History of the Special Operations Executive: Excerpt from guide on camouflage and concealment

How to Hide Well: WWII-Era Advice From the British Special Operations Executive Guide

How to Hide Well: WWII-Era Advice From the British Special Operations Executive Guide

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Aug. 12 2015 1:10 PM

How to Hide Well: WWII-Era Advice From the British Special Operations Executive Guide

This candid guide to hiding in plain sight is drawn from the official training booklet of the British Special Operations Executive, or SOE, during World War II.

Following the fall of France to Hitler’s invading forces in the summer of 1940, British Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton established the SOE, a volunteer, clandestine fighting outfit of men and women with the express functions of “sabotage and subversion.” The SOE's mandate was to to blow up railways, bridges, and factories, and to foster resistance among citizens in Axis-occupied countries.

The SOE has long garnered attention for its mythic employment of state-of-the-art gadgetry. Over the course of its existence (the organization was disbanded at war’s end, in the winter of 1946), the SOE printed and distributed instructional pamphlets for a range of inventive explosive devices, including one widely translated and disseminated document entitled “How to Use High Explosives” that RAND researcher Paul Cornish has called an ominously influential “basic primer for would-be saboteurs.”

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Though lacking the menace of the SOE’s more infamous literature, this manual on camouflage and disguise captures (with some hilarious obviousness) the ragtag, DIY spirit of guerrilla warfare.

Excerpted from How to Become A Spy: The World War II SOE Training Manual by the British SOE, reproduced from The National Archives, London. Out now from Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

As the word “camouflage” is used in ordinary conversation, it covers pretty well all methods of deceiving the enemy, and is thus a very general term. In order to do a thing well, it is necessary to understand exactly what one is trying to do, and for this reason we sub-divide the general term “camouflage” into three separate headings. These headings are:

Camouflage proper;

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Disguise;

Concealment.

DEFINITIONS.

Camouflage proper is often called the “general resemblance.” That is to say that you deceive the enemy by melting into or mingling with your background, and are no longer noticeable at all. Example: the white ‘snow-sniper’s’ suits used in Russia and Finland.

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Disguise is often called the “special resemblance.” That is to say that you deceive the enemy, although he does actually see you, because he mistakes you for some harmless or unimportant object. Example: The most obvious example is the German parachutists’ use of nuns’ and other female clothing. Less obvious, but still disguise, a man dressed in grey clothing may, in a country such as this, pass for a rock, even though he is not very near any other rocks. If you consider the number of objects in any countryside which a man could make himself resemble, it will be clear that disguise has almost as wide an application as camouflage proper.

Concealment is to hide behind something, so that you are actually cut off from view. No example is required, and since a man who is entirely concealed is somewhat functionless, we shall not discuss it further.

Having defined these words, it will be clear at once that all three methods can be used by a man simultaneously. For example: he may disguise his head as a small gorse bush, camouflage his body to disappear altogether, and conceal his feet behind something. But unless he knows this himself, he is liable to “fall between two stools” and achieve nothing.

page 291 diagram

From How to Become a Spy, reproduced from the National Archives, London.

METHODS OF ACHIEVING THESE RESULTS.

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a) Camouflage.

To the partisan, by far the most general application of camouflage proper is the use of background. Get into the habit of thinking constantly of your background, and if there are others dressed as you are, notice against what backgrounds they appear to be invisible and against which backgrounds they look obvious. If you concentrate on this, you will find that almost unconsciously you choose, the whole time, backgrounds most like the clothes you are wearing.

Where there is no background that is very like your clothes, use natural camouflage—that is, leaves, grass, heather, branches, etc.—to cover partially and break up the color mass of your body. Pockets, button-holes, waist-band, collar—all these can receive and hold pieces of vegetation which will partially obscure your clothes and help you to mingle with your background. (When using natural camouflage, remember that under a hot sun it withers quickly, and may be worse than useless at the end of a few hours.)

The whole question of color in camouflage is extremely complicated, but there is one salient fact that should be remembered. The works of man are immediately recognizable by their regularity in color, and also in outline. If you were to look at a garden lawn and were asked what its color was, you would reply “green.” But while green is certainly the predominant color, you will find if you look more closely that there are not only many different shades of green, but also many other colors—browns, yellows, dark patches of shadow, etc. Remember, therefore, solid colors always look suspicious.

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Besides the question of color, there are three more factors which make an object recognizable for what it is.

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Remember that it is often possible to make the outline of your body and limbs resemble the outline of the objects around you, with very good effect. For example—rocks do not have branches, therefore when among rocks keep your arms close to your body. Trees do, and it is often possible to make your arms look like branches of a standing tree or roots of a fallen one. This is worthy of much more thought than it usually receives. Up a tree you will find about the best hiding place of all, as surprisingly few people ever look up into the trees they pass under. But here, the outline of your body must be made to follow and resemble the outline of the trunk and its branches. Even a bare tree can be a good hiding place if this is remembered. What makes an object appear solid is dependent upon shadows and highlights. They are, in fact, the only actors that make a white marble statue recognizable from a white paper silhouette.

Shadows are the most difficult problem in the whole of camouflage, whether of man or an airplane factory, and always seem to find some way to reveal the true shape of the object, do what one will. But once their vast importance is realized half the battle is won.

Look at the man who is lying on the ground, or standing against a wall. Wherever his body touches the ground or the wall on the opposite side from which the light is coming there is a shadow, wherever there is a furrow in his clothing there is a shadow—there is a shadow between his arms and his body, between his legs, under his chin, and so on. These shadows give him his shape—if they were not there he would appear to have no arms, only one thick leg—in fact he would become less and less like a man. It is for this reason that “snipers’ suits” are made as cloaks, without arms or legs—so that there shall be no specifically human, and therefore betraying appendages. Now, one golden rule applies. The flatter an object, the less shadow it gives; therefore an object with sloping sides gives much less shadow than one with straight sides. Try this with a match-box, with a strong light coming from one side. Then bend out one side till it is at a gentle slope—there will be no shadow at all.

It is for this reason that large buildings that are to be camouflaged so as to disappear into the landscape are built with sloping sides—were they not, their shadows would betray them. The same applies to the camouflage of a man. It will be seen immediately that the closer a man presses himself against the ground or background he intends to blend with, the less shadow he will cast, and the more he will tend to disappear. 

b) Disguise.

Having realized that disguise is not necessarily a matter of wearing a false red beard or getting a stage cow, its possibilities increase considerably. But it will also be obvious that there are very, very few objects that are suitable for the disguise of a man’s body in movement, and a man is much more often moving than stationary. The chief application of the “special resemblance” therefore, is for use on the head only. It is often easy to hide the body behind something (conceal it), but a man is usually somewhat useless if his hand is also concealed.

Now is the time to realize that camouflage proper can very rarely be used satisfactorily on the head—it must be disguised. That is to say, it is very difficult to make the head blend into and mingle with its background—especially at close quarters, which is the range from which you should always try to observe—but it is comparatively easy to make it look like something completely different. This “something different” may be anything from a small bush or a moss-covered stone to a tiny bucket or a pile of horsedung. One of the simplest of all means of disguise of the head is a sheet of moss, such as grows round trees roots, on stones, etc. It has two great advantages:

a) It is to be found everywhere in the world where there are either large trees or rocks;

b) It requires no making or work, as it can be taken off the ground as a solid sheet that will cover the whole head—a ready-made hat.

If the head is to be disguised as a bush, let it be as large a bush as comfort and weight will allow. A large bush looks much less likely to be a man’s head than something that is exactly the size and shape of a man’s head.

Excerpted with permission from How to Become a Spy by the British SOE. Copyright 2015, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

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Alexandra Coakley is Slate’s excerpts assistant.