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This Is How Dazzle Camouflage Disguises 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. During the First World War he invented dazzle camouflage as a way of protecting merchant ships and warships during the First World War.

Wilkinson was thirty-six when war broke out, assigned to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on submarine patrols.

How Dazzle Camouflage Works

Dazzle Camouflage works by disrupting the apparent size and shape of objects. For ships at risk from U-Boat attack, Wilkinson understood that submarines had difficulty aiming torpedo at a ship hundreds of yards away. All them more so if they were not sure exactly where the ship began and ended. His idea was to break up their form 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 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. In the USA 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. So Wilkinson 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.

Dazzle Camouflage And Zebras

Just like the collective name for cows is a herd, so the collective name for a group of 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 are confused. They cannot easily 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 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.

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

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.

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 a word-play on the words ‘still crazy after all these years’. And of course it 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.

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