The Phantom Army of Alamein, By Rick Stroud
Wartime smoke and mirrors
Sunday 21 October 2012
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.
Review: Of Mice and Men
By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work
Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar
What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?
Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings
The actor has confessed to his own insecurities
Allotments are the focus of a new reality show
Arts & Ents blogs
The food poverty scandal that shames Britain: Nearly 1m people rely on handouts to eat – and benefit reforms may be to blame
Scottish independence: It is the English who should be on their knees, begging the Scots to vote ‘No’
'Sinful': Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy comes under attack
An open letter to Nigel Farage: you may smile, but I am not seduced
Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back
Abdullah Deghayes: My son was the martyr of a just cause, says father of British teenager killed in Syria conflict
- 1 Easter egg hunt horror as mother finds dead body under deck of house
- 2 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 3 Unbeliebable: The White House offers 'no comment' to anti-Justin Bieber petition
- 4 Loch Ness Monster found on Apple Maps?
- 5 Criminals ‘using unmanned drones and infrared cameras to find illegal cannabis farms’ – and then steal from the growers