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. 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 scene that met the eye upon seeing a convoy of dazzle-painted ships. It must have been 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, constantly changing conditions in the sky and water made all such efforts ineffective. A nimble-minded British officer by the name of Norman Wilkinson suggested a different approach: use patterns and colors that break up the ship’s lines, and make it harder to discern its speed and direction. World War I torpedos traveled in a straight line after firing, so U-boat commanders had to aim manually, eyeballing the speed and distance of the target 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 U-boat commanders’ jobs much harder.

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.