Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Perils of Painting a Camouflaged Ship

Hypothetical dazzle schemes (2018)
Above and below. These are not historic ship camouflage schemes. They are hypothetical dazzle designs, produced by simply "looking through" cut-out silhouettes of ships, with various public domain photographs behind them. Produced by Roy R. Behrens (2018).


Unsigned, THE WHY AND HOW OF DAZZLE. Daily News (Perth, Western Australia). May 19, 1919, p. 4. Reprinted from the Christian Science Monitor

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.

“You see,” said one Solomon to his unwise friend, “that camouflage’ is a great thing all right! Yes, sir, that ship there when she gits to sea will just go plumb out of sight, Pop! You don’t see her at all when she gets to sea, so the Dutchmen can’t shoot her with their periscopes.”

“Seems to me,” said his friend rather doubtfully, “that I can see her better than that gray one over there.”

“Pshaw! That’s because you aren’t in a submarine. When she gets to sea, she blends right in with the waves and matches right-on to ‘em.”

The two in conversation did not know that the dirty overalled man with jointed fishing pole and roll of plans standing near by, an amused listener to the conversation, had just finishing applying a crazy quite design to the steamer in question, and knew that the reason for the lines and patterns was not by any means to hide the ship from the submarine observer.

Early in the war, when the German were sinking everything in sight, stern necessity, ever the mother of invention, evolved many systems of marine camouflage. Several Americans—Mackay, Brush, Herzog and Toch—had systems which were called by naval men “low visibility,” the object imitating the water and sky. This was in some degree successful under certain conditions; indeed in some weathers the ship so painted would disappear at a distance of a mile. But for one thing, this low visibility would have been a great success.

This thing was the same machine set in a shell of a submarine called the “skin hydrophone,” a very delicate and accurate device for detecting the sounds of a ship’s propeller. A ship could be discovered long before she could be seen from the low elevation of a periscope, and her course fairly accurately determined. That is, accurately enough to tell if she were coming toward or going away from the listener. Also, under certain conditions, it could be told if she were going to the right or left.

Such an instrument disposed once and for all of low visibility as an absolute protection, and it remained for an English artist, Norman Wilkinson, Command, Royal Navy, to invent a new and effective way of combating the submarine peril.

Broadly stated, his method of camouflage was a distortion, an optical illusion based on varied elements of perspective and drawing. Ships painted in this manner seemed to be sailing an entirely different course from the one they really followed, much to the confusion of the submarine observer.

Some people seem to think that to sink a ship a submarine has only to sight it. This is hardly the case. Quite complicated computation of the vessel’s distance, speed, and course are necessary together with wind, current, and temperature of the water; and a good many ships were missed only by a few feet, but still missed, and a miss was as good as a thousand miles.

That was the problem for the camoufleurs, when the United States entered the war [in 1917]. The Royal Navy sent Wilkinson across the Atlantic to impart his method. Early last year a Boston advertising man, Henry C. Grover, was engaged by the [Emergency Fleet Corporation] Shipping Board to organize a department of camouflage for all our immense merchant marine which was to be built. The thing was absolutely new and untried, but he got a group of artists and draftsmen together, and with his usual genius for getting results, the thing was humming in a month.

Painting a ship is very simple—theoretically—just take a brush and painting and “go to it”—just like that. Of course we 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.

Hypothetical dazzle schemes (2018)

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 from the straights snapped by a man in the center. Sometimes we used long “battens,” strips of thin board, bending them to the proper curves, 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 worked 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 fallen overboard at the first roll you drop on 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 colors 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 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 coasts of gray. May they never again need the services of American camoufleurs.

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