In the First World War, the Allies were desperately searching for ways to counteract the effectiveness of the German U-Boat fleet. This was an entirely new form of warfare, and as such, there were no experts they could turn to for assistance, and no veterans with any experience. As such, unlike most other arenas of combat in WWI, the Admiralty was willing to turn to more innovative and creative solutions. One such tactic was the use of dazzle camouflage.
The principle of dazzle camouflage was simple. It was designed to break up the obvious lines of a ship when viewed through the less-than-optimal sight of a U-Boat periscope. In essence, the idea was to do the very same things that camouflage paint will do for military vehicles today. The difference was that on the ocean there is little or no backdrop for the ships to camouflage themselves against.
The dazzle paint, then, served to deceive the eye and cause the U-Boat commander to misinterpret the speed, direction or size of a ship. By simulating a false bow towards the stern of the ship, painters could make a vessel appear to be moving in the other direction. Several Cunard liners, repurposed for troop-ship duty, used a distorted checkerboard pattern, which made the ship appear to be steaming away when viewed from directly to the side.
While the camouflage was obviously ineffective against the technological aspects of a submarine attack, it did end up causing the U-Boat commanders to take a longer period of time in setting up their attack. This delay could give the fleet enough time to detect the attackers, or to force a less-sophisticated attack due to confusion.
It also had the odd side effect of requiring the Admiralty to hire artists, primarily painters and sculptors, to design the camouflage. It’s not often in the modern era that the military contracts out to artists, and that alone makes the camouflage significant.