Dazzling HMS President
HMS President has a new camouflage scheme that, paradoxically, might help draw more attention to this veteran ship
When you think of historic warships moored on the Thames, HMS Belfast springs immediately to mind. However another even older vessel lies slightly further upstream – HMS President, and she has had a striking new paint scheme revealed this week. German artist Tobias Rehberger has repainted the ship in a Dazzle camouflage inspired by designs used on ships in World War One. Dazzle camouflage was first developed in 1914 by the artist Norman Wilkinson, although Picasso later claimed that no one would have thought of the idea if it were not for the Cubists! Ships were painted in a complex series of geometric shapes, sometimes using odd colour schemes as well. The idea was not to hide the ship but to confuse the rangefinders of enemy guns. The ever changing pattern made it hard for gunners to focus their rangefinders and thus work out exactly how far away the ship was. A case of an artist contributing to the war effort – which Rehberger has chosen to celebrate on the hundredth anniversary of Dazzle’s invention.
The new paint scheme certainly draws attention to HMS President, one of the few surviving warships from World War One. HMS President started life as HMS Saxifrage in 1918, with the task of defeating German submarines by the use of subterfuge. The ships were called Q ships, and looked very similar to the merchant ships that the German U-Boats were trying to sink. Their weapons were hidden behind moveable panels so a U boat would think they were a defenceless merchantman. Unlike in the movies, torpedo attacks from below the surface were rare, usually the U boat would rise to the surface and attack the cargo ships. However a U boat surfacing near a Q ship was in for a nasty surprise. The Q ship would reveal its hidden weapons and start firing at the submarine. The Dazzle camouflage made it more difficult for the submarine to return fire.
In 1922 the ship was renamed HMS President and became a training vessel until 1988, when she was sold to private owners. HMS President is now used as offices for media companies and has a rather nice café bar that is open to the public. It is very easy to walk past without giving her a second look. Q Ships like HMS President played a vital role in defeating the U Boat attacks on shipping during World War One, and thus keeping London fed, so we perhaps owe her a little bit of attention. Lets hope the Dazzle scheme helps people spot her.