Page last updated at 05:50 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 06:50 UK

Team that 'hid' wartime factories

By Tom Warren
BBC News, Warwickshire

A ship disguised with "dazzle paint"
Ships like this were painted to disguise them from enemy submarines

They were landscape painters, award-winning set designers and Royal Academy artists.

More used to living the London high-life, these were the people called upon during World War II to help protect factories, ships, docks and air bases.

Posted to Leamington Spa under the name of the Civilian Camouflage Directorate, their secret job was to disguise key bombing targets.

The Warwickshire town was chosen because of its proximity to dozens of armament factories in Coventry and Birmingham.

Led by Christopher Ironside, an opera set designer, and Capt Lancelot Glasson, the 250-strong group used a giant turntable at the town's former roller-skating rink to create models that could be viewed in all light and weather conditions.

From this came an array of camouflage techniques to confuse enemy aircraft.

It included draping giant nets over buildings and painting fake road markings onto rooftops.

The Moon Room at Leamington's old gallery and museum
The directorate studied model ships at night under moonlight

"They covered huge areas with lights and steam going up in the hope of diverting enemy bombers onto open fields," said Fergus Durrant.

Mr Durrant is the leader of a new project, granted nearly 50,000 in lottery funding, to research the Camouflage Directorate.

The money will be used by the Sez-U Community Theatre and the Leamington Studio Artists to document, record and archive the group's work.

They are trying to contact former staff or their descendants in the hope of uncovering more details.

"They (the directorate) would fly over all the factories, photograph them and make models to recreate what they would look like from a plane. And they would then go to a particular site and oversee the painting and camouflage," Mr Durrant said.

Oscar winner

Among the directorate were some of the biggest names of the age in art and movie design.

Wilfred Shingleton was brought in to work on naval camouflage. He went on to win an Oscar for the 1946 film Great Expectations.

Painter Robin Darwin, grandson of Charles Darwin and later knighted, also joined the directorate.

And Stephen Bone, a member of the New English Art Club, also offered his expertise to help the camouflage project.

Directorate member Capt Lancelot Glasson
Capt Glasson helped lead the directorate with Christopher Ironside

His son Sylvester said the group used many techniques to "break up" the outline of buildings from the air.

"There was one (building) where they put concrete cows on the roof," he said.

Mr Bone said the directorate's work was done mainly in the early years of the war, when Britain faced a greater aerial threat.

One industrial site disguised to protect it from bombing raids was the AP Factory in Leamington, which produced components for aircraft and a range of military vehicles.

Despite the team's efforts it was hit several times by the Luftwaffe, which knew the importance of the plant, Mr Durrant said.

"The AP Factory covered an area the size of four to six football pitches, and that was quite small compared to some of the factories in Birmingham.

"They (the directorate) worked all over Birmingham and Coventry because of the arms manufacturing. The West Midlands was the workshop of Britain in the 1940s."

Morale boosting

In what is now Leamington's old museum and gallery the directorate set up huge water tanks designed to float model boats.

The team experimented with different paints to help disguise ships from enemy submarines.

Another camouflage ploy was to use a modified slurry-spreading machine to spray sump oil across airfields.

Despite the group's range of techniques, bombers often still hit their targets.

"The problem was the Germans knew where these factories were before the war and what they were producing," Mr Durrant said.

"A lot of it was about keeping morale up but there was a practical element too - to make attack as difficult as possible."

Camouflage history to be probed
17 Apr 08 |  Coventry/Warwickshire

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific