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How Camouflage Helped The Allies Win The Desert War

Visual deception played a crucial part in Allied operations during the Second World War 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 General Headquarters (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. 'Sunshields' - wooden or canvas covers which disguised tanks and artillery as trucks and vice versa - were also developed.

The illusion was completed by 'evidence' of human and mechanical activity, such as track marks, smoke from 'cooking' and 'washing' hanging on lines.

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 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'.