When I first saw this photo of a ship sporting a boldly patterned look, I definitely did a double take. This British ship is the Mauretania, a Cunard Line superliner pressed into service during World War I as both a troop transport ship and a hospital ship, then returned to civilian life in the post-war years.
So, why the wild paint job on this crucial wartime vessel?
More searching in our collections turned up more and more painted destroyers, troop ships, and merchant vessels. Here we have the U.S.S. Mount Vernon and her crew, likely in Boston for repairs after escaping a September 1918 U-boat attack off the coast of France. (See the white ‘lifeboats’? They are purely two-dimensional!)
Splashes of color are revealed in this World War I poster, featuring a brightly painted U.S. destroyer accepting the surrender of a German submarine while a troop transport ship waits in the background.
Finally, research revealed the explanation for the creative paint jobs: these are examples of dazzle camouflage. Camouflage is largely associated with use on land, where color, pattern, and texture can effectively hide people, structures, and vehicles. But how do you hide a massive ship on the open sea? The short answer is: you don’t. Enter dazzle camouflage, which had a different goal: to confuse and mislead, rather than hide.
Hundreds of British and U.S. ships were painted in the course of the war, and other countries tried out dazzle as well. Ideas for dazzle camouflage schemes came from the fields of zoology and art, and varied widely, as the images here attest.
World War I and the rise of the German U-boat meant that all types of ships – merchant, civilian, military – were in danger. The optical illusions created by pattern and color were meant to make it difficult for enemy ships to accurately target the ships, disguising the course, speed, range and even type of the camouflaged vessel. Researchers and experts debate the effectiveness of dazzle camouflage to this day. Personally, I am more than content to just look at the floating marvels and the bold ideas they represent.
- Enjoy more images of the dazzling Mauretania in the Bain News Service Collection. Take a look at the Mauretania’s much more tame civilian paint job before World War I as well as after the war.
- Study more images related to camouflage of all types in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- Explore an array of posters related to ships in the World War I Posters Collection.
- Read more about dazzle camouflage in newspaper articles of the time in Chronicling America.
- Enjoy reading about and watching the ‘re-dazzling’ of the HMS President, a British World War I ship transformed once again in England, as part of the WWI Centenary Art Commissions.
- Still looking for a Halloween costume for this year? Take your cue from these post-war ladies dressed in dazzle camouflage, and you’re sure to win the prize for Most Original!