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

The Development of Naval Camouflage 1914 – 1945
Part II: United States Navy – World War I

By Alan Raven


(Article reprinted courtesy of  Plastic Ship Modeler Magazine issue #96/4)


Alpha Blue and White would be the colors used for the northern passage, and Gamma Blue and White  for those on the southern route.  Alpha Blue and White would blend to form Omega Gray, while Gamma Blue and White would blend to give Psi-Gray.


In order to test Jones’ ideas a procured 165’ steam yacht, the U.S.S. GEM was painted in Omega Gray  overall on the port side, while the starboard side had perspective distortiojn bands of Alpha Blue and White.  Many observations were made of the two schemes at sea and on Lake ntario.  Under favorable conditions the GEM was invisible down to 300 yards.


The Jones system was considered so successful that in March 1918 the Submarine Defense Association published  the following statement for merchant ship owners:  “We can state to our ship owners as of authority the following: The least visibility of ships on the most occasions at ranges of 5000 yards in the waters south of Latitude 45 degrees North and in the Mediterranean is secured by Psi-Gray.  In the chief danger regions – the North Atlantic, English Channel, North and Irish Seas – the color for least visibility is Omega-Gray.  For the greatest deception of the Submarine Captain, within the 5000 yard range, ships should use the stripes, patterns and lines of Alpha Blue and Beta White which melt into Psi-Gray: the colors that best suit the longitudes, the latitudes and the weather where the vessels voyage”.




Very soon after the above statement was published, Norman Wilkinson, the inventor of Dazzle camouflage, arrived in the United States in order to promote his ideas.  Dazzle camouflage had been adopted on a widespread basis throughout the British Merchant Fleet and by many warships of the patrol and escort type.  So successful was he in convincing  the U.S. authorities of the value of Dazzle camouflage that they immediately authorized all ocean going merchant ships to be so painted.  The camouflage section of the Shipping Board prepared a total of 495 Dazzle designs, of these 302 were applied to merchant ships, 193 were applied to warships from cruisers down to patrol vessels and minesweepers.  In addition to the above, 36 U.S. destroyers serving in British waters were painted in Dazzle patterns prepared by Norman Wilkinson.


By the middle of 1918 virtually all of the revious systems; Brush, Toch, etc., had disappeared, replaced by the British Dazzle type.  During the course of the war, over 1200 U.S.vessels were given Dazzle patterns, and only one percent were lost to torpedo attack.


In 1920 the Bureau of Construction and Repair gave the following opinion as to the value of Dazzle camouflage:  “It is considered beyond doubt, however, that camouflage painting was of distinct value, particularly in the case of large and fast vessels, which might be saved from disaster by the momentary confusion of the attacking submarine commander”.


This was in direct contrast to British official opinion, which was ambivalent at best. (See Part 1).




The Navy, not unexpectedly, was interested in using camouflage to produce an effect that would confuse enemy rangefinders.  To this end a series of designs were drawn up by Mr. Watson, the master painter at Norfolk Navy Yard.  The initial design was painted onto the U.S.S. MARGARET, a patrol vessel, in late September 1917.  The design consisted of large irregular sawtooth panels running the length of the ship.  Observations at sea were made in September and October, but surprisingly, all of the reports commented on the visibility aspect only!  None were made on any confusion as to ranging.


Called the “Watson Norfolk System”, further designs were prepared and tried out on battleships with a small degree of success.  The British had already tried anti-rangefinding camouflage in the form of canvas baffles and shapes hung from funnels and masts.  None of these ideas would have fooled the Germans as they employed stereo rangefinders, as against to co0incidence type used by the American and British navies.


Submarines also came in or some experimental paint schemes, designed to reduce visibility by means of near vertical stripes.  Tests were inconclusive and it was believed that the best panting for concealment, especially from the air, would be to paint the horizontal surfaces black, with the vertical surfaces light gray, an idea that was subsequently adopted.


The range of colors used by the American Navy in 1917-1918 was extensive, ranging from black to white and just about everything in-between.  Because of the lack of knowledge as to what ranges of colors were suitable for use on ships at sea, there were colors used that were eschewed in World War II, such as reds, violets, and yellows.  The total number of colors employed is unknown, but when coupled with the large number used by the British in their “Dazzle” designs, the author believes that well over two hundred were used on ships.


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