“Razzle-dazzle ’em and they’ll never catch wise.”

That was the U.S. military’s plan anyway. During World War I, a new trend emerged that would help camouflage ships, submarines, and aircraft: razzle-dazzle ships.

But what were these razzle-dazzle ships and how effective were they? Keep reading to learn more about this interesting tactic and see how it changed between the world wars.

The Razzle-Dazzle Idea

The theory behind the razzle-dazzle ships was simple. In order to prevent the enemy from seeing how big a ship was or how many guns it had, the ship had to be camouflaged. As with traditional camouflage, we would think that the military would want the ships to blend in with their surroundings, but that really wasn’t the goal. When out at sea, the weather changes what the scenery looks like too fast so there’s no way to always blend in with surroundings.

Around 1914, the American and British militaries started rethinking the idea of camouflage. German u-boats were sinking their ships with alarming frequency, so they needed to come up with a way to distort the ships’ image. Remember, radar technology hadn’t been fully developed at the time. When a u-boat fired a torpedo, the operator had to calculate where a ship would be by the time the torpedo was fired.

Zebra Camouflage

Rather than using the camouflage we know today, American and British ships took a different approach – a zebra approach. A zebra’s stripes are a defense mechanism. Lions and cheetahs who hunt zebras can’t tell how many are in a herd because their stripes distort perception. The predators don’t want to take on a whole herd, so they leave them alone.

Razzle-dazzle ships used the same concept. Designers for the military painted these ships with long stripes in different designs and colors to throw off torpedo operators. Now, when those same operators looked at nearby ships, they had a harder time distinguishing their length and speed. In fact, razzle-dazzle ships could throw off a torpedo operator’s calculations by up to 55 degrees. When a torpedo only has line-of-sight technology, that can make a huge difference.

Of course, it looked a little silly having these brightly colored ships go by looking like Easter eggs, but when it came to war, the stripes were worth it.

Razzle Dazzle Warships WW2

World War II Razzle-Dazzle Ships

By World War II, radar technology had improved by leaps and bounds, so razzle-dazzle ships were no longer as useful or as common. Still, the practice persisted.

Razzle-dazzle ships started making a comeback in 1940 when the British started using them once more. The Royal Navy held competitions to see who could design the best camouflages. In the U.S., the Navy chose less over-the-top camouflage tactics. They would paint false bow waves to make enemy crewmen think the ship was actually smaller from afar.

Razzle Dazzle in Color

After 1945, the Navy repainted the ships in the Pacific Fleet, but Atlantic ships continued to use the designs.

Before modern technology, militaries used all sorts of tactics to try and avoid detection. Today, you won’t see “a flock of Easter eggs” passing by, as a journalist once called them, but these razzle-dazzle ships remain an important part of naval history.

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