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Camouflage Australia

There is a group men and women whose contribution to the war effort is largely forgotten: the camoufleurs who worked together to camouflage Australia during the Second World War. In a new book from Sydney University Press, Camouflage Australia: art, nature, science and war, Ann Elias tells the story of camouflage artists and explores the reasons for their invisibility in the historical record.

On 3 September 1939 a group of 30 men in the arts and sciences invited members of the army, airforce and navy, and banded together to form the Sydney Camouflage Group. The 30 members included William Dakin (a zoologist), Leslie Wilkinson (an architect), Frank Hinder (an artist), Max Dupain (a photographer), Sydney Ure Smith (an art patron) and many others.

After July 1941, the majority of the Sydney Camouflage Group’s members became official camoufleurs with the Department of Home Security. But their position remained tenuous. The artists and designers deployed by the DHS to work in camouflage - a list comprising just over one hundred men and one woman - were not enlisted soldiers. As civilians working for the armed forces but not part of them, camoufleurs spent the first years of the war looking highly conspicuous in civilian clothes. It was not until May 1943 that the camoufleurs were given uniforms and received accreditation with the airforce, which allowed them to blend in with military life, though they never received the respect and recognition they deserved.

Despite the uniforms, cooperation with the military remained fraught. The camoufleurs, or camouflage officers as they preferred to be known, were considered to be amateurs working recklessly outside their discipline boundaries, masquerading as real soldiers, and faking a body of knowledge. The very idea of camouflage was seen as unmanly and primitive, a sign of cowardice and a subversion of military discipline with soldiers ignoring the advice of the Camouflage Group to wear face cream and dark clothing to avoid detection in the jungle. Camouflage was considered as the soft option for war service and camoufleurs were seen as people trying to avoid the proper work of wartime. A deep-seated suspicion prevailed that camouflage signified passivity and weakness, a mere decoration to the structural necessities of war.

But camouflage was more than a mere decoration. Ann Elias describes it ‘as “art (with a scientific basis)” applied to armies in the field’. Camouflage aimed at deceiving enemy cameras in the event of aerial reconnaissance, and fooling the naked eye in case of attack. Combining knowledge of art, zoology and military ideas, camoufleurs worked to transform munitions and bomber hideouts to look like domestic houses and public buildings. Airfields, such as the one in Bankstown, were disguised to look like farm properties, sports arenas, race tracks or market gardens.

As William Dakin and Leslie Wilkinson were both staff at the University of Sydney, the grounds of the University were used to test concealment and deception methods, while Dakin’s office in the Zoology Department was a camouflage laboratory.

William Dakin, a professor of zoology at the University of Sydney, was the most prominent figure in the development of camouflage at the beginning of the Second World War. Using his research into the behaviours and colours of animals, he developed a theoretical basis for his camouflage work. During the war, he waged a campaign in Australia to protect the nation and empire through advancements in camouflage defence. Unfortunately, Dakin never in his lifetime received proper recognition for his work as Technical Director of Camouflage for Australia in World War Two.

Let’s remember Dakin and other camoufleurs today, with all the other men and women who died and suffered defending Australia.