From the embattled trenches that scarred French fields, though deep and dark jungles of the Vietnam war to the dusty, arid operations in the deserts of the middle east, camouflage has provided disguise and deception to regimes and rebellions the world over. Throughout the twentieth century, camouflage evolved to meet the requirements of new battlefields and technology allowed armies to push the boundaries of concealment to new levels. While camouflage patterns may seem random they are in fact deliberately designed to use shape and shadow to confuse the human eye. Originally developed by french painters, over the last century camouflage has become both an essential warfighting tool and an iconic pattern employed by artists, designers and fashion houses to inspire their work.
In the First World War, the Section de Camouflage was led by the French painter Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola and employed artist-camoufleurs to design patterns and schemes to disguise artillery pieces, firing positions and military vehicles. Early attempts were also made to disguise individual personnel, especially snipers, using painted uniforms and improvised scrim. Around this time, as the range of naval guns and submarine torpedoes began to increase significantly, ships were also camouflaged using a unique and carefully calculated dazzle pattern. Marine artist Norman Wilkinson devised a camouflage that actually made ships more visible but harder to target because of the disruptive nature of the design. In Wilkinson's own words, dazzle was designed "not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as to the course on which she was heading".
At the advent of the Second World War, eminent British zoologist John Graham Kerr along with artists Solomon J. Solomon and Abbott Thayer began working on countershading and disruptive patterning. Their work on rail mounted coastal guns rendered them all but invisible to aerial reconnaissance photographs. These techniques were quickly adapted for use on tanks, aircraft and ground installations and new camouflage corps were founded in almost all the warring nations. The Red Army created the Maskirovka military deception doctrine which relied heavily on the use of camouflage and in Britain the Camouflage Development and Training Centre was founded at Farnham Castle. The CDTC was complimented by the East Command Camouflage Directorate in the Western Desert, made up of artists and designers known once again as camofleurs. In Australia, artists were also prominent in the Sydney Camouflage Group and worked in secret at Bankstown Airport, RAAF Base Richmond and the Garden Island Dockyard.
One of the most undervalued and misunderstood camouflage designs of this time was the pale pink colour scheme that was applied to certain Spitfire fighters and Land Rover patrol vehicles. The pale pink paint job allowed spitfires to be flown almost undetected in the golden hours around dawn and dusk. While it was incredibly effective camouflage it had the negative effect of causing the Spitfire pilots to feel particularly vulnerable and it was eventually discontinued. Conversely, The pink Land Rovers used by long range desert patrols were so effective that they were said to inspire the utmost confidence in the troops using them. The specially modified Series II 109’s became known affectionately as ‘Pink Panthers’ or ‘Pinkies’.
While disguising equipment and artillery had proved largely successful, most troops still wore green or grey uniforms. In Europe, due to the ever increasing demands on production and stores, Camouflage garments were generally only available to specialised units like the British Special Operations Executive, allied Airborne troops or the German Waffen SS. In the Pacific theater, American GI's adopted the reversible Frogskin camo which combined jungle and beach patterns on alternate sides of the fabric. On the Eastern front the Red Army successfully deployed their specialist troops in white snow suits against the unprepared German advance. The application of camouflage to individual personnel on special operations proved to be beneficial to the success of their missions and new variations of existing camouflage patterns were commissioned for wider military use.
It wasn't until the 1960's that camouflage design really changed. The US Army Engineer Research and Development Laboratory (ERDL) designed a general purpose camouflage for service in the jungles of Vietnam. This camouflage, colloquially referred to as 'leaf pattern' or simply EDRL had several variations and proved extremely effective in the varying terrains of South East Asia. As the war progressed and more special forces units became engaged in the conflict, they chose to adopt the ARVN Tiger Stripe pattern as their unofficial uniform. It became the visible trademark of Green Berets, LRRPs, SEALs, and other elite forces and these units still utilise Tiger Stripe uniforms in Afghanistan today.
Due to the increasing geographical demands and the nature of modern warfare, camouflage must now be adaptable to suit multiple terrains. The introduction of Multicam by American military saw similar patterns being deployed by armies across the world. Multicam was specially designed to give troops greater levels of concealment across elevations and terrains, including woodland, desert and urban areas and it has proven itself in combat with regular troops over the last five years. Today the art of camouflage has become a technological pursuit, with anti-IR coatings and adaptive radar jamming materials to compliment ever complicated patterns on equipment and uniforms. Despite these advances, the point and the process of camouflage remains the same - to disguise and disrupt, to conceal and confuse, camouflage is and always had been deception by design.