The Story of Camouflage During the Second World War

The First World War (1914-1918) was the first conflict in which aviation played a major role and when aerial reconnaissance from aircraft, balloons and airships, became a threat.

The enemy could observe armaments, buildings and troop movements from above and plan military tactics accordingly.

The French were the first to practice basic defensive camouflage at the start of that war: units of camoufleurs painted weaponry and vehicles with disruptive patterns to blend into the environment, and taught military units how to disguise structures and vehicle tracks from aerial surveillance with leaf-covered netting and painted tarpaulins.

Plan of dummy tree observation post. Under cover of darkness and close to the front line, a real tree would be cut down and the new hollow steel-cored tree secretly erected in its place. An original can be seen at the Imperial War Museum, London © IWM Q17811

The British Army School of Camouflage was founded in 1916 and based in London’s Kensington Gardens. The school explored methods of deceiving the enemy on the Western Front.

Life-size cut-outs of German soldiers created by the British Army School of Camouflage to mislead the enemy’s own troops in battle © IWM Q95955

However, it was the threat of targeted bombing attacks on Britain by the Luftwaffe (the German air force) in the Second World War (1939-1945) that led the British military to use the concealment and deceit of camouflage in more sophisticated and strategic ways.

In some cases, the aim was to deceive an enemy aircraft as it approached from several miles away: from such a distance, camouflage – which appears very basic when viewed from directly above – stopped a potential bombing target standing out.

Deceiving Enemy Bombers

Pocket-sized Camouflage Military Training Pamphlet No. 46. Issued by the War Office 20 June 1941. Courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Throughout the Second World War, several committees were established to co-ordinate British camouflage policies and practices. Members were drawn from government ministries and departments, along with the Air Ministry, Armed Forces and Admiralty, but no central body had sole responsibility.

In 1940, the three services each established camouflage branches. Camouflage training manuals were widely issued and all military personnel received basic training. Virtually everything of military significance in Britain was camouflaged, including vehicles and even entire airfields.

RAF Staverton, Gloucestershire, 15 Mar 1944. The base was used for training aircrew in flying, navigation and air observation, as well as aircraft testing © Historic England/US/7PH/GP/LOC/2345043

RAF Staverton’s airfield was camouflaged to create a rural-type landscape. As pictured above, an imitation lane was created to snake diagonally across the airfield and the tarmac runways. Boundaries mimicking hedges were painted on the grass: these show as the black line across the runway, and at bottom left and right. Parts of the runways themselves were painted with a pattern of irregular dark shapes, probably to simulate woodland.

Kilburn white horse (centre of image), Sutton Bank, North Yorkshire, 24 Aug 1940 © Historic England/MSO/310670/R21

The Kilburn White Horse dates from the 1800s and is visible for miles around. In the peaceful interwar years Germany led the world in the sport of gliding and many German glider pilots would have been familiar with the horse when visiting the local gliding club, at the top of Sutton Bank, in the 1930s.  

With the outbreak of war, the authorities feared that the Luftwaffe would use the horse as a known navigational landmark for bombing raids, so camouflage was essential. It was partially covered during the war to break up its outline and make it less distinguishable from nearby rocky outcrops.

The River Ouse near Piddinghoe, East Sussex flows through the South Downs to the sea at Newhaven, 17 June 1942. RAF HLA600/6054

This aerial image shows the curve of the River Ouse, marked by the white of its raised flood banks. Camouflaged netting 200 yards long is visible in its central section. This would have hidden any vessels from enemy reconnaissance flights.

It is probable that the camouflaged section was constructed as part of the preparations for the Allied raid on the French port of Dieppe on 19 August 1942. The majority of the 5,000+ troops who took part in Dieppe embarked from nearby Newhaven and the netting could have camouflaged moored landing craft used in the raid.

RAF Yeadon (now Leeds Bradford Airport) West Yorkshire, 27 July 1940 © Historic England/RAF/58/A/318.

Yeadon Aerodrome opened in 1931 as a civilian airport, but was taken over by the military during the Second World War. Just to the north was a factory belonging to Avro, the British aircraft manufacturer of the famous Second World War Lancaster bomber.

The image above shows three of the aerodrome’s large hangars, camouflaged to break up their regular outlines. The runway, partially visible in the top left, has a false hedge line painted across it in an attempt at camouflage.

Luftwaffe Aerial Surveillance of English Bombing Targets

Image of Luftwaffe bombing target folder showing the airfield and camouflaged factories of the Gloster Aircraft Company, Hucclecote, Gloucestershire. 12 September 1940 © Historic England/LFT01/GB 07416

Luftwaffe bomber crews were issued with folders that included an annotated aerial photograph of the intended target, along with a precise location and description.

The British Gloster Aircraft Company (GAC) was founded around 1915 and manufactured fighter aircraft. During the war their factories would have been a prime enemy target.

German intelligence knew exactly where GAC’s factories were, possibly from pre-war aerial surveillance. The word ‘Flugzeugzellenfabrik’ at the top of the page translates as aeroplane factory. Despite the elaborate camouflaging of the roofs, the original factory to the left (‘Altes Werk’) and new factory to the right (‘Neues Werk’), outlined in red, were clearly targets.

A Luftwaffe bombing target folder: RAF South Cerney, Gloucestershire. The airfield was constructed during the 1930s as a flying training school, a role it continued throughout the war © Historic England/LFT01/GB 10207

The pictured Luftwaffe aerial photo is titled: ‘Flugplatz’ – airfield. It is ringed in red as a target and within that, specific buildings and sites are numbered, named and also outlined in red.

Number 1 shows where aircraft were parked (‘Abstellplätze für Flugzeuge’), 2: Four hangers (‘4 Hallen’), 3: Accommodation blocks (‘Unterkunftsgebäude’), 6: Air traffic control (‘Flugleitung’), 7: Barracks (‘Baracken’), 9: Radio station & masts ‘(Funkstelle 2 Masten’).

The grass take-off and landing areas, located within the lower ‘circular’ section within the target area,were camouflaged by painting fake field boundaries. These appear as the black geometric lines. The four hangers are also camouflaged.

Camouflaging Structures and Buildings

Two members of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) tie strips of sacking to netting (known as ‘garnishing’) to form a large camouflage net. The WVS was key part of the civilian war effort and had over 1 million volunteers by 1943 © IWM D17198

Enormous amounts of camouflage netting were used in Britain during the Second World War. It was made by cutting up short lengths of green and khaki sacking strips and attaching them to mesh.

The netting created patterned shadows, blending into the surrounding environment and made whatever was hidden underneath difficult to spot from the air.

Pillbox, Pawlett Hill, Somerset, that originally housed a Vickers machine-gun. Like many structures, it may originally have been disguised with camouflage netting stretched over the top and hooked in place © Roger J.C. Thomas

Tens of thousands of pillboxes were built across Britain during the Second World War, carefully positioned for strategic defence in the event of enemy invasion – an invasion which Hitler finally cancelled.

Most were small, massively reinforced concrete blockhouses of varying shapes, with openings (loopholes) allowing the troops inside to fire at the enemy while remaining safely hidden. Virtually all were camouflaged in some way.

Pillbox, Dunster Beach, Somerset © Roger J.C. Thomas.

The pillbox pictured above was clad using large stones from the pebble bank at the back of the beach. This was in part to make it blend it into its surroundings but also to save on materials.

Pillbox ‘cottage’, Hemscott Hill, Northumberland © Historic England YO-1704

Pillboxes were sometimes constructed to resemble rural buildings, such as barns, rather than military installations. These innocent-looking, but armed structures, were meant to be seen and to mislead any invading troops until they were fatally close. Pictured is one built from scratch as a derelict cottage. It originally had wooden window frames hiding the loopholes and a shattered timber roof with slates hanging off.

Pillbox, Mitchell’s Hill, Ilminster, Somerset, which would have housed a Vickers machine-gun. © Roger J.C. Thomas

Some pillboxes were built against hedges to camouflage them, while others were sunken into the ground like the one pictured above. This one was covered in turf, blending it into its environment and allowing nature to provide natural camouflage.

Street pillbox being camouflaged as a car by an artist, Felixstowe, Suffolk, 24 August 1940 © IWM H3306

Meanwhile in towns and cities pillboxes were often in streets or market squares and so camouflage took on an urban form.

Second World War camouflage is still just visible on these airmen’s houses, RAF Coltishall, Norwich © Historic England AA0054359

RAF Coltishall’s relative proximity to the coast and the growing threat of German invasion led it to be designated as a fighter station. The base suffered numerous enemy attacks in the early years of the war. Buildings received a coat of camouflage paint, traces of which can still be seen today on the officers’ mess, airmen’s barrack blocks and married accommodation.

Camouflage Artists

Oil painting of artists at work in 1940 in the Civilian Camouflage Directorate unit, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, the workplace for 250 artists, set designers and technicians © IWM ART LD 322

In the First World War, artists were recruited to paint Royal Navy ships with ‘dazzle’ camouflage: geometric diagonal black, white and grey stripes which made targeting difficult for German U-boats.

The abandoned camouflage workshop today © Historic England

In the Second World War, the Ministry of Home Security’s Camouflage Directorate received more than 2,000 applications from artists to work in the unit.

The artists worked in total secrecy with the sole aim of disguising key military and civilian bombing targets. These were sketched and photographed from the ground and the air and the images were translated into scale models on a giant turntable with moving ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ spotlights mimicking different times of day and night.   

A viewing platform gave a bird’s eye view, while bomb sights from downed German aircraft simulated the enemy bomber’s perspective. 

Watercolour of a power station and cooling tower camouflaged as housing by Colin Moss, a leading artist at the camouflage unit. Camouflage netting suspended over the water enclosure is also visible behind the fencing. The government asked camouflage artists to make a painted record of their designs © IWM RT LD 3024

Approved camouflage designs were recreated with paint, canvas, coarse hessian and camouflage netting by thousands of workers on enormous target structures such as factories, power stations and military buildings.

Header image: an aerial photograph from 3 April 1942 showing the camouflaged Second World War fuel depot, centre right, at North Killingholme on the north-east Lincolnshire coast. The depot was established in the First World War as an Admiralty oil storage depot, and used through the Second World War to supply fuel to the Royal Navy © Historic England/6747/BB

Further Reading

4 responses to The Story of Camouflage During the Second World War

  1. Reggie Paterson says:

    Very interesting,I enjoyed reading this.

  2. Chris Martin says:

    I understand that it was discovered during WW2 that colour blind men could spot camouflage as it stuck out because of the different shade.

    My father put his name down as colour blind, but was not accepted as he had fooled the authorities by working out the colour charts and was doing something that he should not have been doing. He spent the early years in wormwood scrubs doing another important job.

  3. Terry Seal says:

    When I worked and flew with the Flying Crusaders (Daily Express) we flew over the Battle of Britain Spit and Hurri I was most impressed by the camoflage paint and they were hard to spot. In a battle I doubt you would notice until too late. During the cold war we were given tasks to cover certain places. So, it still goes on. But tech has caught up with the whole idea and more or less made it redundant.

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