Dazzle Camo: From WWII to Modern Day Battlefields?

U.S.S. North Carolina

Out with the old, in with the new — well, not always. The dazzle camouflage utilized in the first and second World Wars maybe making a comeback. Unless you’re a war history buff, you probably have never heard of the military term.

The maritime war paint was the brainchild of the artist Norman Wilkinson. While serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, he was pondering what could possibly lessen the accuracy German submarines’ torpedoes. In the April of 1917, German U-boats were sinking nearly eight British ships a day. In a light bulb moment, Wilkinson realized that the ships should be painted in a style that breaks up their forms in order to confuse the submarine officer. Indeed it does cause a certain amount of bewilderment. Dazzle camouflage generally consists of high-contrast colors (like black and white) and conflicting geometric patterns. See below for an example.

USS Charles S. Sperry decked out in dazzle camouflage, June 1944. via Wikipedia

Concealment of ships while on the water is nearly impossible. Let’s say that you were able to successfully camouflage the body of the ship, the smoke from the stacks would still be visible and would make it relatively easy for enemy forces to find it. The theory behind the good old “Razzle Dazzle” is that enemies would be unable to tell which direction and how fast the ship was journeying.

While the camouflage seems to be an unlikely design, visual rangefinders throughout the world cursed the patterns for making their jobs that much more difficult. At the time, they had to calculate the time and speed of the ship prior to firing the torpedo. They had to aim a little bit ahead of the target, so the torpedo would impact the ship at the appropriate moment.

Following testing, his plan was adopted by the British Admiralty. Wilkinson was placed in charge of a naval camouflage unit. He worked alongside dozens of artists and students to meticulously plan out these strategies.

Retired to her berth, the HMS Belfast is pictured in London.

After extensive testing of each design, it was strategically applied to the ships. Later studies would dispute the viability of the camo and the British Admiralty “concluded it had no effect on submarine attacks, but boosted crew morale. It also increased the morale of people not involved in fighting; hundreds of wonderfully coloured ships in dock was nothing ever seen before or since.” via Wikipedia

However effective the dazzle camouflage was throughout the first World War, it was much less useful during World War II as the technologies and techniques of submarine gunners and especially aircraft advanced.

Although dazzle camouflage was used in both World War I and World War II, its was never scientifically proven. According to new research from the University of Bristol the dazzle camo is most effective when the object (ship/vehicle) are traveling at a high rate of speed. The study was published in the online journal PLoS ONE.

Norman Wilkinson with dazzle camo ship model. Photo via Razzle Dazzle

Researchers concluded that the zigzag and checkered patterns skewed perceptions of the objects’ speeds. They found that the study participants tended to determine the “dazzled” objects as moving 7 percent slower than those painted with horizontal or vertical lines. It best  performs during events where visual contact is imperative (such as nature and low-tech battlefields). Researchers approximated if a rocket-propelled grenade were launched 230 feet from a dazzled Land Rover traveling 55 mph that it could miss by up to 3.3 feet. That’s enough space to save the lives of those riding in the Land Rover.

While there are undoubtedly numerous field tests and experimenting still ahead for dazzle camouflage, don’t be surprised if you see a photos of black and white zigzagged painted Humvees in the future.

How do you think the dazzle camo would hold up in a war zone?

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