Record Group 19, Camouflage Design Drawings for U.S. Navy Commissioned Ships, U.S. Merchant Ships and British Ships (NAID 566727) contains some of the more colorful ship designs to ever sail in a military fleet. It is in this record group is where you will find the color and design templates for British Dazzle Camouflage. There are over 300 hand-colored drawings in this series, each of them unique in color scheme and pattern layout.
During WWI, 1914-1918, the Fleet Admiral of the British Navy had a problem. German U-Boats were sinking British ships at an astonishing rate. Something had to be done to halt the destruction of the fleet and the loss of life, and that something was what would come to be known as Dazzle Camouflage. Unlike other types and styles of camouflage, it was not intended to hide the ship, but rather to visually disrupt the outline of the ship to the degree that an observer would have no idea what they were looking at.
To torpedo a ship during WWI, a series of three steps had to be followed to successfully hit a ship. First, the location of the ship had to be ascertained and its course plotted. Second, the ships heading and speed had to be determined, and finally, the torpedo had to be fired not at the ship, but rather where it was calculated that the ship would be when the torpedo made contact. The German Navy had a well-deserved reputation for having a very low margin of error when it came to sinking British ships, but it was reported that dazzle camouflage could throw an experienced submariner’s aim off by multiple degrees, meaning a harmless miss rather than a devastating hit.
Dazzle camouflage was pioneered by British naval officer Norman Wilkinson and was based on the theory that, just like stripes on a zebra and spots on a cheetah, stripes and odd patterns on a battleship would make it harder to target by breaking up its outline. Dazzle camouflage utilized oddly angled lines and very bright colors including green, yellow, pink, purple, blue, and black to make it impossible to determine the size, shape, speed, or heading of a ship. Also, for added confusion, no two ships were painted alike so that the Germans would have nothing to latch onto as a template for the patterns on the ships.
This type of camouflage enjoyed great success and was eventually adopted by the United States navy, prompting an unnamed American journalist at the New York Times to write, “You should see our fleet, it’s camouflaged to look like a flock of Easter eggs going out to sea.”
By WWII, this type of camouflage was becoming less and less effective because of inventions like radar and range finders and the fact that torpedoes were no longer hand guided.
All of the images shown above in addition to the over 300 other templates in the National Archives holdings are available for viewing online at https://catalog.archives.gov, search “British Camouflage Type” and then choose which “type” (1-20) you wish to view.