Local Camouflage

Another story from Fergus Durrant including an interview with one of the local women involved in the camouflage unit…..

Much of what we know about the unit was recorded by the artists but many of the technical, practical (carpenters), admin and photographic staff were drawn from the local area. The Ministry of Works directed them to work at the unit.
The carpenters made the precise factory and ship models. The son of one of these remembers playing with the model cars and trucks that were brought home once they had no more use for them.
Many local women were employed and one of the best accounts of their time with the unit is from Barbara Buckley who still lives in Leamington.
She joined the unit in 1940/1 and she gives us a clear and vivid description of the photographic section, the rink and the artists themselves.
Knowing nothing about photography before she joined, she was taught how to process both black and white and colour film, load and service the Lecia cameras needed for the slide work and manage the considerable filling system.

Barbara Buckley at her desk in the photographic unit 1941


Here a montage picture by Barker Mills one of the Section heads who taught her:

And the ground floor plan of North Hall showing the photographic units place next to the rink (on right) where the factory camouflage took place:

The turntable and light gantry in the rink (image from National Archive):


Christopher Ironside (standing) and Johnny Walker working on a landscape in the rink (Now the site of the Loft Theatre)

Note from the national archive confirming Barbara’s memories of the rink layout:

But now sit back and enjoy this audio interview with Barbara Buckley from 2008 and her memories of the unit.

Next week, Naval camouflage in the Heart of England.




Love and Death in Leamington Spa

Another blog from Fergus Durrant….

The sudden arrival of the camouflage unit did not go unnoticed by local inhabitants. This colourful band of individuals would cause quite a stir in and around the town at different times.

Artists questioned by rural policemen after acting suspiciously, well what else would a German spy do but drive around in an open top Bentley and fedora hat? Artists causing alarm by exhibiting abstract paintings to the public. Even talk of long hair and sandals.

Here is an extract from Felicity Fishers memoir on the subject of relationships.

“They were a kaleidoscopic collection of all different shapes and sizes and ages.  Many of them had spouses, either with them or left behind at home somewhere in England.   The curious thing that occurred, during the four years I worked there, was the extraordinary rearrangements of these married couples: i.e. A + B became A – B but + D, and E + F became E – F but + G etcetera”.


Above –  a cartoon drawn by Thomas Rathmell, of note Wilfred Shingleton he won the 1946 Oscar for the art direction of Great Expectations. But standing in the window we see Victorine Foot, she is described as  “Tall, beautifully made up, pale creamy-coloured skin, dark brown eyes of a speaking brightness and a thick mane of reddish-brown hair; she was strikingly lovely.”  Felicity Fisher.

After moving into a flat in Binswood Avenue, Victorine was sent to the naval camouflage unit based in the old museum and art gallery space http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80013230 this is the imperial war museums link to a great 50min interview by her about her time in Leam.

Above Image: The naval water tank in the old art gallery.

Soon to arrived in Leam the artist Eric Shilsky and his wife Bettina.

Fisher says that Bettina “had been a model and dancer and had an air of romantic strangeness about her” but that Shilsky  “was a superb artist and sculptor.   He was also a charming companion and raconteur and had known many artists in Paris……. Eric had the most arresting good looks, and a head of pale hair standing out like a halo round his head.”

Life in Leam was not great for Bettina, she “became increasingly sad and frail.   I remember massaging her feet because they were cold: they were the thinnest and frailest feet I had ever seen.   Eric hated having to leave her alone on the nights he was fire-watching at the Rink (the enormous studio used by the factory Camouflagers).” Felicity Fisher

It was while Eric was away one night that she took her own life, ‘the whole department was shaken by this tragedy.’ it taking many months for Shilsky to recover.

But although grief stricken, Eric was to marry Victorine in 1946 and many  relationships flourished both personally and professionally during these years.

The funniest of these encounters I will leave with Felicity Fisher:

“Geoffrey Watson had taken me in a boat on the river at Warwick and removed his outer garments to reveal a pair of leopard-skin briefs and a tolerably fine torso for a man of fifty-odd years, and who proposed that I should come and live with him in his very superior flat.”

Felicity declined the offer.

For those paying attention the cartons from the Glasson blog were by Rodney J Burn.

Next  local connections…..

“Hidden” at Art in the Park

‘Hidden’ Camouflage Event at Art in the Park, August 6th & 7th 2016

‘Hidden’ is a creative and ambitious community event to commemorate two important pieces of Leamington WW11 history.

Art in the Park will be creating a unique community camouflage project over the weekend. A series of camouflage tree panels will be made by visitors and the local community to represent the lives of the 7 brave Czech soldiers who were based in Leamington and died in WWII having successfully assassinated Heydrich World War Two

The camouflage panels will be created by visitors to the two day Art in the Park Festival. You can take part in creating the panel by visiting the Camo Quarter at Art in the Park. More details on the events page…

memorial fountain (2)

The fountain is of great importance as it a tribute to the actions of seven very brave men who died after taking part in a daring and successful operation to assassinate the Nazi tyrant Reinhard Heydrick in 1942. The men were part of the 4,000-strong Czechoslovak forces in Leamington and district. The parachute inspired fountain was installed in 1968 and bears the names of the seven soldiers. It is now in need of urgent structural repairs and the Czechoslovak symbol with the lion is also showing signs of wear.

The ‘Hidden’ netting will draw attention to Leamington’s artist led Camouflage history and the current appeal to restore the WW11 Memorial Fountain.
Michael Kalas, Chair of the ‘Friends of the Czech Fountain’ which includes many relatives of the 4,000 soldiers billeted here supports the project saying “We are keen to engage the public in the history of the Fountain and generate funding for its restoration, this project will assist us in our heritage campaign”.

Archie Pitts, ex-Chairman of the Leamington Society is very supportive of this art project and feels “It will put a spotlight on a hidden and important piece of Leamington history in an artistic manner”.

All are invited to take part in this Art in the Park Camo event which is part of the wider tributes to this rich part of Leamington Art led WW11 history. For more information see www.artinpark.co.uk or email carole@artinpark.co.uk

Spook or Artist?

by Fergus Durrant (researcher involved in Camouflage History Project funded by HLF in 2007/08…..

Captain Lancelot Glasson Chief Camouflage officer, Civil Defence Camouflage Establishment Leamington Spa, seated in middle.


Sept 1944 Front row left to right Gilbert Solomon, Captain Lancelot Glasson, Henry Hoyland, back row, left to right, L.J.Watson, G,Grayston, James Yunge-Bateman, Christopher Ironside, Coupland, Johnnie Walker. Property Virginia Ironside.

Captain Lancelot M Glasson 1894-1959, born Twickenham Middlsex, marlbrough college+ Royal Academy Schools. Saw service in the WW1 and lost a leg. Head of the camouflage unit based in Leamington Spa 1939-45

So how does a one legged ex solider get to become the head of CDCE?
Glasson was trained as an artist and exhibited during the 20’s and 30’s in London at the RA and knew many of the artists that would eventually turn up in Leamington Spa.
He was not that well know but did cause controversy with his painting ‘The Rower’ a study of a bare breasted girl in a locker room which seems to have little to do with rowing!

But did he lead another life? Using the title Captain even though he was a civilian, although not that unusual for the 1920’s and 30’s, records show him on a ship to Marseilles in 1939 under troop movements, military, and the job description in his inter war passport was Assistant Commercial Secretary, this screams military intelligence but I have seen no documented proof he was working or helping with British Secret Service at the time.

In 1938 he is approached to take charge of a civilian camouflage unit based at Adastral House in Holborn London, a military one had already been established at Farnborough the previous year and he may well have drawn these next lists at this time outlining the structure and personal of the unit

With war looming in 1939 Leamington Spa is chosen as the base for the Civilian Unit because of its close proximity to the large number of category A factories in the Midlands that were vital for the war effort and would need camouflaging. And by October 1939 most of the unit had been recruited and the various buildings in Leamington commandeered and in use, Regent Hotel, Ice Rink, North Hall, The Gables, and Old Art Gallery and Museum etc.

Glasson had been sent to Russia in 1939 and again in the early 40’s. He goes via the north sea in a flying boat, lands outside Moscow and even takes a quick photograph of the Kremlin from a car window before being given the red carpet treatment that was only spoilt by getting arrested by an over zealous commissioner on the famous Moscow tube after being taken on a tour to see its renowned architecture. It is here on his first visit he receives a telegram informing him his wife and first son are well.

At the time the Russians were specialists in winter camouflage and Glasson was sent to swap information about camouflage techniques.

Here are is another group shot with Glasson at the centre:Lancelot2

And a more relaxed shot of a group with Glasson:


And here a few cartoons showing Glasson in his pin strip suit along with other members of the unit, not sure who did the cartoons the initials look like R.J.B but they give a real feeling of the ad-hoc and slightly crazy world the artists found themselves in.





Next blog Love and death in Leaminton Spa……





Why am I involved in the camouflage celebrations?

Matt Black answers…
The exhibition is called The Art of Deception. This fascinates me in all sorts of ways.
Just the idea of 250 artists living in Leamington, working together to devise industrial and military ways to recreate what nature already does so brilliantly. The idea of trying to disguise Birmingham, Coventry, factories, ships etc. And I love the whole game and idea of deception.

Because I want to know the truth, and I feel like we should always tell the truth, but it’s not always that easy. Because it’s always a struggle knowing what is a white lie and what is not a white lie. Because governments lie and people lie. Because we flatter to deceive. Because it’s the core of movies galore, spy movies, war movies etc. And I love the fact that Leamington, because of the artists who came from London and were living here, was called “Party Town”.

But why am I interested as a poet? Deception, camouflage, lying and pretence are all important aspects of poetry. The game of poetry (and of fiction, but I’m a poet) is that readers are invited to work out what is the truth through a series of camouflages – images, stories, tones of voice, exaggerations and denials. Same as in life of course. We camouflage ourselves daily. We decide what clothes to wear, and what facial expressions to wear, to either become less or more visible, depending on the occasion or the mood. Sometimes we hide ourselves to escape predators, becoming caterpillars or stick insects, blending ourselves into the office meeting, or the party, or the family. Sometimes we disguise ourselves to become predators, like owls, or the orchid mantis.

I’m really looking forward to all the local history aspects of this story, as well as exploring the whole concept and metaphor of camouflage. Maybe I’ll see you at an event – or maybe I won’t, because you will have disguised yourself successfully and blended into the background and environment. Or maybe I will have. Who knows?

Matt Black