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


By Alan Raven 

(Article reprinted courtesy of Plastic Ship Modeler Magazine issue #97/3)

The primary questions to be addressed are, one; did painted camouflage work, and two; if so, how effective was it? The subject, as the reader will have realized, is so complex that there is no way of giving a definitive answer to the above two questions, even if it was possible to enlist the aid of the enemy in compiling an assessment. There is no doubt however that some types of camouflage did work some of the time. Without doubt, the most successful camouflage was the Western Approaches type used in the North Atlantic. Why was this particular camouflage so effective? In simple terms the answers are as follows:

A. It was designed to perform only one function (concealment).  

B. It was designed to perform against only one type of enemy (the U-Boat).

C. It was designed to work best under one type of weather and light condition (overcast, diffused light).

D. With few exceptions, it was used on ships that worked exclusively in areas where the weather conditions suited the camouflage. 

If the above principles are applied when developing and using camouflage, then the value of any camouflage rises significantly. If not, then the chances are high that the camouflage used will be of only minimal value to the user, but of some benefit to the enemy.

The American Measure 12R that saw widespread use in the Atlantic in 1942 was an example of not following the former principles. 12R fell between concealment and disruption. In the Atlantic, concealment was necessary, not disruption. The colors and tones ranged from very dark to very light, thus concealment was extremely difficult to achieve, regardless of lighting conditions. Measure 12R was supposed to work in a variety of conditions, but because of the preceding aspects, the utility was greatly diluted. The variety of patterns, in size and shape, produced different effects, which meant that the range at which concealment did sometimes occur varied greatly. Consistence was lost. One of the reasons for the failure of 12R was a combination of loosely worded instructions which allowed camouflage officers responsible for individual ship painting to exercise their limited degree of knowledge to a level that produced negative results.

In the Pacific, the pre-war belief that a very dark color of blue tint was the best for aerial and surface concealment was proved false, as the fleet actually operated not in the Eastern Pacific and in Hawaiian waters (where the tests were conducted) but in the South and Western Pacific, where light and weather conditions were substantially different. This particular example of supposedly correct choice illustrates the problem of peacetime experiments and ideas which often led to false conclusions. The British did not conduct pre-war camouflage experiments, but the Americans did (see part IV). On paper these experiments could be perceived to be scientific and extensive. In fact they were extremely limited in scope, especially in respect to location. Almost without exception, these tests were carried out off the California coast or in Hawaiian waters near Pearl Harbor. Not a single experiment was ever performed in the South Pacific or in the Philippines. In the Atlantic it was not until 1941 when the American Navy operated under near war conditions that large-scale experimentation began, and when it did, many of the preconceived ideas developed earlier were discarded.

In addition to schemes that were obviously unsuitable, some ideas that showed promise were rejected. Admiral King’s attitude was a good example of personal interest combined with prejudice. He correctly concluded that a straight lined graded scheme was of use for concealment in the Atlantic, but refused throughout 1941 to even consider the proven Western Approaches scheme, or the highly trusted Mountbatten Pink. It was not until he was promoted to C in C in early 1942, and somewhat removed from the subject, that the camouflage section began to seriously explore and experiment with other types of camouflage on the ships at sea in the Atlantic.

Whereas the Americans entered the war with a body of knowledge, albeit incomplete, the British entered in 1939 with nothing. It was not until late 1940 that a camouflage department came into being. In the interim and well into 1942, amateur schemes abounded. Did any of these work? Yes, but only a few, Western Approaches being the grand success. As for the others, they disappeared without a trace, including Mountbatten Pink. In fact, it was not until 1944 that both navies came to a set of similar definitive conclusions, which are given below.

1.) The prevalence of a bright horizon sky in tropical waters implying the use of light tones of paint to match it even in sunlight.

2.) The harmlessness of light tones when seen from the air in tropical waters.

3.) The fact that the visibility of landing craft is determined by their wake: hence painting them a dark tone is useless.

4.) That dark tones generally have high visibility.

5.) That with a high sun ships appear dark however painted.

6.) That at very long range the light tones in a pattern will disappear and that the ship will only be visible because of the dark tones present.

7.) That the dark parts of patterns increase the visibility of ships by night.

8.) That white is the least visible tone on dark nights (and that many officers still believe, on the contrary, that black is least visible).


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