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The Art of Camouflage in World War II

The Art of Camouflage

The camoufleurs of the Camouflage Unit were artists, designers, and architects.  They were recruited because “there was a natural partnership based on their aptitude for good visual recall, and their understanding of scale, colour and tone”.

Their designs featured disruptive patterns, in a range of colours, painted onto buildings. The aim was to break up forms and outlines so objects were difficult to locate and detect. This was important even against a shifting background, for example, when looking down from a plane.

Waste not, Want not

The ideal substances that were used were products derived from oil installations. Henrietta Goodden (daughter of camoufleur Robert Goodden ) says in her book “Camouflage and Art, Design for Deception in World War 2”, “Camouflage was a natural consumer in the wartime ethic of “waste not, want not” and much industrial refuse was recycled in the effort to conceal roads, buildings and scarred ground.”

Smoke and Mirrors

The patterns consisted of a mixture of dark and light colours painted next to each other to break up the object. At power stations like Stonebridge (where Colin’s cooling tower painting was done), the fuel was changed to produce darker smoke that would contrast with its surroundings for “disruptive colouration”.

A Talent for Concealment

Camouflage netting (known as scrim) was used as a cheap and reliable way to camouflage factories, power stations and other civilian installations. Netting would be positioned over the roofs of buildings and across the streets. On top of the netting, there would be fake structures, such as housing and trees.  From the air, it would look like a residential area. This was vital to the war effort and was used to great effect during the Battle of Britain. As a result, many installations escaped the attention of the Luftwaffe.

Water Camouflage

Water Camouflage, 1943, Colin Moss © Imperial War Museum
View across a water enclosure outside a power station covered with suspended camouflage nets

Colin Moss: Life Observed

“You worked on a scale model and painted it in a certain range of colours, which was used on all camouflage work. There was a turntable which you put it on and a moving light, which represented the sun, and you got up on a platform, which was about the height that a bombing pilot would come in at, and turned this thing around to see how it reacted to different times of day.”

[They assumed that the bombers would be flying at 1500 feet as this was the optimum bombing height.] Extract from “Colin Moss: Life Observed” (Chloe Bennett, Malthouse Press)

Turn Table 1943

Turn Table, Colin Moss, 1943 Watercolour 28cm x 42 cm
Leamington Spa Museum and Art Gallery


The beginning of camouflage in World War II

The beginning of camouflage in World War II

The beginning of camouflage in World War II

The Ministry of Home Security’s Camouflage Directorate had 2000 applications from artists wanting to work in the unit. The unit was strategically located near to the large industrial cities of Birmingham and Coventry. The Directorate employed the best artists in the country and Colin’s colleagues reflected this – artists stationed there included Christopher Ironside, Edward Seago, Tom Monnington and many others.

As well as designing camouflage schemes, the unit worked on other tasks such as painting murals in the local canteens and NAFI bars to brighten up the interior.


The Camoufleurs

Stonebridge Park Power Station World War II CamouflageBased in Leamington Spa, Colin, along with 250 other camoufleurs, technicians and designers, worked in secret on disguising key military and civilian buildings. The techniques they used included painting road markers on roofs or placing concrete cows on the roofs to deceive Luftwaffe bomb aimers or to cause them to hesitate so that they would miss their target.

Colin served from 1939 – 1941 as a camoufleur and only worked on civilian installations. The image shows Colin’s work on Stonebridge Park power station.


Camouflage Techniques

The Camoufleurs used scrim, a strong and coarse hessian based fabric, in many ways for camouflage. Colin would use scrim containing different colours to cover buildings in order to change their appearance.

They also used scrim to tape windows in order to protect damage to the inside of houses from bomb blasts and for artillery emplacements to make the battery look like natural foliage from the air.

Manufacturing scrim was cheap so it was widely used as a camouflage material. You can see scrim being used on buildings in Colin’s painting of textured roofs below:

Textured roofs with scrim

The painters used brushes made out of rope strands bound together by scrap tin. As a result, a painter was able to cover a large area with one stroke. The emphasis was on practicality rather than finesse and also on not wasting and recycling materials. All part of the war effort.

First, they would apply ground patterning. In addition, they would add representations of buildings in a disruptive pattern of dark and light shapes so that the entire area was masked. The simple equipment allowed painters to work quickly, often able to cover 110 square metres a day.

“A camouflage scheme in progress” by Colin shows five men at work on the roof of a factory.

Images courtesy of The Imperial War Museum.