At the start of the war, the Germans already knew where many of Britain’s important industrial targets were situated. Recruited exclusively from the most talented artists of their generation, the aim of the Leamington-based camouflage officers (“camoufleurs”) was to protect Britain’s civil installations by confusing “a pilot at a minimum of 5 miles distant and 5,000 feet up during daylight.”
The camoufleurs of the Camouflage Directorate were artists, sculptors, architects, designers, – 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, even against a shifting background (ie when looking down from a plane). The camouflage schemes they designed either concealed the target by causing it to merge into its surroundings, or deceived the eye as to its size and location.
Smoke and Mirrors
The disruptive patterns consisted of a mixture of dark and light colours being painted next to each other to break up the object. At power stations like Stonebridge (where Colin’s “The Big Tower” was completed), the fuel was changed to produce darker smoke that would contrast with its surroundings for “disruptive colouration”.
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, so from the air it would look like a residential area. This was used to great effect during the Battle of Britain with many installations, vital to the war effort, escaping the attention of the Luftwaffe.
The more complex camouflage schemes were tested on scale models in the Rink in Leamington Spa. Requisitioned by the government in 1939, the (Skating) Rink was located at the bottom of the Parade in Leamington.
As Colin explained many years later to his biographer, Chloe Bennett “You worked on a scale model and … there was a turn-table which you could 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 turn the thing around to see how it reacted to different times of day.”
Journalist Virginia Ironside (daughter of camoufleur Christopher Ironside) memorably described the Rink as “a giant studio” where “artists slaved away over enormous turntables on which they had constructed models of factories and aerodromes, lit by ever moving moons and suns attached to wires”.
Waste not, Want not
The ideal paint substances that were used for the camouflage schemes 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.”
After the Darkest Hour
As the war went on, and the threat from the Luftwaffe diminished, the British Government scaled back its commitment to civil camouflage and the work of the camoufleur unit was wound down. However, before the camoufleurs were reassigned to other war work, “the Ministry decided it wanted a pictorial record of aspects of camouflage and all the artists were given about a month’s paid leave to do paintings of whatever jobs they had designed.” Colin Moss : Life Observed.
Colin spent his month’s leave producing several paintings of his camouflage work before joining the Life Guards (part of the Household Cavalry) on active service in the Middle East. Many of the paintings are now held by the Imperial War Museum in London, others by Leamington Spa Museum & Art Gallery.
The Camoufleur Alumni
At its peak the Camouflage Directorate employed over 230 staff, including several who, post-war, went on to become some of the most influential and distinguished artists and designers of their generation.
Members of the group included Christopher Ironside (designer of the UK’s new decimal coinage) , Janey Ironside (professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art), Richard Guyatt (professor of graphic design at the Royal College of Art), Eric Schilsky (head of the School of Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art), leading lights of the English Surrealist movement Julian Trevelyan and Roland Penrose, set designer, painter and sculptor Victorine Foot, Robert Goodden (professor of silver smithing at the Royal College of Art), Robert Darwin (principal of the Royal College of Art) and, of course, Colin Moss.
To see more images from Colin’s time in the Camoufleur Unit, click on the album below: