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The Phantom Army of Alamein: How the Camouflage Unit and Operation Bertram Hoodwinked Rommel

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In 1940 a group of artists, sculptors, film makers, theatre designers and set painters came together to form the Camouflage Unit. Led by Major Geoffrey Barkas and including among their number the internationally renowned stage magician Jasper Maskelyne, the unit's projects became a crucial battlefield weapon. At the siege of Tobruk the unit made a vital desalination plant In 1940 a group of artists, sculptors, film makers, theatre designers and set painters came together to form the Camouflage Unit. Led by Major Geoffrey Barkas and including among their number the internationally renowned stage magician Jasper Maskelyne, the unit's projects became a crucial battlefield weapon. At the siege of Tobruk the unit made a vital desalination plant appear to have been destroyed by enemy bombers; from then on they used their storytelling skills to weave intricate webs of deception, making things appear that weren't actually there, and things that were, disappear, to deceive the enemy. Their stage was the enormous, flat and almost featureless Western Desert. The unit's schemes were so successful that in August 1942 the Unit was ordered by General Montgomery to come up with a way to hide the preparations for the Battle of Alamein, the biggest battle the 8th Army had ever fought. 'Operation Bertram' was born. In six short weeks two divisions, with armour, field guns and supporting vehicles, were conjured from the sand, while real tanks and lethal twenty-five pound field guns vanished from sight. Then, on the eve of the battle, the unit performed the biggest conjuring trick in military history. Right in front of the German's eyes they made 600 tanks disappear and reappear fifty miles away disguised as lorries. Rommel had been bamboozled by an army made of nothing but string and straw and bits of wood. The Phantom Army of Alamein tells for the first time the full story of how some of Britain's most creative men put down their brushes, pencils and cameras to join the rest of the world in the fight against the Nazis and played a vital role in the winning of the war.


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In 1940 a group of artists, sculptors, film makers, theatre designers and set painters came together to form the Camouflage Unit. Led by Major Geoffrey Barkas and including among their number the internationally renowned stage magician Jasper Maskelyne, the unit's projects became a crucial battlefield weapon. At the siege of Tobruk the unit made a vital desalination plant In 1940 a group of artists, sculptors, film makers, theatre designers and set painters came together to form the Camouflage Unit. Led by Major Geoffrey Barkas and including among their number the internationally renowned stage magician Jasper Maskelyne, the unit's projects became a crucial battlefield weapon. At the siege of Tobruk the unit made a vital desalination plant appear to have been destroyed by enemy bombers; from then on they used their storytelling skills to weave intricate webs of deception, making things appear that weren't actually there, and things that were, disappear, to deceive the enemy. Their stage was the enormous, flat and almost featureless Western Desert. The unit's schemes were so successful that in August 1942 the Unit was ordered by General Montgomery to come up with a way to hide the preparations for the Battle of Alamein, the biggest battle the 8th Army had ever fought. 'Operation Bertram' was born. In six short weeks two divisions, with armour, field guns and supporting vehicles, were conjured from the sand, while real tanks and lethal twenty-five pound field guns vanished from sight. Then, on the eve of the battle, the unit performed the biggest conjuring trick in military history. Right in front of the German's eyes they made 600 tanks disappear and reappear fifty miles away disguised as lorries. Rommel had been bamboozled by an army made of nothing but string and straw and bits of wood. The Phantom Army of Alamein tells for the first time the full story of how some of Britain's most creative men put down their brushes, pencils and cameras to join the rest of the world in the fight against the Nazis and played a vital role in the winning of the war.

30 review for The Phantom Army of Alamein: How the Camouflage Unit and Operation Bertram Hoodwinked Rommel

  1. 4 out of 5

    James

    The concept of this book is very interesting and the story of the "camofluers" is an important one that has been largely neglected. Whilst this is a readable book, and informative in many ways, it is let down by poor research in some areas. For example I have never heard of 437 RTR, the Royal Tank Unit, the Australian Royal Engineers, or 90th Light Panzer Division and that as good as the 6 per anti-tank gun was it was not comparable to the German 88! I take exception to the author stating in an The concept of this book is very interesting and the story of the "camofluers" is an important one that has been largely neglected. Whilst this is a readable book, and informative in many ways, it is let down by poor research in some areas. For example I have never heard of 437 RTR, the Royal Tank Unit, the Australian Royal Engineers, or 90th Light Panzer Division and that as good as the 6 per anti-tank gun was it was not comparable to the German 88! I take exception to the author stating in an early chapter that during WW1 the German March offensive was halted by the arrival of American troops. In a sentence he has practically ignored the huge importance of the role played by British and Australian troops during these desperate days of WW1. Nonetheless despite my gripes it is still fills a gap in the history of the desert war and to that end its not a terrible book and does highlight some interesting aspects on the art of camouflage in the Western Deseret during WW2. In particular the setting up of dummy railheads and making the desalination plant at Tobruk look like it was bomb damaged. There are also some interesting contemporary illustrations of different camouflage technoques. It's ashame that the number of seemingly minor technicalities conspire to make this work not as good as good as it should be.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Christoph Weber

    Typos and grammatical mistakes really bug me. And there are a lot of them in this little book. Also the main theme is very very specific, and the foreword and first chapter do reveal a lot - maybe too much - of what is going on in the rest of the book. It's written well enough and features enough colorful characters to make it very readable, I wasn't tempted to put it away and never finish it, as happened a few times this year with other books. Typos and grammatical mistakes really bug me. And there are a lot of them in this little book. Also the main theme is very very specific, and the foreword and first chapter do reveal a lot - maybe too much - of what is going on in the rest of the book. It's written well enough and features enough colorful characters to make it very readable, I wasn't tempted to put it away and never finish it, as happened a few times this year with other books.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nishant Pappireddi

    A good, short history of the use of camouflage techniques in the Western Desert campaign, including how it helped the Commonwealth win the Battle of El Alamein.

  4. 4 out of 5

    David

    An interesting intimate look at the camouflage work done in North Africa by the British during World War II. The book flows quite well, it's not overwhelmed with personages, and deals with the various schemes quite well. There are speculative parts of the book like suggesting that O'Connor would have defeated Rommel which detract from the work. There is also a section near the end that gets speculative about future applications of technology to the art of camouflage which breaks the narrative fl An interesting intimate look at the camouflage work done in North Africa by the British during World War II. The book flows quite well, it's not overwhelmed with personages, and deals with the various schemes quite well. There are speculative parts of the book like suggesting that O'Connor would have defeated Rommel which detract from the work. There is also a section near the end that gets speculative about future applications of technology to the art of camouflage which breaks the narrative flow. Otherwise, quite an interesting and lovely work. It includes a good deal of the how as well as the who and why.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Vikas Datta

    Superb retelling of one of WWII's most successful gambits - the fashioning of an enormous fake army that successfully hoodwinked one of the most efficient armies and generals of all times. Mr Stroud brings to life a cast of eccentric, larger than life characters who successfully carried off one of the most elaborate deceptions of all times in the harsh, unforgiving desert terrain... Along with this exploits, is an incisive account of the Desert War leading up to El Alamein and revealing portrait Superb retelling of one of WWII's most successful gambits - the fashioning of an enormous fake army that successfully hoodwinked one of the most efficient armies and generals of all times. Mr Stroud brings to life a cast of eccentric, larger than life characters who successfully carried off one of the most elaborate deceptions of all times in the harsh, unforgiving desert terrain... Along with this exploits, is an incisive account of the Desert War leading up to El Alamein and revealing portraits of Montgomery, Alexander, Auchinleck, Ritchie, and Rommel.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    I thought I had already reviewed this, but apparently not! It was a good historical read, although at times and bit dry. Really interesting part of the war, how artists played a big part in one of the more important battles of the conflict. The characters are interesting, but not quite as interesting as your prototypical spies and war heroes. I'd still recommend it if you're into this type of book! I thought I had already reviewed this, but apparently not! It was a good historical read, although at times and bit dry. Really interesting part of the war, how artists played a big part in one of the more important battles of the conflict. The characters are interesting, but not quite as interesting as your prototypical spies and war heroes. I'd still recommend it if you're into this type of book!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Kukwa

    A solid historical companion to Ben Macintyre's "Operation Mincemeat", but I do find there isn't quite as much passion and investment by the author in this particular book. For sheer enjoyment, I prefer the intriguing & dramatic "Mincemeat". That said, Rick Stroud's work is the equal in historical scholarship. A solid historical companion to Ben Macintyre's "Operation Mincemeat", but I do find there isn't quite as much passion and investment by the author in this particular book. For sheer enjoyment, I prefer the intriguing & dramatic "Mincemeat". That said, Rick Stroud's work is the equal in historical scholarship.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Steve Jones

    Very engaging book highlighting the adaptations made to help win the desert war. Hosts a cast of intriguing characters. esy and entertaining to read.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Justice Perkins

  10. 5 out of 5

    Leigh Johnson

  11. 5 out of 5

    Alexis Bell

  12. 4 out of 5

    Justin Reynolds

  13. 5 out of 5

    MorgansMomma

  14. 5 out of 5

    Rich Bebbington

  15. 4 out of 5

    Willem G Krouwel / Maureen Krouwel

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jenny Lewis

  17. 4 out of 5

    Heather

  18. 5 out of 5

    Tomlister

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kristen

  20. 4 out of 5

    Col Todd

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Jones

  23. 4 out of 5

    Manami89

  24. 4 out of 5

    Robert Ryan

  25. 4 out of 5

    David

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tom Lister

  27. 5 out of 5

    Phillip Matthews

  28. 5 out of 5

    Claire

  29. 4 out of 5

    Adam Featherston

  30. 4 out of 5

    Avi Lipton

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