Dazzle Camouflage

Dazzle camouflage was invented during the First World War. It was a way to protect ships against enemy attack, and this is how it came about and how it worked.

Dazzle camouflage was invented by Norman Wilkinson, an English artist born in 1878. He worked as an illustrator for the Illustrated London News and painted posters for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. His first love, however, was painting the sea and ships, and when the First World War broke out, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on submarine patrols.

That’s where he dreamed up the idea of dazzle camouflage as a way of protecting ships.

To show Wilkinson’s skill as an artist, here is his painting of the passenger ship Lusitania. The ship was torpedoed on 7 May 1915 by a German U Boat and 1,197 passengers and crew drowned. Over one hundred American citizens were among those drowned. The ship was not a valid target and the sinking helped cement American public opinion that brought the USA into the war two years later.

The Lusitania passenger ship that was sunk on 7 May 1915 by a German U Boat withn1,197 passengers and crew drowned. Of these were over one hundred American citizens.

How Dazzle Camouflage Works

imagine you are an enemy submarine looking for a ship to torpedo and sink. Dazzle Camouflage protects ships by disrupting how they look – how big they are, what shape they are, and in what direction they are heading.

Submarines have to aim their torpedoes at ships that are hundreds of yards away. If the submarine is not sure where exactly the ship begins and ends or which way it is heading then just one degree off could mean a miss instead of a hit.

So how was this done? Wilkinson’s idea was to paint camouflage on the ships to break up their shape and size. He devised the idea of painting false prows on the stern of ships and false sterns on the prow. This made it look like the ship was heading in the opposite direction to its true course.

Teams Of Camoufleurs

Wilkinsons worked with teams of artists, including Edward Wadsworth, a member of the Vorticist school of art. Vorticism, with its jumbled geometric shapes and colours was a perfect match for dazzle camouflage.

Under Wilkinson’s direction, camouflage painters known as camoufleurs painted wooden test models. Then naval lookouts would scan the models from a distance to give feedback on how well the camouflage was working. Once the camouflage passed inspection the camoufleurs supervised naval painters who painted the real ships in dry dock.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are two dazzle camouflaged ships. Ask yourself which way the ships are heading.

dazzle camouflage - two early designs for ships for deployment in the First World War

Did Dazzle Camouflage Work

The idea was such a success that when the USA entered the war, Wilkinson advised the U.S. Navy, and his ideas found a new name in the USA where it was called razzle-dazzle camouflage.

Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors

After the war, the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors wanted to honour the creator of dazzle camouflage.

Wilkinson and an artist named John Graham Kerr claimed the prize. Kerr had suggested using ‘disruptive colour’ to break up patterns. And he described it as a way “to destroy completely the continuity of outlines by splashes of white”. But the Navy had not adopted his idea, and had gone ahead with Wilkinson’s style of bright disruptive colours. So Wilkinson got the prize.

In peace-time the Vorticist Edward Wadsworth went on the paint canvases of dazzle camouflage ships. This is one of his woodcuts of a ship in dry dock.

Dazzle camouflage woodcut of a ship in dry dock, by Edward Wadsworth

Zebra Use Dazzle Camouflage

The collective name for zebra is a dazzle, and that is how zebra confuse lions and avoid being prey.

Lions can only see in black and white. And when the zebra are standing together, lions have trouble working out where one zebra ends and another zebra begins. And that leads to missed chances.

Dazzle camouflage is also why young zebra have longer legs proportionate to their bodies compared to adult zebra.

Lions could see a young zebra more easily if its belly was below the level of the adults.

But the young have longer legs, so the bottom of their bellies are at the same level as bellies of the adults. And even with just a lone mother and her young, the young one is difficult to see, as in this photograph. That’s dazzle camouflage at work.

I photographed this zebra and her young at Gorah, a 50 square km (20 square miles) concession within Addo National Park on the Eastern Cape in South Africa.

dazzle camouflage a zebra and its young showing the long-legged young that helps it hide behind its parent
Black and white version of a dazzle of zebra showing the confusion of stripes that lion would see on looking at these animals

Here is a photograph of a small dazzle of zebra that I converted in Photoshop to a black and white images. Even in black and white, my eyesight and my brain doesn’t have much trouble interpreting the size and shape of the individual zebra.

That’s when I am sitting comfortably in my chair. But if I had to make a judgement at top speed of how to home in on the neck of one of the zebra, that might be more problematic, expecially if the zebra were moving.

Did you spot that the animals at the left of the group are youngsters? Scanning quickly from left to right, it’s just a confusion of stripes.

That’s dazzle camouflage.

Zebra Greeting Cards

A zebra grazing, and a speech bubble with the text 'Still Grazing After All These Years'

We have several greeting cards featuring zebra. You can find them by using the search icon at the top of the page. Just put in ‘zebra’ and it will bring up the cards that fit that description.

One of the cards is this romantic greeting card featuring a zebra grazing, and a speech bubble with the text ‘Still Grazing After All These Years’. Just follow this link to the animal grazing here.

A play on the words ‘still crazy after all these years’ to expresses romantically that the sender of the card is still crazy in love with the recipient.

Zebra and Horses

Zebra are like horses in that they have teeth and they cut the grass when they graze. That means they can cut the grass down to a fine sward, like sheep do. Unlike zebra and sheep, cattle wrap their tongues around the grass and pull it.

That means that the grass has got to be long enough to tug. And if zebra or sheep have been their first, the grass might be too short for the tongues of cattle to grasp. And therein lie many a tale of cattle ranchers and sheep ranchers in the Old West, but that’s another story.

Can We Make Up?

Here’s a card for a friend when relationships have been strained with a plea to ‘Make Up‘ illustrated by a zebra in black and white and text ‘Can We Make Up?’ and ‘Not Everything Is Black And White’

A card for a friend when relationships have been strained with a plea to 'Make Up' illustrated by a zebra in black and white and text 'Can We Make Up?' and 'Not Everything Is Black And White'

One thing is certain, and that is that life cannot be easily reduced to fixed ideas. That is especially true in relationships with other people. More than that, we understand that there is so much that each person brings to the interactions. Therefore it is almost always never the case that things are black and white.

We are all caught on the balance between thinking well of others, of being ‘there for them’ and thinking negatively about others or being selfish and thinking of ourselves.

And yet, strange creatures that we are, we behave as though things are clear, and indeed black and white. And we do so even while at the same time doubting our position.

Away from the heat of a personal dispute we know that it is not alway better to be right, especially at the expense of being understanding. As someone said, kindness without truth is manipulation, and truth without kindness is cruelty.

Dive In

And the last card in this quick overview is Dive In, an inspirational greeting card featuring a zebra on a diving board looking down at the water below, with text ‘You Can Do It!’

The origin of the word inspiration is amazing. In the early Middle Ages it described the situation of a person being under the influence of the spirit of God.

A zebra on a diving board looking down at the water below, with text 'You Can Do It!'

The word derives from the Old French word meaning to inhale or breathe in. And of course in the account of creation, God breathed into Adam’s nostrils to bring him to life. Man is the only creature described this way.

Now fast forward five hundred years from the early Middle Ages and we have the more general sense of the word. By the mid 1800s the word meant to arouse passion in others towards some purpose – good or bad.

In a sane world we know that encouraging others has to be tempered by responsibility. The person encouraging the other has a responsibility to those whom they encourage. That still doesn’t separate the good from the bad. Many tyrants thought they were doing good.

In case you were wondering about the zebra on the diving board – zebras can swim, so it would not be in danger if it landed in the water.

However, how far away is the shore? We need to know that, because if the shore is far away, will the zebra tire before it reaches land?

For anyone who wonders how far the water in this card stretches, it’s just a short distance, and the zebra can easily swim it. It just needs a nudge in the right direction.

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