Thursday, December 17, 2015

Camouflage | A Checkered Past

USS Panaman (c1918)
Above US government photograph of the port side of the USS Panaman (c1918) in dazzle camouflage. Courtesy US National Archives.

Anon, CAMOUFLAGE FIRST USED IN OUR INDIAN WARS, in The Milwaukee Journal (Milwaukee WI), January 22, 1942, p. 16 (reprinted from the Bulletin of the National Paint Association)—

The origin of the word camouflage has, it seems, been left in the shuffle. One of the stories told in connection with it is that during the Indian troubles in the southwest, one Jacques Camou• built a circular mud fort. This fort has large square openings at regular intervals around the walls in a single line. Through these the garrison of the fort used to fire. As the Indians’ shots often found their mark through these openings, Camou painted the entire fort like a checkerboard with large, black squares on a white field. This confused the Indians so that they were unable to determine which dark square to aim [at].

• There was in fact a 19th-century French general named Jacques Camou (1792-1868), but we haven’t found any connection with the American Indian Wars, nor with camouflage.


Anon, CAMOUFLAGE OF MODERN WAR KNOWN ANCIENTLY in The Deseret News (Salt Lake City UT), February 1, 1941, p. 4—

In the war between the states in America, trenches and breastworks were concealed by branches of trees, and merchant ships often painted their hulls black with gun ports simulated in white, thus taking on the appearance of men-of-war. Similarly fort walls were checkered in black and white during the World War to confuse gun locations.

Since initially posting this, we've run across numerous references to an exotic British sea fort, built in 1859, near Portsmouth, England. Known as Spitbank Fort, it is circular (see below) like General Camou's fortress, and at least part of its surface was covered at various times with an alternating pattern of light and dark checkered squares, some of which may have been gun ports. 

Spitbank Fort Postcard

Spitbank Fort was given up by the government in 1982. Since then it has been privately owned, and now functions as a luxury spa hotel and retreat

Spitbank Fort