Sunday, May 24, 2015

Irvin Cobb and Camouflage: The SS Tuscania Sinks

Camouflaged SS Tuscania (c1918)
The following are excerpts pertaining to World War I ship camouflage from the wartime writings of American author Irvin S. Cobb. The text appeared initially in the Saturday Evening Post (August 1918), and was then reprinted in his book, The Glory of the Coming: What Mine Eyes Have Seen of Americans in Action in This Year of Grace and Allied Endeavor (George H. Doran, 1918). Cobb left for Europe with a convoy of twelve ships (the SS Tuscania among them), four of which were later sunk by German U-boats.

As described in Anita Lawson's biography, Irvin S. Cobb (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984), his daughter was there to wave good-bye as he sailed off on the RMS Baltic. She wrote: "I remember the shock of seeing that his ship was camouflaged and realizing that it was thus strangely striped and stippled because it was going into the most perilous places and with my father aboard it."

As described in the article, near the end of the voyage on February 5, 1918, the SS Tuscania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of England, with the result that 250 passengers died. Cobb's own ship was close enough to witness the sinking.

Shown above is a contemporaneous illustration of the SS Tuscania, which was painted in a dazzle camouflage scheme. Other ship camouflage illustrations from 1918 (all of which were published in the Saturday Evening Post) are interspersed throughout the text.

Because she was camouflaged with streaky marks and mottlings into the likeness of a painted Jezebel of the seas, because she rode high out of the water, and wallowed as she rode, because during all those days of our crossing she hugged up close to our ship, splashing through the foam of our wake as though craving the comfort of our company, we called her things no self-respecting ship should have to bear. But when that night, we stood on the after-deck of our ship, we running away as fast as our kicking screw would take us, and saw her going down, taking American soldier boys to death with her in alien waters, we drank toasts standing up to the poor old Tuscania.…



We had known in advance that there were guns in great number disposed about the surrounding terrain. Walking about under military guidance in the afternoon we had seen sundry batteries ensconced under banks, in thickets and behind low natural parapets where the earth ridged up; and had noted how cunningly they had been concealed from airplanes scouting above and from the range of field glasses in the German workings on beyond.

But we had no notion until then that there were so many guns near by or that some of them were so close to the village where we had stopped to eat. We must almost have stepped on some of them without once suspecting their presence. The ability of the French so well to hide a group of five big pieces, each with a carriage as large as a two-ton truck and each with a snout projecting two or three yards beyond it, and with a limber projecting out behind it, shows what advances the gentle arts of ambuscade and camouflage have made since this war began. Seen upon the open road a big cannon painted as it is from muzzle to breach with splotchings of yellows and browns and ochres seems, for its size, the most conspicuous thing in the world. But once bedded down in its nest, with its gullet resting upon the ring back of earth that has been thrown up for it, and a miracle of protective coloration instantaneously is achieved. Its whole fabric seems to melt into and become a part of the soil and the withered herbage and the dirt-colored sandbags which encompass it abaft, alongside and before. It is the difference between a mottled snake crawling across a brick sidewalk and the same snake coiled and motionless amid dried leaves and boulders in the woods. Nature always has protected her wild creatures thus; it took the greatest of wars for mankind to learn a lesson that is as old as creation is.… 




But the quarters of the flying machines, through their vastness and isolation, acquire a certain quality of catching the eye that is entirely lacking for the rest of the picture—the big hangars in the background, suggesting by their shape and number the pitched encampment of a three-ring circus; the flappy canvas shields at the open side of the dromes, which being streaked and daubed with paint camouflage, enhance the carnival suggestion by looking, at a distance, like side-show banners; the caravans of trucks drawn up in lines; and in fine weather the flying craft resting in the landing field, all slick and groomed and polished, like a landed proprietor's blooded stock, giving off flashes from aluminum and varnish and steel and deft cabinetwork in answer to the caresses of the sunshine.…




Master of theatrical trick and device that he is, none the less David Belasco could learn lessons at our camouflaging plant. He probably would feel quite at home there, too, seeing that the place has a most distinctive behind-the-scenes atmosphere of its own; it is a sort of overgrown combination of scenery loft, property room, paint shop and fancy-dress costumer's establishment, where men who gave up sizable incomes to serve their country in this new calling work long hours seeking to improve upon the artifices already developed—and succeeding—and to create brand-new ones of their own.

As a branch of military modernism camouflaging is even newer than the trade of scientific salvaging is and offers far larger opportunities for future exploitation. After all there are just so many things and no more that may be done with and to a pair of worn-out rubber boots, but in the other field the only limits are the limits of the designer's individual ingenuity and his individual skill.

We came, under guidance, to a big open-fronted barracks where hundreds of French women and French girls made screenage for road protection and gun emplacements. The materials they worked with were simple enough: rolls of ordinary chicken wire, strips of burlap sacking dyed in four colors—bright green, yellowish green, tawny and brown—and wisps of raffia with which to bind the cloth scraps into the meshes of the wire. For summer use the bright green is used, for early spring and fall the lighter green and the tawny; and for winter the brown and the tawny mingled. For, you see, camouflage has its seasons, too, marching in step with the swing of the year. Viewed close up the completed article looks to be exactly what it is—chicken wire festooned thickly with gaudy rags. But stretch a breadth of it across a dip in the earth and then fling against it a few boughs cut from trees, and at a distance of seventy-five yards no man, however keen-eyed, can say just where the authentic foliage leaves off and the artificial joins on.




For roadsides in special cases there is still another variety of camouflage, done in zebra-like strips of light and dark rags alternating, and this stuff being erected alongside the open highway is very apt indeed to deceive your hostile observer into thinking that what he beholds is merely a play of sunlight and shade upon a sloped flank of earth; and he must venture very perilously near indeed to discern that the seeming pattern of shadows really masks the movements of troops. This deceit has been described often enough, but the sheer art of it takes on added interest when one witnesses its processes and sees how marvellously its effects are brought about.

In an open field used for experimenting and testing was a dump pile dotted thickly with all the nondescript d├ębris that accumulates upon the outer slope of a dug-in defense where soldiers have been—loose clods of earth, bits of chalky stone, shattered stumps, empty beef tins, broken mess gear, discarded boots, smashed helmets, and such like. It was crowned with a frieze of stakes projecting above the top of the trench behind it, and on its crest stood one of those shattered trees, limbless and ragged, that often are to be found upon terrains where the shelling has been brisk.

Here for our benefit a sort of game was staged. First we stationed ourselves sixty feet away from the mound. Immediately five heads appeared above the parapet—heads with shrapnel helmets upon them, and beneath the helmet rims sunburned faces peering out. The eyes looked this way and that as the heads turned from side to side.

"Please watch closely," said the camouflage officer accompanying us. "And as you watch, remember this: Two of those heads are the heads of men. The three others are dummies mounted on sticks and manipulated from below. Since you have been at the Front you know the use of the dummy—the enemy sniper shoots a hole in it and the men in the pit, by tracing the direction of the bullet through the pierced composition, are able to locate the spot where Mister Sniper is hidden. Now then, try to pick out the real heads from the fake ones."

There were three of us, and we all three of us tried. No two agreed in our guesses and not one of us scored a perfect record; and yet we stood very much nearer than any enemy marksman could ever hope to get. The lifelikeness of the thing was uncanny.

"Next take in the general layout of that spot," said the camouflage expert, with a wave of his hand toward the dump pile. "Looks natural and orthodox, doesn't it? Seems to be just the outer side of a bit of trench work, doesn't it? Well, it isn't. Two of those stakes are what they appear to be—ordinary common stakes. The other two are hollow metal tubes, inside of which trench periscopes are placed. And the tree trunk is faked, too. It is all hollow within—a shell of light tough steel with a ladder inside, and behind that twisted crotch where the limbs are broken off the observer is stationed at this moment watching us through a manufactured knothole. The only genuine thing about that tree trunk is the bark on it—we stripped that off of a beech over in the woods.

"The dump heap isn't on the level either, as you possibly know, since you may have seen such dump piles concealing the sites of observation pits up at the Front. Inside it is all dug out into galleries and on the side facing us it is full of peepholes—seventeen peepholes in all, I think there are. Let's go within fifteen feet of it and see how many of them you can detect."

At a fifteen-foot range it was hard enough for us to make out five of the seventeen peep places. Yet beforehand we understood that each tin can, each curled-up boot, each sizable tuft of withered grass, each swirl of the tree stump—masked a craftily hidden opening shielded with fine netting, through which a man crouching in safety beneath the surface of the earth might study the land in front of him. That innocent-appearing, made-to-order dump pile had the eyes of a spider; but even so, the uniformed invader might have climbed up and across it without once suspecting the truth.

For a final touch the camouflage crew put on their best stunt of all. Five men encased themselves in camouflage suits of greenish-brown canvas which covered them head, feet, body and limbs, and which being decorated with quantities of dried, grass-like stuff sewed on in patches, made them look very much as Fred Stone used to look when he played the Scarecrow Man in The Wizard of Oz years ago. Each man carried a rifle, likewise camouflaged. Then we turned our backs while they took position upon a half-bare, half-greened hillock less than a hundred feet from us.

This being done we faced about, and each knowing that five armed men were snuggled there against the bank tried to pick them out from their background. It was hard sledding, so completely had the motionless figures melted into the herbage and the chalky soil. Finally we united in the opinion that we had located three of the five. But we were wrong again. We really had picked out only one of the five. The two other suspected clumps were not men but what they seemed to be—small protrusions in the ragged and irregular turf. Yes, I am sure Mr. Belasco could have spent a fruitful half hour or so there with us.

Thanks to yet another crafty and deceitful artifice of the camouflage outfit it is possible to make the enemy think he is being attacked by raiders advancing in force when as a matter of fact what he beholds approaching him are not files of men but harmless dummies operated by a mechanism that is as simple as simplicity itself. The attack will come from elsewhere while his attention is focused upon the make-believe feint, but just at present there are military reasons why he should not know any of the particulars. It would take the edge of his surprise, even though he is not likely to live to appreciate the surprise once the trick has been pulled.