Visual deception played a crucial part in Allied operations during the Second World War in North Africa and the Middle East.
Italy declared war on 10 June 1940 and a few months later invaded Egypt from Libya. This opened up a new battlefront in the North African deserts. The difficult climate and terrain proved challenging to both sides and offered few places to hide, except in plain sight; through concealment, camouflage and disguise.
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.
Troops carry a dummy Stuart tank, 3 April 1942
Julian Trevelyan, a camouflage officer, described 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 illusion was completed by 'evidence' of human and mechanical activity, such as track marks, smoke from 'cooking' and 'washing' hanging on lines.
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'.