Vietnam War soldiers

The art and evolution of military camouflage

Image credit: Diomedia, Getty Images, Rex Features, Alamy, Mary Evans, Dreamstime

Camouflage has a long and colourful history - and a technological future.

Before the advent of longer range, more accurate weapons necessitated the need for more effective concealment in the field, army uniforms were typically brightly coloured affairs, intended to accentuate a soldier’s visibility, not disguise it.

However, as rifles replaced swords and the distance between combatants increased, so the need to hide military positions from the enemy became the imperative. It was during the First World War that camouflage became essential, widely used on both sides, with post-impressionist artists and theatre set designers employed to lead the new military technique, skilled as they already were in the art of visual deception.

Camouflage rapidly encompassed the physical obfuscation of troops, tanks, planes and even entire buildings. The ‘dazzle ships’ painting technique, inspired by the principles of abstract cubist artists, also made its debut at this time, persisting into the Second World War until improved radar made such a disguise less effective.

The uniforms issued to soldiers have constantly evolved as the nature of camouflage has been better understood. In 1914-18, most nations fought in muted single-colour uniforms (the French hastily toned down their traditional, conspicuous blue and red uniform mid-war, after sustaining a heavy death toll on the Western Front). Second World War uniforms were similarly monochrome (e.g. ‘olive drab’ green), although specific jungle camouflage uniforms were issued to the British and American forces.

Later wars, fought in different environments, have seen new camouflage patterns and techniques, from the four-​colour camouflage Battle Dress Uniform developed by the US Army Engineer Research and Development Laboratory in the late 1940s, to the 1950s ‘Frogskin’ pattern, the 1960s ‘Tiger stripe’ associated with Vietnam, the ‘Woodland’ style popularised in the late 1970s and 1980s, and a six-colour, desert-shaded, multi-layered design (dubbed ‘chocolate chip’) for the Gulf War in 1990-91.

Simplifying matters, the current Universal Camouflage Pattern of the US Army is a computer-generated mix of green, tan and grey, suitable for use in woodland, desert and urban environments. This design will itself shortly be replaced by the Operational Camouflage Pattern, with a colour palette of muted green, light beige and dark brown.

The art of stealth has long applied to every aspect of an army’s arsenal, from the soldier on the ground to the cutting-edge fighter jet above, such as Lockheed Martin’s forthcoming F35II plane, armed to the teeth with cloaking technology. Every advance in weaponry seems to require a corresponding advance in the art of camouflage.

A brief history of modern military camouflage, in pictures

In the late 19th century, soliders in the British Indian Army began staining their bright white – impractical, easy target – uniforms a dull brown: the origin of the word ‘khaki’, meaning ‘soil-coloured’ in Urdu or Hindu.

The high casualty rate on the Western Front in 1914-18 soon persuaded the French Army to abandon its traditional conspicuous uniform of blue coats and red trousers, and adopt an entirely new grey-ish ‘horizon blue’ colour scheme that blended in more effectively with the smoke-filled battlefield.

Second World War planes often had a ‘land’ pattern when viewed from above and a ‘sky’ pattern when viewed from below: a crucial and potentially life-saving deception in dogfights when the enemy pilot’s viewpoint was constantly changing.

In Operation Bertram, preparing for the decisive battle at El Alamein in 1942, Allied artists recruited into the Royal Engineers developed the use of camouflage for large-scale military deception, even going as far as successfully hiding the Suez Canal from the Germans.

The French Army ‘camofleurs’ were often members of the contemporary post-impressionist artistic movement, so highly skilled in artistic manipulation and disguise of people, machinery and entire buildings.

‘Dazzle ships’ borrowed painting techniques from cubism, using disruptive outlines, abstraction and colour theory to make ships appear faster and smaller and thus harder to hit with missiles and torpedoes.

In the 1940s, US Marines were issued with reversible beach/jungle coveralls with a green-and-brown ‘frogskin’ pattern.

The Vietnam War is often associated with a localised ‘Tigerstripe’ camouflage featuring black ‘tiger’ stripes overlaid on a dark-and-light-green background – a design inspired by French camouflage patterns from the 1950s.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the familiar woodland-style leaf pattern emerged and evolved.

The woodland camouflage pattern was officially introduced in 1981 with the new Battle Dress Uniform. American troops wore this camouflage during the Grenada invasion in 1983.

This six-colour ‘chocolate chip’ khaki desert camouflage was worn in the Gulf War and is strongly associated in the cultural memory with images of US General Norman Schwarzkopf.

2004’s three-colour ‘Universal Camouflage Pattern’ was the first computer-generated design. The mix of green, tan and grey helps soldiers blend into woodland, desert and urban environments. Worn in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The future uniform for the US Army will be the ‘Operational Camouflage Pattern’, with a muted colour palette of green, light beige and dark brown.

As warfare becomes an increasingly technological struggle, camouflage techniques are used for all assets, such as the cloaking capabilities of stealth fighter jets like the F35II.

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