Why ships used this camouflage in World War I

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Dazzle camouflage was fantastically weird. It was also surprisingly smart.
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Dazzle camouflage was a surprisingly effective defense against torpedoes. In this episode of Vox Almanac, Phil Edwards explains why.

World War I ships faced a unique problem. The u-boat was a new threat at the time, and its torpedoes were deadly. That led artist Norman Wilkinson to come up with dazzle camouflage (sometimes called “razzle dazzle camouflage”). The idea was to confuse u-boats about a ship’s course, rather than try to conceal its presence. In doing so, dazzle camouflage could keep torpedoes from hitting the boat — and that and other strategies proved a boon in World War I.

This camouflage is unusual, but its striking appearance influenced the culture, inspired cubist painters’ riffs, and even entered into the world of fashion. Though dazzle camouflage lost its utility once radar and other detection techniques took over from u-boat periscopes, for a brief period in time it was an effective and unusual way to help ships stay safe.
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Caption: It was called "dazzle camouflage", and the irregular. shapes were paired with bright colors, like. this blue. so when artists painted scenes like this or. this, they weren’t just playing with paint. they were showing the final defense that hundreds. upon hundreds of ships used. against torpedoes. british artist norman wilkinson painted scenes. like these and specialized in nautical pictures. he ran the royal navy’s camoufleur program. yes - “camoufleur. ”. one who. camouflages. previous camoufleurs had tried shades of grey. or blue, but wilkinson suggested dazzle:. unpredictable patterns, with a range of colors. there were some really bright ones. hiding a ship was hard. the ocean and sky were constantly changing. colors, and that made it hard to pick a single. shade of paint that could help a ship slip. by unnoticed. but it was possible to hide what the ship. was doing. the u-boat submarine and torpedoes were the. big new threat in world war i. but the u-boat had limitations. to shoot a torpedo, you needed to know the. angle, distance, and speed of the ship you. were shooting at. the ship was moving and so was the submarine. now imagine a ship through a periscope from. a thousand meters away. when you. dazzled. a ship, you made it hard. for u-boats to know where to aim. here is a normal boat and a dazzled boat. on the normal boat, you can see the bow and. stern, and you can gauge key attributes to. guess at the speed. it’s a lot harder on the dazzled boat. lines like these were false waves, so it was. hard to guess which direction was the bow,. or front of the boat, and where it was going. the colors made it hard to tell how quickly. the boat was moving from one point in the. view to another, or to use a rangefinder to. guesstimate its distance. everything looked. sort of wrong under dazzle. patterns, which made a ship’s course tough. to assess. is it going this way . or is it going this way . a few degrees could be the difference between. life or death. you could see it, but you couldn’t guess. direction or speed to guide your torpedo. dazzle patterns were always different and. kept top secret. the starboard and port sides were designed. to be unpredictable. modelers even tested visibility using tiny. boats and simulated periscopes, just to see. what was most confusing. this is warfare at its cutest. even experts were fooled by the direction. of the ship. out in the ocean, tricking a torpedo saved. lives. dazzle camo inspired people from all disciplines. as it traveled worldwide. one zoologist claimed to have invented it,. inspired by zebras,. british artists with cubist-inspired backgrounds. became camoufleurs,. and photo-scientists in america made their. own models too, like in this 1919 mit thesis. even the sister ship to the titanic became. dazzling,. when it was turned into a troopship. at the end of world war i, periscopes and. weaponry improved, as well as strategies to. deter u-boats. on the other end, dazzle paint was hard to. maintain. radar furthered the decline of dazzle’s. utility, though the camo was used in world. war ii on ships and even on planes. dazzle inspired fashion trends at the time. and the artists who painted it on ships. norman wilkinson made this painting of the. dazzled ships he helped make mainstream. the u-boat’s rise and particular weaknesses. opened a unique window in history, like a. camouflage loophole. for a brief period, it made sense to stand. out. paint fades. but even today, dazzle lives up to its name. so if you look at these dazzle ships and think. about cubism, you aren’t wrong to make the. connection, and you aren’t the only one. pablo picasso tried to take credit — eh,. he might have had a point. .
 

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