Dazzle Deception

“Dazzled” PT Boat, Bayonne, NJ, September 28, 1942 Negative # 105121F

Camouflage, as seen in nature or man-made, is usually used to “hide” from the view of a predator or an enemy by simulating the surrounding environment. This type of camouflage, however, breaks down when the animal, soldier, or machine begins to move, making it visible.

During WWI and to lesser degree in WWII, navies adapted a different type of camouflage that hopefully would be protective on moving naval surface vessels. This type of camouflage utilized dramatic geometric patterns painted on the sides of commercial vessels and warships in an attempt to confound their speed, range, heading and size, primarily from enemy submarine torpedo attacks. Although no hard data exists evaluating the effectiveness of these “dazzle” designs that were applied to as many as 1,250 American WWI vessels, it is believed that the distracting designs did indeed confound enemy torpedo targeting in the First World War. In WWII, when enemy ship targeting systems became more sophisticated and radar was developed, dazzle camouflage became mostly superfluous and was not used to the extent that it was in WWI.

Pictured here is a dramatic example of the dazzle technique applied to a WWII PT boat. In the Rosenfeld Collection at Mystic Seaport, there are at least two WWII PT boats painted with this dazzle camouflage. On PT boats, most of which saw duty in the South Pacific, the dazzle pattern became useless. This was likely due to their combat role, since they mainly attacked enemy shipping in the dark of night and used smoke generators to shroud their post-attack escape. They avoided enemy contact as much as possible in the light of day and since enemy aircraft were their most feared attackers, there was little use for dazzle patterns painted on their port and starboard sides. Also, PT boats were rarely targeted by enemy submarines in WWII, making dazzle camouflage ineffective. The Pacific PT boats, however, did use a different type of camouflage involving foliage covering the boats while they were at anchor in their respective island bases. This was done to hide the boats from enemy aircraft patrols.

It is interesting to note that it was the Connecticut artist Everett L. Warner, an impressionist painter associated with the Lyme Art Colony, who was instrumental in the American development of the “dazzle” camouflage technique.

Although developed independently by the British, who called their designs “razzle dazzle”, Warner’s bold and deceptive patterns became known as the Warner technique and were officially adopted by the U.S. Navy. Other Lyme Art Colony artists produced some of the iconic war morale-boosting images and posters from the First World War period. Dazzle camouflage historically remains as a fascinating combination of art and technology as a defensive mechanism utilized in the past two world wars.

— Guest post by Lee Greenwood, Rosenfeld Collection volunteer

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