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A Camouflage Expert's Story

Discussion in 'Military History' started by GRW, May 31, 2018.

  1. GRW

    GRW Pillboxologist WW2|ORG Editor

    Oct 26, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Stirling, Scotland
    This paper always finds some great human interest stories.
    "In searching for the story of her great-grandfather, Mary Horlock found a complex man whose brilliance at inventing camouflage was matched by his secretive nature My great-grandfather was Joseph Gray, an artist most people won’t have heard of, but for a long time he was the only artist I’d ever heard of. There were no empty walls in the house where I grew up – Joe’s prints and paintings took up all the space.
    While all my friends had tasteful prints or decorative mirrors at home, we had this baffling mixture of styles and subjects, all courtesy of an artist I’d never met. But at least I knew what he looked like – in my grandparents’ flat there was a pencil self-portrait: dark, piercing eyes under hooded eyelids, a wide curving nose. Joe Gray stared intently into the distance, his face turned almost to profile. The first time I met Joe was through this drawing, and the first time I saw Scotland was through the landscape etchings that hung in my grandparents’ flat. My grandmother, Maureen, Joe’s only child, was born in Dundee. She told me Joe had been a war artist, and because of the etchings on our staircase – images of St Paul’s Cathedral ablaze, the city of London in ruins – I assumed this meant the Second World War. It was many years before I realised how appearances are not all they seem.
    We run down the world's worst cars - as voted for by Carbuyer readers. Promoted by CarBuyer Joseph Gray was born in South Shields but moved to Dundee in 1913, to work as an illustrator for the Courier. When war broke out he joined the Fourth Black Watch with a group of journalist friends, calling themselves the “fighter-writers” – the idea being they would report on the war as they fought it. But Joe’s skill at drawing meant he was soon put to work in other ways: he became an observer, sent out to make sketches of enemy positions and draw trench maps. He survived the battles of Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Loos and when he was invalided home he wrote for the Dundee Advertiser and supplied war pictures for the Graphic. Joe prided himself on accuracy and when he painted vast canvases of the battles he had fought in, he always depicted the soldiers who had served in the action, even naming them. His painting of Neuve Chapelle hangs in the McManus Galleries in Dundee and another depicting the Cameron Highlanders at Loos is in the Highlanders Museum at Fort George. These works are uncanny in their detail, but Joe’s was a traditional style of painting that was already out of fashion in the Modernist Twenties.
    That could so easily have been where the story ended for him – but it didn’t explain the etchings of the London Blitz that were hanging on my family’s staircase. There was, of course, another war, and that’s where everything in my great-grandfather’s life was turned upside down. Joe had spent one war meticulously representing what he saw, but he spent the next one hiding and disguising it. Art and camouflage – they might be opposites but they are closely interlinked. Joe had only survived the trenches because he’d learned how to blend in with the landscape. Now there would be another war far worse than the one before. It wouldn’t happen overseas, in the desolate open country. It would come from the skies and straight for the cities of Britain. Throughout the Thirties Joe began to re-think what camouflage should be, faced with this new challenge. He even wrote a book about it.
    As Joe studied image after image, and material after material, he came up with an answer. He invented a new kind of steel wool which could simulate landscape. An ammunitions dump could become a haystack, a bomb store, a rolling hillside. This false picture could hide railway stations, factories, docks and power stations. Joe was back in uniform before war broke out, working as a camouflage officer and flying all over the country working out how to conceal vital sites."

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