Caught Our Eyes: A Dazzling Disguise

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?

Mauretania. Photo by Bain News Service, 1915. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.27960

Mauretania. Photo by Bain News Service, 1915. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.27960

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!)

Officers and crew, U.S.S. Mount Vernon, October 30, 1918. Photo by J.C. Crosby, October 30, 1918. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pan.6a32961

Officers and crew, U.S.S. Mount Vernon, October 30, 1918. Photo by J.C. Crosby, October 30, 1918. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pan.6a32961

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.

Invest in the Victory Liberty Loan. Poster by L. A. Shafer, 1919. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02004

Invest in the Victory Liberty Loan. Poster by L. A. Shafer, 1919. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02004

On Mauretania. Photo by Bain News Service, 1918. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.27963

On Mauretania. Photo by Bain News Service, 1918. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.27963

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.

Learn More:

The camouflage bathing suit has made its appearance in England…. Photo copyrighted by Underwood & Underwood, from The Sun, June 15, 1919, Pictorial Section. //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030431/1919-06-15/ed-1/seq-51/

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