Trivia 059: Watermelon battleships

Anybody who’s visited Albuquerque knows how large the Sandia Mountains loom over the city. They’re a very handy landmark, as you can see them from anywhere in the city, so you always know which direction is east. As the sun sets on the opposite horizon, the red light gets reflected off the potassium feldspar, giving the mountains a distinctly pinkish coloration. A popular local story is that this color is where the mountains get their name – Sandia means “watermelon” in Spanish (although, as with many stories, further research reveals that this may not necessarily be the case).

Anyways, that’s all besides the point. The real trivia I am trying to get at here has to do with that pink sunset. You see, back in 1940, Lord Mountbatten of the British Royal Navy noticed that as dusk approached, one of the ships in the convoy he was escorting faded into the sunset better than the others. That particular ship was painted a light shade of pink. With the Second World War having only just begun a year prior, countries were hot on the lookout for anything that could give them an edge. (We’ve already discussed how the US and Britain tried to make an aircraft carrier out of ice.) Thus, when Mountbatten proposed painting ships pink to help camouflage them, his ideas were greenlit very quickly. Several ships under his command were painted a special shade of pink known as “Mountbatten Pink“. They even tried doing this with vehicles used in the desert campaigns in Africa.

Now, this is not necessarily as crazy as it sounds. There have been lots of odd camouflage designs over the years. Perhaps the most famous of which are the “dazzle” camouflage patterns used by ships in World War 1. This camouflage was not designed to make ships harder to see, but rather to break up their silhouette to make it more difficult for enemies to tell their heading and speed.

As impressive and, dazzling as these ships looked, unfortunately whether or not the camouflage was effective is highly uncertain. There was no strong indication that either dazzle patterns or Mountbatten pink served their purpose of making things harder to see. In fact, in some cases it may have had the opposite effect. A battleship painted a grey-blue can blend in with the sea and sky, but one painted in jagged stripes, or a shade of pink which is just a bit too red can stand out much more visibly. This may have offset the benefits such paint provided. With Mountbatten pink in particular, if the paint was mixed just a bit too red, the ships would stand out even more, thanks to the Purkinje effect – In low-light, the human eye emphasizes blues more than reds, making reds appear darker. This could actually cause a ship to stand out more against a blue sea.

So if, for some reason, you are ever trying to hide a battleship in the Sandia Mountains at evening, consider Mountbatten Pink for all your camouflage needs.

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I kept wanting to spell “camouflage” as “camoflauge”. Hopefully I have now successfully trained myself not to do that.

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