An online database of camouflage used by 
United State Naval Warships during WWII

The Development of Naval Camouflage
1914 – 1945
Part I

By Alan Raven



(Article reprinted courtesy of  Plastic Ship Modeler Magazine issue #96/3)



pale grey.  The ratio of this pale grey was one part black to thirty parts white.  At the time of this change flotilla leaders became light grey overall, (for easy identification purposes).  Destroyers stayed black until the middle of 1915 when they changed to overall light grey, similar to the leaders, and remained this way until war’s end.


The idea of reducing the visibility of objects upon which the enemy rangefinders took a cut persisted, and in early 1917 the ships of the Fourth Light Cruiser Squadron had their topmasts and yardarms painted white.  This measure was felt to have merit and during March of that year the Battleships WARSPITE and VALIANT followed suit.  Very shortly afterwards almost all Royal Navy warships sported this measure until the wars end, except those ships which were later dazzle painted.


In April or May of 1917 the battleship RAMILLIES was painted up overall in a shade of pink.  The reason for this particular color being used was an attempt to provide concealment during the hours of sunrise and sunset.  It is not known if this color had any special merit, but if nothing else it certainly prompted many unkind comments.  RAMILLIES remained pink until painted in a special dazzle scheme in 1918.


In spite of previous attempts at camouflage having failed, the Admiralty persisted, and in 1918 a design of a disruptive nature was applied to the battlecruiser REPULSE.  Unfortunately the records relating to this design are missing, so it is not known if this type of camouflage was successful or for how long the pattern was carried.


The camouflage worn by REPULSE was the last attempt at concealment and of confusing enemy rangefinders by painted means during the First World War.  Looking back over the various experiments it can be seen that with perhaps a little more persistence and a greater understanding of the problems associated with sea-going camouflage, a reasonably successful concealment type could have been conceived and put into use.





Of all the many types and styles of painted camouflage ever applied to ships, the type of painting known as Dazzle occupies a special place in the history of camouflage.  By early 1918 dazzle pattern was being worn by over four thousand British merchant ships and approximately four hundred Royal Navy vessels of various types.  It was worn by ships of other countries also, and was officially adopted by the American Navy in 1918.


This notable style was invented by the artist Norman Wilkinson, his first thoughts happening while he was serving on patrol in the English Channel in May 1917.  At this time, all merchant ships were in an overall black, and he reasoned that of all the colors that could have been used this was by far the most conspicuous under most conditions.  Not only is a black vessel easily  seen as a silhouette against the sky when viewed from low down, as from a periscope, it also offers an image less liable to distortion under any given set of lighting conditions.  This ensures the commander of a submarine the maximum possible advantage in determining the correct course of a ship, and subsequently, a successful attack.  He believed that it was impossible to achieve concealment by painted means and felt that the only way to deceive the enemy was to use strongly contrasting colors to break up the lines of a ship.  If this could be done it might make it difficult for a U-boat to judge the true course of a target.  Stated simply, the theory for dazzle design is as follows: take the starboard side, divide roughly into two, and paint the fore part a dark color.  This is repeated in reverse of the port side, the fore part being light, the after part being dark.  This is the basic principle but there are several points that have to be observed before the design will work efficiently.  A color line must not follow or terminate with any line or break in the structure, but do just the opposite and suggest a completely false line.  A good example of this is the bow line; taking the basic principle to work from, the dark panel on the starboard side must not end at the bow but be taken around onto the port side before it meets the light panel.  Working on these principles, Norman Wilkinson painted onto a small scale model a paint scheme that in this form at least, seemed to work.


So serious was the U-boat threat at this time that the Admiralty was willing to consider any anti-submarine measure, however unusual it seemed under presentation.  Therefore Wilkinson’s idea was given a chance, and the SS INDUSTRY, (a merchant ship employed on a regular run between Plymouth and Queenstown), became the test ship for this radically new camouflage.  Wilkinson requested several more ships be painted so that the style could have multiple reports made on it in as short  a time as possible.  The first reports came within days of the patterns being applied and suggested a degree of success.  Encouraged by this the Admiralty decided that all merchant ships were to be dazzle painted and this was so ordered under the “Defense of the Realm” Act.  At the same time a department was set up within the Admiralty dealing solely with dazzle camouflage with Norman Wilkinson in charge.


As the use of Dazzle patterns became widespread many dissenting voices were heard, saying that these multi-colored ships were being made very easy to see.  This was true but what took most people a little time to realize was the fact that dazzle was only meant to do one thing – suggest a false heading to an attacking U-boat.  How visible the vessel was had zero significance.


Dazzle camouflage was initially only meant for merchant ships, but it was soon realized by the Navy that it would also have value for certain types of warships, ones whose duties made them vulnerable to U-boat attack.  These were mostly warships employed in convoy escort duty, blockade patrol, and those such as seaplane tenders, which often had to proceed at very slow speeds, and in the case of blockade ships, to remain stopped for long periods.  These last were sitting targets for U-boats.


The first designs for the Royal Navy were worn by ships of the tenth cruiser squadron, which consisted of Armed Merchant Cruisers engaged in blockade duties in northern waters.  The author can not be certain, but believes that the very first Navy ship to be dazzle painted was HMS ALSATIAN in August 1917.  By the end of the year approximately four hundred warships were dazzle painted from battleships down to small patrol boats.  The effectiveness of any camouflage is always difficult to ascertain but the following reports from sea are worthy of note.



September 1917


“Sighted the oiler SS CLAM about six miles, four points on the starboard bow, and for some time I could not make nothing of her.  When about four miles distant, I decided it was a tug towing a lighter, towing badly and working to the windward appeared to be steering an

                Page 4

Back Page ] Home ] Table of Contents ] Next Page ]