WW1, WW2

A History of Camouflage in WW2 Britain

World War One was the first-ever conflict in which aviation played a significant role. As a result, air reconnaissance became a primary warfare strategy. By the war’s end, aircraft, balloons, and airships had firmly established themselves as crucial tools of war. Here we look at its development and a history of camouflage in World War Two.

You could finally observe buildings and troop movements from above – but so could the enemy. Consequently, military strategies were adjusted accordingly. 

WW1:The Birth of Camouflage

In the hour of need humans, yet again, proved that necessity is the mother of invention. The French were the first to practice essential camouflage during World War Two. The French military launched camouflaged painted arms and vehicles with patterns to blend in with the environment. It was a brilliant idea that gave them an edge.

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In fact, the word ‘camouflage’ came from a French verb that means ‘to make up for the stage’

The concept of camouflage integrated itself into the entire military system very quickly. In response to aerial surveillance, militaries began concealing key buildings using leaf-covered netting.

WW1 Camouflaged
A restored WW1 British 8 inch Howitzer painted in disruptive camouflage pattern

Following the French Army, the British Army School of Camouflage was established in 1916. The school studied methods of deceiving the enemy on the Western Front. In World War Two, the British military widely adopted the idea of camouflage – particularly after the Luftwaffe’s targeted bombings.

The idea was simple: to mislead an enemy plane as it approached from miles away. From such a distance, camouflage effectively obscured a potential target from standing out.

WW2: How Not to be Seen

Throughout World War Two, many committees coordinated camouflage practices. In Britain several officials from the government, the Air Ministry, Armed Forces, and Admiralty had a say in policy direction.

However, there was an absence of a central body that governed the matter.

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In 1940, each service established a camouflage branch. The British Army even began publishing camouflage training manuals. At the same time, all military personnel started receiving basic camo training.

Everything with military significance was strategically camouflaged as a matter of urgency.

RAF Staverton’s airfield was camouflaged to create a rural landscape. The British made an ‘imitation lane’ to snake across the airfield. Moreover, they painted boundaries to mimic hedges. Finally, the runway mimicked irregular dark shapes to throw off any aerial attack.

Hiding a Horse!

Of course, camouflaging an airfield alone is not enough.

The Kilburn White Horse – a chalk painting dating back to the 1800s – is visible from miles away. When Germans introduced the sport of gliding, many pilots became familiar with the giant horse prior to WW2. 

Kilburn White Horse
A very British affair. The White Horse at Sutton Bank, Kilburn Yorkshire, England

During the war, authorities feared the Luftwaffe would use the horse as a navigational landmark for bombing raids. So, camoufleurs covered it to break up its outline and make it less distinguishable from nearby rocky outcrops.

The Yeadon Aerodrome was opened in 1931 as a civilian airport. The military took over the establishment during World War Two. North of the Aerodrome was a factory that belonged to Avro – the company that manufactured Avro Lancaster.

Sure enough, Avro put the Aerodrome in the crosshair as well.

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To avoid enemy raids, the military camouflaged three large hangars to break up their regular outlines. Additionally, artists gave the runway a false hedge line in an attempt to hide it.

RAF Yeadon
A birds eye view of RAF Yeadon in West Yorkshire, July 1940 (Photo by © Historic England)

RAF Coltishall was designated as a fighter station due to the growing threat of German invasion. Due to its proximity to the coast, the base suffered many enemy attacks in the early years. Later, RAF buildings received camouflage paint – traces of which are still visible on the officers’ mess, airmen’s barrack blocks, and married accommodation.

Camouflage: Not A Magic Bullet

During the targeted Luftwaffe bombing, it was likely that the British Gloster Aircraft Company (GAC) would be a prime target. It was founded around 1915 and manufactured fighter planes.

A folder containing an aerial shot of the chosen target, with its precise position, was given to each Luftwaffe bomber crew. It was clear that GAC was in trouble.

From pre-war aerial surveillance, German intelligence knew exactly where GAC’s factories were. We know this because ‘Flugzeugzellenfabrik’ at the top of the evidence translates to ‘aeroplane factory.’ 

Painting fake field boundaries camouflaged the take-off and landing areas. These appeared as black geometric lines. Despite the elaborate camouflaging, the original factory, ‘Altes Werk,’ and the new factory, ‘Neues Werk,’ were still targeted.

WW2 Pillboxes

World War Two saw a massive production of camouflage netting. Military camoufleurs made a net by cutting up short green and khaki sacking strips and attaching them to the mesh. The netting created patterned shadows, blending into the surrounding environment. Post-installation, whatever had been concealed underneath was hard (not impossible) to spot from the air!

Luton Town
Camouflage netting was made in abundance during WW2. Here women make the netting in the main stand of Luton Town Football Club! The netting was used at the nearby Vauxhall factory.

The British also made tens and thousands of pillboxes across the country during the war. They were positioned for strategic defence in the event of enemy invasion.

Most of them were small, reinforced concrete block houses of different shapes. They had openings (loopholes) allowing the troops inside to shoot the enemy while in cover. Thus, all soldiers were camouflaged – one way or another.

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Britain constructed pillboxes using large stones from the pebble bank at the back of the beach. Of course, these installations were made per their vicinity. Rural pillboxes resembled rural buildings, such as barns, rather than military installations.

These were made to appear as derelict cottages. They had wooden window frames hiding the loopholes and a damaged timber roof with slates hanging off. Some pillboxes were even made against hedges to camouflage them.

A modern photo of a WW2 pillbox at Acle in Norfolk. The pillbox has been ‘camouflaged’ into the adjacent building.

Meanwhile, in towns and cities, pillboxes were often installed in streets or market squares. Understandably, their camouflage took on an urban form.

These innocent yet armed structures packed a surprise for uninformed invaders! 

Camouflage Artists

Camouflage artists date back to World War One. These artists painted Royal Navy ships with ‘dazzle’ camouflage. Geometric diagonal black, white, and grey stripes make targeting difficult for German U-boats.

In World War Two, the Ministry of Home Security’s Camouflage Directorate in Britain received over 2,000 applications from artists to work for the military. 

Artists worked in total secrecy to disguise critical military and civilian bombing targets. Firstly, the buildings were sketched and photographed from the ground and the air. Then, they translated the images into scale models on a giant turntable.

They had moving ‘sun,’ and ‘moon’ spotlights to mimic different times of day and night! 

A viewing platform gave a bird’s eye view. At the same time, bomb sights from a downed German plane simulated the enemy bomber’s perspective. Finally, camoufleurs recreated approved camouflage designs with paint, canvas, and coarse hessian.

The Art of Camouflaging 

The WW2 Camouflage Unit comprised artists, designers, and architects. These artists were recruited because of their aptitude for good visual recall and understanding of scale, colour, and tone.

These artists created designs with disruptive patterns in various colours. They then painted them onto buildings. The aim was to break up forms and outlines, making objects challenging to locate and detect. It was necessary even against a shifting background, for example, when looking down from a plane.

RAF Hethel
Crude but effective. RAF Hethel and USAAF Station 114 Chapel in camouflaged colours.

The patterns consisted of a mixture of dark and light colours painted next to each other to break up the object.

The substances used were products derived from oil installations. Henrietta Goodden, daughter of camoufleur Robert Goodden, says in her book:

“Camouflage was a natural consumer in the wartime ethic of “waste not, want not. As a result, camoufleurs recycled much industrial waste to conceal roads, buildings, and scarred ground.” 

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At power stations like Stonebridge, camoufleurs changed fuel to produce darker smoke. The smoke proved to be an excellent contrast with its surroundings for “disruptive coloration.”

All He Could See Was The Suburbs!

Britain displayed a strong example of strategic camouflaging. Following their footsteps, the United States adopted the same strategy of camouflaging netting for the Lockheed plant. 

Lockheed airfields and parking lots were painted green and lined with plants to make them look like alfalfa fields. The main factory was covered with a canopy of chicken wire, netting, and painted canvas to blend in with the surrounding grass. Additionally, fake trees were erected with spray-painted chicken feathers for leaves. Some were painted green to represent new growth, and some brown to represent decaying patches.

Once done with the task, Col. John F. Ohmer flew a War Department General 5,000 feet up in the air on a reconnaissance flight. He asked his guest to identify the plant. However, all he could see was the suburbs. The mission was a success. Camouflage had been a proven asset of WW2.