Hard to see at sea
May 14, 2016 10:29 AM   Subscribe

A visual history of the sometimes unbelievable camouflage used by ships during wartime. The most famous approach, Dazzle camouflage (sometimes Razzle Dazzle), was designed by an artist in Britain during World War I, and is designed to disguise apparent motion and direction, [video] at which it was effective, if controversial. During World War II, the US Navy used a variety of schemes to camouflage ships, including false bow waves that made it difficult for submarines to judge how fast a ship was traveling. Recently, the Navy revived dazzle techniques for the first time since WW II.
posted by blahblahblah (25 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've been saving links in a half-assed way to make a post about Dazzle, Camo and other military influences on fashion, but given this post, I shall simply dump some of them here:

I'm not sure you could possibly come up with an item less related to giant warships than fashion clothing, but Dazzle had a significant influence on designers of the era. Just in case you thought camo and military look were the only armed forces inspired trends in fashion.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:40 AM on May 14, 2016 [10 favorites]


In the same vein, there is Camoupedia, which looks at the intersections between camouflage and art.
posted by blahblahblah at 10:48 AM on May 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


Oh, I always wondered about dazzle camouflage at sea, ever since seeing pictures of WWI warships as a kid. Great post -- going through all the links now!
posted by Triplanetary at 10:50 AM on May 14, 2016


All that video and no mention of how dazzle messed with coincidence rangefinders, which was the whole idea here.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:54 AM on May 14, 2016 [5 favorites]


I just read a book about Bohemian Paris - 1900 to around 1928. I was surprised to learn that during WW1 the French army hired the Cubists and other artists to design camouflage. They also designed fake trees and buildings to disguise things. Picasso as defense contractor? Yes!
posted by njohnson23 at 11:12 AM on May 14, 2016


The A bomb ended the war but Radar won it...See, too, though not for disguise, the painted airplanes many pilots used in WWII, and they are now making a comeback
posted by Postroad at 11:21 AM on May 14, 2016


This is a delicious post!!

Semi-relatedly - in learning different ways camouflage works, zebras come up as an example of using stripes to confuse predators as the herd runs. As it turns out, zebra stripes may serve a different function altogether.

Which has resulted in some interesting and peculiar pasture sights.
posted by Fantods at 11:39 AM on May 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


the intersections between camouflage and art.

That's the intersection where the original purpose of camouflage gets turned on its head: we watched the loudest, most glaringly brash razzle-dazzle yacht maneuver into a chic Mediterranean port, and were only half surprised to find out later that it was designed by Jeff Koons (and houses a magnate's art collection)...
posted by progosk at 12:00 PM on May 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


When I hear dazzle camouflage I can't help but think of this song, which takes the "hiding in plain sight" metaphor further.
posted by Zephyrial at 12:56 PM on May 14, 2016


When I was a kid, I was really into WWII sub sims. Trying to calculate a correct firing solution on your own just by watching the target over a period of time rather than relying on the computers (both the one running the game and the simulated torpedo data computer on the sub to do the math for you) was really challenging. I used to practice doing the math in my head while mowing the grass on a riding lawn mower to pass the time, and I used our eight ducks led by a goose that would wander around the farm as the target convoy. It's a funny thing to picture, but it actually was fairly helpful.

The "effective, but controversial" link in the main post does a decent job of explaining a bit of the process, which was refreshing to see because so many articles I've seen about dazzle camo over the years don't really go into the aiming process at all. Often they just say it made the process difficult and leave it at that. But doing that kind of leaves you in the dark about why it's more than just a goofy wartime idea. The vimeo video doesn't help matters by being a flat, 2-D visualization, because it wasn't just about speed, it's about direction and perspective, which really needs a 3-D representation to make sense. Once you add rough seas, currents, and bad weather to the mix, trying to aim properly while your sub is rocking around and moving from both the engine and the currents/waves, the target is doing the same thing AND changing course in a zig-zag pattern at random times, it's surprising that subs were as successful as they were.

Even if you consider everything that can go wrong with a torpedo from the WWI/WWII era between the time it's fired and potentially hits - steam/electric motor issues, bad gyroscopes, going too deep/too shallow, bad detonators that crumple upon impact and do not detonate, etc. - its surprising to me that dazzle camo was not seen by all sides as being worth every penny to add on every ship for just one more complicated variable to add to the challenge.
posted by chambers at 1:03 PM on May 14, 2016 [12 favorites]


I've seen the dazzle video and the animation of the dazzle effect really detracted from the explanation and visualization. It seemed, according to the video, that the pattern itself moved along side the ship, almost like it was projected on the ship. This is not the case, right? Am I correct in assuming the artwork is static?
posted by mulligan at 1:22 PM on May 14, 2016


Am I correct in assuming the artwork is static?

You're correct. The video is wrong. Almost aggravatingly so.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:25 PM on May 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


I think this image is the most effective demonstration of the effect for me. Because of the way the photo is framed, I know where the front of that ship is, but I still have a really hard time picking out which one of the many apparently pointy bits is the actual front and not just a trompe l'oeil effect of the Dazzle.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:28 PM on May 14, 2016 [11 favorites]


As it turns out, zebra stripes may serve a different function altogether.

Right now we could really use a pattern which would deter another bloodsucker of the diptera, the mosquito -- it would be the fashion sensation of the Olympics!
posted by jamjam at 1:45 PM on May 14, 2016


A few months ago, I picked up Larson's Dead Wake, which details the final voyage of the Lusitania from the perspectives of the Lusitania, U-20, and the British Admiralty (who gets the harshest criticism for giving ambiguous advice and refusing to risk ships for escort and rescue).

In order to hit Germany's most hated symbolic sea target (Lusitania won the speed record from Germany), U-boat commander Schwieger had to guestimate position, heading, current, and speed using nothing more than a few peeks from a periscope while his own ship was moving. Schwieger was otherwise blind and deaf. Under the best conditions, more than half of dumb torpedoes missed or misfired, so he had to give his best guess about what the torpedo would actually do as well. The WWI U-Boats were so small, every crew member who wasn't on station had to run the length of the boat after a launch to preserve balance.

Larson claims that Schwieger probably got it wrong in his logs, and if the torpedo had not drifted or performed off its specifications (along with a dozen other factors) the most infamous ship disaster of WWI probably would not have happened according to Larson.

Or what chambers wrote...
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:55 PM on May 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


A few months ago, I picked up Larson's Dead Wake, which details the final voyage of the Lusitania from the perspectives of the Lusitania, U-20, and the British Admiralty (who gets the harshest criticism for giving ambiguous advice and refusing to risk ships for escort and rescue).

Dead Wake is exactly what set me building the FPP.

And agree that the video is a bit misleading - the Smithsonian linked to it as well, but I agree that there is a missed opportunity for an amazing demonstration of Dazzle.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:58 PM on May 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


One thing I haven't seen mentioned in articles on Dazzle is that many of these ships were merchants traveling in convoys (the Smithsonian article references the insurance incentive,) which must have magnified the effect when multiple ships were in sight.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:19 PM on May 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think this image is the most effective demonstration of the effect for me. Because of the way the photo is framed, I know where the front of that ship is, but I still have a really hard time picking out which one of the many apparently pointy bits is the actual front and not just a trompe l'oeil effect of the Dazzle.

That by far the best example I've ever seen. It's close to giving me a headache just looking at a still image of it.

It took me a bit of searching to correctly identify it, as the dazzle camo hides its armament fairly well.

That picture is of the French La Galissonnière-class cruiser Gloire. It has an interesting history, having served under the Vichy government, then captured by the Allies in 1942 and operated in the Atlantic and then throughout the Med.

Here's a picture of it without the fancy paint job.

I made a single image that compares them side-by-side here, which demonstrates that in addition to the difficulty targeting ships with dazzle camo, it also makes it much more difficult to simply identify them in order to properly judge their capabilities and threat level.
posted by chambers at 8:12 PM on May 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


That side-by-side makes it clear how difficult it would be to understand the direction it was heading.

And remember, even if Dazzle was completely deciferable, the additional time to do so means lower torpedo action and more time for destroyers to locate subs.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:30 PM on May 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


This concept is harder to grasp based on photos where the boat is always framed perfectly and seen side-on. Remembering that a submarine periscope would be unlikely to pop up beside a dazzled ship from a 90' angle- they're just as likely to see it from, say, behind and off to one side, so the boat's overall shape would already be distorted from the angle. And then as the article states, the gunner has less than 30 seconds of periscope time to see the boat and decide how to aim.

I had a bio teacher once say, "sure, animal camouflage doesn't look 100% perfect in a textbook photo, but remember, lots of predators are hunting at dusk." And they're scanning a large area, which means they're only spotting potential insects out of the corner of their eye, where details blend anyway. Camouflage that only works a little bit can work perfectly well.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:16 PM on May 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


I want to thank chambers for the long comment and jacquilynne for the photo. I was frustrated by all of the links, which said, "They painted the ships like this!" but didn't talk much about how effective the technique was, or what a ship might look like through the periscope of a submarine. They also said it made it harder to tell which way a ship was moving and at what speed, but didn't go into a lot of detail about how, exactly, they did that—jacquilynne's linked photo really helped demonstrate the effect.
posted by not that girl at 2:45 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


And in cyclic history The USS Zumwalt: 50 times harder to detect on radar.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:11 AM on May 16, 2016


Other sort-of counterintuitive camouflage: yehudi. If you want to hide your airplane in the sky, just painting it won't do because the sky (until full night) is luminous. So if you want to hide your airplane, you need to put BIG FUCKIN' LIGHTS on it.

On googling around, it turns out yehudi was also applied to ships to hide against the horizon, but it was impractical in practice.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:11 AM on May 16, 2016


Great pictures here in the History of Razzle Dazzle and from Camoupedia mentioned upthread Gestalt Theory, Cubism and Camouflage
posted by adamvasco at 7:16 PM on May 16, 2016


The Yehudi lights thing led me to the origin of the term and this insane music video from 1942(!!)
posted by blahblahblah at 7:50 AM on May 19, 2016


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