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Ship Shape: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook

by Roy R. Behrens
Bobolink Books, Dysart, Iowa, 2012
376 pp., illus 275 b&w. Paper, $US30.00
ISBN-13: 978-0-9713244-7-3.

Reviewed by Mike Leggett
Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong, NSW


Ship shape by style and Ship Shape by name, this is the latest book launched by Roy Behrens in his seemingly endless quest for the last word on matters of concealment. Where the previous title, Camoupedia – a compendium of research on art, architecture and camouflage, (reviewed Leonardo Reviews Quarterly 1.01, June 2010) provided a prodigious number of leads into the field, the crisp new contribution expands one of the topics adumbrated therein – the matter of protecting as far as possible, the merchant ships of World War One from the U-boat menace.

'Dazzle' was the term used by the British to describe their approach to painting their ships, a practice which at one point the Americans referred to as 'jazz painting'. On seeing photographs of these ships a moment of shock occurs; the violent sweep of shapes and clash of angles assault our visual perceptions. There is a contradiction between the images and what we know of the normally ordered lines and integrated colours of a sea-going vessel; anarchic presentations fly in the face of all that we know of the Merchant Marine and its highly controlled and ordered existence. The impact that these images have today is, of course, unrelated to the affect the painted designs were intended to have at the time on the enemy. The US Navy’s approach concentrated efforts on experimenting with colour and varying degrees of visibility. A team at the Kodak Labs in Rochester came closest to science-based methods in the scaling of their observations using the so–named and risible, ‘visibility meter’. It was, however, part of measuring the process of denaturing visual memory and confounding tacit knowledge of the natural world. For the most part at first, as we are reminded by several of the contributors, it was all a matter of trial and error.

Experiments with submersibles had been conducted by naval powers for a couple of centuries, but it was not until the late 19th Century technologies of high capacity batteries and Diesel's engines that enabled German submarines to be brought into service; their effectiveness as weapons of war can be measured by the extent of the loss during the conflict of some 5,000 Allied ships. The key to prevention was to accentuate both poor visibility at sea and also the unstable viewpoint afforded by the periscope, and to confound the visual perception of its user, known as the gunner. From the perspective of a metre or so above a rolling sea, there were but brief seconds to gauge course and speed of a target vessel. Designs were planned to make vital dimensions of the ship difficult to fix, thus leaving direction or distance open to estimation; with a torpedo taking several minutes to travel the distance, errors were bound thankfully, to have occurred.

We get a sense from the photographs of the shock and awe value of the designs applied to ships, combining the ideas of two leading exponents, the British naval man Wilkinson with his attempts to deceive, and the American Thayer's intention to conceal, using his theories of countershading and colour. For me the chapter that most successfully describes the issues was written, (like most of these essays, immediately after the War), by Everett L. Warner for the suitably titled Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society Volume14 No 5.

Behrens, again acting as editor of the words of observers and participants in the conflict, assembles images to illustrate what is imparted, providing useful captions and footnotes to the array. The downside of this approach is unfortunately made very evident; because the field has been narrowed down to this fascinating but highly specialised area, the full-length articles and papers reproduced, for this reader, became unproductively repetitive. I found myself turning pages after a while to get to the real delights of the book, the illustrations. Even at octavo size, they leapt off the page in shrieking strides of nonconformity.

This, like the previous volume, is no coffee table book and, therefore, a great loss to collectors that these clearly pristine photographs cannot be seen at greater size. (However, a significant number, well referenced here can be seen and ordered online at the U.S. Naval Historical Center Photographic collection.) 

Following adverse comments from many quarters as to dazzle painting's effectiveness, one of the real measures of success determined by commanders was the situated actions of helmsmen in causing collisions and other accidents attributable to dazzle painted ships. Undoubtedly some ships were successful in confusing the torpedo gunner, escaping destruction and thus justifying the effort expended. The use of different kinds of dazzle in the Second World War shifted from the merchant marine to the warships; aerial surveillance and the greater use of capital ships in coastal bombardment required fresh approaches to the pioneering work so fulsomely covered in this volume. Perhaps the next volume in the series will examine the way in which dazzle aesthetics developed between the Wars?

Ship Shape
it is, but I feel it will be less of a leading source book than the previous publication, except to the specialist, but comes complete with a bibliography of some 1200 titles, some 40 from Behrens himself.

Last Updated 1 January 2012

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