Friday, July 6, 2018

UK Camoufleur Norman Wilkinson Visits as Advisor

Reginald Higgins (1919), The Dazzler
Above For the February 1919 issue of The Bystander magazine, Reginald Higgins created this satirical portrait of UK artist and ship camoufleur Norman Wilkinson, with the heading "The Dazzler." The text beneath the caricature reads: LIEUT-COMDR N. WILKINSON, RNVR, AT WORK IN HIS STUDIO: The success achieved by this gallant officer in beating the U-boats was entirely due to the copious experiments carried out regardless of personal comfort to his own studio furniture. The extreme secrecy of the work, moreover, proved an incessant strain. As reproduced in James Taylor, Dazzle: Disugise and Disruption in War and Art (Oxford: Pool of London Press, 2016).


BRITAIN’S MASTER CAMOUFLEUR SAILS: Lieutenant-Commander Wilkinson Is Originator Of “Dazzle System” For Protecting Ships: CAME HERE TO CONFER WITH U.S. CAMOUFLEURS: Applied System To Liner Leviathan, Then Took Honeymoon Trip On The Vessel in The Evening Sun (New York), Tuesday, April 30, 1918, p. 9—

New York, April 30—It is not often that a foreign officer slips into and out of the United States on an important errand without the public hearing anything about it. But that is just what Lieutenant-Commander Norman Wilkinson, of the British Navy, has done. He sailed the other day for England, after several weeks in this country on a mission that vitally concerns the safety of the great merchant fleet that is now in construction in United States shipyards, as well as the vessels, naval and commercial, that are already carrying American men and stores through the U-boat zone to Europe.

Commander Wilkinson may be called the originator of the “dazzle system” of ship camouflage, for the protection of vessels against submarines. The British Government lent him to this country for a few weeks in order that he could meet the members of the recently organized Camouflage Bureau in our Navy Department, given them his ideas, and pick up any suggestions for his own benefit that he might get as a result of seeing the work and talking with the men who have been developing camouflage in this country.

Seeks To Confuse Submarines

Right here it may be interpolated that the “dazzle system” of camouflage does not aim primarily at making a ship invisible. Considering the many kinds of weather and the varying backgrounds that vessel has to encounter, Commander Wilkinson has come to the conclusion that the “invisible ship” is an impossibility. His system seeks by the application of large contrasting masses of light and dark paint to confuse the submarine in regard to the oultine and the direction of the ship chosen as a target, and so make it likely that the torpedo will go astray.

USS Leviathan (1918)

Commander Wilkinson has at least the courage of his convictions in regard to camouflage. Just previous to his trip to America he was asked to apply his system to the world’s largest steamship, the [USS] Leviathan—which used to be the German liner Vaterland—when she reached Europe at the termination of her first transatlantic trip under the American flag. Another thing that Commander Wilkinson did just previous to his trip to America was to get married. Equally satisfied, apparently, both with his wife and his newly decorated German ship, he engaged passage upon it for his bride and himself, and combined a honeymoon trip to America with the trial run of the big liner under his own camouflage design.

Was Artist Before War

Commander Wilkinson  is an artist who had attained distinction by his painting—particularly his marine scenes—before the war. At the outbreak of the conflict he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, and was first assigned to minesweeping in the North Sea. When the Dardanelles expedition was dispatched he was sent along, and remained until the forces were recalled from Gallipoli.

In the meantime he had conceived his idea of ship camouflage, and upon his return to London he asked the Admiralty to let him experiment with a transport. He was personally so persuaded of the success of this that without waiting to note the experience of the vessel he begged for more work. The plea was granted, and he soon had designed the patterns for and supervised the painting of some 50 transports.

Then Commander Wilkinson turned his attention to the merchant marine, particularly to the mail ships which travel without convoy and rely chiefly on their speed and armament to protect them from the submarine. Before coming to America Commander Wilkinson was credited with having designed the camouflage for some 800 merchant vessels, including nearly all the British liners that run to and from New York.

Norman Wilkinson (1917)

…While Commander Wilkinson was here an effort was made through one of the officer’s friends to get him to talk for publication. Commander Wilkinson threw up his hands in alarm.

“The last thing they said to me at the Admiralty before I came away,” he responded, “was, ‘Now for Heaven’s sake, don’t go and get yourself interviewed.’”

These lines were written to certify to the Admiralty—with regret—that Lieutenant Commander Norman Wilkinson, RNVR, traveling in America on his Majesty’s service, carried out the orders of his superiors and did not go and get himself interviewed. They are also intended to suggest that if the ships that Commander Wilkinson decorates slip into and out of the submarine zone as noiselessly and as secretly as he slipped in and out of the United States, then he should be awarded, if not the VC, at least the companion order of MC—Master Camoufleur. 


EYE-WASH FOR U-BOATS: DAZZLE-PAINTING AND ITS HISTORY in Wanganui Chronicle (New Zealand), Friday, February 28, 1919, p. 5—

When Coleridge, in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” wrote of “a painted ship upon an painted ocean,” he had no prescience of the day when the dazzle-painted ships of an English artist mariner would leave Prussian submarines “all at sea.”

In an underground studio at Burlington House the inventor of paint-disguise for the vessels of the Allies, Lieutenant-Commander Norman Wilkinson RNVR, got to work in May 1917 on the designs which discomfited [German Grand Admiral] Tirpitz and the Hun pirates.

When I asked him how he had hit on the primary idea of successful camouflage for sea craft, he said: “It just came. I was sitting in a railway carriage deploring the fact that the black of our transports was an ideal color for the guidance of enemy submarines when the idea of a protective color scheme came into my head.”

Not Invisible

The developments of that idea have been extraordinary and multitudinous. Contrary to general belief, dazzle-painting is not an attempt to make vessels invisible. It is a sheer impossibility to do so. No matter how light in color the paint so used, there would always be parts of a vessel in deep shadow which would give her position away in almost every condition. The opposite effects would hold also.

Invisibility being ruled out by the laws of optics at sea, the scheme of Commander Wilkinson was to devise such paint patterns for the protection of ships as to break up their accepted lines and forms and render the estimation of their course and speed confusing to the men looking through Hun periscopes.

Norman Wilkinson (1917)

After infinite experimenting, marine camouflage became an exact science. Concealment of bow lines and sterns by strips of paint that presented false outlines was one of the first things aimed at, but the scheme of distortion extended to the whole vessel. At first many colors were used, and all kinds of curves and kinks employed in the patterns.

In the final evolution of [British] dazzle-painting four salient colors have been adopted—blue-gray, strong blue, black, and a pale gray which stands for white. Lines took the place of curves. The effects of slanted lines in dazzle-paints leave the brain jangled.

"Battered" Warship

The Admiralty, finding that camouflage saved ships from Hun torpedoes, countenanced its use on fifty merchant ships, and then on the whole of the mercantile marine. It was used on fighting ships also. When Admiral [Reginald] Tyrwhitt’s flagship came into Harfleur [Normandy] under “dazzle” onlookers thought that she had been badly battered in action and was sinking by the head.

The French followed England’s example. They tried a number of systems, but reverted to the Wilkinson method.