Camouflage Paint Schemes

Camouflage Paint Schemes

By:  Garland Davis


Nature knows best!

The dazzle paint schemes used on merchant and warships during World War One and World War Two did work to confuse submarine periscope range finders is suggested by the testimony of one U-Boat captain:

“It was not until she was within a half mile that I could make out that she was one ship (not several) steering a course at right angles, crossing from starboard to port. The dark painted stripes on her after part made her stern appear as her bow, and a broad cut of green paint amidships looks like a patch of water.  The weather was bright and visibility good; this was the best camouflage I have ever seen.”

Dazzle was adopted by the British Admiralty and later by the United States Navy, with little evaluation as to it’s effectiveness.  Each ship’s dazzle pattern was unique to avoid making classes of ships instantly recognizable to the enemy.  The result was that a profusion of dazzle schemes was tried, and the evidence for their success was mixed, at best.

Some advocated “masses of strongly contrasted color” to confuse the enemy about a ship’s heading.

Even so there were those among the allies who thought they knew how to shift the odds even further. Naval ships were already being painted gray to blend in between the ocean and sky as much as possible. But a ship at sea cannot really be camouflaged as colors change along with the light throughout the day and when silhouetted against a blank horizon it is impossible to hide. But since ships were almost always moving targets U-boat commanders had to aim their torpedoes at where they thought the ship would be when it reached it, not at the point where the ship was seen. This involved careful calculation of distance, heading, and speed based on the coincidence principal, and this is where the proponents of Dazzle thought they could be deceived.

In 1935, the United States Naval Research Laboratory began studies and tests on low visibility camouflage for ships. Some measures were deceptive, like a false painted bow wave to give the impression of high speed at all times. Measures making Cruisers resemble Destroyers were discontinued after causing station-keeping confusion among ships operating in formation.

Color schemes included light gray, haze gray, ocean gray, and black. Haze gray was found to provide reasonable protection in the widest range of conditions, and became a standard US Navy paint scheme after World War Two. Ocean gray also became a standard paint scheme after the war. Although black is still used for submarines, it was discontinued on destroyers after it had been determined that black ships remained more noticeable than gray ships on even the darkest nights.

The US Navy painted some ships sea blue overall for concealment from aircraft. During the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, ships painted completely blue came under attack less often than ships wearing two-color schemes. On the advice of United States aviators, the blue color was darkened and used extensively in the western and southern Pacific from mid-1942 through 1945 to minimize detection and identification by enemy aircraft. Dark blue also proved effective under artificial illumination during night actions. Upper surfaces of aircraft operating from carrier decks were painted a similar shade of blue. Sailors were ordered to wear dungarees rather than white uniforms when topside.]

The Thayer paint system was white with large polygonal patches of light sea blue (called Thayer Blue). This measure was most useful in Arctic latitudes with extended twilight and frequent fog and cloud cover. Purity of color was important for full realization of the Purkinje where some colors appear lighter and some appear darker at low levels of illumination. Darkening the pattern increased course deception, but increased visibility at night and in haze.[

Measure 32 was a medium pattern of obtrusive polygons in navy blue or black, against background polygons of lighter grays and greens. This measure emphasized mistaken identity and course deception to complicate submarine attack. Patterns were carried across the bow, and light gray was used aft to blend with the wake. This measure was based on the World War One dazzle system modified by observations in the western Pacific; and was applied to most surface ships in the Pacific during 1944 and 1945. Different patterns were devised for classes with large numbers of ships so the pattern would not identify the class of ship.

Radar and infrared sensing devices have made the practice of painting to fool the eye obsolete. Now the purpose is to use paints that absorb instead of reflect radar waves.  This causes ships and aircraft to look drab. Ships and aircraft are being constructed in a manner that diffuses radar rays instead of reflecting them causing ships to look less like our image of what a ship should be. Can the Romulan Cloaking Device of popular Star Trek fiction be very far in the future?


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A native of North Carolina, Garland Davis has lived in Hawaii since 1987. He always had a penchant for writing but did not seriously pursue it until recently. He is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University, where he majored in Business Management. Garland is a thirty-year Navy retiree and service-connected Disabled Veteran.


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