Based upon the knowledge of how the animal kingdom disguised itself to blend into a hostile environment, modern camouflage, still used today, allows the soldier to disappear and blend into the landscape. At sea, however, the issue of camouflage presented a very different set of problems. Unlike the land based tank, for example, it was difficult for an ocean-going ship to blend into its surroundings: a destroyer floated on the sea, silhouetted against the sky. Just as it was that the invention of the airplane and the evolution of aerial warfare that forced the army to think in terms of camouflage, the intrusion of the submarine into naval warfare, meant that the navy, then under the command of Winston Churchill, had to think protectively. In fact, it was the Americans who in 1890 had developed the range-finder that made ships so vulnerable to submarines. The range finder was an optical device that allowed the operator to determine the distance between its ship and an enemy ship before firing a shell or, in the case of a submarine, a torpedo. Using this visual aid, by 1917, German submarines or Unterseeboot had sunk 925 British ships.
One academic artist had been obsessively contemplating the possibility of adapting the natural abilities of animals to conceal themselves for military purposes. In 1909, Abbot Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) published Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom. Scorned by his own navy, the American artist approached the British Navy and agitated before and during the war to get his ideas across to the military. Writing in 1916, Handerson claimed that England could “treble her power before the end of the week; that is all the time it would take to paint every vertical inch of the whole navy, spars, cables and all, pure white.” Taking a cue from the experience of the Titanic which had trouble spotting a huge and white iceberg at night, Thayer believed in countershading—upward surfaces that caught the light should be painted dark and downward underneath surfaces, shaded dark, should be painted white. The Scottish zoologist, John Graham Kerr (1869-1957) joined in and approached the Navy on the topic of disruptive patterning, the kind that protects a herd of zebras.
While Thayer and Kerr begged to be heard, the British navy was being decimated by Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and by 1917, the situation was dire. But these two advocates of camouflage at sea were outflanked by marine artist and painter of railway posters, Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971), who, ironically had been commissioned to execute paintings for the smoking room of the Titanic. It is in this dreadful year, when all seemed lost that Wilkinson came up with an idea and wrote immediately to his commanding officer. As Peter Forbes in his book, Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage quoted Wilkinson as explaining his inspiration: “I have been a sea painter as an artist and have studied the ships at sea all my life practically, and I was in this motor launch at Devonport, on patrol at that time. All the transports in the Admiralty service were painted entirely black and I thought of this for a long time and I knew it was utterly impossible to render a ship invisible and it seemed to be something could be done on other lines, but it occurred to me quite spontaneously that the original idea was if you could break up this black surface with white in such a way that the course of the ship might be upset, not simply haphazard.” As Forbes noted, “His idea was welcomed at Devonport and on 27 April 1917 Wilkinson submitted his plans to the Admiralty..The Admiralty authorized him to set up a camouflage unit but could not provide premises or staff. Once again pulling strings, he enlisted the help of the Royal Academy, which offered to provide a home for the new unit.”
However, in 2016 on the occasion of the Liverpool Biennial, Ben Whittaker wrote “Zig-zag Dazzle Ships,”revealing a prior claimant to dazzle designs. Archibald E. Philips was an antiques dealer who owned a chain of shops, scattered in London, Bournemouth, Perthshire and Liverpool. According to Whittaker , “Liverpool was a key strategic port during the war. Hundreds of convoys sailed to and from the city with food and munitions essential for the war effort. The port also acted as a main hub for the movement of thousands of troops to battlefronts across the world. At Cammell Laird, Royal Navy ships were built and repaired. Many Liverpool ships were requisitioned by the Admiralty for the war effort as hospital ships and troopships. Some were converted to armed merchant cruisers. The 10th Cruiser Squadron was predominantly made up of converted liners and based in Liverpool. Against this backdrop, Phillips submitted his first proposal for ship camouflage on 9 May 1915. After the war, he stated that it was while crossing the Mersey and watching the ships passing down the river that the idea of dazzle painting came to him. He crossed the river twice a day to and from work, and so would have had ample opportunity to see and study many Royal Navy ships and converted passenger liners, some newly painted grey or black. We can only speculate about any further personal motivations, but being a Liverpool man, and living where he did so close to the river, it is likely that he knew men who had joined either the Royal or Merchant Navy, and who were risking their lives at sea against the U-Boat threat. Many Liverpool ships were lost in the war, including Lusitania, which was torpedoed and sunk two days before Phillips first wrote to the Admiralty. He would have been aware of the risks faced by Liverpool ships and men, and perhaps a desire to help them in some way was in his mind on those daily trips across the river.”
Although, like others who also proposed camouflaging ships at sea, Philips put in numerous plans to the War office as early as 1915, he was ignored. He even wrote to the Admiralty, but to no avail. Philips seems to have not know exactly to whom to address his ideas and lacked to connections of Norman Wilkinson. As Whittaker wrote, Phillips did not contact anyone in authority again about his ideas until November 1917. The catalyst for this was seeing RMS Mauretania dazzle-painted as a troop ship, presumably on the River Mersey. By this time, Norman Wilkinson’s dazzle proposal (submitted in early 1917) had been taken up, and Wilkinson had been placed in charge of a naval camouflage unit at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Approved dazzle designs were transferred to scale plans and passed on to teams based at a number of ports around the country for application to ships. One of these teams was based in Liverpool. What a surprise for Phillips it must have been on one of his twice-daily trips on the river, to see Mauretania and other vessels dazzle-painted on the water.”
Philips wrote again, this time with idea of how to improve the designs but, again, to no avail. This issue of who came up with the idea for dazzle design and/or the concept of camouflage at sea would have to wait until the War’s end. Whittaker continued, With the end of the war came a relaxation on censorship, which allowed Wilkinson to embark on something of a publicity blitz to advertise himself as the sole inventor of the dazzle concept. He argued that his scheme was unique in its aim to confuse rather than to conceal, and that ‘all the previous attempts which have been made to utilize paints as a defensive measure when dealing with ships were made with a view to rendering them invisible’. This was disputed by numerous people, including Phillips, who submitted rival claims to the Royal Commission for Awards to Inventors. A special Committee of Enquiry was set up to hear and assess the rival claims under Admiral Farquhar of the Royal Navy. The enquiry took place in London during October 1922. Phillips was there in person, and his claim was heard on the same day as Wilkinson’s and that of another claimant, Professor John Graham Kerr of Glasgow University. The enquiry seems to have captured the imagination of the media, since it was reported widely in national and local newspapers on 16 and 17 October 1922, including (unsurprisingly given a local man’s involvement) in Liverpool. The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury reported it at length..” Predictably, given the confusion and in light of Wilkinson having already established his presence in Liverpool, the Committee not only found in his favor but also rewarded with him £2, 000. The others, like Philips, were given courteous sentiments of gratitude for their patriotism. The Order of the Dazzle, so to speak, went to Norma Wilkinson.