Camouflage, also called protective concealment, attempts to disguise an object that is in plain sight in order to hide it from something or someone. If an object cannot be concealed—often something large, such as an airfield or a warship—camouflage may succeed merely by preventing an enemy from identifying the object. Camouflaging is normally accomplished by applying disruptive or blending paint or material to the object.
Modern camouflage techniques can be traced back to the French Army's Camouflage Division, established in 1915, when the army gave artists the responsibility for concealing airfields. The term camouflage comes from the French word camoufler, meaning "to blind or veil."
During World War II, aircraft were often camouflaged, in direct contrast with the practice in World War I, attributed particularly to Germany, of painting some aircraft in bright colors in order to intimidate opposing aviators. World War II aircraft tended to be painted in graduated color schemes, with darker shades on top growing progressively lighter toward the plane's undersection.
This technique served two purposes. The indistinct boundary between colors aided in obscuring the aircraft's silhouette and shape, leaving an opposing pilot unsure if a superior type of plane was about to be engaged. This scheme also allowed for a degree of camouflage both while the plane was in the air and when it was on the ground, particularly when a lightly painted aircraft belly was viewed against a light sky or when the green aspect of the same airplane parked on a grass field was seen from above.
Airfields themselves were camouflaged to avoid enemy air strikes. An advanced airfield, for example, might be obscured by having camouflage netting extend a wheat field onto one of the runways and having another runway appear as a football field delineated by steel-wool "ditches." Troops might even play sports on the airfield to help deceive enemy reconnaissance.
Although the aim was to avoid detection, obscuring clear identification often might suffice. For instance, the multiangular paint scheme in varying shades of gray that was applied to many naval vessels during the war served to confuse an enemy's determination of the vessels' speed and bearing, rather than to render them invisible. By diminishing torpedo or gunfire accuracy, a ship had a greater chance to avoid being hit.
Army vehicles, routinely painted green, brown, or gray to blend in with fields or urban areas, often had their camouflage augmented by their crews. Camouflage netting was used to break up the distinctive outlines of many vehicles, such that a parked tank might appear like a small tree. Netting, however, worked best with stationary vehicles, artillery pieces, and logistics sites. If used on other equipment or when a vehicle was moving, nets interfered with movement and vision, and they got in the way of effective tank fire.
Deception planners went to great lengths to create mock airfields and ports, complete with phony ships, planes, tanks, and personnel. Camouflage was incorporated into these plans; for example, simulated equipment was camouflaged to make it appear more authentic. Occasionally, such camouflage would intentionally be poorly applied: if it was too effective, the enemy might not have seen the phony equipment at all, negating the deception effort. False sites drew many German air strikes during the 1940 Battle of Britain.
A form of electronic camouflage was required as radar and radio interception expertise advanced. This type of camouflage normally took the form of maintaining radio silence to avoid detection. However, in the absence of stealth technology, it was easier to deceive radars through electronic camouflage than to conceal the target. In 1944, for example, German radars were tricked into believing Calais was the target of Operation overlord when small, towed barges with electronic emitters gave off the radar reflection of approaching 20,000-ton amphibious ships.
British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill, always interested in military gadgetry, was a great supporter of camouflage efforts, though his efforts in this field met with varying degrees of success. For instance, attempts to deny the Germans navigation landmarks by concealing inland lakes with coal dust failed: the dust blew to the edges and outlined the lakes, making them even more prominent. Churchill also insisted that factories be concealed with smoke, a technique that depended largely on wind conditions and adversely affected the workers involved. The Germans also frequently used smoke in an effort to obscure the targets of Allied air raids.
As the war progressed, increasingly technical reconnaissance and surveillance efforts and subsequent countermeasures forced intelligence staffs to confirm reports through more than one information source in their attempts to defeat complex camouflage problems. Robert B. Martyn
Cruickshank, Charles. Deception in World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.; Hartcup, Guy. Camouflage: A History of Concealment and Deception in War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
Robert B. Martyn