method. And the guinea pig for the trial was none other than the British king at the time, George V. Yes, artists and modelers at the Royal Academy had built miniature vessels sporting the dazzle markings and set in a scaled seascape, and the King was invited to view the ships through a periscope close to the model set-up.

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His Majesty – a former Royal Navy man – was then asked to calculate the course of one tiny ship. And while he believed the boat was headed south-by-west, it was actually on a completely different course of east-southeast. Recounting this story in 2016, The Smithsonian quoted George. “I have been a professional sailor for many years, and I would not have believed I could have been so deceived in my estimate,” the bewildered king reportedly said.

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So Wilkinson’s dazzle camouflage had passed its royal test with flying colors – showing that even an experienced mariner could be fooled by the fractured bands of color. It’s worth pointing out, too, that although the World War One photographs we see of ships with dazzle camouflage are black and white, the colors actually used included blue, orange, mauve and green. Indeed, the monochrome images are simply a reflection of the photographic technology of the day.

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It was now all systems go on Wilkinson’s plan, then, and the Admiralty made its first order of dazzle camouflaged vessels for 50 transport ships. And the naval officers who viewed these newly camouflaged ships confirmed George V’s experience. It was indeed extremely hard to visually calculate the course of a vessel when it was dressed in dazzle livery.

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Convinced of the effectiveness of Wilkinson’s methods, the Admiralty now ordered that all merchant marine vessels should be covered in dazzle patterns. And by June of 1918, some 2,300 ships had been modified in this way. What’s more, in 1917 the U.S. Navy had also become extremely interested in Wilkinson’s work.

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Yes, at the beginning of U.S. involvement in the war in April 1917, there were a variety of competing camouflage techniques on offer. But none of these methods found favor with the U.S. Navy. And there was another factor making naval officers nervous too. You see, many merchant vessels in American service had been built by the Germans, so the enemy knew the exact specifications of the ships.

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As a result, in March 1918 the U.S. Navy invited Wilkinson to America to discuss his ideas. And the Englishman met the navy’s assistant secretary of the time – a young politician called Franklin Roosevelt, who would of course go on to become U.S. president. Perhaps more importantly, though, Wilkinson spent much of his five weeks in the States with Everett Warner.

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Warner was an artist himself as well as a Naval Reserve officer, so he and Wilkinson had much in common. However, it seems that relations between the two men were not always cordial. Everett wasn’t entirely convinced of Wilkinson’s skills and reportedly deemed him to be “haphazard” in his approach.

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Nevertheless, Warner accepted Wilkinson’s general principles of dazzle camouflage, and now the Royal Navy man helped Warner to organize a dazzle department for the U.S. along similar lines to the one established in London. The American dazzle set-up had one center in Washington, D.C., staffed by artists and another in Rochester, New York, that was made up of scientific researchers.

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Moreover, the American press was quick to see the parallels between this new camouflage system and the modern art of the early 20th century – and the comments were often less than glowing. Indeed, The Smithsonian article reproduced some of the cracks that cynical journalists made at the time. These included jibes such as “floating Cubist paintings,” a “futurist’s bad dream” and a “cross between a boiler explosion and a railroad accident.” Yet, even so, more than 1,200 U.S. vessels received the dazzle treatment by the war’s end in November 1918.

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But the truly important question about dazzle camouflage was this: did it actually work? Well, the answer to that is far from cut and dried. One expert who has studied this very question closely, though, is Professor Roy Behrens of the University of Northern Iowa. And Behrens shared his view on how effective the scheme was in The Smithsonian. “I don’t think it will ever be clear,” the professor said.

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But regardless of its effectiveness, dazzle camouflage certainly left an impression. Fast forward to 2014, and the centenary of World War One’s outbreak saw the start of a four-year art project that involved ships being painted in wartime dazzle style. In fact, various British locations – including Leith Docks in Scotland and the Albert Dock in Liverpool – saw brightly decorated ships moored at their harborsides. And so although Wilkinson himself died in 1971 at the age of 92, his work still lived on a century after his brainwave.

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