Some fifteen or so of us had been selected for the camouflage course. It was held at Maadi, a small, hutted Army base far enough from Cairo to deny us the distractions of the city's nightlife.

Our first acquaintance with our instructor was not encouraging. We had been told that he was one of Britain's most eminent naturalists, and he appeared to have been dragged protesting from a twitcher's hide, bundled into a captain's uniform made by a blind tailor, and posted to Maadi. He was middle-aged, balding and with a military bearing suggesting that he could well have thought Sandhurst to be a seaside resort.

How wrong can one be?

For the course was dazzling. Light-years from conventional military training, for he taught us to do what many in Higher Command had considered unnecessary for lower ranks - which was to think, as well as to acquire a more alert state of mind through observation.

From the diary I kept at the time, his opening lecture went something like this:

"In nature," he began, "camouflage and deception are really the same thing. Camouflage is employed by almost all creatures, whether in the sea, on land or in the air and is intended to defeat the sight of its predators. And by sight, I mean the active vision of enemies; and we must now apply these principles to warfare. Most people look, but don't see. To see, you must observe, and by observing you will acquire perception, and perception demands thought: the instinctive recognition of a truth, or an untruth. To notice something a little out of the ordinary; something not quite as it should be.

"With such information you should then know what action to take - and action, if only instinctive, demands thought. And that is the basis of survival. It is my job to train you to develop a state of mind in order for you to see, perceive and think as a single reflex, and instinctively decide what to do. Some of you may find it difficult at first, but persevere. It can be done. Perception may save your life."

This made the sort of elementary sense we hadn't considered before and we all sat up a bit straighter and started taking notes.

"Let's now go back to what I said just about perception being the genesis of a truth, and by a truth I mean anything that arouses your suspicion; that rings a warning bell."

"Here"s a simple exercise," he continued, and produced an enlargement of a black and white aerial photograph of part of a typical English village, taken on a sunny day.

A grassy field occupied the lower half of the picture with a row of large trees along its right-hand edge and the tracks of vehicles crossing the grass. The upper half showed part of a towered church as well as a row of near-by cottages including their back gardens and washing lines.

"Come round a bit closer," he said, which we did. "Now, I"d like you to look at this for a few minutes and then tell me when the photograph was taken; the approximate time of day, the day of the week, the month of the year and whether any guns have recently been hidden beneath the trees."

We just stood there looking, stunned; impossible of course. But peering closer I remembered the main cricket green at Ardingly College and the row of horse-chestnut trees beneath which we used to laze away Saturday afternoons watching matches. The trees in the photograph had the same numerous white spots among the foliage; conker flowers, perhaps, so I made a guess. "Maybe spring, Sir? About May?" I ventured, and told him why.

"Good! You"re right. Anything else?"


So he explained: "Churches were usually built on an east-west axis, so the shadow of the church tower indicates it was about three o"clock. The washing hanging in the gardens of the cottages suggested it was Monday; the conventional washing day housewives set aside."

"Let's consider the difference between shade and shadow," he continued. "They play an important part in camouflage," and rolled up the sleeve of his bush jacket. He held up his bare arm against a window in bright sunlight. "The side of my arm not lightened by the sun is in the shade. The shadow of my arm you'll see across the floor is darker and more revealing. So, yes there probably were guns and their limbers hidden under the trees. Two sets of tracks can be seen crossing the field towards each tree. Heavy wheels travelling towards a source of light will depress the grass so that it will reflect the light, and of course, will appear brighter. "Wheels moving away from the same light source will darken the tracks, as the blades of depressed grass will cast their own shadows."

Simple? But he already had us, riveted; and there was a great deal more to learn.

"A man and practically any creature lying motionless on the ground can still be seen as a three-dimensional shape by the shade of the body, even if the sun is directly overhead and there's no perceptible shadow. Consequently, many wild animals will freeze if surprised by a predator, their body's colouring often being their best camouflage. Think of stoats, weasels, foxes, rabbits, deer and many dogs that have white bellies. Daylight coming from above lightens their backs, but darkens the lighter surfaces beneath with shade, thus making them appear two- rather than three-dimensional, and more difficult to detect."

"You'll all have seen cowboys in Western films wearing jackets with thin leather strips hanging from their shoulders and their arms. Those are not decorations. They were adopted from the Red Indians. When prone, stalking prey or their enemies, the leather strips would fall to the ground from their shoulders and their arms, thus concealing the shade of their bodies."

He then produced a wooden box the size of a large suitcase. One side was of glass. The interior was painted to resembled the seabed, with sand and pebbles and upright strands of seaweed. Suspended in the centre was the model of a salmon; its back naturally dark and its belly lighter. He switched on a strip-light at the top of the box, and the model fish almost disappeared from view. Simple again. Or was it?

We were each handed an aerial photograph of military action somewhere in the Western Desert and given half a day in which to write an appreciation of what we could deduce from it.

Much tactical information, he said, was gained from aerial photographic reconnaissance. The intelligent interpretation of such photographs was an art, which we would all be expected to master. And we spent many hours doing just that with his brilliant guidance at the shoulder of each of us.

"By now you will have noticed," he told us, "that straight lines and circles are foreign to nature. So, any seen from the air are immediately conspicuous and suggest human activity, which may need investigating. Other important clues in aerial reconnaissance are the shadows cast by guns, vehicles, and other military objects. So, the shadows of such equipment must be hidden or perhaps deliberately exploited as a means of deception. And he explained how this could be achieved; for instance by the use of netting threaded with disruptive coloured canvas strips to conceal the object.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the course was just information relentlessly pumped into us as though part of an intense military syllabus. But this was far from the case. Our unlikely captain, (his name long forgotten), held us spellbound, interspersing his lectures and practical work with humour and anecdotes of the deceptive methods used by wild animals. He told us of the occasion, while bird watching in the Fens, when he spotted a bittern standing motionless among tall reeds with its long beak pointing upwards as though it were itself a reed.

Approaching cautiously he reached out and pulled the beak towards him. When he let go, the beak returned to its original upright stance and even swayed in unison with the movements of the surrounding reeds in the gentle breeze.

Another day we were taken to a military refuse dump a few miles away. There, much to our surprise we were shown how simple it was to retrieve enough discarded items to create structures that cast perfect shadows of guns and other military hardware, realistic enough to deceive enemy reconnaissance photographers.

And so on, and so on, while we found ourselves living in a new heady world of make-believe. He provided watercolours and required each of us to paint a desert landscape, based on a black and white photograph depicting uneven terrain with artillery pieces, large vehicles and tents. Our efforts had to show how the scene could suitably be camouflaged with distorting colours, to disguise straight lines and flat surfaces . . .

By the time the course ended we were a bemused group of men. Some, who thought they'd scrounged themselves a cushy break from active service, now looked at the world with different eyes and a new mentality through observing and making instant decisions; perhaps a form of lateral thinking.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007