Dazzle camouflage, also known as razzle dazzle in the United States, is a form of ship camouflage that was used extensively in World War I.
Credited to the British marine artist Norman Wilkinson, it consisted of complex patterns of geometric shapes (mostly black and white) in contrasting colours, interrupting and intersecting with each other. Cubism on the high seas.
Dazzle painting emerged in the 1910s as a design solution to a dire problem. US and British ships were being sunk with increasing regularity (up to 50 per week) by German U-Boats. They needed a way to dodge those torpedoes.
Dazzle camouflage was not about invisibility. It was about disruption and visual confusion. Just as it is hard for a predator to visually separate a single zebra from the herd, so too it become hard for dazzle observers to work out the outline of a ship, and even which direction it was facing.
Torpedoes in World War I could only be fired by line-of-sight; so instead of firing at where they saw the ship was at that moment, torpedo gunners would have to chart out where the ship would be by the time the torpedo got there (maybe up to two minutes later). To do that they had to determine the target ship’s speed and direction with just a brief look through the periscope. If they misjudged the ship’s direction by just 8 degrees, the torpedo would miss its mark … and some dazzle patterns were generating misjudgements of 55 degrees.
Dazzle was adopted by the Admiralty in the UK, and then by the US Navy. Each ship's dazzle pattern was unique to avoid making classes of ships instantly recognisable to the enemy. That yielded a lot of variety.
Dazzle camouflage was somewhat of a sensation at the time of its deployment. There were songs and plays about it, dazzle dancers wearing dazzle costumes, and lots of breathless commentary in the media.
An anonymous writer from The New York Times in 1918 observed that:
“Any New Yorker will see at anchor, or coming in, or going out, numerous ships whose painted sides reveal such wild extravagances of form and colour as make the landsman open his eyes with amazement and mystification.”
Another journalist at the time referred to these dazzling ships as “a flock of sea-going Easter eggs”.
And of course there were the haters … and the party poopers who questioned the effectiveness of a strategy that was hard to statistically validate; but we won’t spoil this story by dwelling too much on that lack of evidence.
Dazzle camouflage is still used today, albeit somewhat sparingly. Things like radar and laser guidance systems have reduced reliance on the naked eye, and made the dazzle camouflage a little less dazzling.
Having said that, there has been some research into an interesting and timely new application. The designer Adam Harvey has proposed a form of dazzle for personal camouflage from face-detection technology, which he calls “computer vision dazzle”. Its intention is to block detection by facial recognition technologies such as DeepFace, a deep learning facial recognition system created by a research group at Meta Platforms, by creating an “anti-face”. It combines stylised makeup, asymmetric hair, and sometimes infrared lights built in to glasses or clothing, to break up detectable facial patterns recognised by computer vision algorithms.
Dazzle is not dead!
Story Idea: Hugh Ramage
1. USS West Mahomet in dazzle camouflage, 1918. Note how her dazzle camouflage greatly distorts the apparent aspect of her bow. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the US National Archives.
2. Norman Wilkinson (1878–1971) in front of his painting with a model demonstrating one of his dazzle camouflage designs
3. Herd of zebras
4. Submarine commander's periscope view of a merchant ship in dazzle camouflage (left) and the same ship uncamouflaged (right).
5. How dazzle works
6. Burnell Poole, Painting of the USS Leviathan escorted by the USS Allen, 1918. Courtesy US Naval Historical and Heritage Command, NH 42691
7. Diagram of the camouflage pattern of the SS Alban produced for the US Navy by Thomas Hart Benton, 1918
8. Government news photograph of members of the US Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps camouflaging the USS Recruit in Union Square, NYC, 1917
9. Newspaper photograph of dazzle-inspired bathing suits at Margate UK, from the New-York Tribune, 1919
10. HMS President, painted by Tobias Rehberger in 2014 to commemorate the use of dazzle in World War I
11. Dazzle Lite. HMS Tamar painted in the 2021 Royal Navy version of dazzle camouflage. Photo: LPhot Lee Blease/UK Ministry of Defence 2021.
12. Book: Dazzle Ships: World War 1 and the Art of Confusion, Chris Barton, 2017