This photograph was taken by Captain Gerald Leet at the Middle East School of Camouflage, Cairo 1942. Captain Leet, a professional artist, was attached to 4 and 12 Corps under the command of General Montgomery during 1940 - 1942. He followed Montgomery to North Africa in 1942 and trained the 8th Army in camouflage techniques as part of the preparations for the Battle of El Alamein.
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Visual deception played a crucial part in Allied operations in North Africa and the Middle East, where the desert terrain offered little opportunity for concealment.
In 1941 the filmmaker Geoffrey Barkas was made Director of Camouflage at GHQ Cairo. Among the specially trained Royal Engineers camouflage officers under his command were artists, zoologists, and theatre and film set designers. Creative improvisation remained key to their success.
Camouflage officers involved in the defence of Tobruk thought up some of the most ingenious ruses. One was to make a crucial water purification building appear heavily damaged after German attacks when it was in fact unharmed.
As the value of visual deception became clear, materials were manufactured in large numbers. Limited resources of men and equipment were boosted by phantom armies of dummy tanks, artillery and men, supported by dummy railheads and pipelines. The illusion was completed by 'evidence' of human and mechanical activity, such as track marks, smoke from 'cooking' and 'washing' hanging on lines. 'Sunshields' were developed – wooden or canvas covers which disguised tanks and artillery as trucks and vice versa.
At El Alamein, this ruse contributed to the Allied victory by fooling the Germans into making false assessments of the strength and intentions of British and Commonwealth forces.
Dummy vehicles and equipment often attracted the attention of German and Italian forces. As Jasper Makelyne, the famous magician and wartime camouflage officer, wrote in his memoirs: 'We liked to feel that much of our invention was to save life not to take it; every German bullet that hit one of our dummy men was one less to find a billet in shrinking flesh.'
As well as camouflaging tanks to give them the appearance of trucks, 'Sunshield' camouflage was used to create fake Crusader tanks - as shown in this photograph taken in the Western Desert. These fakes were vital in creating a misleading picture of the strength and locations of Allied forces.
Dummy gun crews were often used as decoys to divert attention from real artillery positions. They were usually sited in a position known to the enemy but since vacated. For added realism, flash simulators were sometimes used to simulate muzzle flash. At Sidi Barrani in 1940, one of Wavell's 'brigades' was entirely made up of dummies. These were largely improvised from scrap found in dumps.
Up to thirty collapsible dummy tanks such as this could be carried in one truck. Julian Trevelyan, a camouflage officer, describes seeing an entire dummy railhead: 'No living man is there, but dummy men are grubbing in dummy swill-troughs, and dummy lorries are unloading dummy tanks, while a dummy engine puffs dummy smoke into the eyes of the enemy.'
The same deception techniques that had worked so effectively in the desert campaigns of North Africa were also used during the build-up to the landings in Italy in 1943 and before the D-Day landings in June 1944.