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CHIPS Articles: The Art and Science of Ship Camouflage

The Art and Science of Ship Camouflage
By Devon Hubbard Sorlie, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division - November 2, 2015
When it comes to color on a ship these days, it's like Henry Ford's famous quip: You can have any color as long as it's haze gray.

This was no passing trend, like bell-bottom pants and leisure suits. Whether it was a zebra-striped ship or one painted to delight a Virginia Tech fan, there was a purpose to the pattern: fooling U-boats. Known as Razzle Dazzle, the paint patterns helped safely transport troops and equipment across the Atlantic during World War I.

As a young boy, Jim Bruns was fascinated by a savings bond poster that depicted a wildly painted destroyer shelling a German submarine. The destroyer was decked out in orange, blue, yellow and fluorescent red colors.

"That could never be," he thought. "At first I thought the artist had taken liberty with the colors, but then I learned about Razzle Dazzle and how it worked," Bruns said recently. He is now the director of the National Museum of the United States Navy at the Washington Navy Yard and he knows all about "Razzle Dazzle."

Using the artwork and artifacts from that period of time, Bruns and his staff created "Razzle Dazzle: The Art and Science of Ship Camouflage," a traveling exhibition consisting of 44 panels for the full set or five panels for the abbreviated version.

Razzle Dazzle was the perfect combination of art and science, Bruns said. "It could distort the eye, like happens in the animal world. It can trick you into thinking you aren't going where you are." Zebra stripes were particularly successful if they were painted well, he said.

"Things that were painted black looked like they were in the shade, so they could fool the eye into thinking the ship was going in another direction," Bruns said. "German submarine skippers had no idea whether the ship was coming or going," he said.

Razzle Dazzle was so effective the United States Navy lost no ship in convoy during World War I.

Hide in Plain Sight

The "Great War" is known for the bloody battles in the trenches on the fields of France, but it also elevated the status of underwater boats called submarines. Surface ships had no real defenses against submarines that lurked just beneath the ocean's surface. In order to counteract the subterfuge of submarines, the British chose to confuse with camouflage.

British artist Norman Wilkinson joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during World War I. He proposed painting ships with a camouflage created and patented in 1902 by American artist and naturalist Abbott Thayer. The British called the technique Dazzle, for it distorted the shape of the ship rather than attempt to hide them at sea.

As for animals like zebras or brightly colored macaws that use colorations to hide in the brush from predators or to confuse the eye as to what or where it really is, a few seconds hesitation on the part of a predator could be the difference between life and death.

The U.S. Navy was keenly interested in the use of Dazzle on British ships. So when the United States entered World War I, Thayer's designs were utilized on American merchant and combat ships. The use of "war paint" on American ships was jazzed up from the British Dazzle to the American Razzle Dazzle with the addition of bright colors and contemporary art designs.

Thayer enlisted the help of his fellow artist, friend and neighbor, the aptly-named George de Forest Brush, who favored countershading as a paint scheme to conceal an object by reversing light and dark areas.

In March 1918, a group of artists and scientists stood up the Camouflage Section of the Department of Navy. Once the patterns were decided, production teams used templates to paint the schemes, with the portside different from the starboard.

With no definitive proof Razzle Dazzle worked before entering the war, the final numbers reflected the paint certainly did no harm. During 16 months of convoy duty, the United States never lost a single ship-18,653 troopships hauling two million troops and six million tons of war material made it across the Atlantic.

Razzle Dazzle was used during World War II, but interest in colorful distortion camouflage on ships faded with the advent of improved optics systems, radar, sensors and guided weapons. All encouraged the use of low-visibility systems and the now ubiquitous haze-gray coloration.

The exhibit isn't just about flash and color. The full version touches on just how productive the United States was in supporting the war effort. Ship parts were built in plants across the country for assembly elsewhere. Men and women had on-the-job training in building parts, assembling pieces and painting the hulls.

"It's a really cool exhibit filled with information and images of artifacts of World War I," Bruns said.

How to Get the Exhibit

Organizations interested in displaying the exhibit should contact Nathan Otlewski at (202) 433-5571. The panels, at 2-1/2 feet by 5 feet, come in two variations-mountable or frameable. Print-ready content is available on DVD or the museum can print the banners at a cost and then ship them to the organization.

The National Museum of the United States Navy is located at 805 Kidder Breese Street SE, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. For more information, please go to NMUSN's website, call 202-433-4882 or email

From Navy Live Blog, the official blog of the U.S. Navy:

To learn more about U.S. Navy history, please go to the Naval History and Heritage Command website: or visit the NHHC blog The Sextant.

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