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First World War dazzle ships

Online exhibition

Merseyside Maritime Museum's historic pilot ship the Edmund Gardner has been transformed into a dazzle ship, using a painting technique introduced as a way of camouflaging ships during the First World War.

Above you can see photographs of First World War dazzle ships from the Maritime Archives and Library's collection. Find out more about each ship below.

First World War dazzle paint schemes 

The man finally credited with the idea of dazzle painting ships during the First World War was the British artist Norman Wilkinson. Several other people claimed the idea and others contributed, including a Liverpool art dealer, Archibald Phillips who had submitted to the Admiralty, in 1915, a number of camouflage designs that included a dazzle effect.

The Union Castle Chronicle records that ships from their company were initially painted grey before resuming to peace time livery in 1915. As the war at sea intensified ships were painted black in 1916 before the introduction of dazzle paint schemes in October 1917.

Walmer Castle

The Walmer Castle was launched in 1901 for the recently created Union Castle Mail Steamship Company. The ship sailed between Southampton and Cape Town and in 1917 was requisitioned by the British Government.

It is seen here dazzle painted for use as a troop ship in the North Atlantic. Walmer Castle survived the war and was broken up in 1932.

War Cypress  

Built by Cammell Laird in 1917 the War Cypress was re-named Leopold L D in 1920. Re-named Aliki in 1932 the vessel was seized by the Vichy Government in 1941 and re-named Monaco, then taken by the Italians and re-named Bologna in 1942.  The vessel was finally sunk by HMS Unbroken, a British submarine, off Cape Vaticano on 21 May 1943 on a voyage from Naples to Messina. 

Kinfauns Castle  

This Union-Castle Line vessel was taken over by the Admiralty on the opening day of the First World War and was quickly converted into an Armed Merchant Cruiser. In this guise HMS Kinfauns Castle was involved in a number of actions, capturing several German vessels and two German islands. In 1916 the vessel became a troopship, as seen in this photograph, and returned to the mail service after the end of the war. 

Mona’s Queen  

The Isle of Man Steam Packet vessel was chartered as a troop carrier to cross between Southampton and Le Havre in 1915.  After an uneventful but busy time on this service the Mona’s Queen saw action on the night of 6 February 1917.  With over 1,000 British and American troops on board the Mona’s Queen rammed a German U-boat that had surfaced less than 200 meters from the advancing ship. The UC-26 was damaged as the conning tower was struck by the steel paddles of the troopship. Although the U-boat fired a torpedo due to the close proximity of the two vessels it passed and missed the Mona’s Queen. Both vessels survived this encounter and limped to different ports.

Teelin Head  

Seen here steaming up the River Avon, the Teelin Head, Ulster Steamship Company, was sunk by UC-31 whilst part of a convoy bound for Le Havre. Carrying a cargo of potatoes and taconite, a low grade of iron ore, the Teelin Head was struck by a torpedo at 8.04 pm on 21 January 1918.  Although the crew were able to abandon ship, 13 men, including the Captain, died. 

Diomed III

This Blue Funnel Line (Ocean Steam Ship Company) vessel was sunk some 200 miles off Nantucket Island by gunfire from U-140 on the 21st August 1918.  Exactly three years earlier the Diomed II owned by the same company was also sunk by gunfire, by U-38, having been captured 57 miles from the Scilly Isles. 

Balmoral Castle  

Requisitioned as a troopship, the Balmoral Castle, Union Castle Line,  continued on the mail service during World War 1 but also completed several voyages exclusively as a trooper during 1917. In 1915 the Balmoral Castle took troops to the infamous Gallipoli campaign.