11 November 2010

Deception in the Art of Camouflage

USS West Mahomet, 1918, in razzle dazzle camouflage
courtesy of Naval Historical Foundation, Washington Navy Yard

Aisling O'Carroll

Concealment and deception in hunting have been necessary for the survival of man since the earliest times. Survival in nature is a struggle in which speed, wit and especially concealment are vital. While many creatures have devices of camouflage and deception inherent in their physical make-up, humans have had to develop these methods of protection. The development of military technology was central to the development of camouflage in military activities.
Military camouflage falls into three categories: concealment, screening and misdirection.1 Concealment makes use of natural and artificial means such as colouration, paints or materials, or covering areas with netting to make the objects – for example, factories, airfields or troops – blend into their surroundings. Concealment is only effective with long-range weapons where attacks can be made from such a distance that colouration and shade conceal one’s position and machinery. Screens such as walls, hedgerows or smoke also can be used to hide military activity.
It is deception and misdirection that allows the widest range of approaches to camouflage. This method attempts to either mislead or distract the enemy. Rather than making an object disappear, it is made to look like something else. Deception provides the most interesting and surprising look into camouflage.

Deception in nature
Cuttlefish have the ability to change the colour of their skin within seconds to reflect and blend into their surroundings. This survival mechanism is produced by layers of cells in the skin, chromatophores – small organs containing dense pigment which can be expanded or contracted to show a dot of a particular colour on the skin’s surface. The layer beneath contains iridocytes, which produce a reflective or iridescent quality in the skin.2 Certain species however do more than disappear in their environment; Sepia officinalis uses disruptive patterning to distract and hypnotise both predator and prey. Wrapping around the central region of its back, irregular bands of light and dark colour radiate outward in a flowing zebra-pattern. This mechanism abstracts and confuses the contours of the body, distracting the creature in question long enough for the cuttlefish to either escape or make an attack.3

Dazzle Painting
Similar disruptive patterning was proposed in 1917 by Norman Wilkinson, a naval lieutenant and painter, to protect the British Navy from German submarines. Ships could not be made invisible through regular camouflage because of the constantly changing light and weather conditions at sea, but by painting them with strong patterns their recognisable shapes could be rendered as apparently distinct masses. Dazzle-painting, called Razzle Dazzle in the USA, made it difficult for a U-boat to determine the exact position or direction of the ship it wished to attack. The patterns were designed for maximum distortion when viewed using a periscope through which distance was normally calculated through a bioptic alignment of surfaces, something totally confounded by the stripes and colours of dazzle painting.4 Although there exists no real statistical evidence to prove dazzle painting did save ships, it was reported that sailors felt safer in them.

Decoy on D-Day
Deception can be used to produce two main effects, firstly to draw an enemy’s attention away from the real attack, and secondly, to distract from the real target and cause the enemy to expend its energy and ammunition on a false target. Both of these results may be produced by strategic use of decoys and dummies. A manifestation of this is the use of false radio transmissions and the planting of false operation directives and plans of battle. In many cases however, the decoy is quite literally constructed of dummy tanks, troops and artillery.
Camouflage was integral to the success of the D-Day invasion in WWII. By land and air different tactics were used to deceive the enemy. On the night before D-Day, dummy parachutists were dropped in a large-scale diversion over Normandy to distract from actual airborne landings. These dummies were designed one-third the size of a normal man, with parachutes to scale and weighted with sandbags. Noise mechanisms were attached to them to simulate the sound of weapon fire when the dummies hit the ground. As a small number of real Special Air Service troops were also dropped, it was the breadth of the operation that camouflaged the real from the decoy.5

In the North African campaign, also in WWII, an intensive plan of deception was laid out in order to break through the German lines, cutting their supply routes. Seven weeks were spent preparing for the October 23 launch of an offensive at El Alamein. While the main Allied infantry attack came from the north, a diversionary attack diverted German attention to the south. Once the northern infantry broke through the line, it was planned that armoured troops would follow to cut off supplies. Huge effort was put into concealing the vehicles assembling to the north, and simultaneously constructing enough decoy armour for the south to suggest preparation for a substantial battle. During the final stages of preparation for battle, trucks served as place-holders along the northern front, and would be furtively replaced by tanks on a night preceding the battle. The tanks themselves were disguised by ‘Sunshades’ – canvas covers giving them the appearance of trucks, so the Germans would not realise a switch had been made. As well as disguising weapons and vehicles, it became necessary to conceal 6000 tons of supplies. This was creatively achieved in a number of ways; petrol tins lined the walls of trenches as if they were masonry reinforcement, and food supplies were arranged in the form of trucks and camouflaged with canvas coverings. Meanwhile, similar effort went into bolstering the ruse of a larger offensive gathering to the south. As well as the apparent movement of armoury, the construction of a dummy pipeline to the south was staged. A trench was dug in regular stretches, with dummy pipes laid out alongside it. Each night these pipes would be moved forward to the next stretch, and the trench filled in. Dummy pump stations and filling tanks were constructed to reinforce the scheme.

After defeat in WWI, General von Seeckt was commissioned to reduce the German army as outlined by the Treaty of Versailles to a size less than the army of France. Defeat was not happily accepted by Germany, and while re-forming the Reichswehr according to the guidelines, von Seeckt also developed a nucleus idea – in theory, a small military nucleus could defeat a larger enemy with well-trained troops, superior mobility and mechanical strength.6
Mobility was addressed in 1930 when Fritz Todt, an engineer, veteran of WWI and close friend of Hitler, published a paper, ‘Proposals and Financial Plans for the Employment of One Million Men’, outlining his idea for a new national highway system. In theory this system was devised as a solution to the country’s unemployment problem, however also provided mobility for the armed forces. After Hitler’s election in 1933 Todt became the administrative director of the Reichsautobahnen and led the building of the Autobahn which was often presented as a facilitator of tourism in Todt’s magazine Die Strasse.7 Todt then went on to direct the construction of the West Wall fortifications, a 5-mile deep band of thousands of pillboxes, observation posts and anti-tank defences8 which drew the Allies to destroy it, even although it was not actually used in attack until near the end of the war.
In 1945 President Eisenhower presented his proposal for a National Highway System – an interstate network linking major cities. It was portrayed as an urban planning tool, reducing urban blight by redistributing population to the suburbs. Although this portrayal diminished the awareness of the network’s military uses, Eisenhower considered the system as a defence highway: ‘the road net must permit quick evacuation of target areas, mobilization of defence forces and maintenance of every essential economic function’.9 With both the Autobahn and the Interstate Highway System, deceptive propaganda successfully camouflaged the military significance of monumental infrastructure projects, portraying road networks as simple vehicles of liberatory convenience.

For the camouflage to successfully aid both offensive and defensive plans, it must be integral to the organisation of the operation. In war, disguise and confusion rely on cunning and inventive deception to considerably help one’s chances where total protection is impossible. However, deception only works when everyone, including civilians, believe the camouflage, not the underlying military narrative.

1 Hartcup, Guy. Camouflage, A History of Concealment and Deception in War. Vermont: David & Charles Inc, 1979. p 7
2 Norman, Mark and Amanda Reid. A Guide to Squid, Cuttlefish, and Octopuses of Australasia. Victoria: CSIRO Publishing, 2000. pp 12-18
3 Cott, Hugh B. Adaptive Colouration in Animals. London: Methuen & Co, 1957. p 96
4 Hartcup, Guy. p 43
5 Ibid. p 91
6 Mallory, Keith, and Arvid Ottar. The Architecture of War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973. p 111
7 9 Vahrenkamp, Richard. ‘Tourist Aspects of the German Autobahn Project 1933 to 1939’. Working Papers in the History of Mobility No. 4/2006. University of Kassel, 2006
8 Mallory, Keith. p 109
9 Branyan, Robert L and Lawrence H Larsen. The Eisenhower Administration 1953 - 1961. New York: Random House, 1971. p 545

O'Carroll, Aisling.  'Deception in the Art of Camouflage'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Aisling O'Carroll and On Site review

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