During the First World War the German Kaiser’s Imperial U-boat submarine fleet wreaked havoc amongst Britain’s Merchant Navy. By late 1917 the depredations of this ‘Hun Savagery’ had sunk almost a thousand ships and threatened a full blockade of the island nation. The Admiralty was desperate to find a technological countermeasure, so the science boffins at the Merchant Navy’s new ‘Dazzle Section’ led by marine artist Norman Wilkinson, came up with a literally dazzling idea! Dazzle camouflage was designed to confuse the visible form of a ship from the perspective of a periscope, with the initial model working so well on former Royal Navy sailor King George V, that he gave it his full seal of approval, and thus the dazzle ships were born!
While work on early versions of underwater echolocation technology had begun pre-war, it would be some years after the end of WW1 before this knowledge would be put to military use such as in acoustic torpedoes and active/passive sonar. The somewhat low-tech solution of dazzle camouflage, however, proved something of a success and was at least very popular with the crews of dazzle ships. Rather than making a ship at sea invisible, this form of camouflage was designed to do the complete opposite in order to make the task of plotting a torpedoe’s path and speed much more difficult for the German U-boat gunners.
The intersecting lines with varied colours and shading could include fake bow waves, inverted shadows and many other perspectival tricks to make it difficult to judge a ship’s identity, size, speed and direction of travel when viewed against the sea and sky, and in all weather. Each dazzle ship was an individual artwork, many of which were designed by the women artists of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and influenced by the avant-garde movements of Vorticism and Cubism. The prominent Vorticist Edward Wadsworth spent his wartime service in the Royal Navy applying these dazzle designs to over 2000 Allied ships and would go on to exhibit dazzle designs in his later career.
Numerous dazzle ships made Lyttelton a port of call during the hostilities, one such being the 8000 gross ton cargo steamship Daghild. Commissioned by the Controller-General of Merchant Shipbuilding, Lord Pirrie, as part of the UK government’s standard cargo ship programme in WW1, she survived the Kaiser’s U-boat onslaught and was then sold to a Norwegian company after the war. By the outbreak of WW2 she was renamed the SS Katharina Dorothea Fritzen (III) as part of the German Merchant Navy and was sunk by an Allied mine in 1942.
The SS Matatua was a 6519 gross ton steamer built in 1904 in Belfast. In 1918 as HMNZT (for Transport) she braved the Atlantic waters carrying 497 New Zealand soldiers to Britain. Post-war she served as the cargo ship SS Ilsenstein and in WW2 was requisitioned again by the Admiralty in 1940 and scuttled in Skerry Sound in the Orkneys as a blockship.
The SS Ruahine was a 10,832 gross ton, twin screw steamer built in 1909 for the New Zealand Shipping Co. and served the nation as a troop carrier throughout WW1. Surviving both world wars after making 91 round trips between Britain and New Zealand she was renamed the Auriga and sailed the South American trade routes.
Finally, we have the SS War Opal. An F-class standard cargo ship like the Daghild, she was one of the last dazzle ships built towards the end of WW1 in 1918. Designed for speed and displacing 6690 gross tons she cut a menacing figure with her six Samson posts painted war grey, that when lowered into cradles appeared to be twelve-inch deck guns. Fitted with water tight compartments she was thought to be torpedo proof and near unsinkable. On New Year's Day 1920, still in full dazzle camouflage, she visited the port of Lyttelton and was a key attraction for that year’s Regatta with the Lyttelton Marine Band playing on Gladstone Quay, and a torchlight procession in the evening held under the auspices of the Lyttelton Volunteer Fire Brigade.
Purchased by the British India Steam Navigation Co. in 1919, she was renamed the Hatimura and by the outbreak of WW2 was sailing the dangerous trans-Atlantic routes and again braving German U-boats. In November 1942 as part of convoy SC-107 out of New York bound for the UK, she was carrying a cargo that included 200 tons of TNT, 250 tons of gunpowder and 300 tons of incendiary bombs. The convoy was attacked by the Nazi U-boat wolfpack Veilchen southeast of Greenland’s Cape Farewell, with 18 submarines sinking 15 ships in one of the costliest Allied losses of the war.
A straggler, the former War Opal was torpedoed and lost propulsion with the crew abandoning the still floating ship. U-442 came around for the coup de grâce with U-132 standing off. The final torpedo detonated the ship’s deadly cargo which erupted in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions recorded in WW2, the gigantic blast destroying U-132 which sank with all hands lost.