The Amazing History of WWI Dazzle Ships

How the British and US Navies Got Creative in 1917

A New Idea:  Confusion Rather than Concealment

In 1909, an American artist named Abbot Handerson Thayer wrote a controversial book titled Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, which focused on how animals use various color combinations to make it hard for prey to estimate their precise location or direction.  A few years later in 1914, British zoologist John Graham Kerr proposed using a principle of "disruptive camouflage" British warships in the increasingly sea-based battles that were happening leading up to WWI.  In a letter to Winston Churchill, Kerr stated the goal was to confuse (not conceal) the ship in a style similar to a zebra.  Thayer followed this up with his own letter to Churchill in 1915.

Norman Wilkinson of the Royal Navy got wind of the idea and adapted it to a contrasting series of white and black stripes, as seen below.  The effect he was going for was to prevent the enemy from being able to identify the precise location or heading of the vessel.


By 1917, the Admiralty had accepted Wilkinson's idea as gospel and proceeded to paint nearly 1,000 war and transport ships in various Dazzle designs.  Artists and architects from London's Royal Academy of Arts were used to make the initial designs and then engineers scaled them up to match the needs of each ship.


Dazzle Camouflage in Action:  British and U.S. Naval Ships

Here is a great picture of the HMS Argus in 1918.  The Argus was an instrumental aircraft carrier with a relatively flat structural design, so the Dazzle was thought to be especially effective due to the lack of surface structures.