Murphy's Law: Dazzle Still Doesn't Do It

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June 8, 2011: Over 90 years ago, during World War I, a new, and (for a time) popular new camouflage pattern was developed. These "dazzle" and zig-zag paint patterns were used because research found that this would spoil the aim of enemy gunners. It was later discovered that a regular camouflage pattern would serve nearly as well. Pilots also found, through experience, that a dark color, without camouflage detail, would work about as well to hide a low flying aircraft from being spotted from above. After all, at a certain altitude, all you saw of the ground below was a lot of dark colors.

But new research has found that the dazzle patterns actually did make ground troops misjudge the speed of moving of vehicles by about seven percent, which in many cases would cause the gunner, especially one using a machine-gun or RPG, to miss by a meter (3.1 feet). That's enough, it is believed, to save lives. But many troops are skeptical, as were those faced with this striking type of camouflage pattern in the past.  These new findings may be a big deal for those who still believe in dazzle paint patterns, but little is expected to change. That's because dazzle camouflage never seemed to work that well in actual use.

It all began during World War I, when ships had to face the widespread use of submarines for the first time. Because subs often attacked while submerged, the mere shape of a ship stood out on the horizon. The sub commander was looking at its targets from a periscope that was only a meter (3.1 feet) above the water. In effect, a periscope view was looking up at its targets, and not seeing much under the best of conditions. The sailors on the receiving end of these torpedoes soon realized that, while a new paint job would not hide them, it could throw off the aim of the sub captain. World War I torpedoes were not as accurate as later models, and the sub captain had to look through the periscope and estimate range and speed of the target ship before he ordered the speed and direction settings for the torpedoes about to be launched. A paint job on the target ship that would make it difficult to estimate distance or speed for the target and thus there was a good chance of aiming the torpedo incorrectly.

This concept led to various "dazzle" paint schemes, which broke up the silhouette of the ship, suggested it was moving in the opposite direction, that it was moving at high speed, and so forth. The extent to which this approach was effective has never been demonstrated, until recently, but it appeared, back then, to have some value. At the same time merchantmen and warships were being repainted, better anti-submarine warfare techniques were being developed. All agreed that the new paint jobs didn't make it any easier for the torpedoes to hit something. And the obvious effort expended in repainting the ships improved the shaky morale of the civilian crews on the merchantmen. The reality was that World War I torpedoes were not all that reliable, and usually missed for that reason, or because the sub captain misjudged the speed and direction of that blob on the horizon he saw via the periscope. Years later, when questioned, several of these U-Boat captains admitted that they never noticed the paint job on their targets, just the general shape.

When World War II came around, the bizarre paint schemes of World War I were not used much by the Americans. They felt that the effort could be better spent on anti-submarine warfare techniques. Moreover, the U.S. noted that the most dangerous attacks were by groups ("wolfpacks") of U-boats attacking at night while on the surface (the subs were hard to see at night, so they surfaced to fire their torpedoes with greater accuracy).

The British stuck with the World War I zig-zag paint schemes on some of their merchant ships, if only to give crew morale a boost, as did the Japanese. In fact, the Japanese tried a few interesting wrinkles to the scheme, even painting aircraft carrier decks so that, from the air, they suggested a battleship, in the hope of deceiving aerial reconnaissance. But American sub captains never noted any usefulness of the Japanese "dazzle" camouflage on merchant ships.  This unique camouflage pattern is striking mainly because it shows up so well in posed photographs. In combat, it apparently doesn't get noticed much at all.

 


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