Britain at War: Masters of Illusion

This week, to mark the release of the North American edition of The FitzOsbornes at War, I’m going to be blogging about Britain during the Second World War. Today, it’s all about the artists who used their skills to camouflage buildings, guns, lorries, tanks, canals – and even entire cities – to protect them from Nazi attacks. Among these artists was the surrealist painter Julian Trevelyan, who was sent on a military camouflage training course in 1940. He learned how animals camouflage themselves in the wild with protective colouring, then was sent off with his paint tins and brushes to work in Cornwall, where he disguised concrete forts as cottages, public toilets and chicken houses, and used careful countershading to render anti-tank guns invisible against hedges. He also gave lectures to soldiers, showing them slide shows of how to camouflage themselves from air attacks (making sure he included slides “of nude girls under a camouflage net to wake up the men when they had dropped off”1). He was later stationed in North Africa and Palestine, where he disguised military tanks and created a dummy army to deceive the German Afrika Korps.

Inflatable dummyTank
A dummy inflatable tank used by the Allies during WWII
Camouflage was also an essential part of Operation Normandy, the Allied invasion of occupied France and Belgium in 1944. The Allied strategists went to great lengths to fool the Germans into thinking the Allied troops would depart from Dover and land in Calais. There were hundreds of fake plywood planes stationed on Kent airfields, as well as dummy landing craft floating on the Thames. They set up inflatable rubber tanks and lorries to make it look as though the Allies had more equipment than they actually possessed, and the 82nd Group Camouflage Company spent weeks making fake tyre marks in the grass so that it would appear that an enormous army had been practising manoeuvres. They also built a huge fake oil-storage tank in Dover, which was regularly ‘inspected’ by the King and Queen for the benefit of German spies.

One of the most famous camouflage experts of the war was magician Jasper Maskelyne, who was recruited into the British army at the same time as Julian Trevelyan. Maskelyne had been particularly bored during the animal-camouflage lectures of their training course (“a lifetime of hiding things on the stage had taught me more about the subject than rabbits and tigers will ever know”2), but he went on to disguise military equipment in the Western Desert and even claimed that he’d made the city of Alexandria temporarily ‘disappear’. He truly was a Master of Illusion.

Tomorrow: Publication day for The FitzOsbornes at War! Also, I talk about some of my favourite non-fiction books about wartime Britain.


  1. Julian Trevelyan, Indigo Days, quoted in Juliet Gardiner’s Wartime Britain 1939-1945
  2. Jasper Maskelyne, Magic – Top Secret, quoted in Gardiner

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.