A manufacturer of military camouflage material was John Holdsworth & Co., Ltd of Yorkshire who had been making cloth since 1822, showing wars are won not only by generals.(1)
Today in 1942 one of the most pivotal victories of World War II began with an enormous artillery barrage in North Africa which inaugurated the Battle of El Alamein. (2)
The desert campaigns in north Africa were to employ experts in camouflage to deceive the enemy, training of which took place at the Camouflage Training Development Centre at Farnham Castle, where the skills of the likes of Roland Penrose, Julian Trevelyan and Jasper Maskelyne were used.
Camouflage as a diversionary tactic came under the control of one portly Solomon J Solomon (RA) and the most famous operator was the 1930s stage illusionist Maskelyne who had joined the Royal Engineers in 1940 convinced that his stage-camouflage skills could have military application.
However he found the training boring being convinced that, ‘a lifetime of hiding things on stage taught more than rabbits and tigers would ever know’.
Initially his superiors thought otherwise and was to perform magic shows until the setting up of a counter-intelligence unit called ‘A Force’ in 1941.
Maskelyne having a great name as an illusionist convinced himself he had played a pivotal role in Operation Bertram before Alamein when dummy convoys, pipelines and roadways mislead the Germans, so they diverted resources to the south rather than the north.
He was soon building along with his ‘magic gang’, dummy tanks to deceive bombers and reconnaissance planes, and making real tanks look like trucks. He also was according to his own account in his book, War Magic, disguising Alexandria as a fake harbour and modifying searchlights to disorientate pilots.
However later writers and research has showed that much of his account of his work in counter-intelligence was pure invention and his role purely marginal. Another writer concluded that Maskelyne was, ‘one of the more grandiose members of WWII desert camouflage and chanced tasks which fogged his own reputation as much as any desert convoy’. (cf. House).
A critique of David Fisher’s book which gave, ‘a very colourful account of Maskelyne’s role, but repeated from his ‘ghosted’ book ‘War Magic’, said, ‘he thought he had won the war single-handed and expecially derides Maskelyne’s supposed camouflage of the Suez Canal when his ‘Dazzle-lights’ were never actually built. (Hambling cf).
‘Maskelyne received no official recognition which to a vain man was intolerable and he died an embittered drunk’. (Guardian cf). Even more damning was the fact that film-director, Peter Weir set to make a film of Maskelyne’s war-time exploits dropped the idea when he discovered the true facts.
(1) Frank Henry Mason the marine artist was also engaged on ship camouflage.
(2) Bedouin: El Alameen, or place of two flags.
theguardian. 28.6.2002. Nancy Banks-Smith.
Maskelyne and Stuart 1949. David Fisher Biog. of Maskelyne.
David Hambling. ‘Wired’. 17.5.2008.
Christopher House. 21.10.2012. Phantom Army of Alamein. The Independent. Rick Stroud.
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.
In 1941, Intelligence Officer, Colonel Dudley Clarke was arrested in Madrid dressed as a woman under mysterious circumstances, which have never been explained.(1)
Today in 1945 a citation in the London Gazette said: ‘The planning and implementation of deception measures which have played a major part in the successes achieved in this theatre have been due in large measure to the originality of thought, imagination and initiative shown by this officer.
The citation related the Colonel Dudley Clarke’s (later Brigadier) work in ‘A’ Force and his award of being ‘Mentioned in Despatches’ on 19th October 1944.
It was in 1940 that General Wavell called Clarke to Cairo where he was put in charge of strategic deception and where he was to set up in 1941, Advanced HQ ‘A’ Force, to plan operations.
Under Wavell, Clarke developed techniques to confuse the Axis Powers, regarding Montgomery’s proposed main thrust at El Alamein.
By 1942 British forces were relatively weak in the Middle-East and ‘A’ Force devised Operation Cascade. an Allied deception of creating a false order of battle, which aim was to keep the Axis guessing as to Allied strength in the Western Desert campaign.
The Operation was valuable in the experience it gave for later Operations, so much that documents later captured at Alamein later revealed that the Axis had initially over-estimated our armoured and infantry strength by as much as 50%.
The later Operation Bertram was another deception planned by Clarke to deceive Rommel as to the timing of the Allied attack at El Alamein. In fact it deceived Rommel so much, that he was not in the area when the attack took place.
As always the success of Bertram depended on the skills of many largely unknown heroes including, Geoffrey Barkas, a British film maker who was Camouflage Director of British Middle East Command.
Another to play a pivotal role, was the music-hall illusionist, Jasper Maskelyne, who contrived dummy convoys, pipelines and roadways to mislead the Axis regarding our deployment of resources.
After the Battle of Alamein, Churchill described the contribution of camouflage in Bartram, in the Commons, on 11th November 1942: ‘I must say one word…surprise and strategy by a marvellous system of camouflage, complete factual surprise was achieved in the desert’.(3)
Post war there was little official confirmation of the deception and intelligence methods used by the Allies, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that hitherto secret information was released, which brought most of it into the public domain.
(1) The Independent, Thursday 23.5.2013. The Cross-Dressing Spy. Article based on official papers revealed on that date.
(2) Churchill’s Speech as recorded in Hansard, 11th November 1942.
Ref; wikipedia.org/operation_cascade and operation_bertram.
Ref: The Guardian.com. Phantom Army, Peter Forbes, Friday 21.12.2012. reviewing book by Rick Stroud’s Phantom Army of Alamein.
Clarke was the brother of TEB ‘Tibby’ Clarke the film writer.
In life success largely depends on ‘LADY LUCK’ and the ability to take advantage of HER. At times a swaggering and conceited personality helps, none more so than with the later Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery of Alamein.
On 13th August 1942 ‘Monty’ had taken command of the 8th Army, after the death of General ‘Strafer’ Gott, in a transport aircraft crash, whilst ‘hitching’ a lift from Libya to Cairo. He was en-route to take command of the 8th Army, but fate decided otherwise as his plane was attacked on take-off.(1)
See Addendum for what lies behind this terse account-this foot-note of warfare.
Churchill was in Cairo on 4th August 1942, in the last days of his visit to units to appraise ‘morale and vigour’ of the Generals and by the evening of the 7th he decided to replace Ritchie by Gott to take charge of the 8th Army also. He replaced Commander-in-Chief, Auchinleck with Alexander, who had been poached from Eisenhower’s Torch team. At the time however we were winning the First Battle of Alamein under Auchinleck, which history tends to ignore; halos were reserved for Montgomery’s later victory.
Montgomery was lucky to have Enigma Intelligence as to the enemy’s movements; to have the brilliant camouflage expertise of Geoffrey Barkas, and the brains of Edgar Trevor Williams, whose death Today in 1995 reminds us of one of the unsung heroes of El Alamein, for it was Edgar ‘Bill’ Trevor Williams who masterminded Montgomery’s Intelligence system in the 21 Army Group.
Monty later recalled :’I discovered there a major in the Intelligence Brigade in the King’s Dragoon Guards by name Williams, an Oxford Don with a brilliant brain which after a conversation gave me an idea which played a large part in winning the Battle of El Alamein’.
Williams had noted that Rommel deployed his infantry and paratroops between and sometimes behind the Italians, tactics known as ‘corseting’. Williams’ idea was to separate the two as we could smash the Italian front without difficulty-a strategy known as ‘crumbling’, thus luring the Germans out of their original positions.
Churchill was a great arm-chair strategist, much to the annoyance of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Alanbrooke, and despite saying he left commanders a free reign, dispatched a note to The ‘Auk’, that he would withdraw 15 Air Squadrons to help the Russians, unless he went on the offensive, which in the event was left to Monty and victory at Alamein.
The brilliance of film-maker, Geoffrey Barkas as Camouflage Director, of British Middle-East Command, was notable in Operation Bertram which contributed to ultimate success in the desert. Churchill described the contribution of camouflage in Bertram: ‘I must say a word…surprise and strategy by a marvellous system of camouflage… was achieved in the desert’.(2)
(1) Lt-General William Henry Ewart Gott 13.8.1897-7.8.1942.
(2) Report 11.11.1942.
Gott died after the plane had been shot down whilst taking off for Cairo and the remarkable bravery of the Sgt. Pilot ‘Hugh ‘Jimmy’ James, the sole survivor, whose valiant attempt to save the plane whilst seriously injured himself lies in the ‘Annals of the Brave’ for all time. James was 19 years old; REPEAT 19 YEARS OF AGE. We live in an age when Sainsburys have a notice requiring proof of age to buy alcohol: are you 25? It’s what we fought for!!
Ref: Barkas and his wife wrote Camouflage Story (From Aintree to Alamein).
Pic: wikipedia of Monty.
Ref: David Fraser: Alanbrooke, Bloomsbury Pub. 2011 e-book.
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