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Camouflaged Ships: An Illustrated History

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Friday’s deployment of USS Freedom (LCS 1) will revive a tradition of camouflaging warships. Outside of smaller patrol boats, the U.S. largely abandoned elaborate color schemes and stuck with haze gray. 

USS Freedom in its new paint scheme on Feb. 22. US Navy Photo

USS Freedom in its new paint scheme on Feb. 22. US Navy Photo

But with the advent of the Littoral Combat Ship, a combatant designed to operate close to shore, the concept has returned. To put Freedom’s new look in context, the following are some examples of patterns from the past.

 

Birth of ‘Dazzle’

At the outbreak of World War I, navies struggled how to conceal their ships on the open seas. Painting vessels grey helped reduce visibility, but it was difficult to consistently blend with ever-changing environments and weather conditions. Prominent trails of smoke and wake also left ships vulnerable to being identified by enemies.

In 1917, the British Royal Navy pioneered the “Dazzle” camouflage paint scheme which often consisted of bold stripes and bright colors. The patterns were not intended to hide the ship, but rather to disrupt the outline so that size, range, speed and heading would be difficult to determine – preventing the enemy from accurately targeting the vessel. The United States was one of several nations to adopt the practice and experiment with different patterns through the end of World War II. “Dazzle” schemes largely faded from use because there was no clear evidence of their effectiveness, especially against technological advances in radar and rangefinders. “Dazzle” was however credited with boosting morale of crews who took pride in the unique and intimidating appearance of their ship.

Drawing prepared for the Bureau of Ships of the Measure 32, Design 3D scheme

Drawing prepared for the Bureau of Ships of the Measure 32, Design 3D scheme

USS Meredith displaying a variant of the Measure 32 camouflage pattern in 1944

USS Meredith displaying a variant of the Measure 32 camouflage pattern in 1944

The zebra-striped French light cruiser Gloire

The zebra-striped French light cruiser Gloire

USS Nebraska with an experimental design in 1918

USS Nebraska with an experimental design in 1918

The deceptive bow of the cargo ship USS West Mahomet in 1918

The deceptive bow of the cargo ship USS West Mahomet in 1918

Aircraft carrier HMS Argus in 1918

Aircraft carrier HMS Argus in 1918

Steam tug USS Narkeeta operating in New York in 1917
Steam tug USS Narkeeta operating in New York in 1917

An ocean liner converted into a troop ship, the USS Leviathan in 1918

An ocean liner converted into a troop ship, the USS Leviathan in 1918

“Murders’ Row” – USS Wasp, USS Yorktown, USS Hornet, USS Hancock and USS Ticonderoga in 1944

“Murders’ Row” – USS Wasp, USS Yorktown, USS Hornet, USS Hancock and USS Ticonderoga in 1944

USS California bombarding Guam, July 1944

USS California bombarding Guam, July 1944

USS K-5 showing its stripes near Pensacola, FL in 1916

USS K-5 showing its stripes near Pensacola, FL in 1916

 

  • Tracy White

    This is happening on Freedom for unit pride and maintenance during a deployment to foreign ports. If whoever laid this out had truly studied USN camouflage patterns they probably would have laid it out different and thrown in a false bow wave. The black splotches will make the diesel generator exhaust stains less noticeable.

  • Lee Wetherhorn

    The point of this type of camouflage is not concealment. It is to confuse a visual observer about the identity, and orientation of the camouflaged object. Radar can detect, and even determine speed and direction of movement over a brief period of time. It cannot provide a positive identification of the target.