These Unusual Camouflage Patterns Make It Harder To See And Shoot Ships

This brief history in photos shows how naval camouflage developed to help military vessels confuse their enemies (and radar systems).

The French light cruiser Glorie, circa 1940.
Here are some of the best examples of naval camouflage, starting with the French light cruiser Glorie, circa 1940.Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

Ship camouflage, or the act of painting a ship to hide or confuse the enemy, is a relatively new development in naval warfare. Naval camouflage typically serves one of two goals: minimizing a ship’s profile on the open ocean or confusing gunners trying to guess a ship’s bearing and direction. Some war ships even impersonated commercial ships, closing with the enemy before unleashing hidden guns and torpedoes.

USS Constitution, the oldest U.S. Navy warship
Age of Saildvids/Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey S Scoular

In the Age of Sail, wind-powered warships typically moved at a speed of eight to thirteen knots. This meant that under normal conditions it would take an hour or more for a warship to close to within firing distance, making it impossible for one ship to creep up on another undetected. As a result for thousands of years there was little effort made to camouflage warships. Pictured is USS Constitution, the oldest U.S. Navy warship currently on active duty.

World War I Allied cargo ship in so-called “dazzle” camouflage.
World War IUniversal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

By the end of the 19th century the advent of long range rifled guns, as well as internal combustion engines, changed the equation dramatically. Ships could now travel faster, guns could range out and hit enemy ships at thousands of yards, and the introduction of armor piercing shells made it possible to sink even the largest dreadnoughts with a handful of lucky hits. Ships suddenly needed to hide, but where? The answer: in plain sight. Here’s a World War I Allied cargo ship in so-called “dazzle” camouflage.

Dazzle Section
WORLD WAR I Paul Thompson/FPG/Getty Images

During World War I, U-boats of the Imperial German Navy threatened Great Britain’s sea lifeline to the rest of the world. By 1916 fully one-fifth of British commercial shipping had been sunk by German submarines, a total of 5,000 Allied ships by the end of the war. In 1917 the Royal merchant naval service established the “Dazzle Section”, tasked with creating a sea camouflage that would enemy gunners. Dazzle took many forms, as this World War I troop ship demonstrates here.

An example of the HMS Devonshire class of armored cruisers, none of which were lost to enemy gunfire in World War I.
WORLD WAR IHulton Archive/Getty Images

The Dazzle Section realized creating a ship that blended in with the waves was hopeless. An alternative was to make it difficult for an adversary to discern a ship’s distance, heading, and speed. An enemy warship would need a rough idea of all of those things in order to launch a successful attack. Dazzle consisted of odd shapes and patterns meant to make it hard for the enemy to target Allied ships. Here’s an example of the HMS Devonshire class of armored cruisers, none of which were lost to enemy gunfire in World War I.

Dazzle painted bold stripes on ships that broke up the vessel’s profile
WORLD WAR IImperial War Museums via Getty Images

Prior to Dazzle, all ships were painted gray. This, as well as the conventional layout of warships, made it easy to gather important details about enemy ships simply by observing them. Dazzle painted bold stripes on ships that broke up the vessel’s profile, deceiving the human eye. In this photo it’s hard for the human eye to correctly trace HMS Kildangan’s actual profile. The use of dazzle will make it hard for the enemy to correctly draw a bead on the tiny ship, especially during the stress of combat.

Germany’s battleship Bismarck, pictured here off the coast of Norway
WORLD WAR IIullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

World War II brought back ship camouflage with a new sense of urgency. The threat to friendly ships was three dimensional, with enemy submarines, surface warships, and now aircraft all gunning to sink their enemies. Even the most powerful of warships, such as Germany’s battleship Bismarck, pictured here off the coast of Norway, sported camouflage to improve their chances of survival. Bismarck was damaged by torpedo bombers before eventually being chased down by Royal Navy battleships and destroyed.

U.S. Navy patrol torpedo boats "zebra stripe” pattern designed to prevent enemy gunners from accurately drawing a bead on them
WORLD WAR IIKeystone/Getty Images

Even the smallest warships received camouflage. U.S. Navy patrol torpedo boats (PTs) served in the South Pacific during World War II. The tiny 80 foot boats had wooden hulls and relied on speed for protection. Some of the PTs were painted a “zebra stripe” pattern designed to prevent enemy gunners from accurately drawing a bead on them. The pattern is broken up and repeated several times, making it appear as though there might be several PT boats instead of just one.

U.S. Navy diagram of the Japanese carrier Unryu’s camouflage circa 1944.
WORLD WAR IINaval History and Heritage Command

One development in camouflage during World War II was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s practices of painting aircraft carriers to resemble battleships and cruisers. U.S. air power and naval decimated Japan’s carrier fleet, sinking all but two by 1945. Towards the end of the war Japan grew so desperate to save her carriers they were painted with fake gun batteries on their flight decks. Japan hoped that carrier-hunting American dive bomber pilots, harassed by anti-aircraft fire, might notice the “guns” and pass the ship over. Here’s a U.S. Navy diagram of the Japanese carrier Unryu’s camouflage circa 1944.

USS Big Horn
WORLD WAR IIPhoto Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

Q-ships were warships designed to impersonate commercial ships not involved in a war effort. The ships were often designed to imitate specific ships, reshaping their funnels and profiles and hiding guns and other weapons. Allied Q-ships were used to lure German U-boats into attacking, whereupon the Q-ship would turn its guns on the sub. USS Big Horn, pictured here, was a Coast Guard ship in World War II armed with one 5-inch gun, four hidden 4-inch guns, and a “hedgehog” anti-submarine mortar.

Modern revamped concept of naval camouflage
MODERN ERAU.S. Navy via Getty Images

The advent of missile warfare introduced new anti-ship missiles that could home in on enemy ships on radar at distances of up to fifty miles. This totally revamped the concept of naval camouflage, shifting the emphasis from a ship’s visual appearance to its signature on radar. Although it doesn’t look like it, the Arleigh Burke class of U.S. Navy guided missile destroyers was the first to incorporate features to reduce its radar signature. The hull and superstructure are shaped to provide a smaller return to enemy radar, making it appear to be a smaller ship than it really is.

The U.S. Navy’s three Zumwalt class destroyers were the first U.S. Navy warships with stealth as a primary consideration
MODERN ERAYichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The U.S. Navy’s three Zumwalt class destroyers were the first U.S. Navy warships with stealth as a primary consideration. The Zumwalts were designed with gun barrels, missile launchers, radars and antennas hidden away from the probing beams of enemy radar. The result is a smooth, almost featureless ship--but one armed with two 155-millimeter Advanced Gun Systems, eighty missile silos, and a pair of 30-millimeter automatic cannons. The six hundred foot long destroyer reportedly has the radar signature of a small fishing boat.

USS Freedom
MODERN ERAPetty Officer 3rd Class Johans Chavarro

In 2013, the U.S. Navy briefly brought back naval camouflage. USS Freedom, the first of several dozen Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), was painted a disruptive pattern that incorporated different shades of grey. LCS are designed to fight in the so-called “littoral” region, operating off coastlines and often within sight of shore. Under those circumstances a camouflage pattern could be useful. LCS ships are also capable of speeds up to 47 knots (54 miles an hour), making them capable of quickly closing the distance with enemy forces.

Chinese Navy's Type 022 Houbei-class fast attack craft
MODERN ERANavy Office of Legislative Affairs

One example of a modern, non-American camouflaged ship is the Chinese Navy’s Type 022 Houbei-class fast attack craft. The Type 022 is a high speed catamaran designed for coastal defense, capable of achieving speeds of up to 36 knots. The Houbei ships are known for their bright blue, black, gray, and white camouflage patterns. The pattern replicates the camouflage uniforms of ground troops and its usefulness at sea is debatable. Each Type 022 has a slightly different pattern, with the unintended consequence that observers have been able to count the number of gunboats built (83) by noting variations in their camouflage.

A modern ship using camouflage - the Swedish CB90 Fast Assault Craft
MODERN ERA myLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Image

Another example of a modern ship using camouflage is the Swedish CB90 Fast Assault Craft (FAC). The CB90 is designed to operate close to shore, often carrying Swedish troops for amphibious assaults and seaborne raids. As a result the ship’s camouflage pattern is designed to blend it in with forested backgrounds typical in the more remote regions of Scandinavia. This means the use of plenty of greens and browns in a disruptive pattern. Norway also operates the CB90, as does Mexico and the United States.




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