Hidden in Plain Sight

As the NDC systematically reviews and releases the oldest withheld documents from legacy declassification projects, we periodically post entries about interesting new releases as part of our effort “to make access happen” (please see the July 5, 2018 NDC Blog post “Note Pour L’Admiral Stark” for more details).  In this case, Archives Specialist Jennifer Halpern processed a unique document produced by the Combined Operations Headquarters (C.O.H.Q.) during World War II.

The document in question is the C.O.H.Q. Bulletin X/24 “Seagoing Disguise of Ships and Craft,”  which can be found in Record Group 331 (Records of Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Top Secret Decimal Correspondence Files, 1943-45 (Finding Aid NM-8, Entry 199, Box 46.  Researchers who wish to examine C.O.H.Q. Bulletin X/24 in its entirety should contact the Textual Research Division at the National Archives at College Park (Archives2reference@NARA.gov).

C.O.H.Q. was a  British command established in the wake of the loss of France to the German Wehrmacht as well as the debilitating evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and Allied forces from the European continent.  The objective of C.O.H.Q. was to organize, train and deploy specialized units for amphibious raids on the now German-dominated European Continent.  These small units of company-, and later, battalion-sized Commandos revived the use of a Boer War term “Kommandos”, small guerrilla bands of the hard-fighting Dutch-speaking settlers who resisted the British in South Africa some decades before.  C.O.H.Q.’s Commandos were not the first “special operations” troops to be employed in battle, but the British employed their Commando units far more widely than had been done by other nations in the past.

Combined Operations Headquarters Uniform Patch

As C.O.H.Q.’s primary means to deploy Commandos was by sea, C.O.H.Q. developed various means to make amphibious operations possible.  Just getting the Commandos to the target area was a challenge simply because hiding transport ships and landing craft on the open ocean in the face of German air superiority was nearly impossible.  It did not help that both transports and landing craft had unique characteristics that advertised to friend and foe alike that these vessels were participating in an amphibious operation.

Thus the subject of today’s article, C.O.H.Q. Bulletin X/24 “Seagoing Disguise of Ships and Craft” makes perfect sense as a publication for the C.O.H.Q..  The format of the Bulletin consists of an Introduction, Principles of Designing and Using Disguise, Photographic Reconnaissance, and Examples of Disguise.  There are also three appendices that contain diagrams illustrating recognition points, construction of disguises for Operation “Rutter” and Illustration of Design in Operation “Mincemeat”.

Cover of C.O.H.Q. Bulletin X/24

Going into the body of the bulletin, it quickly becomes clear that the disguising of ships and craft focused on defeating an aerial observer.  By this phase of World War II (mid-1944), non-naval aerial observers were the objects of much derision as to their ship identification skills.  The object in disguising the ships and craft was to delay recognition by slightly competent aerial observers of the specialized nature of amphibious warfare vessels as long as possible.  Naval disguises were never meant to completely fool the average observer, given the size of the vessels being disguised.  Much the same can be said about stealth technology today.  The best any deception operation can manage is to delay recognition of the true nature of the disguised vessels as long as possible to permit the completion of the vessels’ mission with minimal damage.

Once the Bulletin moves past the first three parts, the real heart of the publication can be found in Part IV, Examples of Disguises.  The first example given came from the preparations for Operation “Rutter”, an early designation for the raid on the fortified harbor at Dieppe that later will be designated Operation “Jubliee.”  The Bulletin discusses in detail how to effect the changes in appearance to some types of Landing Ship (Infantry) (LSI), in this case small Belgian cross-channel ferries.  The provision of assault craft on the LSIs made their appearance quite distinctive, and the disguises mentioned in Part IV of the Bulletin were meant to alter the appearance of the LSIs to an aerial observer from some distance away.

Undisguised Small and Medium Landing Ship, Infantry (LSI (S) and (M) and LCT (3)
Undisguised and disguised LSI (M)

Another example of disguise involved the ungainly Landing Craft, Tank (LCT (3)), a vital component of any amphibious assault force.  Infantry formations attempting a opposed landing on French Atlantic beaches would have need for armored support.  The LCTs were capable of landing a platoon (5 tanks) of armor directly on a beach.  As can be seen, the LCT’s distinct silhouette could be detected from a great distance.  So C.O.H.Q. staffers devised the illustrated disguises to make the LCTs look like small merchantmen/tankers to an aerial observer.

Undisguised and disguised LCT (3)


A third example of nautical disguise came from the first Operation “Mincemeat” (not to be confused with the 1943 “Man Who Never Was” operation) in the summer of 1941.  The new British high-speed minelayer HMS Manxman was tasked with laying mines in the Gulf of Genoa, and a disguise was devised to make Manxman appear to be a friendly Vichy French warship whose presence in the Gulf was plausible.  A combination of paint, canvas, and spars made Manxman a close facsimile of a French Jaguar-class contre-torpilleur destroyer.  Manxman completed her mission successfully, despite the appearance of enemy aircraft at a distance.  Evidently the disguise worked well enough despite its obvious imperfections.

Diagram of HMS Manxman disguised as a Vichy French Chacal-class contre-torpilleur for Operation “Mincemeat” Summer 1941
Chacal-class contre-torpilleur (By Maxrossomachin – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44170536)

All of the schemes depicted in C.O.H.Q. Bulletin X/24 were temporary measures that the ship’s company were to construct using basic materials including spars, scaffolding, wooden beams, canvas, wire rope, paint, and similar supplies.  Some of the disguise alterations were more elaborate than others–the disguises for the different LSIs involved scaffolding that was difficult to install and secure on board a ship that was underway.  And while some of the disguises worked to some extent (HMS Manxman during Operation “Mincemeat”, for example), it is not known whether the amphibious ship/craft disguises ever played a role in a real operation.  Examination of photographs of the several LCT (3)s damaged or destroyed during Operation “Jubilee” at Dieppe did not reveal any part of the disguises discussed in C.O.H.Q. Bulletin X/24

Disguise at sea is nothing new–warships have had a need to hide their true identities since the Sea Peoples first attacked Egypt during the Bronze Age.  The Combined Operations Headquarters simply codified how maritime disguise could be accomplished during amphibious operations against the German Wehrmacht on the periphery of Europe.  The need to disguise warships at sea has not diminished over the ages.  While the evolution of electronic sensors and countermeasures has sharpened the challenge of making a ship appear to be what it is not, physical disguise in the form of temporary structures, paint, and lighting schemes still has a place in the operations of modern navies.

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