ROLAND PENROSE – CAMOUFLAGE
When the ‘Home Guard Manual of Camouflage’ by Roland Penrose, a lecturer to the War Office for Instructors to the Home Guard, was first published in October 1941 the prospect of a German invasion on mainland Britain was seen as a very real and probable threat. As a Quaker and staunch pacifist his influence in the development of camouflage techniques during WWII is fascinating, though in his own words “The author makes no claim to their originality, many of them are as old as warfare itself”.
The War Office set up a Camouflage Development and Training Centre (CDTC) at Farnham Castle. Painters, designers and architects even zoologists, (many of the ideas on disguise and concealment came from the study of animals and their habits) trained with regular officers before being posted as staff officers, usually to the Royal Engineers to use their skills with camouflage. The creative community included painters such as Roland Penrose, Blair Hughes-Stanton, Edward Seago, Frederick Gore and Julian Trevelyan. They helped develop new methods of concealment and deception, training troops in visual awareness and how to merge into their surroundings.
In 1940, as an ill-equipped Britain faced invasion by Germany there was a desperate need for concealment and deception, but ‘there was no one to preach the gospel’. This book set out to change that. It was designed to train the Home Guard, operational from 1940-1944 and comprising of 1.5 million local volunteers. Forget Dad’s Army in the event of invasion these would have been an important and crucial secondary defence force.
The purpose of the book was to instruct the Home Guard in the arts of concealment and camouflage, to use the natural surroundings of the countryside for “Deception, Misdirection and Bluff” to give the advantage to a smaller force against a larger invading force. Though the concept of concealment was unsavoury to many of the retired soldiers serving in the Home Guard.
“To an old soldier, the idea of hiding from your enemy and the use of deception may possibly be repulsive. He may feel that it is not brave and not cricket. But that matters very little to our enemies, who are ruthlessly exploiting every means of deception at the present time to gain spectacular victories. They can only be stopped by new methods, however revolutionary these may appear to those who believe only in ancient traditions.”
“It is useless in warfare to be merely brave, if bravery means presenting oneself as a useless target to the enemy. It is far better to employ intelligence and concealment, so as to induce him to present a target. A man who is well concealed can bide his time, watch for the enemy to expose himself and hold his fire until his target is sufficiently close to make sure of it. In this way the Home Guard may be able to destroy the invader without even allowing him the chance to hit back. By good concealment it will greatly augment its value as a fighting force. Camouflage is no mystery and no joke. It is a matter of life and death-of victory or defeat.”
Roland Penrose, 1940
This post focused on the art of camouflage and the Home Guard Manual that sought to teach it, though in no way means to portray Roland Penrose simply as a military lecturer. The life of the English Surrealist painter and poet is a fascinating subject, of which this is but a small chapter. For information on his life and works visit
Friend and biographer of Picasso, Penrose was instrumental in bringing his work ‘Guernica’ to London in 1937, giving East London a vision of the chaos and destruction that it would all too soon receive at the hands of the Luftwaffe, more on this shortly.
*Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso.
Words: Douglas Gunn.