Razzle Dazzle

Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roy: I think if you ask somebody on the street, “What is camouflage?” I believe the most common answer would be to say, “Well, it’s a figure and it’s being hidden by being blended with its background.”

Roman: Scientists today call that, “Background Matching.”

Roy: I call that, “High Similarity Camouflage.”

Roman: That’s Roy Behrens.

Roy: I’m Roy Behrens and I teach in the Department of Art at the University of Northern Iowa. I teach graphic design and the history of design.

Roman: Behrens is also one of the foremost camouflage experts.

Roy: Well, I wouldn’t go that far.

Roman: I would, I do. High similarity or blending is just one type of camouflage. It’s kind of THE boring one. But another type of camouflage that you can find both in nature and in military use is disruptive camouflage.

Roy: I call it figure disruption because it breaks up the figure.

Romans: It’s the opposite of the high similarity camouflage. It’s high difference.

Roy: So, you’re making it very difficult for us to look at the figure and to see it as only a single continuous thing.

Roman: Zebra stripes have long when thought to be a form of disruptive camouflage. The stripes make it hard for a predator to distinguish one zebra from another when the zebras are in a large herd. The stripes might also make zebras less attractive to blood-sucking horseflies. But when it comes to humans, the greatest, most jaw-droppingly, spectacular application of disruptive camouflage by the military, is Razzle-Dazzle.

Roy: Dazzle camouflage strictly applies to ship camouflage, and even more strictly it applies to World War One ship camouflage. And it came about because it was discovered that it’s almost impossible to make a ship invisible on the ocean. The horizon is changing in color. It’s changing in amount of light….

Roman: So there are all kinds of conditions that make it so a constantly moving ship can blend into the background of the sea. And even if you could make a ship invisible…

Roy: You still have smoke coming out of the smokestack. So it’s not as if you’re hiding the ship at all.

Roman: So the less heavily armored ships were sitting ducks.

Roy: The crisis came about at the time that the US had not yet entered the war.

Roman: Remember, this is World War One.

Roy: It was the British ships that were being sunk. And the German submarines were sinking as many as 50 ships a week. Many of those ships were merchant ships and they were bringing supplies to England which is an island of course, and it really depended on those and then also the was armaments and other things that were being secretly taken there too.

Roman: So the design solution was not about invisibility. It was about disruption.

Roy: A number of artists decided that the best way to avoid getting torpedoed was not to make the ship invisible, but to make it hard to hit. That’s why these kinds of erratic, crazy, quilt patterns came about and that’s why they were used in that war.

Roman: It’s gonna be hard to picture this but I want it to try. It once was a time when military ships even US ships by this point were painted with and I quote, this is from an anonymous article in New York Times from 1918, “Any New Yorker will see at anchor or coming in or going out, numerous ships who’s painted signs reveal such wild extravagances of form and color as make the Landsman open his eyes with amazement and mystification.”

Roy: Black and white was very common. They consist of stripes and swirls and arabesque, almost art nouveau shapes. Blue was used predominantly, especially in the British versions, but I think you’d be surprised at the range of colors. There were reds, that were sometimes chosen greens and really quite intense oranges.

Roman: Another unidentified US journalist wrote, “You should see our fleet. It’s camouflaged so it looks like a flock of sea-going Easter eggs.”

Roy: During World War One, dazzle ship camouflage was absolutely fascinating to the public. You have to remember that this is happening just a few years after the, what’s called the Armory Show in New York. It’s the first international show of Modern Art in this country. And it was the introductory show of cubism, futurism, all of those things that people made fun of and they thought that these are really crazy directions for artists to be going in. So that when this happened, people looked at those ships and they said, “Oh, it’s a cubist nightmare. It’s Futurists, they’ve taken over the world!”

Roman: As you can probably guess, there were plenty of people who hated dazzle camouflage; traditional Navy men, mostly.

Roy: They compared it to the clothing of a prostitute would wear and they made fun of it.

Roman: Here’s how it worked.

Roy: I can lead you through the steps.

Roman: At the time, torpedoes fired from u boats were quite slow, maybe taking a couple minutes to reach their target. So, the person firing the torpedo had to lead the target. He had to anticipate where the target ship was going to be when the torpedo arrived.

Roy: So, he had to calculate how to do that. And that very much depended on knowing the exact angle it’s headed toward. That’s terribly, terribly important. And the other thing is that you have to figure out the speed of the ship because then you’ll know how far it can go by the time the torpedo gets there.

Roman: The dazzle camouflage certainly made the ship stand out but the bulging shapes and vivid hues also made it difficult to determine the speed and direction of the moving ship.

Roy: It’s preying on our assumptions about things looking smaller as they are more distant. So, you could paint perspective patterns on a ship that would make it look like it was turning in a different direction, when in fact, you’re actually seeing them frontly and they’re absolutely flat.

Roman: The dazzle patterns broke up the figure so that it could look shorter than it really was, or it could make it hard to tell if there was one ship or multiple ships.

Roy: They even painted fake bow waves on them, and they would paint the fake bow wave either on the front to make it look like the ship was going faster than it was actually going. Because that was one way of calculating that, or they would paint the bow wave on the back! And so you would glance at or you looking through the periscope. You might conclude that “Oh, it’s going in that direction, not in the other direction.” So, then you surface again to calculate where you’re going to shoot and the thing is gone. It’s an entirely different direction and location than you imagined.

Roman: These patterns weren’t just slapped on the side of giant ships, hoping that they be confusing enough to be effective. Camofleurs and that’s what they’re called, the Camofleurs tested toy models by inviting experienced submarine captains to peer through periscopes and report what angle they thought the models were pointed.

Roy: They determined that sometimes on really effectively camouflaged ships, the calculation of the ship captains could be off as much as 55 degrees!

Roman: Dazzle only had to screw up that torpedo gunners estimate by 8 degrees for the target ship to effectively avoid a torpedo. The theater of war has changed, so camouflage has changed with it but there is still dazzle to be found.

Roy: Actually if you look at military craft today there is still dazzle being practiced. But of course the conditions have changed just as in World War One, this came out of those particular set of conditions. We have to say, “Well, those aren’t the conditions that we have now so what would be most effective today?” If you look at aircraft, it’s broken up very often. If you look at ships, some of them are broken up through these geometric patterns. If you look at some camouflage uniforms, infantry uniforms around the world, you’ll find all kinds of breakup with dazzle and so forth or tanks or trucks or and so forth.

Roman: But I’m sad to report that there are no longer flocks of sea-going Easter eggs.

Comments (16)

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  1. Richard Gross

    The fact that ‘modern art’ was being shown to the public at this time (WWI) made me think of something I read about Edward Steichen’s involvement with the Army Air Corp as a designer of camouflage for air bases in Europe. Steichen had been in the heart of the art world just years before when he studied and practiced his painting and photography skills in Paris and reported back to Alfred Stieglitz in NYC about all the new trends in the modern art movements. As far as I know he designed patterns of netting that were thrown over the aircraft to make them blend in with the surroundings since the planes were stationary. It would be interesting to know who the designers were for the razzle dazzle ‘cubist’ inspired patterns that the British used on their naval fleet. I also saw an on line source that located Paul Klee at an airbase repainting camouflage on German War planes for a while in the Great War.

  2. check out Michelle Weinberg’s dazzle camouflage mural for the Wolfsonian Museum -FIU Miami Beach – called Intricate Pattern Overly, covers the facade of the museum – whose exhibition Myth & Machine: World War I and Visual Culture is excellent. michelleweinberg.com, @mwpinkblue

  3. tom logan

    NICE RUNDOWN AND COMMENTARY ALTHOUGH I FIND THE BACKGROUND MUSIC UNNECESSARY AND INTRUSIVE . ONE THING THE COMMENTARY SHOULD HAVE STRESSED IS THAT DAZZLE THAT MADE THE SHIP APPEAR SHORTER WAS OF PRIME IMPORTANCE . THE VIEW THROUGH A PERISCOPE WAS OF NECESSITY BRIEF AND WHAT YOU SAW WAS GOVERNED BY THE WEATHER AND THE LIGHT LEVEL . IF YOU PUT YOUR CROSSHAIRS BEHIND THE BOW BECAUSE YOU COULD NOT SEE IT WELL AND AHEAD OF THE STERN THE SHIP WOULD CALCULATE TO BE MORE DISTANT. THIS, IN TURN, WOULD THROW OFF TORPEDO ANGLES OF ATTACK AND RUNTIMES . ANOTHER THING THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN STRESSED WAS THE NEED TO USE A DIFFERENT DAZZLE PATTERN ON EACH SHIP OF THE SAME CLASS . THE REASON IS THAT IN POOR VISIBILITY A SHIP CLASS COULD BE IDENTIFIED FROM THE DAZZLE PATTERN ALONE AND SOMETIMES THE DAZZLE WAS MORE VISIBLE THAN THE DETAILS OF THE SHIP ITSELF.

  4. cfu

    I was visiting the Henry Mason exhibit at the McLean Museum and Art Gallery in Greenock, Scotland last week, and one of the watercolors they have on display has dazzle ships in the background. I was kind of surprised to see it in documented in a contemporary painting.

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