Dazzled! How a British artist transformed the seas of WWI

Dr James Fox

It was the middle of the First World War, and the Germans were engaged in a highly destructive campaign against the British Navy. By the spring of 1917, German submarines were successfully sinking as many as eight British ships a day, crippling Britain’s defences. A solution was urgently needed.

A dazzling suggestion came from an unlikely source: artist Norman Wilkinson, renowned for his marine paintings and illustrations. His idea was to paint Britain’s naval fleet with bright, disorientating shapes, so that the enemy would be unable to calculate the type, size, scale, speed, direction and distance of the ship in their sights. The authorities were so convinced by Wilkinson’s idea, they ‘dazzled’ 2,300 ships through the course of WW1.

Over the last four years, 14-18 NOW, the UK’s art programme for the First World War centenary, and Liverpool Biennial have co-commissioned five leading contemporary artists to create unique ‘dazzle’ designs that transform real-life ships in the UK and USA. In this HENI Talk, art historian and broadcaster Dr James Fox takes to the water and reveals the fascinating history of this hyper-visible camouflage and its artistic legacy.

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Just over a hundred years ago, the British Isles were surrounded by extremely dangerous waters. It was the middle of the First World War, and the Germans were engaged in a highly successful, and destructive, campaign. Their U-boats had been attacking Britain’s Merchant Navy since the very beginning of the conflict, but their strike-rate had grown with every year.

By the spring of 1917, German submarines were sinking as many as eight British ships every single day. Britain’s Navy, so long unequalled around the world, had been brought to its knees, and a solution was desperately needed.

The Admiralty tried many things. They introduced convoys, whereby merchant vessels were protected by warships. They used aircraft to spot U-boats from above. And they equipped some ships with depth charges and sonar. Now, none of these measures was particularly effective, but then in the first half of 1917 a new idea arrived – and it came from a very unlikely source.

Norman Wilkinson was an artist. He was best known for his marine paintings and illustrations. In 1915, Wilkinson joined the Royal Navy and witnessed the sinking of many British ships. In 1917, he invented a method that he thought could save them. His answer was camouflage – but not as we know it.

Now, most camouflage was designed to hide things. But Norman Wilkinson knew it was impossible to hide a ship at sea, it simply couldn’t be done, so he decided to do the very opposite. His camouflage was designed not to make ships invisible, but hypervisible. He wanted to take the entire British fleet, which was predominantly dark grey, and cover it in brightly coloured patterns. And this is one of the very first models, dating back to 1917, hand made out of wood and metal, and covered in blue and white, and black and white stripes. Now you might ask: how could this design have possibly disguised, and, indeed, protected this ship? It looks like utter madness, and there were many people thought Wilkinson was mad, but there was method in this madness.

A number of people before Wilkinson, most of them zoologists, had described how animals had used disruptive patterns to trick their predators. Well, this is exactly what is happening here, these patterns are designed to break up the form of ship and confuse its enemies. So, just imagine for instance that you are a German gunner in a submarine, you’re staring in a periscope across the water at this. These patterns will make it very difficult for you to calculate the type, size, scale, speed, direction and distance of this ship, and therefore make it far more difficult to strike it with a torpedo.

Now, Wilkinson called this scheme Dazzle Camouflage.

This is a design for the HMS Birmingham. She was a light cruiser warship about 140 metres long, and well acquainted with submarine warfare. Within just a few days of the outbreak of war, she was lost in fog in the Shetlands when she was attacked by a German U-boat. Now, this ship was originally painted in dark grey, but here it has been transformed into these zigzags that look like rooftops receding into the distance. And you can just imagine that if a German gunner saw this ship near the coast, he might find it difficult to work out where the ship ended and the land began, and that would have made it very difficult for him to calculate his range.

And this is HMS Engadine, and Wilkinson has covered her in this psychedelic pattern of black and, white and sky blue, and avocado green. But unlike HMS Birmingham, he’s not done this with straight lines and zig zags, he’s used curving forms that swirl like the waves on which she is sailing. It was about creating doubt, it was about creating confusion.

The Admiralty was persuaded. In May 1917, they allowed Wilkinson to apply his designs to some real ships. He formed a unit in the basement of the Royal Academy where a team of designers, model makers, and painters – many of them women – constructed innumerable designs, and then tested them carefully. By the middle of 1918, 2,300 British vessels had been painted.

So, for the million-dollar question: did it actually work? Well the truth is – we don’t know. Some reports claimed that dazzle made no difference at all. Others insisted that it did, indeed, make ships harder to strike with torpedoes, and therefore more likely to survive a U-boat attack. What’s certain is the authorities believed in it. The US, Italian and French Navies all embraced Wilkinson’s invention, and the British continued dazzling their merchant vessels until as late as 1937.

But Dazzle’s greater legacy was cultural. In the aftermath of the war it became highly fashionable, appearing in themed balls, and even bathing suits.

It also influenced the course of modern art. This picture was made by Edward Wadsworth. Wadsworth was responsible for applying Dazzle to ships all over the country. Here, his experiences have been converted into a masterpiece of abstraction. Dazzle’s impact continued into the later twentieth century: in art, and in more unexpected places, too.

Now, a century after they first started circling our coastline, Dazzle ships are back. Over the last four years, 14-18 NOW, the UK’s art programme for the First World War Centenary and Liverpool Biennial, have commissioned five leading contemporary artists to create unique Dazzle designs, transforming real-life ships in the UK and the USA.

In 2014 Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez decorated an old pilot ship called the Edmund Gardner. Later that year, the German artist Tobias Rehberger dazzled HMS President in London – one of only three surviving Royal Navy warships from the First World War. In 2016 Scottish artist Ciara Philips dazzled MV Fingal in Leith. In 2018, American artist Tauba Auerbach transformed a decommissioned fireboat in New York into a major artwork, inspired by the physics of fluid dynamics. And here in Liverpool, the great British Pop artist, Sir Peter Blake, has decorated the Mersey Ferry Snowdrop with a design called Everybody Razzle Dazzle. Covered in zigzags, chequerboards, stars and targets, the ship reinvents Dazzle for the Pop age, and the public can travel on it until 2019.

Dazzle camouflage has had an extraordinary legacy that extends far beyond its original purpose. Over the last hundred years it has become a symbol of modernity itself, and it continues to dazzle us today.

With thanks to…
14-18 NOW
Arts Council England
Roy R. Behrens
Bloomberg Philanthropies
Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Heritage Lottery Fund
Imperial War Museums
Liverpool Biennial
Patrica van Lubeck
A. Michael Noll
Peter Saville Associates
Camilla Wilkinson
Norman Wilkinson Estate


Footage Farm
Victoria and Albert Museum




Images shown:

WW1 German U-Boats Sinking British Ships, 1917
Footage Farm 221790-08


Photograph of Norman Wilkinson
© Norman Wilkinson Estate


Shot of zebras running away from Lion,
Multi-bits / DigitalVision / Getty Images


Artist’s conception of a U-boat commander’s periscope view of a merchant ship in dazzle camouflage and the same ship uncamouflaged
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1922


Dazzle Camouflage: War and Space
Animation Camilla Wilkinson, Clare Hamman 2018
© camillawilkinson


HMS Birmingham [Starboard], 1917
Ink and gouache on paper (HMS Order No. 72)
Imperial War Museum
© IWM (Art.IWM DAZ 0051 1)


HMS Engadine [Port and Starboard], 1917
Pencil, ink and gouache on paper
(HMS Order No. 45)
Imperial War Museum
© IWM (Art.IWM DAZ 0040 1)


Miscellaneous First World War Naval Material 1, 1918
Film archive
Imperial War Museum
© IWM (IWM 550-1)


Artists working on Dazzle Camouflage in the Royal Academy School studios, 1917
© Norman Wilkinson Estate


Testing theatre of British Dazzle Section at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, London, c.1917
Image Source: NARA 165-WW-70C-009
Courtesy Roy R. Behrens


Evening World Daily Magazine (New York), 31 May 1919, p.1
Courtesy Roy R. Behrens


Boston Sunday Post, 18 August 1918
Courtesy Roy R. Behrens


New York Tribune, 15 June 1919, p.4
Courtesy Roy R. Behrens


Artworks on the rack from left to right:

Drydocked for Scaling and Painting
Edward Wadsworth, 1918
Art. IWM ART 16380 (far left)


Dockyard, Portsmouth
J.D. Fergusson, 1918
© The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland
Art. IWM ART 1041 (upper left)


The Appam, London Docks
John Lavery, 1916
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 1281) (bottom left)


An Armoured Cruiser, Showing Fracture. Divers Going Down to Investigate
John Wheatley, 1918
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2246) (upper right)


Ships in No. 1 Basin
Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, 1918
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 565) (bottom right)


SS Lackawanna
Sholto J. Douglas, 1918
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 1041) (far right)


Ninety Parallel Sinusoids with Linearly Increasing Period
A.Michael Noll, 1964
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Tours Aillaud
Émile Aillaud, 1977
Photo: Son appareil photo / John (21 January 2000)
CC0 1.0


Dazzle Ships (album cover)
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, 1983
Design by Peter Saville Associates


Opel Kadett painted in dazzle design
Patricia van Lubeck, 1990
Courtesy Patrica van Lubeck


Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW and Liverpool Biennial
Supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies


Induction Chromatique à Double Fréquence pour L’Edmund Gardner Ship
Carlos Cruz-Diez, 2014
Edmund Gardner, Liverpool.

Co-commissioned with Liverpool Biennial and Tate Liverpool in partnership with National Museums Liverpool (Merseyside Maritime Museum). With support from Ernest Cook Trust, Cammell Laird, International Paint, Weightmans.


Dazzle Ship London
Tobias Rehberger, 2014
HMS President (1918), London
In association with the University of the Arts London Chelsea College of Arts, HMS President (1918) and Tate Liverpool, in partnership with National Museums Liverpool (Merseyside Maritime Museum). Supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, Goethe-Institut London and Schroder Charity Trust.


Every Woman
Ciara Phillips, 2016
MV Fingal, Edinburgh
Co-commissioned with Edinburgh Art Festival with support from Scottish Government, Creative Scotland, City of Edinburgh Council, The Royal Yacht Britannia Trust, Forth Ports, Sherwin-Williams.


Flow Separation
Tauba Auerbach, 2018
John J Harvey, New York
Footage from a Film by SandenWolff. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
Co-commissioned with Public Art Fund. Dazzle Ship series co-commissioned with Liverpool Biennial. Supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.


Everybody Razzle Dazzle
Sir Peter Blake, 2015
Snowdrop, Mersey Ferry, Liverpool
Co-commissioned with Liverpool Biennial and Tate Liverpool in partnership with Merseytravel and National Museums Liverpool (Merseyside Maritime Museum).


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