‘16 Squadron Fighter Reconnaissance’ was a reconnaissance unit made up of adapted fighters, an idea proposed by one Flying Officer Maurice ‘Shorty’ Longbottom. Their Spitfires were stripped of their weapons and armour to save weight and increase their range, so their only defences were speed and camouflage. Initially they were painted blue, but it became apparent that pink was a better colour when flying at low altitude and in the right circumstances (seven-eighths cloud cover in the target area), especially on evening missions. Pink was also used for some naval vessels during the War – the colour scheme was called ‘Mountbatten pink’ because he was an enthusiast for it.
Military camouflage has a rather short history, because in the days of the pitched battle the desired effect was the exact opposite: uniforms needed to be as conspicuous as possible for easy identification. The British army started to adopt drab colours from the mid-19th century and battledress was completely khaki by 1902. The soldier’s mnemonic for the key aspects of camouflage is ‘shape, shine, silhouette’.
‘Dazzle’ camouflage designed by Vorticist artists was used on British ships during the First World War – complex geometric patterns in strong blocks of colour which actually make it easier to see the ship but more difficult to estimate its range, speed and heading (rangefinders used optically split images which had to be lined up by the operator, and the patterns made this more difficult to do). The idea became obsolete with the invention of radar.
The French word camouflage may have originated as the Italian of capo muffare ‘to muffle the head’.
Camouflage is a game we all like to play, but our secrets are as surely revealed by what we want to seem to be as by what we want to conceal.
Chinese character moths are camouflaged to look like bird poo.
To fool predators, Viceroy butterflies have evolved to look exactly like foul-tasting Monarch butterflies.
Zebra stripes are controversial because they have the (on the face of it) perverse effect of making the zebra easier to spot in its grassland habitat. Possible explanations include the idea that they make it more difficult for predators to pick an individual out of the herd, and the curious fact that stripes appear to repel tsetse flies.
Despite the popular myth, chameleons don’t change colour to blend into their background, they do it to communicate their moods and intentions. Octopuses, cuttlefish and seahorses can change colour to disguise themselves. Some octopuses imitate other dangerous animals like sea snakes and lionfish - others pretend to be drifting clumps of algae or water-logged coconuts.
To camouflage themselves, bitterns stand bolt upright with their long necks and long thin beaks in a vertical position, pretending to be a reed. Boa constrictors have a clear scale over each eye so they always seem to be awake. The scale means they never need to blink, which aids their camouflage. The most common predator of the bedbug is the ‘masked hunter’ which is so-named because it camouflages itself as dust as it lies in wait to attack bedbugs.
The word 'camouflage' was first used during the First World War. Until then, no single English word could describe this tactic.
Oats and rye were originally weeds that learned to camouflage themselves among crops of barley and wheat. The weeds that were the most successful at fooling early farmers into thinking they were part of the main crop eventually evolved into valuable crops in their own right.
This evolutionary trick is known as Vavilovian mimicry, named after the Russian geneticist who spotted this phenomenon, Nikolai Vavilov.
The mothers of Victorian children having their picture taken would be camouflaged as furniture to hold them still.
In Barbados it is illegal for citizens to wear camouflage clothing.
‘Ah, yes, pink camo,’ I murmur, gesturing my chin at her tank top and hoodie. ‘Because you never know when you’ll have to hide in a bubblegum factory.’