The term “camouflage” is derived from the French word camoufleur, which means “to disguise.” It’s a phenomenon that occurs naturally throughout the Animal Kingdom in predators and prey alike. By blending into their surroundings, organisms are able to elude predators, which increases their chances of survival and reproduction. Predators also use camouflage to remain undetected by their prey, which gives them the advantage of a surprise attack.
Primitive man learned that by mimicking animal behavior, he could blend into the natural surroundings, approach his quarry with stealth and take it down. He also learned that by covering his body with foliage or animal skins or concealing himself behind crudely constructed blinds, unsuspecting animals would stray close enough to be taken out by spears, bows and arrows or axes made from animal bones or sharpened stones. Although the materials may have changed, today’s hunters and soldiers rely on basically the same methods to harvest game or defeat their enemies. Examples include duck blinds, tree stands and ghillie suits worn by gamekeepers and game hunters. Ghillie suits are also used by combat troops to blend into sand, snow or vegetation.
Camouflage and the Military
Use of camouflage in combat originated with guerilla warfare, which involves small bands of irregular soldiers using unconventional methods to launch hit and run strikes against organized military units. Guerilla tactics have been used in wars dating back to ancient times, and also played major roles in the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 during America’s War for Independence. Many of the same guerilla tactics are still in use today, including camouflaging men and material to prevent them from being detected by the enemy.
By the mid-1800s, brightly colored military uniforms were gradually being replaced with neutral shades that made soldiers less visible to their enemies. During a battle with Austrian troops, British Redcoats learned that by swapping their scarlet uniforms for earth tone clothing in shades of green or brown, they were less visible to Austrian sharpshooters. Clothed in dull grey uniforms, the Austrians were difficult for the Redcoats to spot, which made them vulnerable to enemy snipers hiding in the distance.
At about the same time, British Army units in India started dying their traditional white uniforms with tealeaves and curry powder to help them blend into the desert surroundings. The result was a color that came to be known as khaki, which is the Persian word for dust or “ash colored.” U.S. troops fighting in Cuba during the 1898 Spanish-American War used a similar method of camouflaging themselves by smearing mud on their bright blue uniforms to make them less visible to enemy snipers.
The First World War
During the early 20th century, military strategists worldwide were fascinated with the concept of camouflage and its strategic applications. Camouflage clothing and concealment techniques became widely used by French, UK, German and U.S. military forces, all of which began to discontinue wearing brightly colored traditional uniforms and replacing them with subtle shades.
The use of camouflage isn’t limited to just uniforms and clothing. One of the more unusual applications used pâpier-maché replicas of human heads painted in flesh tones and mounted on sticks. Troops hiding in the trenches would raise the imitation heads slightly above the top of the trench to draw out snipers by tricking them into mistaking the decoys for targets of opportunity. Preparing to take a shot, the enemy sniper would temporarily reveal his location, therefore making himself the target. An even more bizarre deception involved soldiers sneaking out of the trenches in the dark of night, cutting down battle-damaged trees and replacing them with hollowed-out imitations, each of which held an observer who would later return to the trenches and relay his findings.
The concept of gathering intelligence through aerial surveillance began in 1794 when the French army sent observers aloft in balloons to spy on opposing Austrian troops. Balloons were also used extensively during the U.S. Civil War to track the movements and estimate the strengths of enemy forces. It was during the early days of World War I that heavier-than-air aircrafts joined balloons and blimps as ways for aerial observers on both sides to gather intelligence. Camouflage techniques used to deceive the enemy included painting tanks, trucks, guns and other equipment and draping netting with fake leaves over roads and structures.
Camouflage was also used at sea during the First World War. In 1917, British Naval Lieutenant and maritime artist Norman Wilkinson introduced the concept of painting warships’ exteriors with various colored zigzag lines. Called “Dazzle” painting, the idea was to distort the ship’s profile and confuse German U-Boat commanders as to its actual size, distance, course and speed to make it more difficult to be hit by a torpedo. More than 2,300 British warships and merchant vessels were Dazzle painted. Allied navies soon adopted the process, although whether it was effective was never proven.
World War II
As the Second World War approached, the threat of attacks by air once again became real. Military forces on both sides increased their use of camouflaging techniques. With the exception of Dazzle painting, many of the camouflage methods used in World War I were resurrected and refined.
An example was the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942. Part of the Allies’ success (a group consisting of the U.S., Britain, France, USSR, Australia, Belgium, among many others) in keeping German forces from capturing the Suez Canal by using inflatable tank replicas, covering equipment and structures with netting, detonating explosives to simulate artillery fire and disguising trucks as tanks and tanks as trucks. They also used camouflage tactics to “hide” the Suez Canal from aerial view. A full-scale replica of Alexandria Harbor was created on Lake Mariout about a mile away from the site of the actual harbor using canvas ships and plywood buildings, painting bomb craters on sheets of canvas and duplicating the harbor’s lighting. Alexandria Harbor’s lights were kept off at night, but the decoy harbor was brightly illuminated to deceive and attract German bombers during their nighttime bombing runs. Although the plan was deemed a success, skeptics continue to question how much of the story is factual and how much might be exaggeration.
The Allies used a similar deception in the days leading up to the invasion of Europe to trick the Germans into thinking the invasion would take place at Calais rather than Normandy, which was the actual landing site. Code named Operation Fortitude, a phantom army under the command of General George S. Patton was created. Tent cities representing troop encampments were erected throughout Southeast England, complete with artificial mess halls, hospitals, ammo depots and sewage treatment fields. Inflatable replicas of tanks, trucks and other equipment visible from the air were strewn throughout the area, misleading radio transmissions were sent and false intelligence was purposely leaked through double agents. Code named Operation Overlord, the actual invasion took place on June 6, 1944, which caught the Germans totally by surprise.
Military Uniform Camouflage
U.S. Marines stationed in the Solomon Islands during World War II were issued reversible coveralls mottled with irregularly shaped spots in shades of green and brown. Called “frog-skin” camouflage, one side had three colors imprinted on a tan background for beachhead landings, while the reverse had five colors on a green background that was worn in the jungle. Marines in the South Pacific were also issued frogskin helmet cover, ponchos and personal shelters, or “pup tents.” The coveralls were later replaced with more practical two-piece reversible frogskin uniforms.
Post-WW II to Modern Day
Military forces in the U.S. and throughout the world continued to experiment with different camouflage patterns for their uniforms. Among these were the “tiger stripes” worn in the Jungles of Vietnam, the “coffee stain” Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU) worn in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) issued to troops stationed in Afghanistan.
Civilians also wear camouflage clothing. During the 1980s, military-style camouflage clothing, or “camo” as it’s sometimes called, became popular among hunters. Ironically, a study by the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) discovered that deer, elk antelope and most other hooved animals are red-green color blind. They can differentiate blue, but not between red, green or orange, which means red and orange appear to the animals as shades of green. Hunters can wear any color other than blue without increasing their chances of being seen.
Although its original purpose was to hide people and equipment from view, camo clothing is also fashionable. A 1971article in Vogue magazine featured women dressed in camouflage, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s when camo clothing gained acceptance among civilian men and women as everyday street wear. Available in various styles, shapes and colors, camouflage is found on shirts, trousers, undergarments, swimwear and even shoes. Camo’s ongoing popularity as clothing is due in part to its being worn by celebrities and used in creations by top fashion designers.
Camouflage and the Future
As with all technological achievements, the methods and uses of camouflage will continue to evolve. Recent innovations include camouflage that keeps the wearer’s body heat from being detected by enemy sensors and using fiber optics to match fabrics to the surrounding environment. Researchers are making progress in developing a camouflage system that will bend light waves to make people and objects invisible to the human eye. Camouflage technology has come a long way from the days of using mud and tealeaves to change the color of their uniforms and hiding men in artificial tree stumps to gather intelligence!