Churchill's secret army of artists

The 'camoufleurs' of Leamington Spa provided a vital service to wartime Britain.

For eight decades, the heroic endeavours of 1940s' Britons, a group shrinking in number, have been rightly celebrated. Dubbed 'the greatest generation' – and for a good reason - they were the few who kept Britain from falling to Hitler. 

But within that mass of history, it can be easy to overlook some of the lesser-known and more unique parts of our WW2 story.

One such example is the work of a group of "hipsters" who, when the war commenced, were sent to Warwickshire to design and experiment with camouflage techniques to help disguise integral places.

They were known as the Camoufleurs of Leamington, and their function depended on their skills as artists. This is their story.

A Camouflage Scheme in Progress by Colin Moss. Picture: Imperial War Museum.

By the time World War Two was declared in September 1939, German planners already knew the locations of Britain's vital infrastructure, places considered imperative to the war effort. Because of their significance, it was blatantly clear that any plans to attack the mainland would include targeting these critical facilities. And so they had to be defended.

In place of physically moving these large sites to different, more secretive locations, the Government formed a specialised department to handle disguising them. It was called the Civil Defence Camouflage Establishment (CDCE). A month into the war, it set up its HQ in Leamington Spa. 

The CDCE consisted of 250 artists, model makers, architects, and scientists at its peak. Their primary purpose was designing concealment techniques that could baffle would-be German bombers in the skies above England. It was not just a case of covering power stations in camouflage-styled paint. As it was known, the directorate led the way in researching methods that helped disguise these typically large targets using revolutionary procedures.  

The camoufleurs held 'Avant Garde' parties while off duty. Here, Victorine Foot, herself a war artist based in the town, depict one such occasion. Picture: Victorine Foot Estate.

'Avant Garde' parties - nobody knows what that means but we can all guess.

Barry Franklin is a local historian and expert on the story of the camoufleurs of Leamington Spa. He spoke to Forces News about the artists' arrival in the town and how it did not go unnoticed, referring to the more hedonistic lifestyles the men and women were used to.

He said: "They settled into Leamington quite well. But according to reports, they had what was called 'Avant Garde' parties. Nobody knows what that means but we can all guess.

"Many based themselves at the Regent Hotel, which on the night of the Coventry bombing in 1941, was almost destroyed by a German bomber."

Barry described how properties were hit that night and on other occasions too, but how, fortunately, the raids on Leamington did not hinder the activities of the artists working for the Camouflage Establishment. It demonstrates both the danger the camoufleurs faced and the accuracy of Hitler's intelligence in knowing where to target his bombs.

Colin Moss' watercolour of the cooling tower at Stonebridge Power Station, Wembley. Picture: Imperial War Museum.

Among the ranks of the camoufleurs based in Leamington were notable individuals who would go on to significant achievements in their respective fields after the Second World War. This included the artists Victorine Foot, Colin Moss, and the Royal Mint's 1971 decimalised coinage designer, Christopher Ironside. 

Colin Moss went on to serve in the Life Guards following his time as a camoufleur in Leamington Spa. Picture: The Colin Moss Estate.

Moss was a fascinating man. While at the Camouflage Establishment, he created several watercolours that today act as a visual reference to the ingenuity he and the other camoufleurs were deploying in their work. His paintings provide some of the most unmistakable evidence of their ground-breaking work. 80 years on, his work is held by the Imperial War Museum.

Colin Moss' Playing Soldiers. Picture: The Colin Moss Estate.

Moss' contribution to the Second World War continued beyond his position at the Camouflage Establishment. In 1941, after completing his duties in Leamington Spa, he signed up to the army, commissioning as a Captain in the Life Guards, a regiment of the Household Cavalry. He saw active service in the Middle East and transferred to the Army Education Corps in Palestine after the war. His output as an artist in the second half of the century cemented his reputation as one of Britain's most notable post-war artists. 

Yet, like all the artists who placed their creative talents in the service of the country, it is his work as a camoufleur that perhaps made the most significant mark.

And for Leamington Spa, locals like Barry are still to this day proud of how the town contributed to winning World War Two.


Cover: Imperial War Museum.