The Phantom Army of Alamein
296pp. Illustrated. £16.99
You really could not make this up. Take a disparate bunch of painters, sculptors, film makers, art directors, architects, poster artists, designers and even stained-glass specialists, stick them in the desert with a load of cardboard boxes, balls of string and some sealing wax, and wait for the magic show.
Under the command of a director and film editor, the remarkable Major Geoffrey Barkas, this ramshackle unit studied the art of camouflage from its early uses in the Napoleonic Wars and through the First World War, where techniques were already well advanced. They learnt about camouflage netting and the use of fabrics and garnishes, colour and tone, light and shadow, aerial photography and what they could learn from nature.
Amongst the Camouflage Unit were such luminaries as Captain Blair Hughes-Stanton, a wood engraver, Julian Trevelyan and Roland Penrose, the surrealist painters, William Hayter, a printmaker, Freddie Beddington, a veteran sniper of the WWI who had studied at the Slade, and the extraordinary Jasper Maskelyne, a music-hall illusionist and magician. And what these men performed in the Western Desert around Tobruk and El Alamein was pure magic. Their target was Rommel, commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, also known as ‘The Desert Fox,’ and they had to make him believe that the allied forces were not where he thought they were.
Well, we all know the outcome, but Rick Stroud tells the tale with astonishing detail, backed up by maps, diagrams, drawings and photographs. Perhaps there is too much detail, as he does embellish the story with descriptions only those who were there at the time could have known, with, one imagines, projected conversations.
This is an extraordinary story of how a talented and dedicated band of camoufleurs stole one of the greatest victories in military history through subterfuge, rather than military strength. Its publication marks the seventieth anniversary of the second battle of El Alamein., the first having been back in July. The whole deception was called Operation Bertram, but there is no explanation as to why they chose this name; could it be something to do with P G Wodehouse’s hapless young hero, Bertie Wooster, a shortening of Bertram? The dust jacket, it has to said, all but vanishes amongst the other more lively volumes in the bookshop - let us hope it is not too well camouflaged, as it deserves to be discovered.