Development of Naval Camouflage 1914 – 1945
Part II: United States Navy – World War I
By Alan Raven
reprinted courtesy of Plastic Ship
Modeler Magazine issue #96/4)
In the Victorian era, as with
the British Navy, the American fleet was painted with a view to appearance and
overall neatness, to show the flag and generally display pride, hence the
adoption of white as the main color. The
Navy was in fact called “the Great White Fleet”, but as the European navies
gradually began to change from colors that enhanced their appearance to ones
that might reduce their visibility, beginning at the end of the 1890s, then the
Americans also began to look at the adoption of different paint schemes.
Documents indicate that in June
1899 the Navy approached one Robert Brush of New York City, an artist, with a
view to producing protective coloration, as it was then called.
The matter proved to be abortive. The
question of new colors for the fleet was dropped until, as a matter of routine,
it was raised again in 1908, after had begun to change from white to medium
gray, a color considered to be more warlike.
The party contacted this time was Abbot H. Thayer, who declined to
respond. In 1910 the Navy again
approached Mr. Brush, who at this time was a partner of Thayer.
It appears that Brush and Thayer between them had very definite ideas on
how to paint ships in order to substantially reduce their visibility, which they
attributed to scientifically thought out methods and which
were the subject of patents. Brush
agreed to help the Navy, but imposed such a stringent conditions of secrecy that
the Navy backed off. Brush later
relaxed his stance, but as a counter, asked for an amount of money so high that
the Navy again withdrew. While
these negotiations were taking place Brush displayed a number of models painted
up using his ideas; reports by observing officers stated that a degree of
invisibility was achieved.
The question of warship color
was left in abeyance until 1915 when the Bureau of Construction and Repair began
experiments as to the best color for wartime.
These tests resulted in the adoption of a new gray color, one that was
lighter, and this became the standard light gray from 1919 to 1941. The new light gray, (know during the inter-war period as
Standard Navy Gray #5), was selected because of the following:
ship be as invisible as possible to an observer on a surface ship and on a
weather be mostly overcast, or hazy or foggy, as in the North Sea area.
chosen gray was the best color under the above weather conditions.
Of the experiments performed,
probably the most interesting was that carried out on the battleship OHIO in
late 1916. She was painted in what
was described as the “German
Method”, whereby the lower parts of
the hull newer the waterline were panted a dark gray, followed by increasingly
lighter tones on the higher parts, reaching a very light gray or white on the
masts and yards. Time, however did
not allow for conclusive observations to be made, but OHIO’s captain reported
in 1919 that the design and tones were very effective when new, especially on
the masts and yards.
MERCHANT SHIP CAMOUFLAGE SYSTEMS
Soon after the entry of the
United States into the war in April 1917, the question of camouflaging merchant
vessels was addressed by the Bureau of War Risk Insurance of the Treasury
Department. It is interesting to
note that it was as much a matter of money, (insurance rates), as it was of the
safety of the vessels and their crews. The
main thrust of these efforts concentrated on promoting the idea of making a ship
invisible to a U-Boat, and by doing so, reduce the chance of an attack.
Many ideas were submitted for
camouflage of merchant ships, all of them by civilians.
In July 1917 the Submarine Defense Association decided to take on the
evaluation of the various proposals in a professional and serious way, and to
assist in the endeavor. Mr. George
Eastman placed the staff of the
Eastman Kodak Laboratory at the association’s disposal.
Of the twenty two suggestions put forward, five were selected as being of
value and were worn by large numbers of merchant ships in the 1917 to early 1918
A further stage of the
camouflage history was reached on October 1, 1917 when the United States
Treasury Department, through the Bureau of War-Risk Insurance, and upon the
recommendation of the Ship Protection Committee of the United States Shipping
Board, put into effect a notice requiring, under penalty of ˝% increase in war
risk premium, the painting of vessels for protective purposes.
The measure was taken “with a view of minimizing the hazard
to vessels trading to or from all ports in Europe and ports in the Mediterranean
Coast of Africa and vice-versa”. The
regulations effecting visibility reads as follows:
shall be painted in accordance with one of the systems that are recommended by
the Chairman of the Naval Consulting board and the Ship Protection Committee of
the United States Shipping Board. The
following systems have been approved to date:”
The five camouflage systems
that had been approved were those by William Mackay, Everett Warner, Maximilian
Toch, Jerome Brush, and Louis Herzog, all residents of NYC.
Ship owners were free to use any one of the above systems.
If they desired to use a camouflage design of their own choosing then
they had to first submit it for approval to the Chairman of the Naval Board.
Of the five selected systems or
types, only the Warner type was designed solely to prevent identity, and to
promote confusion in the mind of the U-Boat commander.
The remainder were designed to achieve invisibility, or a degree of
Mackay described his system as
follows: “A ship silhouetted against the horizon interrupts the horizon light.
If therefore, the ship can be made to return to an observer light
equivalent to that which she is interrupting, she will merge into the horizon
and become invisible. Upon the
degree of success with which such return is effected will depend on the relative
reduction of her visibility.
White light is produced by
the simultaneous and balanced action upon
[ Back Page ] [ Home ] [ Table of Contents ] [ Next Page ]