Armies have always used hoaxes and deception to confuse and mislead the enemy. Camouflage is the most obvious method of concealment and the famous camouflage pattern was produced by the French army in World War I. By World War II a different technique to hoax the enemy began to be used extensively, and that was the manufacture of fake army vehicles and military bases, and some of the top lgbt artists of the era helped to hoax the Nazis. This technique wasn’t new. It has its roots way back to ancient Greece and the Trojan Horse, the ultimate disguised army personnel carrier. In the UK the technique was used most prominently by the British Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate. Members of this unit were mainly artists, designers and prop makers.
Two lgbt members of the British war effort to hoax the Nazis at home and abroad were Robert Medley (1905-1994) and Oliver Messel (1904-1978).
The main area of operations for the Camouflage Directorate was in North Africa. The most significant deception operations were called Operation Crusader (November-December 1941) and Operation Bertram (September-October 1942). Their purpose was to get British and Allied troops around the German defences on the Egyptian-Libyan border.
Robert Medley, an established artist and theatre designer, was assigned to Operation Crusader. With his life partner, the dancer Rupert Doone, he founded the Group Theatre. In 1937 Robert founded the Artist’s International Association, an organisation which specifically promoted the works of socialist and avant-garde artists.
It was the socialist aspect of Robert’s life which caused concern to MI5 who thought he was too Communist-leaning. They blocked his appointment as an official war artist in France and instead Robert was chosen to record air raid precautions in northern England.
When this contract ended he was selected by the British Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate to go to North Africa as part of Operation Crusader. There Robert designed camouflage and disguises for military vehicles and created a fake railhead and goods depot.
More extensive hoaxes were created for Operation Bertram, the deception leading up to the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 which Allied forces won. The captured Nazi general admitted that he had been fooled into thinking the Allies had more troops in the area than they actually did, thanks to Robert Medley and all the other talented members of the Camouflage Directorate.
Meanwhile, back in “blighty” (the UK), deception work was being carried out by Oliver Messel. As well as being a theatre designer Oliver designed masks and costumes. He also designed for films (he was nominated for an Oscar in 1960).
With the constant threat of a Nazi invasion the UK government devised a series of homeland defence strategies. One of these was the Taunton Stop Line, a line of defences which ran across the south-west peninsula of England (Cornwall and Devon). As with other Stop Lines around the country the defence line included small concrete machine gun posts called pillboxes. It was Oliver Messel’s job to disguise these pillboxes, which he did by making them look like caravans, haystacks, or heaps of coal. Many pillboxes survive around the country and are Grade II listed structures. Several of Olive Messel’s pillboxes also still survive.
|Photo of pillboxes disguised by Oliver Messel, taken from the book “Indigo Day” by fellow artist and Camouflage officer Julian Trevelyan, published 1957.|
Towards the end of the war the USA created its own camouflage division inspired by Operations Crusader and Bertram called the 603rd Engineers Camouflage Battalion, part of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, more popularly known as the Ghost Army. Two lgbt artists recruited were Ellsworth Kelly (1923-12015) and Bill Blass (1922-2002).
Ellsworth Kelly is best known for his abstract paintings with bold blocks of colours. For the Ghost Army he painted camouflage patterns on military vehicles and designed propaganda posters. Like most artists in the Ghost Army and the British Camouflage Directorate Ellsworth filled many sketch books with ideas and designs for hoax methods.
Both the British and American camouflage units sent their members to the front line. There was no other way the artist could design effective hoaxes without knowing the lay of the land, as it was often the terrain that dictated which deception techniques were best for the area.
Bill Blass was starting his career as a fashion designer when he enlisted into the US army in 1943. His artistic skills soon saw him assigned to the Ghost Army. After some training in the States, Bill Blass, Ellsworth Kelly and the rest of the Ghost Army travelled to the UK where they helped the British in creating fake D-Day landings called Operation Fortitude in 1944. All over Europe hoax military operations hid the true D-Day target of the Normandy beaches of France.
The Ghost Army then went into France after the D-Day landings and gradually moved south-east, constructing fakes and hoaxes along the way. Bill Blass provided deception techniques during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944-5, and Ellsworth worked along the Maginot Line, a line of defensive structures like those that Oliver Messel worked on for the Taunton Stop Line.
There is no doubt that the wartime deceptions of Robert Medley, Oliver Messel, Ellsworth Kelly and Bill Blass contributed to the success in hoaxing the Nazis into believing something that wasn’t real. On this Remembrance Day, while we may not be able to gather around memorials, let’s give a thought this year to the work of artists, designers and craftsmen who were as much a part of front-line war as the soldiers.