Razzle Dazzle was a camouflage style of paint scheme used on ships, extensively during World War I and to a lesser extent in World War II. This bold camouflage style of painting is credited to artist Norman Wilkinson, and it consisted of a complex pattern of geometric shapes in contrasting colors, interrupting and intersecting each other.
At first glance it seems to be an unlikely type of camouflage, drawing attention to the ship rather than hiding it, but this technique was developed after the Allied Navy’s failure to develop effective means to disguise ships in all weather.
Razzle Dazzle did not conceal the ship but made it difficult for the enemy to estimate its type, size, speed and heading. The whole idea behind it’s use was to disrupt the visual rangefinders used for naval artillery. Its purpose was to create confusion rather than concealment of any given vessel. An observer would find it difficult to know exactly whether the stern or the bow is in view; and it would be equally difficult to estimate whether the observed vessel is moving towards or away from the observer’s position.
The rangefinders that were based on the co-incidence principle with an optical mechanism, operated by a human to compute the range. The operator adjusted the mechanism until two half-images of the target lined up in a complete picture. Razzle Dazzle was intended to make that hard because clashing patterns looked abnormal even when the two halves were aligned. This became more important when submarine periscopes included similar rangefinders. As an additional feature, the Razzle Dazzle pattern usually included a false bow wave to make estimation of the ship’s speed difficult.
The demonstrable effectiveness of the bold Dazzle camouflage was accepted by the Admiralty, even without practical visual assessment protocols for improving performance by modifying designs and colors. The Dazzle camouflage strategy was adopted by other navies in Great Britian and Australia which led to more scientific studies of color options which might enhance camouflage effectiveness. Broken color systems, which present units so small as to be invisible as such at the distances considered are neither advantageous nor detrimental. The visibility of the camouflaged vessel would depend entirely upon such scientifically measurable factors as the mean effective reflection factor, hue and saturation of the surface when considered at various distances.
American naval leadership thought dazzle effective. In 1918, the U.S. Navy adopted it, as one of several techniques and was continued in use until the end of World War II. This technique became less useful as rangefinders and especially aircraft became more advanced, and, by the time it was put to use again in World War II, radar further reduced its effectiveness. However, it may still have confounded submarines.
The US Navy implemented a camouflage-painting program for all Tennessee-class battleships and some Essex-class aircraft carriers in World War II. The designs were not arbitrary, but were standardized in a process, which involved a planning stage, then a review, and then fleet-wide implementation.