Ship or island?

Special Thanks to Beyond Band of Brothers Tours, Procom America, LLC


Though camouflaging a ship at sea is not an easy feet, many have tried. A well-known result of such attempts was the Dazzle camouflage of the two world wars, but more traditional approaches also exist.

Before the First World War, there were several doomed attempts at disguising ships as whales, clouds or islands with mirrors and painted canvases. Even the famous inventor Edison tried to turn a cargo ship into a fake island but with no more success than others.

The ship Edison tried to disguise, before (top) and after (bottom) the application of canvas
It was only in World War II that a ship was successfully disguised as an island. The HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen was a Dutch minesweeper operating in the Dutch East Indies (roughly Sumatra, Jawa, Borneo, Sulawesi, the Moluccas and Western New Guinea) when World War II broke out. In February 1942, after the Japanese wrecked a combined Dutch-American-British-Australian fleet in the Battle of the Jawa Sea, the Abraham Crijnssen and the three other Dutch ships remaining were given the order to escape to Australia.
The Abraham Crijnssen, designated the HMAS Abraham Crijnssen, in Australian service
The minesweeper was slow and inadequately armed against aircraft, so a run for safe waters seemed hopeless. Taking a longshot, the crew disguised the 180ft long vessel as an island. The ship was heavily covered in foliage cut off from local island vegetation and exposed surfaces were given a grey paintjob reminiscent of natural rock.
The Abraham Crijnssen from up close
The Abraham Crijnssen had a maximum speed of only 15 knots but even that would have been too suspicious for an island, so the ship also had to act like one. Rather than trying to get out of danger quickly, it only moved hugging the shore at night, spending the days anchored just off the shores of larger islands. The region is full of small islands and the craftiness of the ship paid off: out of the three Dutch vessels, she was the only one who successfully made the 1,000 mile trip to Australia, crossing the seas in 8 days.
The disguised Abraham Crijnssen situated in front of a genuine island
Once there, she was commissioned by the Australian navy, but the new captain immediately faced a dilemma. Commonwealth tradition prescribed that a picture of the British monarch should be displayed in the wardroom (the officers’ mess), which was already decorated by a portrait of Dutch Queen Wilhelmina. As a compromise, the picture of King George VI was placed in the lieutenant’s room and the one depicting the Dutch Queen stayed, now in the company of a picture of Rita Hayworth.
The Abraham Crijnssen disguised as an island
Another similar disguised attempt. In early July 1942, during the disastrous battle of Convoy PQ 17 the British converted trawler HMS Ayrshire defied orders to abandon the cargo ships under German attack and led three other vessels into the Arctic ice to hide and wait out the massacre. The captain, Lieutenant Leo Gradwell, decided to disguise the ships as icebergs. The vessels were painted white and their decks were covered in white linen to blend in with the surroundings. The ruse worked: at least one German plane flew overhead but the ships were left unmolested. Once things calmed down, Gradwell led the four ships to the Soviet port of Arkhangelsk, navigating with nothing more than a sextant (since compasses are unreliable that close to the North Pole) and a copy of the Time World Geographic Pocket Book, since the ship was never supposed to operate away from the convoy and didn’t have proper charts.
The anti-submarine vessel HMS Ayrshire, converted from a trawler, photographed off Iceland. There are no known photos of it during its brief disguise as an iceberg
On a few occasions, a ship was disguised not as a whole island but a small part of one, a notable example being the cruiser HSwMS Göta Lejon (Gothic Lion) of the Royal Swedish Navy. Launched in 1944 and late 1945, the Göta Lejon and her sister ship the Tre Kronor(Three Crowns) were the largest warships ever to serve in the Swedish Navy. Allegedly following the example of early medieval Viking raiders, the expensive ship was disguised with a net and added foliage as a bunch or large rocks along the rugged coastline.
The Göta Lejon camouflaged as part of the shoreline. Can you make out the ship?
A reverse example of a ship disguised as an island is Fort Drum, an island (sort-of) disguised as a ship. El Fraile Island used to stand in the mouth of Manila Bay in the Philippines, due south of Corregidor Island, a land acquired by the U.S. after the Spanish-American War of 1898. In order to improve defenses in the area, the island was leveled into a shape roughly reminiscent of a warship and renamed Fort Drum. Its main armament consisted of four 14-inch cannons mounted in two twin turrets, which made it unique among U.S. land-based fortifications at the time. Due to its resemblance to a ship, various parts of the fort were named using naval terminology, such as upper deck, top deck and stern.
El Fraile Island before it was demolished
When Japan attacked the United States in December 1941, Fort Drum’s guns became the war’s first American land-based artillery to fire at the enemy. Holding out all the way until May 6, 1942, the fort eventually had to surrender. It was recaptured in 1945 in an operation that involved pouring thousands of gallons of diesel oil and gasoline into the fort and igniting it with white phosphorous to flush out or burn the Japanese troops inside.
Fort Drum, with an actual battleship, the USS New Jersey, in the background
As a final note, the deliberate mixing up of ships and islands goes back to the age of sail – at least administratively. The British Royal Navy often placed artillery and other assets on islands to contribute to nearby sea battles. Since the Navy was legally not allowed to rule over land, these emplacements, nicknamed “stone frigates,” were called boats and given names in line with ship naming conventions to circumvent the restriction.
HMS Diamond Rock off Martinique was the first recorded “stone frigate.” It saw action against the French in 1805. The Royal Navy still regards it as an officially commissioned ship.
You can learn more about disguise and deception in the wars that shaped American history on our American Civil WarFirst World War and World War II tours.
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