One of Germany’s most feared and effective weapons during World War I was its fleet of submarines—known as U-boats—that roamed the Atlantic, sneaking up underwater on British merchant ships and destroying them with torpedoes. During the course of the war, they sank more than 5,700 vessels, killing more than 12,700 non-combatants in the process.
The British weren’t sure what to do. Camouflage worked in land warfare, but it was another matter for an object as big as a cargo ship to blend into the ocean, especially when smoke was billowing from its stacks.
But a Royal Navy volunteer reserve lieutenant named Norman Wilkinson—a painter, graphic designer and newspaper illustrator in his civilian life—came up with a radical but ingenious solution: Instead of trying to hide ships, make them conspicuous.
By covering ships’ hulls with startling stripes, swirls and irregular abstract shapes that brought to mind the Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque, one could momentarily confuse a German U-boat officer peering through a periscope. The patterns would make it more difficult to figure out the ship’s size, speed, distance and direction.
Wilkinson’s idea was a startling contrast to those of other camouflage theorists. American artist Abbott Thayer, for example, advocated painting ships white and concealing their smokestacks with canvas in an effort to make them blend into the ocean, according to Smithsonian.
Wilkinson’s camouflage scheme was designed to interfere with those calculations, by making it difficult to tell which end of the ship was which, and where it was headed. With torpedoes, there wasn’t much margin for error, so if the dazzle camouflage threw off the calculations by only a few degrees, that might be enough to cause a miss and save a British ship.
An art-lover today might assume that dazzle camouflage was the brainchild of a cubist painter, not someone such as Wilkinson, a representational artist who liked to paint ships and seascapes. Claudia Covert, a special collections librarian at the Rhode Island School of Design and author of a 2007 article on Dazzle camouflage in Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, says that Wilkinson “was probably aware of these contemporary movements—Cubism, Futurism, and Vorticism. In fact, one of the Vorticist painters, Edward Wadsworth, oversaw ships being dazzled in Liverpool during the war.”
By the end of the war, more than 2,300 British ships had been decorated with dazzle camouflage. How successful dazzle actually was in thwarting U-boat attacks isn’t clear. As Forbes explains, a postwar commission concluded that it probably only provided a slight advantage.