The art of war

Dazzle camouflage

We all know how camouflage works: the zebra’s stripy coat allows him to blend in with the sun-bleached grasses of the Serengeti; the soldier’s khaki fatigues allow him to blend in with the foliage and avoid the enemy’s bullets; the pushchair-wheeling young mother’s army trousers allow her to blend in with all the other fashion victims parading around the shopping centre. It is a topic that so fascinates combat-trouser king Hardy Blechman, of cult fashion label Maharishi, that he has spent seven years compiling DPM: Disruptive Pattern Material, an indescribably comprehensive encyclopedia of camouflage in nature, military and culture that covers its every aspect, from uniforms dyed with tea during the Indian Mutiny to the widespread civilian use of today.

But while the book’s main focus is on camouflage on dry land, it also highlights the distinctly different rules which apply at sea. Mainstream camouflage techniques can be very successful when the landscape is still and changes little, but they are completely redundant on the ocean wave. There is no point in painting a ship the colour of the water, as in most situations (seen through a periscope, for example) it will be silhouetted against the sky; and it is impossible to match the colour of the sky accurately, since it constantly changes.

This was an issue that greatly vexed the Royal Navy in the darkest days of World War I, when the newfangled German U-boats were sinking ships at a rate of approximately 23 a week. One of the initial solutions to this pressing problem – drawing on another mainstay of camouflage in the natural world – was mimicry. British gunboats were disguised as unarmed merchant ships, flying the flags of neutral countries, in an attempt to gull the German subs into drawing near, within the range of their hidden cannons. The United States, meanwhile, experimented with a lunatic scheme proposed by Thomas Edison, whereby a ship was disguised as a small island, with its own lighthouse and trees. Needless to say, the resultant vessel was hopelessly unseaworthy, and much of its scenery came away before it had even pulled out of harbour.

It was a certain Lt Cdr Norman Wilkinson, an artist serving in the Royal Navy, who came up with the most successful – and striking – solution. Whilst on an early-morning train to Devonport in 1917, he reasoned that since it was nigh-on impossible to disguise a ship at sea, it would be advisable to take the opposite approach. For the German torpedo operator to be able to hit his target accurately, he had to be able to gauge the ship’s speed and trajectory at a glance – a torpedo is not fired directly at a vessel, but rather has to anticipate where the target will be by the time the missile reaches it. Wilkinson therefore proposed that the ship’s form should be broken up with contrasting lines and patterns that would confuse the enemy at the vital moment. The Admiralty approved the scheme, and granted him a team of 20 artists (and rooms at the Royal Academy) to devise distorting, violently contrasting patterns for the fleet. By the start of 1918, some 4,400 vessels had been painted in so-called Dazzle camouflage.

As a painter, Wilkinson was fairly traditional in his approach, but the Dazzle schemes he came up with were clearly indebted to the avant-garde. The Bloomsbury Group artist Frederick Etchells remarked that Dazzle “would probably never have developed as it did had it not been for the experiments in abstract design made by a few modern artists during the years immediately prior to 1914.” Its fierce use of zig-zags and repeated diagonals is strongly reminiscent of work by the Vorticists – the British answer to Italy’s Futurists – who had exhibited in 1915 and with whom Etchells was allied.

One of the more prominent Vorticists, Edward Wadsworth, was actually seconded into the Dazzle Section and was charged with overseeing the application of the camouflage in the docks at Liverpool. (Anything up to 100 ships were Dazzle-painted simultaneously.) Immediately after the war, Wadsworth created a memorable series of woodcuts showing the camouflaged ships in the harbour, their geometric fotrms breaking up and clashing into his equally graphic renditions of the dockside. An Evening Standard reviewer wrote that this Dazzle series “illustrates amusingly an inversion of some of the principles of Post-Impressionism – how to destroy form instead of emphasising it.” Commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund, Wadsworth went on to rework one of his woodcuts into the 1919 painting Dazzle-Ships in Drydock at Liverpool. It is surely one of the most powerful records of Dazzle camouflage – a warship clad in avant-garde raiments completing the circle and becoming the subject of art itself.

One thing that is not apparent in Wadsworth’s painting – or, indeed, contemporary photographs, which are inevitably black-and-white – is the ships’ often violent colour schemes. The merchant ship HMS Patia was decorated in a range of tones that even Emilio Pucci might dismiss as rather de trop – great swirls of black, white, green, tomato-red and fuchsia. (In spite of its undoubtedly dazzling livery, it was sunk by a German torpedo in June 1918.) And the United States fleet – which, along with the French, had also adopted the scheme – was described as “a flock of sea-going Easter eggs”.

Dazzle was a huge success; the US Navy calculated that under 1% of its Dazzle-painted ships were sunk. It was resurrected for use in World War II, and only discontinued when advances in technology made its optical tricks redundant.

It also infiltrated the wider culture, as evinced by a Punch cartoon, Spread of the “Dazzle” Cult, which hilariously depicts workers tarring a road in geometric patterns. And military chic was as popular as it is today: the Chelsea Arts Club held a Great Dazzle Ball, and trendy bathers wore Dazzle costumes (which presumably kept them safe from torpedo attack). The war, it seems, brought avant-garde art into the mainstream – a point remarked upon by Picasso, when he saw the camouflaged cannons in Paris: “C’est nous qui avons fait ça… It is we who have created that”.

First published in World of Interiors issue 268. Reproduced with permission.

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