The Cunard passenger liner RMS Caronia gets a dazzling paint job for its duties as an armed merchant cruiser during World War I.

Family research veers off course

Dazzling discovery

While researching family history for my mother’s birthday, I found an unusual photo of the RMS Caronia, the Cunard passenger ship that had brought my Ruthenian grandmother, Mari Sagi, to America on 18 Dec. 1909.

In the photo, the majestic passenger ship had been painted in dazzle camouflage.

At the start of World War I, Caronia had been converted into an armed merchant cruiser. Its second day at sea, the Caronia captured a German ship loaded with chemicals used to make gunpowder. It finished the war as a troopship.

During the war, noted maritime painter Norman Wilkinson invented the concept of “dazzle painting,” which used stripes and disjointed lines of contrasting colors—mostly black, white, blue and green—to make it difficult for the enemy to estimate the ship’s speed, direction and dimensions using visual range finders.

Range finder operators had to manually compute the range by adjusting the mechanism until two half-images of the target formed a complete picture. Dazzle painting made that process difficult because the images looked out of whack even when properly aligned. Dazzle patterns often included false bow waves, which were intended to make it hard to estimate a ship’s speed.

Artists from London’s Royal Academy of Arts custom designed dazzle patterns for each ship and tested them on small wooden models using a periscope in a studio. The approved designs were then scaled and painted on the intended ship.

Although it’s uncertain how effective dazzle camouflage really was, the British Admiralty believed it had a positive effect on crew morale.

As radar came into use, dazzle painting’s benefits as a camouflage technique were greatly diminished though some believe it continued to be effective against submarines.

After 28 years of service, the RMS Caronia made its final London-to-New York run in 1932. Sold for scrap, Caronia was renamed Taiseiyo Maru and sailed to Osaka, Japan, for demolition.

Despite this dazzling sidetrack into history, I managed to finish my original research project in time for my mother’s birthday.