Curator's Choice: Visual Deception

© IWM APY 31. Clip from Visual Deception (1946)

Our topical archive highlight this month is from IWM co-curators Martin Anthony and Michelle Kirby, featuring footage included in the Spies, Lies and Deception exhibition, newly opened at IWM London. 

This unique instructional film entitled Visual Deception, was made around 1946 by the RAF Film Production Unit, in collaboration with ‘Colonel Turner’s Department of Air Ministry’. It is testament to the clever camouflage and deceptive decoys that gave the Allies a crucial advantage during the Second World War and was made so that lessons would be learned for the ‘deceptive measures of tomorrow’.     

Using a bit of ‘movie magic’, creative minds from the British film industry applied their experience of creating props, sets, lighting and special effects to fool German bombers with often large-scale and ambitious visual trickery, as showcased in this surprising near-half-hour film. 

Based at Shepperton film studios in Surrey, Colonel John Fisher Turner’s Department built decoy sites all over Britain to draw bombing attacks away from real targets. They built fake airfields complete with dummy aircraft. At night, they used electric lights to make empty fields look like airfields or factories from the air. They created decoy fires of various types that appeared to German aircrews to be factories or even cities under attack. 

While Colonel Turner’s Department created their convincing decoys, British camouflage experts did their best to make the real airfields and factories disappear. Painting them, or covering them with camouflage netting, made them appear from the air to be nothing more than innocuous patchworks of rolling fields and hedges. 

Both distracting decoys and cunning camouflage techniques feature in the complete Visual Deception film, with the clip and film still above showing how dummy aircraft could be constructed from mere wood and canvas.  This is just one of a wide range of extraordinary wartime deception tactics – many of which appear stranger than fiction – that are explored in the Spies, Lies and Deception exhibition.

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Spies, Lies and Deception. IWM London. 29 September 2023 - 14 April 2024.
Exploring the history of espionage and deception from the past hundred years, this blockbuster exhibition is free to visit and showcases over 150 objects, including gadgets, official documents, art, film and newly digitised photography.