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The WWI Camouflage Strategy That Was So Bizarre It Was Actually Genius

World War I

World War I began in July 1914. Many people believe that it would be over by Christmas; however, it didn’t work out that way. The fight went on for four long years.

Key Concern

A key concern during the war for the British was the security of their maritime supply routes. The country depended on its merchant fleet to bring essential war supplies and food from the United States to other countries. The Germans were aware of this, and they used the U-boat to disrupt Britain’s merchant shipping processes.

RMS Lusitania

An ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania left New York’s Pier 54 in May 1915 bout for Liverpool, England. There were 2,000 passengers and crew on board. Most of the people on the ship were British and Canadian, and there were over 100 American nationals on the ship. The ship was also carrying 750-tons of ammunition and other materials necessary in England. The Germans used the military items on board as justification for what they did to the ship.

The Attack

The Lusitania was 750 miles from Ireland on May 6, 1915, and there was a German ship nearby. The next day, the U-boat captain, Walther Schwieger, scanned the horizon with the periscope and saw the ship. He took the boat down to a cruising depth of 36-feet and headed for the ship. When in range, they launched a torpedo, which shot right through the ship. It took less than 20 minutes for the ship to sink under the waves. When the ship sunk 10-miles from the Irish coast, 1,198 of the 1,959 people on board lost their lives. Of the dead, 128 were Americans. There was an international outcry after the attack, especially from the United States, who wasn’t even involved in the war at the time.

More Destruction

This attack, and the 500,000 tons of vessels that other German U-boats destroyed, it was obvious that something needed to be done. The Germans first problem was when the United States got involved in the war. While this was great for Britain, things were getting bad. Their wheat stocks were dwindling, and would only last the country about two more months. Fortunately, in 1917, Norman Wilkinson had an idea. It was considered radical, but it would work.

Norman Wilkinson

Norman was born in Cambridge in 1878. After attending London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School, he went on to study at Southsea School of Art. There, he became a respected painter, and maritime themes were his major theme for his work. He also designed many posters for British railroad companies. When World War I broke out, Norman was an amateur sailor, and he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. He was a lieutenant commander, and then became a captain of an 80-foot minesweeping vessel.


After being on leave for a couple of days, he had an idea regarding camouflaging ships at sea. He says that the idea came to him when he was sitting in a railway carriage when black and white came to his mind. He wasn’t the only one trying to find a way to camouflage the ships. Artists and inventors were also working on ideas. One person suggested cloaking the ships in mirrors. Thomas Edison suggested making the boats look like islands, complete with trees. They even tried it with one ship, but when it sailed into New York Harbor, the disguise fell apart.

Norman’s Idea

Norman’s idea was crazy. His method didn’t try to hide the ship. It actually made the ship stand out like a sore thumb. His plan was to confuse the enemy. Since you couldn’t paint a ship to be hidden, why not do the extreme opposite? By painting the ship black and white and breaking up its form, the enemy wouldn’t be able to figure out what course it was on. His idea was accepted, and he was told to go with it.

Put To Work

Norman was given empty studios at London’s Royal Academy of Art, and he was given a staff of 19 artists, model makers, and art students. They worked on the patterns for the ships, and each was different. If the enemy didn’t know what they were looking at, they couldn’t attack.

The Test

They created a design on a ship to test it out, and it worked. More and more ships were camouflaged this way to protect them at sea. Norman’s idea made him famous among Navy officials. Whether it genuinely worked during the war is unknown as there are two different theories; however, to this days, ships are still be dazzled for camouflage. The WWI camouflage strategy that was so bizarre it was actually genius is still being used today. Considering all of the work it takes, it must have been effective for the Navy to still use the camouflage today.

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