Tag Archives: World War I

Plaster The Ship With Paint – Dazzle & Deception in War

James Taylor, Dazzle: Disguise and Deception in War and Art. Naval Institute Press, 2016. 128 pages, $38.00/hardcover.

By Christopher Nelson

There is a fun little ditty in the last page of James Taylor’s book, Dazzle: Disguise and Deception in War and Art. It goes like this:

Captain Schmidt at his periscope,
You need not fall and faint,
For it’s not the vision of drug or dope,
But only the dazzle-paint.
And you’re done, you’re done, my pretty Hun.
You’re done in the big blue eye,
By painter-men with a sense of fun,
And their work has just gone by.
Cheero! A convoy safely by.

British composer George Frederic Norton wrote the tune for a close friend and fellow artist. The friend? His name was Norman Wilkinson. And more than anyone, he was responsible for one of the most iconic painting schemes on ships at sea. Known simply as “Dazzle,” or “Dazzle paint,”  it was a mixture of different shapes and colors covering the hull and superstructure of merchants and combatants, primarily in World War I, intended to deceive German submarine captains about a ship’s heading and speed.     

Yet years before World War I, Wilkinson established himself as a talented artist. Born into a large family in the late 19th century, in Cambridge, England, he moved to the southern part of the country as a young boy. It was there, in Southsea, England, that his artistic talents flourished. And like many artists, he benefited from the good graces of a well-connected benefactor. In Wilkinson’s case, it was his doctor. But not just any doctor. His doctor was the creator of  Sherlock Holmes –Arthur Conan Doyle. The famous author and physician introduced Wilkinson to the publisher of The Idler, a popular British magazine at the time. Wilkinson would go on to create some illustrations for The Idler and Today magazine. These illustrations were the first of many commissioned paintings, drawings, and posters to come. Landscapes, maritime themes, planes and trains, Norman Wilkinson would end up painting them all.

Author and Physician, Sherlock Holmes supported Norman Wilkinson’s early entry into English periodicals

In fact, military naval enthusiasts – and more than a few naval intelligence officers – might be surprised to learn that Wilkinson was later responsible for the World War II poster that depicted a sinking ship with the disclaimer: “A few careless words may end in this.” The poster is obviously a close cousin to the popular American military idiom, “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships,” a piece of operations security art by Seymour R. Goff (who had the interesting nom de guerre “Ess-ar-gee”) that was created for the American War Advertising Council in World War II. Prints of Goff’s work still cover the walls and passageways of U.S. naval shore facilities and ships today.

A Few Careless Words May End in This, by Norman Wilkinson/Wikipedia

When World War I began, Wilkinson, like thousands of British men, wanted to join up and, as the saying goes, “do his bit.” Eventually, he was assigned as a naval pay clerk and deployed to the Mediterranean theater in 1915. But by 1917 he was back in Britain, and Germany had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. It was around this time that Wilkinson had an idea to protect merchant shipping. And as with so many great ideas, often hatched during the quiet, daily moments of life, Dazzle was born, not in a boardroom or on a chalkboard, but in a “cold carriage” following a fishing trip in southern England.  

Here Taylor quotes Wilkinson:

“On my way back to Devonport in the early morning, in an extremely cold carriage, I suddenly got the idea that since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer – in other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as to the course which she was heading.”

A few months later, with support from the Royal Academy of Arts, a friend in the Ministry of Shipping, and a few others, the “Dazzle Section” was created. Staffed with artists and modelers (many of them women), they were responsible for paint schemes that covered over 4,000 merchant ships and 400 combatants by the end of the war.  

Taylor does a fantastic job at detailing the personalities and the process that got Dazzle from Wilkinson’s mind onto the hulls of so many ships. Taylor discusses the numerous other artists that helped bring Wilkinson’s idea to fruition, the introduction of Dazzle to the U.S. Navy, and its brief return in World War II. He also highlights the dispute between Wilkinson and Sir John Graham Kerr, a professor of zoology at the University of Glasgow who for years claimed that he, not Wilkinson, should deserve credit for the creation of the dazzle concept. Taylor notes that Kerr “relentlessly campaigned to advance his claim that his scheme was in principle one and the same as Wilkinsons.”   

Camouflage pattern for Benson class destroyer in WWII/Wikipedia

Taylor’s Dazzle, besides succeeding in substance, also succeeds in style. About the size of a composition notebook, Dazzle is large enough to show illustrations of the paint scheme on merchant ships and combatants in clear detail, while it also includes photographs of the artists in the Dazzle sections at work. Hunched over large tables holding small models in their hands, artists carefully painted various Dazzle schemes on each model. Once the model ship was painted they placed it in what they called the “theatre.” This was no more than a room with a table and periscope. The model was placed a circular table and rotated, while another person looked through a periscope that was about seven feet away. “In this way, one could judge the maximum distortion one was trying to achieve in order to upset a submarine Commander’s idea on which the ship was moving.”  The colors that covered the model were then meticulously copied onto a color chart that was provided to the contractors who covered the ships in dazzle designs.

Yet the question still remains: Did Dazzle paint work? Did it deceive U-boat commanders? A small painted model in a theatre is one thing, but out at sea is something entirely different. 

Unfortunately, as Taylor says, we really don’t know. Dazzle painting was introduced late in the war. Naval critic Archibald Hurd noted that there was not “enough evidence” to determine its “efficiency.” Nor, as Taylor notes, did any captured German submarine captains say that Dazzle confounded their targeting of enemy vessels. A single sentence in a submarine log or captain’s diary –Verdammt die Tarnfarbe! – would be an indictment, but if it exists, it has yet to be discovered by naval historians.

Dazzle was intended to deceive U-boats about the ship’s speed and course/U.S. Navy File Image

Taylor, the former curator of paintings, drawings, prints and exhibition organizer at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, has written a book that does justice to Wilkinson’s work. The talented Dazzle artists would probably be amazed to see how far his paint scheme has come – as Taylor includes an entire chapter about Dazzle painting’s influence on modern art and how the big blocks of paint now cover cars and even Nike footwear.

My only critique is a request really, that the publishers make this book available in an e-book format for people who prefer the work on an electronic reader.

Regardless, Taylor’s detailed account of Dazzle, his careful selection of photographs, illustrations, and paintings, all printed and bound in a beautiful book is essential for anyone interested in the history of naval deception, World War I navies, or the rare but respected breed who enjoys the intersection of war and art. 

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The opinions here are his own.

Featured Image: Aquitania in Dazzle Paint/Wikipedia Commons

Some Corner of a Foreign Field that is Forever Anzac: A Book Review of Peter Fitzsimons’ Gallipoli

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The following book review is by guest author Shane Halton.

Peter Fitzsimons. Gallipoli. Random House Australia, Feb 01, 2015. Hardcover. 800 pages. $45.00.

When writing about World War I, it can be difficult to strike the correct philosophical balance. Make the story too bleak or nihilistic and you risk misunderstanding the very real patriotic enthusiasm that characterized the first months of the War. Conversely, one can’t make the story too romantic and heroic at the risk of ignoring the fact that most of World War I was a brutal slog with moments of individual gallantry, often overwhelmed by pointless slaughter exacerbated by terrible generalship.

World War I had so many different facets that it can be hard to meld the stories of political scheming in London, Berlin, and Constantinople with the existential drama of soldiers clinging to their lives in trenches under constant enemy fire while waiting for the order to ‘fix bayonets’ and go over the top. Simply put, most stories of World War I don’t scale well: they work best as individual stories (depending on your temperament I recommend either Storm of Steel or the equally classic All Quiet on the Western Front) or sweeping grand histories (my favorite one volume is the comparably slim The World Undone or Robert Massie’s Dreadnaught and Castles of Steel combination for the nautically inclined). Rarely does a history come along that can fuse the two genres. That’s why Peter Fitzsimons’ masterful new volume Gallipoli is such a treat.

The task of the Allies at Gallipoli was truly Sisyphean. They held the low ground: thin trenches carved into the sides of steep cliffs, downhill from the Turkish trenches, exposed to artillery fire. A few times a month they were

A modern view of ANZAC cove
A modern view of ANZAC cove

directed to fix bayonets and, often in the cover of darkness and always over terrain with minimal cover, take the hill and break the Turkish lines. It was an impossible task. After over a year of grinding attrition from disease and enemy fire, the Allied troops were withdrawn in secret, in good order and with no casualties. The Gallipoli peninsula was ceded to the Turks.

How did it all go so wrong? Despite opting to spend most of the book with the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops in the trenches, Fitzsimons does an admirable job decoding the mix of over-optimism, managerial muddle, and lack of appreciation for local conditions that combined to make an Allied amphibious landing in Gallipoli seem like such a good idea… at least to those sitting in London. A young and manic Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, speed walks through Whitehall, obsessed with finding a way to use the Royal Navy to end the grinding stalemate on the Western Front. His genius brainwave? Send a flotilla of minesweepers and battleships up the Dardanelles and onward to Constantinople to scare the Turks into surrender. Had that plan worked it would have stood as history’s grandest example of gunboat diplomacy.

But the plan didn’t work. The Ottomans and their German advisors mustered just enough of a defensive effort, using a combination of minefields and artillery, to drive back the minesweepers and batter the fleet. Churchill was forced back to the drawing board, eventually convincing the Army to support the Naval force with an amphibious landing on the Gallipoli peninsula. The previously all-Navy operation thus

An Australian Sniper peers over a trench in 1915.
An Australian Sniper peers over a trench in 1915.

became a joint Army-Navy invasion. Until the following year’s Allied withdrawal from the peninsula, the Army was to take the brunt of the punishment, with the Navy providing mainly logistical support and transport with the occasional desultory gunfire support to ground operations.

What redeems the story of this quagmire is the piss, vinegar, and rude good humor of the ANZAC soldier as he departs home for the first time, trains for combat in Egypt under the nose of the Sphynx, disembarks on the coast of the Peninsula during the cold predawn hours, and scrambles up the hill again and again as Allied fortunes slowly dwindle and the bodies of his friends pile up around him. Though the story has many individual heroes on both sides (Fitzsimons has a deep respect for the tenacious Turks, enduring stoically in conditions at least as poor as those of the Allies), it is the archetype of the ANZAC soldier that shines through most brightly.

The first third of book covers the transportation and training of the ANZACs and culminates in the shock of their initial (opposed) landings. It reads like a nineteenth century boy’s adventure novel. Everything is bustle and forward motion; the world outside Australia is crammed with dangerous and seductive wonders. The reader is invited to stand among the troops and stare in awe as their transport ships glide quietly up the Suez Canal at night. Later, as the ANZACs train and assemble for the invasion in Alexandria, the story briefly becomes a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing relatively well paid young soldiers unfettered access to Egypt’s renowned brothels. Letting the reader get to know and love the jovial ANZACs before hurling them on the beaches of Gallipoli is a painful and effective way of keeping one glued in through the rest of the often grueling narrative.    

One of the reasons that Fitzsimons succeeds in capturing the huge scale of the landings and subsequent battles while never losing sight of the plight of the common soldier is that Gallipoli itself is just the right size. Most important locations are a single hill, valley, or inlet. The enemy is always very close, the sounds of shrapnel and thud of artillery create a hellish sonic micro-climate, and the freshly dug cemeteries are never far off. The scenes feel both intimate and comprehensive, in a way that histories of Somme or Verdun can never be.

This text is recommended for readers who want to understand why such a massive undertaking seemed so poorly thought through and how victory was almost snatched from the jaws of defeat by the unyielding heroism of the average ANZAC. Read it to renew your appreciation for the military genius and iron willpower of the Ottoman commander, Mustafa Kemal – a figure whose obvious talent and ambition mark him out for even greater deeds after the War. Read it because it’s a crackling good yarn and a minor masterpiece of the genre.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Halton is assigned to the Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Agency. He served as an enlisted intelligence specialist before commissioning as an Intelligence Officer through the STA-21 program. He has written about cyber security and the effects of big data on intelligence analysis for Proceedings magazine. The views above are the authors and do not represent those of the US Navy or the US Department of Defense.

Missing an Opportunity for Innovation: A Conceptual Critique of Distributed Lethality

100 years ago today, in bunkers and boardrooms across Europe, the military and political leaders of a Europe that was being drowned in its own blood were attempting to solve the stagnant enigma of the Western Front. The traditional narrative of the First World War places the inability of military and political figures of the time to adapt to the previously unimaginable efficacy of modern defensive technology deployed on the battlefields of France and Belgium. While the popular narrative of the conflict usually ends with a nod to the tank and aircraft as the great mobilizers of the sclerotic armies, Stephen J. Biddle effectively argues with quantitative data, in his book Military Power, that it was in fact force employment (and the innovative tactics of the German Army) that broke the stalemate in the West and brought mobility back to warfare (see the Michael Offensive). The “modern system” of land warfare was born.

I’m reminded of Biddle’s illustration of the birth of the “modern system” when considering Distributed Lethality, not because I view the US Navy as antiquated as the armies of the old Europe, but because Distributed Lethality seems to be an intelligent effort at bypassing the tough and expensive learning curve associated with fighting the previous war by reorienting existing resources to meet new challenges. Within it appears to be the tacit recognition of the end of the aircraft carrier as the main instrument of maritime power in the types of 21st century A2/AD environments the US Navy is most likely to find itself fighting for dominance. Carriers will continue to be essential for the support of operations during the fight for dominance, and after it has been achieved in the maritime realm, but their time at the center of naval combat, contesting control of the world’s oceans, may well be over. Distributed Lethality is an attempt at defining the Navy’s future operational flexibility in the complex future of highly contested environments that preclude overuse of its most prominent investment.

At the same time, the reorientation of the surface fleet around the concept of increasing the fighting ability of individual craft within the current system may be too simple a concept to fully address the increasing complexity of the modern maritime environment, especially when that environment is seeing a proliferation of the number of actors able to potentially upset the capabilities of today’s Navy, with more advanced and capable anti-ship missiles, underwater sensors, and unmanned technology likely to be on the way. If the US Navy will have to engage in combat with a low to medium tier opponent within the next 17 years (the technology development timeline cited by Admiral Peter Fanta), then Distributed Lethality will be able to easily carry the day in the same way the Navy has been able to do in similar conflicts (maybe even at a lower price point). If the Navy is faced with a much more complex and determined threat (represented by a recent addition to the rank of top tier naval competitors, even just a regional one), then the concept of Distributed Lethality may be little more than a patch on the inadequacies of the contemporary Navy in considering the operational imperatives of facing and neutralizing that particular set of threats. It would seem to me that Distributed Lethality is, in fact, more a response to the emergence of a high tier threat (within a constricted budgetary environment) than a low to mid-tier threat, so its efficacy must be evaluated within this context.

The Navy, in its current state, could be considered the product of post-Cold War dominance (as Vice Admiral Rowden and Rear Admirals Gumataotao and Fanta explain in their Proceedings piece) and the attempts to take advantage of the concepts of network centric warfare and the revolution in military affairs (RMA) of the 1990s. This was done within the technological confines of the time period, and through the budgetary struggles of a US Navy competing for funds and defining itself within the budgetary narrative of the Global War on Terror. Its difficulties are manifest in the Navy After Next’s loss of its key platforms to cancellation and production truncation along with the discussions surrounding how the Navy will take on the A2/AD capabilities of today, let alone the future.

The US Navy now has a tremendous opportunity (in the face of rapidly evolving threats in the Asia-Pacific), that of being able to define itself within confines of its own primary operational environment, without the time and resource constraints of being actively engaged in combat. While the aircraft carrier’s time as the dominant maritime platform may be nearing the precipice of its decline, the rumblings within the military services and think tank sphere seem to point to the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, and the promise of additive manufacturing in the service of US operational and strategic needs, if the effects of their application can be grasped with full appreciation. If the US is to truly begin to push towards achievements that will open up the promise of network centric warfare and increase the ability to disrupt the defensive systems of the adversary (with acceptable costs in terms of equipment, money and lives) then we should be looking for cheaper ways to do that than through the Navy’s existing platforms, whose survivability and ease of replacement is questionable within the context of type of operational environment Andrew F. Krepninevich lays out in his excellent Maritime Competition in a Mature-Precision Strike Regime.

While Distributed Lethality is an important concept that should inform short and medium term planning (within the 17 year range that it takes to develop and deploy a new system), long range planning must begin now that takes into account the potential coming industrial revolution and advancements in AI and robotics that will bring about the full conceptual realization of networked warfare and unmanned systems. Their development could prove to be the real advantage in naval combat that will no longer feature a dominant aircraft carrier platform and will likely be the key to maintaining American maritime primacy in areas that have the potential to be seriously contested. Unlike the armies of 1917-18, the US Navy currently has the (limited) luxury of time and space to experiment. While the accusing finger of Kitchener, a draft notice, or more efficient bureaucracy could slowly make up for operational shortfalls during the Great War (still, at great human and financial cost), today’s strategic, technological and industrial imperatives are more exacting in terms of lost opportunities.

Ryan Kuhns is a master’s student at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. He studies International Security and Commerce, focusing on defense economics, strategy, and the social/political organization of war.

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The Sinking of the Lusitania — One Hundred Years Later

Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Crown. 448pp. $28.00

(This review is an edited and expanded version, originally posted on Foreign Policy’s “Best Defense.”)

UnknownIn grade school, I remember watching an old movie about the sinking of the Titanic.  It might have been Roy Ward Baker’s A Night To Remember. But whatever it was, the sinking of the Titanic was always in the front of my mind when someone mentioned the loss of a large passenger vessel.  The attack on the Lusitania, however, was a footnote in our history books; maybe it made half the page — if that.  Now, 100 years later, the First World War is almost ignored by Americans.  David Frum, over at The Atlantic magazine, has a great article about the lack of US interest in the war.  Frum says that “The United States lost some 115,000 soldiers in the First World War, more than in Vietnam, Korea, and all other post-1945 conflicts combined. Yet the war’s impress on the American mind — once seemingly so deep and indelible — has faded. The war men once called ‘the Great’ has receded almost beyond memory in this country that did so much to win it.”

He’s probably right.

Fortunately, there are still writers out there willing to tell fascinating stories about WWI, reminding us of its importance.  The sinking of the Lusitania is one of those great stories. Erik Larson, in his new book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, tells a gripping account of that passenger ship’s last voyage and its unfortunate demise in cold waters off the coast of Ireland on 7 May 1915.


If you’ve read some of his other stuff — In the Garden of Beasts or The Devil in the White City — you know that Larson is great at writing narrative nonfiction.  In a recent interview in The New York Times, Larson credits writers John McPhee and David McCullough as some of the best writers in narrative nonfiction working today. Larson’s Dead Wake, however, is on par with McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback or McPhee’s Pieces of the Frame or Coming Into the Country.  Larson’s strength lies in the fact that we all know how the story ends, but he still makes you want to turn the pages, and turn them quickly.


Kapitänleutnant Schwieger, Walther (gefallen Sept. 1917)
Kapitänleutnant Schwieger, Walther (gefallen Sept. 1917)

What makes the story so compelling, is that Larson takes a few main characters — the Lusitania’s Captain William Thomas Turner, President Woodrow Wilson, U-boat Captain Walther Schweiger, Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, architect Theodate Pope, and a few minor ones — and weaves them together towards the inevitable and tragic conclusion.  This style of narrative pacing — shifting perspectives and characters — has an attractive cinematic quality that works quite well here.

And then there’s his research. The number of details and anecdotes that he has managed to cobble together are fascinating in themselves.  Here is just a few of the more interesting ones:

  • Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat was carrying Charles Dickens’s personal copy of A Christmas Carol and over 100 drawings done by William Makepeace Thackeray.
  • There were published warnings from the German embassy prior to the Lusitania setting sail that the “Lusitania is doomed…do not sail her.” Only two passengers cancelled their trip due to the warning.
  • Elbert Hubbard, author of A Message to Garcia, was on board for the crossing. And the most famous passenger, Alfred Vanderbilt, son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, paid just over $1000.00 for two rooms: one for his valet and one for himself.  Or “equivalent to over $22,000 in today’s dollars.”
  • Larson has a great chapter on the life aboard German U-boats in WWI.  From descriptions of the putrid smell inside the boats to problems with the single toilet, and finally to German torpedoes which, he says, failed 60% of the time.
  • U-20 had one dog onboard; Larson says that they had up to six at one point, four of which were puppies.
  • American first class passengers that had died and whose bodies were recovered were embalmed on behalf of the U.S. government. The others…sealed inside lead coffins to “…be returned to America whenever desired.”


Another interesting thing is neither Churchill nor Wilson come off well here.  Wilson, recently having lost his wife from kidney failure, comes across as love sick, pining for Edith Galt (who would end up running the White House after Wilson’s stroke in 1919). Wilson’s recovery from depression following his wife’s death and then his courtship of Galt seemed to consume him entirely.  Meanwhile, almost daily, the massive armies in Europe reached new levels of death and suffering.  Saying that Wilson was distracted would probably be a supreme understatement.


Captain Turner

As for Churchill, well, he tries to lay the blame for the Lusitania’s sinking at the feet of Captain Turner.  Yet Churchill and eight other senior British government officials, Larson says, had access to captured radio transmissions between German naval headquarters and underway U-boats.  They knew U-20 was operating in waters that the Lusitania had to cross to get to Liverpool.  Churchill knew that Turner was not responsible for the loss of the Lusitania, for there was little that Turner could do.  British code breaking was so good, that a number of messages that were intercepted by “Room 40” — the secret listening station in London — even gave British leadership a good understanding of the personalities of individual U-boat captains.


This spring it will be 100 years since Cunard’s great ocean liner — and briefly the largest in the world — went down, killing over 1,000 passengers, 128 of them Americans. America wouldn’t join the war until two years later — in 1917 — after the infamous Zimmerman telegram was uncovered by British cryptographers.  Still, the sinking of the Lusitania is, for many of us, an image in our minds of the first dead Americans of that Great War.  And in some ways the sinking of that ship was the beginning of the inevitable: the US would join the war effort, it was simply a matter of time.


lusitania_newsYou’ll have to pick up the book and see for yourself what happens to Captain Turner, Captain Schweiger, Vanderbilt, and many others.  Or if Charles Lauriat was able to save the Dickens book and Thackeray drawings.  It’s worth finding out.


LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN, is a career intelligence officer and recent graduate of the US  Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI.