That amazing camouflage pattern you see above is called “dazzle camouflage” and was used in World War I from 1917 through 1918 in an effort by the Entente Powers to protect their shipping from German U-Boat attacks. (For those confused by “Entente Powers” just substitute “Allies” – you’ll be wrong technically but you’ll probably have the right nations in mind.) This eye-popping camouflage was used on the theory that U-Boat captains, relying on visual targeting systems, would be thrown off in their shot estimations by the bizarre patterns, specifically they would be unsure of the speed, direction, and actual bow of the ship – all critical data to be able to lead a torpedo shot to have the weapon arrive where the boat would be several seconds after the torpedo was fired.
These designs were created by an assortment of artists working for the British Admiralty (and later the United States Navy) to come up with patterns that would confuse and confound the enemy. It was an impressive effort in scale and eventually hundreds of warships and cargo transports would be painted in these varied and off-putting patterns. Artists also played with different contrasting color combinations, efforts semi-lost due to the limitations of photography at the time (although some paintings of colored dazzle patterns exist.) Just imagine being in harbor in 1917, watching a ship steam into harbor, and seeing that appear over the horizon. Alternatively you might have seen:
After the war the British evaluated dazzle camouflage and decided they weren’t sure if it had actually done any good. Although shipping losses went down after it was implemented there were too many other factors playing in the study as well – things like changes in tactics, routes, and modifications to escort methods. The US Navy though loved dazzle camouflage and believed it had done wonders, leading to its brief use at the start of US involvement in World War II. However by then improvements in optical aiming systems (and later deployment of radar systems) made the camouflage useless.
But it did leave us a legacy of really weird looking ships and for that I’m personally grateful.