HMT Olympic, sister ship of Titanic in dazzle camo during WW1.
HMT Olympic, sister ship of Titanic in dazzle camo during WW1.

The Brits called it “Dazzle Painting,” and the Yanks called it “Razzle Dazzle.” It transformed ships of war from plain gray hulls into brightly colored, floating works of cubist art. Sharply angled lines and contrasting colors made a ship’s shape oddly ambiguous to the eye. British, American, and French forces adopted the wild, colorful designs, and the patterns became commonplace in World War I navies. Witnesses were heard to comment on the striking, dramatic convoys of dazzle-painted ships. It must have been quite a sight.

USS West Mahomet
USS West Mahomet

The warship cubism was not intended as an artistic statement, however. Many attempts had been made to reduce the visibility of ships to help protect them from the German U-boats, which were sinking Allied shipments at an alarming rate. But despite extensive attempts at camouflaging ships with colors of the sky and sea, all such efforts were rendered ineffective by constantly changing weather conditions. A nimble-minded British officer by the name of Norman Wilkinson suggested a different approach: use bold, unruly patterns and colors that break up the ship’s lines, and therefore make it harder to discern the vessel’s speed and direction. In World War I torpedos were unsophisticated, traveling in a straight line after firing. So U-boat commanders had to aim manually, eyeballing the speed and distance of the target through the periscope so the torpedo would be in the right place at the right time. The dazzle patterns made the ship’s bow unclear, in turn making it that much harder for U-boat commanders to estimate its heading.

Sadly, there are no known color photos of the Razzle-Dazzle warships. The practice of dazzle painting faded when it became obsolete in the face of air support, and later, radar.