Monday 27th July 1942.
Camouflage is as old as history: Shakespeare’s Macbeth sees Malcolm’s forces using tree branches whilst moving towards Dunsinane Castle, as the witches prophesied, the moving of a wood.(1)
The Britain of 1940 saw a desperate need to conceal strategic sites and buildings and thus deceive the enemy, at a time of potential invasion, and to ‘preach the message’, the War Office set up the Camouflage, Development and Training Company at Farnham Castle.
This drew on designers, painters, conjurers and zoologists the latter having a deep knowledge of animal camouflage. Brian Penrose, a surrealist painter was a lecturer at Farnham and wrote the Home Guard Manual on Camouflage.
Though used at sea in World War I, it was in the later conflict that camouflage came into its own being used by factories and at key military and RAF sites, both here and abroad.
Factories as at Cadbury’s, Bourneville, used camouflage netting and coloured gravel to simulate trees and open ground, but the obvious prime targets were those in war production.
By 1942, many attacks were sporadic as the main Luftwaffe force was now deployed against Russia after December 1941. However these could still cause devastation, as when a single plane Today at 8.00am, hit part of the Rolls Royce Aircraft Factory at Derby, maker of the famous Merlin engine. It killed twenty-three.
As common at the time camouflage had been employed on the roofs, in this case painted by a local artist Ernest Townsend, to look like a village scene.
The works also had gun posts, and barrage balloons which when hit released parachute drogues capable of bring aircraft down.
Defences had been set up in October 1940 round major towns and cities including Derby, employing Lewis and Bofor guns, searchlights and smoke-pots along streets, which released black clouds of smoke.
However the most significant camouflage employed in World War II came in December 1940, following the bombing of Coventry.
This used the ‘Starfish’ Decoy System of dummy towns and industrial sites, with one being deployed for Derby between the Derbyshire villages of Ticknall and Hartshorne.
230 dummy airfields and 400 dummy urban and industrial sites were constructed around the country and responsible for the diversion of many a raid from their targets.
Starfish (SF) ‘Special Fire Sites’, was a large-scale night-time decoy system designed by Colonel John Turner after a visit to Shepperton Film Studios, which became the centre for operations.
The sites were an extension of Turner’s decoy for air-fields and factories, code-named Q-Sites.
Abroad, Geoffrey Barkas, a British film maker, led the British Middle East Command as Camouflage Director, the most outstanding example being with Operation Bertram which helped secure success at the Battle of Alamein.
Nowadays camouflage employs digital technology using hexagonal panels or pixels which can be rapidly heated or cooled to form different images. It was developed by BAE Systems and called Adaptiv or active camouflage.
(1) It sets the scene for Macbeth’s killing by Macduff, and the soliloquy, ‘Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’, after the death of Lady Macbeth.
Ref: Barkas and his wife wrote Camouflage Story (From Aintree to Alamein).
Ref: Camouflage: A History of Concealment and Deception in War, David Charles
Ref: BBC Technology Online 5th September 2011.
Ref: How the film industry helped to win the war: bbc.co.uk/Julia Leonard, 24.8.2013.