It’s 1917; three years into the First World War. British sea power has been crippled by the devastating success of German U-boat technology, and a fifth of its merchant ships have been sunk. Without deliveries from these ships, supplies are running thin on the British Isles.
The sharpest military minds are hard at work, attempting to strategise a way to avoid the ships being seen and targeted. Along comes an artist with a brainwave.
German U-boats: A looming challenge
As a Royal Navy volunteer, Norman Wilkinson was all too aware of the threat from Germany’s U-boats. The Kaiser had declared a no-holds-barred approach to submarine warfare on January 31st 1917 and, desperate to bring an end to such a costly and gruesome war, he ordered torpedoes on any ship entering the warzone.
Unbridled horror ensued: on April 17th 1917, the HMHS Lanfranc, a hospital ship with wounded German soldiers, was torpedoed by Imperial U-boats. 40 died, including 18 Germans.
Maritime camouflage became one of the big questions being passed around the British Royal Navy offices. On a ship’s journey, it moves through changing light and visibility. If a camouflage was to work, it would need to evolve every second. What worked on land simply wouldn’t work at sea.
As imaginative ideas from artists and inventors arose, they were discussed, trialled and ultimately vetoed. Thomas Edison’s idea, to adorn a vessel with trees to make it look like an island, was actually put into practice on the S.S. Ockenfels. It made it to New York harbour before the winds got the better of the disguise.
Hidden in plain sight
Artist-turned-Royal-Navy-volunteer Wilkinson took a different approach. Rather than hide the boat, he’d distort it. Reflecting on his idea, he said: “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 to the course on which she was heading.”
A U-boat gunner would need to hit the target from between 300 and 1900 metres away. He had under 30 seconds to pick out the ship through his periscope before he would be spotted, thus revealing the submarine’s location. Terribly expensive and often slow, torpedoes were in limited supply: a typical U-boat would only carry 12. For the gunner, getting it right first time was imperative.
The visibility of a British ship may have been its vulnerability; but the gunner’s weakness was his reliance on his own guesswork during that 30-second window.
Spotting this, Wilkinson realised that ‘dazzling’ the gunner was the only way to compromise his estimation. In that split moment, he’d have to decide: should he risk shooting a precious torpedo when he couldn’t be certain where the ship was heading?
With this theory in place, Wilkinson started to design. He used broad strokes of intense colours in geometric shapes to blur the vessel’s shape, size and direction. For example, a curve on the side of the ship could conjure up a phantom wave; making the ship seem smaller. Bold patterns on the stern or bow could create an optical illusion, turning the ship around in the eye of the gunner and his low-down viewpoint.
Consciously or not, Wilkinson’s newly militarised creativity reflected the overwhelming strides being made in contemporary art.
What was happening in the art world?
As an artist, Wilkinson would have been aware of the truly ground-breaking movements occurring in art during the First World War.
Consumed by nihilism, many international artists had begun to express their anguish at a humanity hell-bent on tearing itself apart. In 1915, one artist, the Russian Kazimir Malevich, painted a simple black square on a canvas. Representing the end of everything, the omnipresence of death, and a bleak hopelessness, Black Square remains one of the most influential artworks of the 20th Century.
Malevich’s Black Square was part of the artist’s Suprematist movement: a bold visual language of abstract geometric shapes and stark colours. The first ever Suprematist exhibition was held in 1915, showing 35 of Malevich’s seemingly random arrangements of shapes and colours.
Despite the sparse conversation around the relationship between Suprematism and dazzle painting, the influence is clear.
More frequently discussed is the impact Cubism may have had on dazzle painting. Picasso, a leading artist of the Cubist movement that first gained traction in 1907, claimed inspiration for the new military technique.
Whether Cubism, Suprematism or something else, Wilkinson was functioning in an art world obsessed with randomised geometric shapes and a gripping use of colour. His subconscious would have been overflowing with an aesthetic intended to confuse.
Dazzle painting gets the royal approval
By late October, Wilkinson’s idea had come to fruition. King George V was sent to inspect the ‘Dazzle Section,’ a new division of the British merchant naval service.
At first, the King was presented with a small model of a ship. Rather than the classic battleship grey, it had been painted with a joyous palette of contrasting colours.
Looking through a periscope about 10 feet from the tiny model, he was asked to guess the ship’s course. As an ex-Naval officer, he knew what he was doing. “South by west,” he answered.
Had he been a gunner, he’d have wasted one of 12 precious torpedoes on that guess. The dazzle-painted ship had actually been heading east by southeast. The king was first confounded, and then convinced.
Dazzle artists at work
The Royal Academy of Arts offered four unused studios as dazzle-painting headquarters. Wilkinson’s team of 19 was made up of 5 artists, 3 model makers and 11 female art students who hand-painted the technical plans. To become predictable was to become defunct; so each design was unique and tailored to individual ships.
Within a year, 2,300 British ships were painted with dazzle. By the end of the war, that number would grow to 4,000.
Did dazzle painting work?
Whether or not dazzle painting worked is up for debate. In the first three months of 1918, 72% of dazzled British ships that were attacked were sunk or damaged. In the second quarter, though, this dropped to 60%; compared to the 68% of non-dazzled ships. Dazzled ships in America fared better: of 1,256, only 18 were sunk.
The conversation continues to this day. In 2011, the University of Bristol released research concluding that dazzle painting can certainly disrupt a person’s perception of the speed of a moving target.
In truth, though, it didn’t matter whether dazzle painting worked. Insurance companies thought it did, so they lowered the premiums on painted boats. Morale on dazzled ships was higher, making deployment of the strategy a no-brainer.
Despite being met with general derision in the press, dazzle ended up having a distinct effect on the identity of wartime Britons. Its distinctive visuals appeared on fashion items, cars and even high street windows. People attended ‘dazzle balls,’ where they would dress up in dazzle-inspired costumes and raise money for the war effort.
Its military effect may be debatable but one thing is certain: a creative injection into a flailing war can have a morale boost at sea and at home.