Thursday, January 3, 2013

Book Review | The British Phantom Army

Rick Stround, The Phantom Army of Alamein (2012)

The Phantom Army of Alamein: 
How the Camouflage Unit and
Operation Bertram 
Hoodwinked Rommel
by Rick Stroud
Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2012
288 pp., illus. b&w. Trade, $25.95
ISBN: 978-1-4088-2910-3.

Some time in 2013, a new documentary film titled The Ghost Army will premiere on American public television. It will spell out the little-known story of a World War II U.S. Army unit that operated secretly in Europe from 1944 until the war’s end. That unit was made up of more than a thousand soldiers who in civilian life were so-called “creative types,” among them such now prominent names as the painter Ellsworth Kelly, fashion designer Bill Blass, wildlife artist Arthur Singer, and photographer Art Kane. Working as a team, they impersonated other army units and created persuasive illusions (both physical and auditory) of misleading, unreal battle events.

This book is not about that American unit, as tempting as it is to think that “ghost army” is synonymous with “phantom army.” Rather, this book tells the story of a comparable but earlier British outfit—consisting largely of artists as well—that was formed in 1942 for the massive, focused task of fooling German forces (headed by General Erwin Rommel, aka the “Desert Fox”) in the sands of North Africa in the Second Battle of El Alamein. The resulting Allied victory was in part attributed to (by none other than Winston Churchill) the ingenious clandestine trickery of the British Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate in a famous large-scale project called “Operation Bertram.”

Unlike the American Ghost Army (kept secret until 1996), details of this British ruse have been known since at least 1949, when one of its self-touting members, British stage magician Jasper Maskelyne, wrote what is widely considered to be an embellished and largely self-serving account, titled Magic—Top Secret. Three years later, the film director who headed the unit, Major Geoffrey Barkas, published his own eyewitness report of the operation, titled The Camouflage Story (from Aintree to Alamein). Over the years, those two books have been supplemented by ten or more others about the unit’s achievements. According to its publisher, this one, which has just come out, “tells for the first time the full story.”

So what did these soldier-artist-camoufleurs do? How did they hoodwink the Desert Fox? The answer(s) to that constitutes the best moments in the book. In general, I think it would be fair to say that they used two approaches: First, they made key weaponry disappear—not by vanishing, but by disguising it as something else, as a less threatening, innocuous thing. Tanks were made to look like trucks. Field artillery was concealed in other phony forms. And food, fuel and other supplies were covered up and stacked to look like harmless transport vehicles. Second, at other times, for other purposes, they did the opposite—making clever use of the simplest materials, they constructed trompe l’oeil dummies (tanks, artillery, support vehicles) to create an illusory build-up, to “reveal” things that were never there. As a result, they made the enemy think that Allied forces were being amassed at times and places that differed critically from the real situation. This Second Battle of El Alamein, in which these methods were employed, was the war’s first victory for the Allies.

If illusions, unfounded resemblance and various other visual subterfuges are bewildering to experience, they are at least equally hard to describe. One thing that sets this book apart is the richness of… more>>>