31 July 2017 will see the release of the fourth of five stamp issues from Royal Mail which mark the centenary of the First World War. As with the previous Great War issues, the events of the year, in this case 1917, are explored through stamps depicting poppies, poetry, war art, a memorial and an artefact.
Many aspects of the Great War may be familiar to you including the hardships endured by the soldiers and the landmark battles. These are showcased in this evocative series of stamps as are many of the new innovations which were utilised during the conflict. One of these, which you may not be familiar with, was the use of dazzle camouflage.
Dazzling the Opposition
If your fertile imagination is now conjuring images of sparkly combats think again! Dazzle camouflage was not a feature of battle dress and it certainly wasn’t sparkly! This was a new concept for use on ships and was an attempt to make the vessels harder to attack. If you take a look at the war art stamp in this issue, you will get the general idea of what a dazzle ship looked like.
Dazzle was an unlikely form of camouflage in that the patterns employed drew attention to ships rather than concealing them. The allied forces had been unable to come up with any effective way of hiding ships in all weather conditions. A new approach to protection was required and zoologist Graham Kerr proposed the idea of confusing the opposition with disruptive camouflage. Working on the theory that nature knows best, Kerr’s idea was based on the effects created by the patterns of zebras and giraffes which disrupt the outline of the animals.
Countershading to Conceal
Kerr also proposed the use of countershading to render ships less visible. The Royal Navy experimented with the countershading idea in 1914 but quickly returned to plain grey paint having decided that shading was ineffective due to the changing light conditions. But by 1917, far too many ships were being lost and the idea of camouflage was revisited.
Norman Wilkinson was both a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officer and a marine artist. He agreed with Kerr’s original proposition that confusion rather than concealment was the answer but disagreed as to the nature of the confusion to be employed. He felt that it would be best to make it harder for the enemy to estimate a ship’s size, type, speed and heading as this would ensure that it was more difficult to take aim.
Wilkinson’s system involved the use of stripes and broken lines. His concept was adopted and subsequently more than 4000 British merchant ships were painted with his dazzle camouflage, beginning in August 1917.
Leap of Faith
The dazzle camouflage had been accepted by the Admiralty without first testing it scientifically. Indeed, there was no known scientific basis for Wilkinson’s patterns. This was a curious move on the part of the Admiralty as the potential effectiveness of Kerr’s animal based approaches, which the Admiralty had rejected, was supported by known examples of disruptive colouration and countershading in nature. Kerr had provided a clear and logical explanation of his theories whereas Wilkinson had based his only on his perceptions as an artist.
Unfortunately, Kerr had an uneasy relationship with the Admiralty and this could have influenced their decision to go with Wilkinson’s idea instead.
All of which begs one very important question – did all that razzle dazzle actually work?
Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the painted patterns has proved rather difficult to quantify. At the conclusion of the Great War, the Admiralty analysed shipping losses only to discover that dazzle ships were struck more often than uncamouflaged ships! But the paint effects were never intended to make the ships less visible.
The patterns were utilised to render accurate strikes more difficult to achieve. Here, the camouflage might have made a difference because dazzle ships were struck less frequently amidships and also sunk less often following a strike than uncamouflaged vessels. In short, the dazzle ships were easier to see but harder to hit.
To muddy the waters further, it was generally the larger ships which were bedazzled and smaller ships which remained uncamouflaged. Were the dazzle ships being struck more often simply because they were bigger targets? Ultimately it was impossible to accurately analyse the data. It could be that dazzle camouflage was a viable idea but that the wrong patterns were used.
Whether the camouflage worked or not, it was a fascinating concept. Technology has marched on and now there are better ways to conceal planes and vessels but perhaps none which are so fascinating.