When people think of military camouflage, they often think of the greens, browns, and tans of today’s military. But during World War I, when camouflage was more concerned with concealing and disguising objects rather than people, camouflage patterns were much more “dazzling.”
Militaries began experimenting with camouflage on a widespread basis during the first world war, inspired by the work of naturalist Albert Thayer and his book “Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom.” Camouflage developers were especially interested in Thayer’s observations on disruptive coloring, which rather than concealing the prey, instead confused and misled the predators.
British developers figured using the technique on ships would help cut down losses from German submarines, so in 1917 they began painting their gray ships (particularly merchant vessels) in multi-colored clashing geometric patterns, known as dazzle camouflage. The theory was that painting ships in these complex designs would make it hard for German submarines to determine the shape, direction, and speed of the ships and thus decrease the subs’ accuracy with torpedoes.
Soon Britain, the United States, and other countries were decking out their ships in dazzle camouflage. They enlisted the talents not only of painters but also sculptors, architects, cartoonists, and other artists. The effectiveness of dazzle camouflage was essentially untested at that point, but the navies went ahead with it anyway because the technique was quick and cheap—and they were desperate for any advantage over German subs.
It was hard to determine how successful dazzle camouflage was, because the convoy system, which dramatically cut down ship losses, was instituted around the same time. But modern studies have determined that dazzle camouflage does indeed distort perception of range, heading, size, and shape, but that it’s most effective at distorting speed at higher velocities than the ships would’ve been traveling at.
Dazzle camouflage was used up through World War II, until advances in target acquisition and radar diminished the effectiveness of visual tricks.
Read more about dazzle camouflage in USA Today and Popular Science. Or look through Fold3′s collection of historical Newspapers for contemporary articles on this and other subjects. You also can find other stories and records from this time period in Fold3′s WWI collection.