Sunday, March 21, 2010

Vaterland | Leviathan

Above are matching photos of a German ship initially called the SS Vaterland, until it was captured by the US and converted to a giant troopship called the SS Leviathan. Depending on the source, the design of its dazzle camouflage is sometimes attributed to British camoufleur Norman Wilkinson (who originated dazzle-painting) or to American artist Frederick J. Waugh (under the direction of Everett L. Warner). It may be that both statements are accurate, since it's likely that Waugh was among a team of artists who worked with Wilkinson when he was "loaned" by the British to the US Navy for the purpose of helping the US set up its own dazzle-painting unit. Whatever, the Leviathan was among the most famous examples of World War I ship camouflage. There is a reference to it at the end of this lengthy excerpt from Frederick Augustus Sherwood, Glimpses of South America. New York: The Century Company, 1920, pp. 18-19—

[During World War I, the steamers of the United Fruit Company, which were usually painted white and referred to in advertising as "the great white fleet," had instead been painted] gray, or impressionistic mixtures of black, blue, green, and yellow. Wonderful geometric patterns shot clear up their masts and funnels, and completely erased all such things as portholes.

Speaking of camouflage reminds me of a number of unusual effects we saw during the course of our travels. One of these was a house and garden painted on the side of the vessel, with a broad gravel walk leading down to the waterline. This was very striking. Evidently the idea was to lead the undersea pirates [German U-boats] to believe they were nearing home, so that they would come up and be captured. The scenic artist who was responsible had done well—but I am still rather skeptical.

Reversed vessels, that is ships made up to appear as though they were going in the opposite direction to their real course, were common. Some of them were remarkably well done. It requires considerable ingenuity to secure this effect, necessitating as it did the versing of the angle of the funnel and other parts of the superstructure that usually slope slightly towards the real stern. We passed one such ship in the Panama Canal that was so well done that it could hardly be detected, even at that close range.
We also passed a ship in the Canal that looked from a little distance as though it was being convoyed by a torpedo boat. The smaller boat painted on the side of the larger one was perfect in every detail, even to the bone that it carried in its teeth.

The more general kaleidoscopic effects, great splotches of brilliant colors, seemed at first glance to attract attention instead of concealing. It was surprising how quickly such ships lost their identity after passing. You can't actually hide a vessel on the high seas very well, but apparently you can easily change it into a haystack, a mountain, or an intermediate mass of nothing at all. This, of course, is the main purpose of all such camouflage.

One of the most remarkable specimens of this type that we collected appeared at a little distance to be two separate masses of wreckage, with considerable clear water between. It was not until we were directly abreast of it, and only a few hundred yards away, that it turned out to be one of the new standardized freighters on its way to Chile for nitrate. There were only three colors used on this vessel, black, pearl gray, and a sort of dirty pink. Apparently there was no method whatever in the mass of triangles, parallelograms and stripes of these colors, but they had certainly been most scientifically designed to secure the effect sought for. How they divided the boat into two seemingly unattached sections was most remarkable.

Camouflage has served its purpose—and has served other purposes also. It has made prosaic steamships picturesque, and they have enjoyed a favor among artists that has always previously been denied them. Innumerable sketches and paintings of ships in phantasmagorical designs and every color of the rainbow have resulted. Some of these are works of art. All are excellent records of a monstrous period. But camouflage, while increasing picturesqueness and artistic value, takes away much of the sense of power and strength that we have always been accustomed to associate with steamships in their normal dress.

The Leviathan in black, blue, and white checkers, and with long diagonal streaks of yellow, looks puerile in comparison.