Dazzle Camouflage In Warships and Zebras

Dazzle camouflage for warships was a bold idea dreamed up during the First World War.

Who invented dazzle camouflage? Norman Wilkinson was an artist known for his marine paintings and his advertising posters for London, Midland and Scottish Railway. Wilkinson was thirty-six when the First World War broke out, assigned to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on submarine patrols, and it was then that he dreamed up the idea of dazzle camouflage as a way of protecting merchant ships and warships.

How Dazzle Camouflage Works

Dazzle Camouflage works by disrupting the apparent size and shape of objects. Wilkinson understood that submarines had difficulty aiming torpedo at a ship hundreds of yards away. All the more if the submarine commander was not sure exactly where the ship began and ended. Wilkinson’s idea was to break up the shape and size of ships and confuse submarines as to how big a ship was. And by clever use of paint to confuse submarines as to which way a ship was heading.

From several hundred yards away, one degree of inaccuracy matters. One degree in the direction in which a torpedo was launched could mean a miss instead of a hit.

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.

Painters of camouflage are known as a camoufleurs. And teams of them under Wilkinson’s command painted models and then had them assessed by naval lookouts. Then they supervised painters who painted the real ships in dry dock.

Here are two early designs for dazzle camouflaged ships. You can 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 worked and was such a success that Wilkinson went on to advise the U.S. Navy when the USA entered the war, where his ideas of camouflage found a new name; razzle-dazzle camouflage.

Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors

After the war, Wilkinson had to fight to be recognised for his inventions. The Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors wanted to honour the creator of dazzle camouflage. Unfortunately, both Wilkinson and a John Graham Kerr claimed the prize. And it was true that Kerr had suggested using disruptive colouration to break up patterns. He described it as a way “to destroy completely the continuity of outlines by splashes of white”.

But the Navy never adopted his idea, and went ahead with Wilkinson’s style of bright disruptive colours, and he rightfully got the prize.

In peace-time the Vorticist Edward Wadsworth went on the paint canvases of dazzle camouflage ships. He also made this woodcut of a ship in dry dock.

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

2014 marked the centenary of the First World War. To commemorate it, Chelsea College of Art and Design and Tate Liverpool commissioned Tobias Rehberger dazzle paint a WWI ship. They chose HMS President, built in 1918 for anti-submarine warfare. The ship is moored at Victoria Embankment, on the Thames, and serves as offices.

Zebra Dazzle Camouflage

Just like the collective name for cows is a herd, so the collective name for zebra is a dazzle. And the name comes from the technique that zebra use to confuse their enemy.

Their enemy is the lion that hunts them. The thing is that lions can only see in black and white. So when they are confronted with a dazzle of zebra they work out where one zebra ends and the next zebra begins. And that leads to missed chances.

Dazzle camouflage is also the reason that young zebra have longer legs proportionate to their bodies compared to the legs of an adult zebra.

Lions could see a young zebra if its belly was below the level of the adults. But the young have long legs, so the bottom of their bellies are at the same level as 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 zebra dazzle camouflage.

I photographed this zebra and her young at Gorah. Gorah is 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

To give you (and me) an idea of what a lion might see, here is a photograph of a small dazzle of zebra shown in black and white. The way I see it, my brain is interpreting the size and shape of the individual zebra very quickly. So I am not really having any trouble distinguishing one from another.

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 if the zebra were moving. And 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 zebra dazzle camouflage.

Zebra Greeting Cards

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

By the way, we have several greeting cards featuring zebra. If you use the Search icon at the top of the page and put in ‘zebra’ 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.

The name of the card is, of course, a word-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.

Apart from being dazzlingly beautiful, zebra are like horses in that they have teeth and cut the grass when they graze. That means they can cut the grass down to a fine sward. And in terms of the availability of grazing, that puts them in the same category as sheep. But unlike zebra and sheep, cattle do not eat that way. They wrap their tongues around the grass and pull it.

That of course means that the grass has got to be long enough to tug. And it zebra (or sheep) have been their first, the grass might be too short for their tongues to grasp. And therein lie many a tale of competing interests, but that’s another story.

Can We Make Up?

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 generalisations. 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 and being ‘there for them’ and 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. Specifically it is not better to be right at the expense of being understanding. As someone said, kindness without truth is manipulation, and truth without kindness is cruelty.

Dive In

Dive In is 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 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. How may tyrants thought they were doing good?

Think about the balance between encouragement and reckless advice? Well zebras can swim, so there is no real danger in it landing in the water. That is, it can dive in without a problem. 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 stretches in this card, we can tell you that the zebra can easily accomplish the task. It just needs a nudge in the right direction.

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