Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Vivid Account of Dazzle Camouflage

Muirhead Bone, from Merchantmen-at-Arms (1919)
THIS IS a large post, but deservedly so. It is a lengthy portion of a book (available in full online) by David W. Bone, titled Merchantmen-at-Arms: The British Merchants' Service in the War (London: Chatto & Windus, 1919). The author was one of three brothers from an extraordinary family of Scottish writers and artists. David William Bone was born in 1873. His father was a prominent Glasgow journalist, as was his older brother, James Bone, who was the London editor of the Manchester Guardian for more than thirty years. A younger brother (oddly, also named David) was Sir (David) Muirhead Bone, who, during World War I, was the country's first official war artist, a position he returned to during World War II. David W. Bone, who wrote the astonishing passages here, commanded British merchant ships. His brother Muirhead provided the illustrations for the book, three of which are published here. The excerpted text below is from an especially wonderful chapter called "On Camouflage—And Ships' Names" (the concluding paragraphs on naming ships, omitted here, are especially hilarious). It provides an engaging narrative of the development of WWI British naval camouflage, one that differs considerably from the standard widely-touted views. Undoubtedly it has to be one of the most vivid descriptions of dazzle camouflage by someone who actually witnessed its use. Here it is—

[Partly in response to the sinking of the British ocean liner the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat in May 1915, British merchant ship commanders] set about to make our vessels less conspicuous. Gray! We painted our hulls and funnels gray. In many colors of gray. The nuances of our coatings were accidental. Poor quality paint and variable untimely mixings contributed, but it was mainly by crew troubles (deficiency and incapacity) that we came by our first camouflage. As needs must, we painted sections at a time—a patch here, a plate or two there—laid on in the way that real sailors would call "inside-out"! We sported suits of many colors, an infinite variety of shades. Quite suddenly we realized that gray, in such an ample range—red-grays, blue-grays, brown-grays, green-grays—intermixed on our hulls, gave an excellent low-visibility color that blended into the misty northern landscape.

Bolshevik now in our methods, we worked on other schemes to trick the murderer's eye. Convention again beset our path. The great god Symmetry—whom we had worshipped to our undoing—was torn from his high place. The glamour of Balances, that we had thought so fine and ship shape, fell from our eyes, and we saw treachery in every regular disposition. Pairs—in masts, ventilators, rails and stanchions, boat-groupings, samson posts, even in the shrouds and rigging—were spies to the enemy, and we rearranged and screened and altered as best we could, in every way that would serve to give a false indication of  our course and speed. Freighters and colliers (that we had scorned because of ugly forward rake of mast and funnel) became the leaders of our fashion. We wedged our masts forward (where we could) and slung a gaff on the fore side of the foremast; we planked the funnel to look more or less upright; we painted a curling bow wash over the propeller and a black elaborate stern on the bows. We trimmed our ships by the head, and flattered ourselves that, Janus-like, we were heading all ways!

Muirhead Bone, from Merchantmen-at-Arms (1919)
Few, including the enemy, were greatly deceived. At that point where  alterations of apparent course were important—to put the putting Fritz off his stroke—the deck-houses and erections with their beam-wise fronts or ends would be plainly noted, and a true line of course be readily deduced. With all our new zeal, we stopped short of altering standing structures, but we could paint, and we made efforts to shield our weakness by varied applications. Our device was old enough, a return to the checker of ancient sea-forts and the line of painted gun-ports with which we used to decorate our clipper sailing ships. (That also was a  camouflage of its day—an effort to overawe Chinese and Malay pirates by the  painted resemblance to the gun-deck of a frigate.) We saw the eye-disturbing value of a bold crisscross, and those of us who had paint to spare made a "Hobson-jobson" of awning spars and transverse bulkheads.

These were our sea-efforts—rude trials effected with great difficulty in the  stress of the new sea-warfare. We could only see ourselves from a surface point of view, and, in our empirics, we had no official assistance. During our brief stay in port it was impossible to procure day-laboring gangs—even the "gulls" of the dockside were busy at sea. On a voyage, gun crews and extra look-outs left few hands of the watch available for experiments; in any case, our rationed paint covered little more than would keep the rust in check. We were relieved when new stars of marine coloration arose, competent shore concerns that, on Government instruction, arrayed us in a novel war paint. Our rough and amateurish tricks gave way to the ordered schemes of the dockyard; our ships  were armed for us in a protective coat of many colors.

Upon us like an avalanche came this real camouflage. Somewhere behind it all a genius of pantomimic transformation blazed his rainbow wand and fixed us. As we came in from sea, dazzle-painters swarmed on us, bespattered creatures with no bowels of compassion, who painted over our cherished glass and teak-wood and brass port-rims—the last lingering evidences of our gentility. Hourly we watched our trim ships take on the hues of a swingman's roundabouts. We learned of fancy colors known only in high art—alizarin and gray-pink, purple-lake and Hooker's green. The designs of our mantling held us in a maze of expectation. Bends and ecarteles, indents and rayons, gyrony and counter Flory, appeared on our topsides; curves and arrowheads were figured on boats and davits and deck fittings; apparently senseless dabs and patches were measured and imprinted on funnel curve and rounding of the ventilators; inboard and outboard we were streaked and crossed and curved.

With our arming of guns there was need for instruction in their service and maintenance; artificial smoke-screens required that we should be efficient in their use; our Otters called for some measure of seamanship in adjustment and control. So far all governmental appliances for our defense relied on our understanding and operation, but this new protective coloration, held aloof from our confidence, it was quite self-contained, there was no rule to be learnt; we were to be shipmates with a new contrivance, to the operation of which we had no control. For want of point in discussion, we criticized freely. We  surpassed ourselves in adjectival review; we stared in horror and amazement  as each newly bedizened vessel passed down the river. In comparison and simile  we racked memory for text to the gaudy creations. "Water running under a bridge."…”Forced draught on a woolly sheep's back."…”Mural decoration in a busy butcher's shop."…”Strike me a rosy bloody pink!" said one of the hands, "if this 'ere don't remind me o' jaundice an' malaria an' a touch o' th' sun, an' me in a perishin' dago 'orspittel!"

While naming the new riot of color grotesque—a monstrosity, an outrage, myopic madness—we were ready enough to grasp at anything that might help us in the fight at sea. We scanned our ships from all points and angles to unveil the hidden imposition. Fervently we hoped that there would be more in it than met our eye—that our preposterous livery was not only an effort to make Gargantuan faces at the Boche! Only the most splendid results could justify our bewilderment.

Out on the sea we came to a better estimate of the value of our novel war-paint. In certain lights and positions we seemed to be steering odd courses—it was very difficult to tell accurately the line of a vessel's progress. The low visibility that we seamen had sought was sacrificed to enhance a bold disruption of perspective. While our efforts at deception, based more or less on a one-color scheme of greys, may have rendered our ships less visible against certain favoring backgrounds of sea and sky, there were other weather conditions in which we would stand out sharply revealed. Abandoning the effort to cloak a stealthy sea passage, our newly constituted Department of Marine Camouflage decked us out in a bold pattern, skillfully arranged to disrupt our perspective, and give a false impression of our line of course. With a torpedo traveling to the limit of its run striking anything that may lie in its course, range is of little account. Deflection, on the other hand, is everything in the torpedo-man's problem—the correct estimation of a point of contact of two rapidly moving bodies. He relies for a solution on an accurate judgment of his target's course; it became the business of the dazzle-painters to complicate his working by a feint in color and design. The new camouflage has so distorted our sheer and disrupted the color in the mass as to make our vessels less easy to hit. If not invisible against average backgrounds, the dazzlers have done their work so well that we are at least partially lost in every elongation.

Muirhead Bone, from Merchantmen-at-Arms (1919)
The mystery withheld from us—the system of our decoration—has done much  to ease the rigors of our war-time sea-life. In argument and discussion on its origin and purpose we have found a topic, almost as unfailing in its interest as the record day's run of the old sailing ships. We are agreed that it is a brave martial coat we wear, but are divided in our theories of production. How is it done? By what shrewd system are we controlled that no two ships are quite alike in their splendor? We know that instructions come from a department of the Admiralty to the dockyard painters, in many cases by telegraph. Is there a system of abbreviations, a colorist’s shorthand, or are there maritime Heralds in Whitehall who blazon our arms for the guidance of the rude dockside painters? It can be worked out in fine and sonorous proportions:

Party per pale, a pale; first, gules, a fesse dancette, sable; second, vert, bendy, lozengy, purpure cottised with nodules of the first; third, sable, three billets bendwise in fesse, or: sur tout de tout, a barber's pole cockbilled on a sinking gasometer, all proper. For motto: "Doing them in the eye."

One wonders if our old conservatism, our clinging to the past, shall persist long after the time of strife has gone; if, in the years when war is a memory and the time comes to deck our ships in pre-war symmetry and grace of black hulls and white-painted deck-work and red funnels and all the gallant show of it, some old masters among us may object to the change.

“Well, have it as you like," they may say. "I was brought up in the good old-fashioned cubist system o' ship painting—fine patterns o' reds an' greens  an' Ricketts' blue, an' brandy-ball stripes an' that! None o' your damned new-fangled ideas of one-color sections for me!…Huh!…And black hulls, too!…Black! A funeral outfit!…No, sir! I may be wrong, but anyway, I'm too old now to chop and change about!"