James R Smith RFA 1/O(X) (ret’d)



Merchant ships and in particular large passenger liners had always tried to show themselves off in the best possible light by looking boldly resplendent in their different Owners’ commercial colour schemes and easily-recognisable funnel markings to make a lasting impression.



Cunard Line’s MAURETANIA in peacetime colours


Mauretania Hospital Ship

Serving as a Hospital Ship


The outbreak of WW1 soon put a dramatic stop to this and they were instead painted overall in a drab monotone grey overcoat which was in an attempt to try to disguise their distinctive silhouettes against the sky and the horizon when viewed from the periscope of any attacking submarine. Losses of ships carrying desperately-needed cargoes swiftly mounted and these were compounded when Germany introduced the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917. A solution to try to combat these was desperately needed. In 1914 the British zoologist John Graham Kerr submitted proposals for a disruptive camouflage scheme to conceal ships based on the patterns found on a giraffe, zebra and jaguar in a letter to Winston Churchill but “after trials” these were rejected by the Admiralty in July 1915.

The man credited with coming up with a creditable solution was the well-known British marine artist named Norman Wilkinson who in 1917 was serving with the RNVR as a Lieutenant in a Minesweeping Squadron in the English Channel. His dazzle scheme consisted of complex patterns of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, interrupting and intersecting each other in order to destroy a ship’s outline and general shape. This scheme was not designed to conceal a ship but to make it difficult for a submarine to estimate a target’s range, course and speed and to ultimately take up a poor firing position prior to launching torpedoes. He submitted his carefully-detailed proposals to Captain Charles Thorpe, Flag Captain, Devonport on the 27 April 1917.

The Admiralty were very impressed with his ideas and their response was both positive and encouraging and arrangements were quickly made to give Wilkinson all the help he needed to implement and evaluate his scheme. A Dazzle Section was set up and placed under his supervision and they made the store ship RFA INDUSTRY available for experimental repainting. After completion of repainting she undertook a coastwise voyage in order for observations and assessments to be made. In the resultant feedback from the trials most of these were favourable. It was quickly realised that larger scale trials would be needed and within just a few days, a further 50 Transports were ordered to be dazzle-painted, each one with a different pattern to prevent the enemy becoming used to any particular design.


RFA Industry

The Storeship RFA Industry


Industry Dazzel Painted

RFA Industry dazzle painted

Mauri Dazzle Painted

Showing the effect of dazzle-painting MAURETANIA


As well as the Admiralty, Britain’s allies also showed an immediate interest in the scheme and other countries also adopted it, including America, France, Italy and Japan. It finally became known as the Disruptive Patterns Scheme in Admiralty circles


RFA Celerol Dazzle painted

RFA Celerol dazzle painted