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
Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar
University of Northern Iowa
Some time in 2013, a new documentary film titled The Ghost Army will premiere on American 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 some of its illustrations, consisting of maps, vintage photographs, and various drawings. When I say “some” of the illustrations, for the most part I am talking about a selection of “working drawings” made by an artist in the unit named William Murray Dixon. These were obtained from Murray Dixon himself, and it sounds like they’ve never been published before. Beyond their pertinence to the text (and of course they’re wonderfully informative), they are simply exquisite drawings, as graceful and fluent as one could expect. Also included are about forty photographs, most of which are desert-setting snapshots of members of the unit or examples of some of the dummies they made. In comparison with the drawings, these are largely disappointing, not because they aren’t interesting, but because (in too many cases) they are hopelessly underexposed, a problem that could have been easily fixed (using digital restoration techniques) by the publishers.
Repeatedly as I read this book, I could not help but think about that enduring and oft-quoted passage by Sun Tzu (c500 BC), who, referring to wartime deception, advised: “When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe that we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” I don’t know of a better description of what these Allied tricksters did.