Why a desperate scheme in World War I turned Allied boats into wacky Cubist artworks

Sinking an enemy ship once had an air of decorum. When World War I erupted, rules of engagement said that the crew of a U-boat would board a cornered ship and offload passengers safely before sending it to slumber on the ocean bed.

But German submarines had become a major threat to the might of the previously dominant British Royal Navy, and neither side could afford niceties. Unterseeboots were terrifyingly good at avoiding detection and were armed with torpedoes — which they weren’t afraid to use. The British fleet was bleeding.

Then, in late 1917, something peculiar started happening on the high seas. When U-Boat crew members swiveled their periscopes toward enemy vessels, they discovered the ships had morphed into Cubist artworks. The experiment was called “dazzle camouflage,” and was masterminded by British lieutenant Norman Wilkinson, who also happened to be a talented painter. Although it was impossible to hide the hulking ships, Wilkinson theorized that they didn’t need to.

The wacky paint job made use of high-contrast shapes to obscure its edges, disguise the bow and stern, and confuse the enemy about the boat’s orientation and distance. The enemy navigator would then theoretically miscalculate where the U-Boat would need to relocate to be within firing range, and end up unable to damage the ship.

After the United States entered the war, it similarly experimented on thousands of ships with defensive paint schemes, calling its version “razzle dazzle.” One type, the “Mackay Low Visibility System,” was based on the idea that such high contrast would be so overwhelming to the optic nerves that the ship would not even be perceived, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. The most popular tactic involved painting a wave on the side of ships to deceive the enemy about which direction the boat is going. Increasing the size of the painted wave could also give the impression that the ship was smaller than it actually was. A wide variety of patterns was necessary to keep the captains from learning them, according to “A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars.”

Outfitting a ship with painted camouflage was relatively inexpensive and convenient. Each shipping port was outfitted with a crew of four to five camofleurs that made the transformation possible within a day, said Claudia Covert of the Rhode Island School of Design.

It’s hard to say how effective dazzle camouflage really was, because it was often implemented in concert with other defensive features. After the war ended, sensor technology and optics improved so boats were repainted, and now the photographs are all that remain.

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