Sunday, 29 December 2013

Camouflage - A Hidden History

A sample of Disruptive Pattern Material from the British Armed Forces
(photo by Adrian Harlen)


Noun & verb. Early 20th century.
[French, from camoufler verb (thieves' slang) from Italian camuffare disguise, decieve,
perhaps associated with French camouflet whiff of smoke in the face: see -AGE.]

A noun. The disguising or concealment of guns, ships, aircraft, etc.,
by obscuring with splashes of various colours, foliage, netting, smokescreens, etc.;

the disguise so used;

generally any means of disguise or evasion. E20

B verb trans. Conceal by camouflage. E20

Anyone that's familiar with the famous sniper training scene in the Hollywood film Clear and Present Danger might well conclude that it's all a bit, well, Hollywood. A camouflaged sniper is hidden in a field, scoring points by shooting targets, while his superiors attempt to identify his position using binoculars and spotters on the ground. After the hidden sniper scores successive hits without been located, his officers command him to show himself. To their shock, he stands up from the undergrowth right in front of them. "Soldier, how did you get that close to me?" demands the sergeant-major. "Sniper approached the instructor," barked the sniper in response, "by being a sneaky [egg-muffin], Sergeant-Major!" Oh yes. All very Hollywood.

Except that it isn't. My first experience of this was in the early 2000s, on my first proper assignment in running a multi-faceted surveillance operation in the rurals. One member of the team was an ex-special forces soldier, and his role required him to don his ghillie suit, dig in for the day, and report all movement from the entrance to the subject's workplace, which was an isolated farm. Despite being in a vantage point, and despite knowing his position in the field, I was never able to spot him once on a 16-hour surveillance. And believe me that I tried - there are long periods of inactivity on a surveillance and there was little else to do but peer through my binoculars and try and locate the sneaky [egg-muffin], but I never could.

A demonstration of the ghillie suit

While I never trained in 'field' or 'ground' work (different agencies and companies use different terminology for this type of surveillance), I did pick up a few principles from the times I had to don my camo kit and crawl through terrain to deliver supplies, collect tapes, etc. One of the major reasons that the guillie suit is effective, for example, is not because it matches the colour of the surroundings, although this is definitely a factor, but because it distorts the outline of the operative - straight lines, so rarely found in nature, are a dead giveaway (for many years, the camouflage of the British Armed Forces was called DPM, or Disruptive Pattern Material).

The history of camouflage as we recognise it today is relatively recent, as anyone that's seen the uniform of a British Redcoat (18th and 19th century) will know. Effective camouflage became a necessity with the improvements of arms technology in the 19th century, as rifling and ballistics greatly improved both the accuracy, range and lethality of small-arms fire, and small-scale use of camouflage was one of the advancements made during the Napoleonic Wars. The etymology of camouflage is French, originating from the Parisian slang camouflet, meaning (as Chambers 20th Century Dictionary puts it) 'a whiff of smoke intentionally blown in the face, an affront'. Considering how disorientating having smoke blown in your face is, particularly if by someone you're trying to punch, this seems an apt etymology indeed.

Of course, one can be overconfident ...
(image by Kreezzalee)

Have you ever had to use camouflage?

Have you ever lost something because you camouflaged it?

Do please field your most disruptive comments in the box below.


  1. Never, ever, take anything purple to a Premier Inn.

    1. Hahaha! Or ... maybe just never stay at a Premier Inn ... ?

  2. I wanted to camouflage this comment, but Blogger wouldn't let me! Boo!

    1. Aww! Bibi! That would have been brilliant! Although ... maybe you have camouflaged your comment and now you're just toying with us ...

  3. My husband is quite the avid hunter, but I must say he's never had anything so effective as those ghillie suits! Quite impressive...

    1. They really are something, aren't they? When you see that in real life, it's actually quite unnerving.

    2. Maybe someone in one of those suits is watching us right now... Creepy.

    3. I wouldn't doubt it... Makes me want to keep my blinds shut haha.

  4. Sorry Ed but I'm terribly disappointed. An entire post on camouflage on not a single mention of Stan Ridgeways' masterpiece. Boo!

    1. Well, that one was completely new to me - well worth a listen on YouTube.

      "If Charlie wants to tango now" ... lyric writing at its best.

      Thank you A.N.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. This saw the residential area in the Roman region of Britannia, at that point known as Aquae Sulis (signifying, "the waters of Sulis" in Latin), turn into a vital area in the South West district of England for exchange and initiate.source

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