Invented during World War I, dazzle camouflage was painted onto thousands of ships in the U.K. and U.S. as a way to disorient enemy U-boats. More than one hundred years later, the pattern is making a comeback with help from one of New York City’s finest historic fireboats, the John J. Harvey.
From July through next May, the retired fireboat will be sporting a contemporary “dazzle” pattern created by New York-based artist Tauba Auerbach as part of an exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI.
The artwork is co-commissioned by the Public Art Fund and 14-18 NOW with support from the crew and volunteers of John J Harvey. AkzoNobel, a leading global paints and coatings company, supplied the paint for this project.
Built in 1931, the John J. Harvey served New York Harbor until it was retired in 1994. The boat made a brief comeback in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center when the boat’s crew pumped water for 80 hours and evacuated people from Lower Manhattan.
Fireboats similar to the John J. Harvey also played an integral role during World War I as they were used to guide Navy vessels, including ships that were dazzled, out of New York Harbor.
History of Dazzle Ships
During WWI and WWII, dazzle camouflage (also known as razzle-dazzle in the U.S.) was painted onto thousands of ships both in the U.K. and U.S.
Its development is credited to the British marine artist Norman Wilkinson, who in 1917 claimed that painting ships with geometric shapes in contrasting colors — interrupting and intersecting each other — would make it difficult for enemy vessels to target them. Unlike traditional camouflage, dazzle was used to confuse and disorient ships rather than to conceal or hide them.
During the war, German submarines used rangefinders, a manual optical mechanism that computed the range of a target. The operator adjusted the device until the two half-images of the target lined up to complete the picture. Dazzle, with its sliced and repeating patterns, made the two halves difficult to align, looking confusing even when they did. This made the targeted vessel’s distance, direction, and speed difficult to calculate.
Since 2014, the London-based 14-18 NOW has commissioned four Dazzle Ships throughout the U.K., but Auerbach’s dazzled fireboat is the first U.S.-based ship and the final vessel in the series before the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I on November 11, 2018.
From now through May 2019, John J Harvey will be available for public viewing and free trips at various NYC locations throughout the season.