Houdini reportedly claimed that, "what the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes". This could have been the motto of the camouflage unit sent to the North African campaign at the height of the Second World War. In The Phantom Army of Alamein, Rick Stroud has illuminated the shadowy antics of this little-recognised outfit during the battle of El Alamein. In doing so, he has created a fascinating study of how the most unlikely characters can become heroes.
Among their fold were engravers, painters, cartoonists and sculptors, and their commander, Major Geoffrey Barkas, was an Oscar-winning film director. The brief was to support the Army using a combination of concealment and embellishment created with whatever came to hand. The Surrealist Roland Penrose tutored them, his lover Lee Miller posing nude in camouflage cream and netting as inspiration. And one of the more grandiose members was the Piccadilly magician Jasper Maskelyne, a chancer tasked with experimental developments, who fogged his own reputation as much as any desert convoy.
Stroud has a storyteller's eye for human detail matched with a researcher's diligence. In his previous bestseller, Rifleman, he helped veteran paratrooper Victor Gregg tell his war, from the fiasco at Arnhem to the bombing of Dresden. Here, however, the author has to tie together various narrative strings, following a disparate bunch as they bond, bicker and banter in the dunes. While the unit was made up some of the finest creative talents of the time they were decidedly unmilitary and Barkas feared that at any moment they would be "told to put down their paintbrushes, pick up their rifles and do some real soldiering".
Luckily they weren't. Operation Bertram, the section's greatest endeavour and the heart of this tale, was an act of monumental misdirection. The Alamein war zone was bookended by the sea and the Qattara Depression, leaving a small front. The unit created dummy tanks out of jeeps to go south, while, in a reverse feint, it covered real tanks with wooden cases, disguising them as trucks, each opening on top like a giant ladybird. These were sent north for the real offensive. "Hey presto!" judged Barkas. "Now you see them. Now you don't." Rommel was fooled and Alamein was won.
Winston Churchill stated that before Alamein, the Allies had never had a victory and that after they never had a defeat. I'm not sure that Gregg and the others captured at Arnhem would agree with that; however, there's no doubting the significance of the triumph and the camouflage unit's importance to it.
As a study of strategic wizardry, this is an important record. However, the book really comes alive when it focuses on the characters at the drawing boards and in the workshops: a motley crew of arty types who were surprisingly valuable in a conflict in which veneers proved pivotal.