Monday, May 26, 2014

What Was It Like To Paint A Ship In Camouflage?

Above Port side (top) and starboard side of the SS War Magpie, a British cargo ship, painted in dazzle camouflage. The designs on the ship's two sides are deliberately different, in the hope of increasing  confusion and preventing identification, when viewed through a U-boat periscope. The original photographs, made c1919 by Allan C. Green, are in the collection of the Victoria State Library AU. When ship camouflage was first applied, the colors were vivid and sharply defined, but after a few months at sea, it began to deteriorate, as is evident here.


What was it like to paint a ship in camouflage? We've seen a handful of photographs of ship camoufleurs at work. And now and then we've run across brief eyewitness memories of the process of actually painting a ship. But the following is the most detailed account we've found so far. Its American author is not credited, but it is stated that the essay first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor. We found it in reprinted form in THE WHY AND HOW OF DAZZLE in The Daily News (Perth, Western Australia), May 19, 1919, p. 4—

They certainly did look strange, those ships; patched and lined, like grandmother's crazy quilt with broad black, white and blue bands and stripes, gray, green, and almost every color save the mythical sky-blue-pink.

Passengers on the ferries lined the rails and made many and varied comments on their strange appearance.…

Painting a ship is very simple—theoretically—just take a brush and paint and "go to it"—just like that. Of course we [American ship camoufleurs] had a plan, a design furnished by the Navy Department, which showed a view of the two sides of the ship (the sides were different, by the way), and a husky gang of painters, but ship painting is different from painting a house; much larger, oh vastly.

When we first stood under the bows of a newly launched tank steamer and looked up at her, she was an appalling thing to a novice. Thirty-five feet out of water the bow towered, a sheer wall of steel, flaring outward at the top to make it doubly difficult. On that curving rampart we had to make accurate lines in curves, and beautiful parabolas (I think that is the word). At any rate, I would have given the old family clock and all my loose change just that minute for a pair of foot warmers.

It wasn't so bad after we started, though the first ship was far from a model. Slinging stages over the bow, we put two painters on them with poles and chalk, and by gestures and megaphoned instructions from the wharf had them spot in points on the curves and connect them.•

It is quite impossible, unless one is highly experienced, to draw these curves and lines when standing close to the ship. One needs to be 100 feet away properly to judge the proportion; and the effectiveness of the design depends largely on its accuracy. Later we learned to use a mirror, flashing the spots on the side one after the other along the course of a curve, and stretching a long chalk line for the straights snapped by a man in the center. Sometimes we used long "battens," strips of thin board, bending them to the proper curve, and a 20-foot fish pole with a brush on the tip helped to strike in the more complicated forms. Strange as it may seem, the hardest forms to apply to a ship are long parallel straight lines which converge to points near bow or stern. For some reason we never could seem to get the angles just right. 

It was no place for a dainty man, when working on the floats alongside, for a rain of things descended on us. Bolts, hot rivets, scraps of iron, and heavier things like lumps of wood and heavy pieces of rope, when working in the shipyards, come down at unexpected intervals. No use yelling up at the man on the deck to be careful—with 500 men hammering and drilling and reaming, conversation is at a discount. You can only dodge and grin cheerfully at the painters.

Then again tugs and steamers have a way of pulling a heavy wash into the slips when one is on a high staging 12 feet or so above the water. The float rocks violently without the slightest warning, and if you have not fallen overboard at the first roll you drop on your hands and knees and grip until the float is fairly still again. When this is past, and you are congratulating yourself, some enthusiastic painter tips over his pail of dark blue, or whatever color he happens to be using, directly above you, perhaps, or the cook happens to think of some refuse that needs disposing of, and then there are holes in the side of the ship where water—hot or cold—pops out without any warning. A camoufleur is not a camoufleur unless he falls overboard regularly once a week.

Still it was a great game while it lasted, taken with the interesting experimental work on little models in a mechanical theatre with a sea foreground and a painted strip to imitate sky—this in the intervals of ship painting. The dazzle painted ships are now fast disappearing under their peace coats of gray. May they never again need the services of American camoufleurs.

• This method of initially putting in dots, then connecting them, is comparable to pouncing, a technique used by artists for transferring a design from one surface to another.

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