Dazzle camouflage, also known as Razzle Dazzle or Dazzle painting, was a camouflage paint scheme used on ships, extensively during World War I and to a lesser extent in World War II. Credited to artist Norman Wilkinson, it consisted of a complex pattern of geometric shapes in contrasting colors, interrupting and intersecting each other.
The rangefinders were based on the co-incidence principle with an optical mechanism, operated by a human to compute the range. The operator adjusted the mechanism until two half-images of the target lined up in a complete picture. Dazzle was intended to make that hard because clashing patterns looked abnormal even when the two halves were aligned. This became more important when submarine periscopes included similar rangefinders. As an additional feature, the dazzle pattern usually included a false bow wave to make estimation of the ship's speed difficult.
Invented by the artist Norman Wilkinson, a lieutenant commander on Royal Navy patrol duty, dazzle was implemented on SS Industry. HMS Alsatian became the first Navy ship in August 1917. The U.S. Navy adopted it, as one of several techniques, next year.
All British patterns were different, first tested on small wooden models viewed through a periscope in a studio. Most of the model designs were painted by women artists from London's Royal Academy of Arts. A foreman then scaled up their designs for the real thing. Painters, however, were not alone in the project. Creative people including sculptors, abstract artists, and set designers designed camouflage.
Dazzle's effectiveness is not certain. The British Admiralty concluded it had no effect on submarine attacks, but proved to be a morale boost for crews. It also increased the morale of people not involved in fighting; hundreds of wonderfully coloured ships in dock was nothing ever seen before or since. American naval leadership thought dazzle effective. Dazzle continued to be used until the end of World War II.
However effective the scheme was in WWI, it became less useful as rangefinders became more advanced, and, by the time it was put to use again in WWII, radar further reduced its effectiveness. However, it may still have confounded submarines. In a 1919 lecture, Norman Wilkinson explained:
The US Navy implemented a camouflage painting program for all Tennessee-class battleships in World War II. The designs were not arbitrary, but were standardized in a process which involved a planning stage followed by fleet-wide implementation.
During both World Wars, former ocean liners owned by British steamship companies like Cunard Line were re-commissioned as an integral part of the British fleet. These auxiliary vessels were re-fitted with armament and re-painted in the same manner as other fleet ships. For example, this meant that the former Canadian Pacific Steamships passenger liner, the RMS Empress of Russia, was given the "dazzle" treatment when she was converted into a troopship.