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Camouflage That Now Stymies Spy Shots Was First Used to Ward Off German U-Boats in World War I

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Dazzle camouflage on a U.S. cargo ship in 1918
Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command

As a loyal reader of The News Wheel, you’ve probably noticed the stories we publish that contain spy shots of prototype vehicles out for test drives. And you’ve probably noticed that those vehicles are sometimes covered in a distinctive black-and-white camouflage. These patterns are called “dazzle camouflage,” and they’ve been used ever since World War I.

The camo is clearly not there to hide the vehicle itself — instead, it often draws even more attention. Instead, it’s there to mask key new details of the prototype so they can stay under wraps until the automaker is ready to reveal them.

One way dazzle camouflage does its job is by confusing the vehicle’s contours and flattening its shape. The contrasting patterns are also an effective way to prevent smartphones and other cameras from focusing properly.

During World War I, the camouflage stakes were much higher. German U-boats were torpedoing British merchant ships at a staggering rate, depriving the Allies of much-needed supplies. According to Smithsonian magazine, 925 British ships were sunk between March and December 1917.

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2019 Toyota Supra Spy Shot

Modern-day dazzle camouflage on a 2019 Toyota Supra

Something had to be done. A new division of Britain’s merchant naval service was formed, and under the leadership of Norman Wilkinson, it developed dazzle camouflage to protect transport ships.

Instead of hiding a ship from attackers, dazzle camouflage used unpredictable geometric patterns and contrasts to create optical illusions and conceal the ship’s direction, shape, and size. The goal was to make it much harder for U-boats to predict a ship’s course and accurately fire torpedoes at it.

How well did this work? Statistical studies conducted after World War I were unclear — but at the very least, dazzle camouflage did raise the morale of sailors who were protected by it. And militaries continued to use it in World War II.

Today, although automakers aren’t exactly dealing with life-or-death situations, they still employ the same principles of misdirection that were first used on the high seas a century ago.

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News Sources: Smithsonian, WDIV Local 4