Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton, illustrated by Victo Ngai

During WWI, the Germans had a real advantage over their enemies, Britain and the United States. They had perfected the use of submarines from which they could launch torpedoes, making their enemies ships literal sitting ducks. Britain was especially desperate to find a solution to the sinking of ships, both military and non-military, since, as an island, they relied on boats to bring them much of what they needed, especially food, and so far, nothing has worked.

That is, until Norman Wilkinson, a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, came up with an unlikely idea - camouflage the ships. 

But how do you camouflage a huge ship? Wilkinson knew you couldn’t make a ship invisible, but they could be painted so that they confused submarine officers trying to figure out which way and how fast the ship in their sights was traveling.

The idea of camouflage was nothing knew, but Wilkinson suggested painting a crazy pattern on one side of a ship and another crazy pattern on the other side. The patterns used were called dazzle and amazingly enough, it seemed to work. Pretty soon, two dozen women artists were creating dazzle patterns that were then applied to ships by painters and artists working together.

Did dazzle camouflage save any ships from being torpedoed? The British painted 3,000 ships, the Americans painted 1,000, but in fact, there may have been too many other factors making it hard to determine how effective the dazzle ships really were.

In this well-written chronicle about the Dazzle Ships of WWI, readers will be intrigued that such a far-fetched idea was accepted and carried out (even the King of England was dazzled by the ships). Barton’s text is enhanced and supported by Victo Ngai’s dynamic analog and digital media illustrations, which reflect not just the patterns of the dazzle ships but are rendered in the style and colors of the early 20th century, especially the art movement known as cubism.   

Dazzle Ships is a picture book for older readers is sure to appeal to anyone interested in the history of WWI and no doubt they will find this creative problem solving to a serious problem both fascinating and inspirational.

A WWI timeline is included that shows just how dazzle ships fit into the events of the war. And be sure to read the Author’s Note and the Illustrator’s Note for more information.

FYI: Author Chris Barton has contributed a very informative guest post at The Lerner Blog in which he writes about why he wrote Dazzle Ships. 

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Example of a Dazzle Ship: HMS Kildangan 1918 (Public Domain)


  1. Well I never! I’ve seen a dazzle ship! My husband explained about the painting of them during the war, but neither he, nor I knew it was called that. We saw her on The Thames but according to an article I’ve just read she has been moved to the River Medway to make way for construction of the Thames tideway tunnel. The article (with a picture) is here

  2. Thanks for the link to this story - it was really interesting. BTW the origin of the word dazzle comes the Middle English word dasen - meaning to daze