Would Devon’s ‘dazzle’ camouflage have saved the Lusitania?

Would Devon’s ‘dazzle’ camouflage have saved the Lusitania?

WHERE TO BEGIN? Perhaps with my Great Aunt May?

May was a second class passenger on the ill-fated RMS Lusitania when the great passenger liner was torpedoed by the German U-boat U-20, 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. Had it been camouflaged in the same way that her sister ship, the RMS Aquitania, was to be protected a few years later, I believe that she and her fellow passengers would have come home safely.

It was Friday, 7th May 1915 and 2.10 in the afternoon when the first explosion came. Eighteen minutes later the 31,500 ton vessel had disappeared beneath the waves off Queenstown, a place since re-named Cobh.

Wilkinson's 1915 sketch of the Lusitania for Illustrated London News

Wilkinson’s 1915 sketch of the Lusitania for Illustrated London News

Formerly emigrants to Canada, May and her husband, Ernest Henn had been on their way home via New York so that he might enlist in the Great War. His pocket watch, later returned to the family by Cunard, had stopped at 2.20 p.m. a few minutes after the first of the two explosions.

The Fisher Pocket Watch

It is most likely that the couple died of hypothermia in the cold water. Their bodies were two of the 289 brought ashore over the following days and they were buried in separate mass graves above Queenstown: a further 885 bodies were never recovered.

The sinking shocked the world but it also changed it. America came into the war because of it whilst it also marked the beginning of a great undertaking by a young artist who was spurred to action by what he saw and read – and was asked to illustrate.

His name was Norman Wilkinson, born in 1878, he studied at Portsmouth and Southsea School of Art, and earned his living selling his  illustrations to magazines and newspapers.

His own depiction of the sinking of the Lusitania appeared soon after the event in the Illustrated London News – prompting him to volunteer for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He served as a Lieutenant on submarine patrols in the Gallipoli campaign before returning to the West of England in 1917 and it was here that Wilkinson the artist and designer, lived and worked.

With an intimate knowledge of ships and the sea he served as an officer on one of the many minesweepers that used Plymouth as their base to patrol the Western Approaches and the English Channel to keep our merchant shipping safe.

A dazzling idea

Lusitania’s sister ships, the Mauritania and the Aquitania had now become troop ships and were ferrying men and supplies to and from the various theatres of war. Wilkinson knew their lines intimately and began to make black and white sketches of these ships and others, from memory.

Because of the war threat he knew that the Lusitania’s four great distinguishing red and black funnels had been over-painted black but this time as he began his sketch he left three of the funnels white: the fourth he drew with a black diagonal that continued down the side of the vessel as a wide black bar, ending at the waterline.

Then he opened his watercolour box and began to sketch again, this time in colour. The resulting drawings were extraordinary and he sent them, with many others depicting different sizes and kinds of shipping,  to the Admiralty in London.

Here were the beginnings of what would later become known as ‘Dazzle’: the marine camouflage Wilkinson created in Devon, not to hide a ship from view but to distract and confuse a predatory U-boat commander as he scanned the horizon through his periscope in search of his next kill. Dazzle made it difficult in the extreme to judge the speed, direction or even the size or type of vessel he had in his sites.

The Admiralty was immediately impressed – Britain was losing tens of thousands of tons of shipping to U-boats – and sent a team of high-ranking officers to Devon to meet the man, discuss his ideas and commission a full scale trial by applying Dazzle to a warship then in dry dock at Devonport.

Subsequent ‘full scale’ trials even took into account how vessels which plied a strictly coastal trade might  be dazzle camouflaged against a background of land rather than sea and these may have been trialled along the south coast of Devon between Plymouth and Lyme.

Although he was a completely traditional painter, working primarily in oils and water colour, Wilkinson’s dazzle designs in 1917 were considered to be part of the revolutionary movement in modern art, called Cubism.

The art of deception

Wilkinson’s artistic thinking had indeed been influenced by Cubism and the works of George Braque, its founder, and later, Pablo Picasso and his design submissions to the Admiralty were considered revolutionary.

George Braque’s cubist painting Violin and Candlesticks

George Braque’s cubist painting ‘Violin and Candlesticks’

Look hard enough and long enough at George Braque’s cubist painting Violin and Candlesticks and they begin to take shape. U-boat commanders on the other hand seldom had the luxury of time.

After his active service in the Navy Wilkinson conceived and organised the Dazzle Department at the Royal Academy, inventing a radical camouflage for the British and allied fleets.

Colour photography had yet to be invented but the dozens of small, scale models of scores of different Dazzle-painted kinds of ship survive and can be viewed on the web site of London’s Imperial War Museum.

Largely abandoned after WW1, Dazzle was thought to have outlived its usefulness with the advances in technology and in particular the invention of radar. But dazzle lived on to be used extensively by the Allied Air Forces and Armies. In 1939, Wilkinson’s designs were modified and he became Inspector of Camouflage with the rank of Air Commodore.

He was present at the invasion of Normandy in 1944 where he painted one of the invasion beaches ‘live’ from the deck of the destroyer HMS Jervis – which came under heavy attack as he painted.

He led a long, active and adventurous life, was a keen yachtsman, was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, president of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours and was a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.

His work can be found in many public and private collections, among the Imperial War Museum and the National Maritime Museum. He died in  1971.

Devon-born dazzle lives on

Morrison's Warehouse

Morrison’s Warehouse

Dazzle is used in many areas of our lives to the present day, sometimes for fun and at other times for more practical or serious reasons –  because what goes round comes round it seems to be making a comeback

Morrison’s gigantic warehouse at the side of the M5 in Somerset for example leans towards Wilkinson’s Dazzle theory in an attempt to lighten its impact on the West Country.

Quite why a leading NewYork fashion house like Venus should want to break up the silhouette of a pretty girl using Dazzle is puzzling although the result is unquestionably stunning.

Would Dazzle have saved the Lusitania?

Who can say? Her identical sister ship the RMS Aquitania, (top of page) launched in 1913 and given her specially designed Dazzle camouflage in 1917, saw military service in both world wars as a troop ship. Dazzle transformed her from ‘sitting duck’ to a ship that led a charmed life throughout her many years of active service.

She got her famous black and red funnels back again after each of the two wars and carried out her duties as a luxurious Cunarder, plying the Atlantic until her final voyage in 1950. She is still known in maritime circles as “The Most Beautiful Ship in the World”.

John Fisher

Featured image:
LUSITANIA’S SISTER SHIP, Aquitania by C. Clark, 1919. © The copyright holder.  Photo credit: Southampton City Council

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Writer, author, script and sketch-writer, cartoonist, public speaker, Visitor Engagement Volunteer (National Trust) and would-be ukelele virtuoso.