Military units have used camouflage of one kind or another since antiquity. However, with the invention of the airplane and the rise of aerial warfare, camouflage (to hide targets) and decoys (to draw fire away from real targets or to intimidate the enemy) became bigger and bigger. How big? Read on and see.
Britain was the target of heavy Luftwaffe bombing long before the U.S. was drawn into World War II. The Germans were fond of nighttime bombing raids, so the British developed Q sites and Starfish sites as decoys. Q sites were areas of lights designed to attract bombs away from military installations such as airfields. The actual sites were under blackout conditions. Starfish sites followed, which were decoys of lights in the countryside that mimicked lights of cities. The earliest site, installed near Bristol in 1940, was code-named Starfish, so the term was used for the other decoy towns that followed.
As Field Marshal Montgomery faced Erwin Rommel and his German forces in North Africa in 1942, British Brigadier Dudley Clarke launched Operation Bertram, in which fake equipment and munitions (made with palm fronds, sticks, and fabric) tricked the enemy into thinking the forces were miles from where they actually were. At the same time, the real artillery was hidden under fake supply trucks and other structures that appeared to be either useless or badly-camouflaged dummies. The deception was enhanced with false radio transmissions. German intelligence was convinced that the Allies' attack would come later, from a different direction, and involve at least one more armored division than they actually had. The deception contributed greatly to the victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein.
In the U.S., the the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was charged with intimidating the German army by convincing them that the Allies had more troops and equipment than they actually had. The 23rd created a "ghost army" of transport vehicles, troop carriers, tanks, and munitions, all made of inflatable balloons, complete with sound effects.
The U.S. Rubber Company even built inflatable airplanes (along with tanks and boats) to draw German fire away from the actual D-Day landing sites.
Lockheed Airplane Factory
Col. John F. Ohmer studied the camouflage and decoy techniques of the British in 1940, and wanted to reproduce them to protect the installations at Pearl Harbor. His proposal was rejected as too expensive. The attack on Pearl Harbor changed all that, and Ohmer was put in charge of a camouflage unit for U.S. targets on the West Coast. Among those targets was the Lockheed airplane factory in Burbank, California. Ohmer enlisted the help of Hollywood set builders and prop designers, as well as many civilian laborers and military personnel, to cover the factory with a fake residential neighborhood.
Underneath it all, business went on as usual.
The Boeing airplane factory in Seattle also got the fake neighborhood treatment. The women shown are walking on a suburban landscape made of chicken wire and planks, positioned overtop the roof of the factory. Underneath, B-17s were being built for the war effort.
As impressive and elaborate as the above projects are, they weren't the first of their kind. Airplanes were bombing cities in World War I. In 1917 and 1918, the city of Paris scrambled to build a decoy city, a complete replica of Paris, several miles north of the actual city. Built mostly of wood and fabric, the "Sham Paris" had buildings (homes, factories, and landmarks), streets, a faux railroad, and most importantly, lights. Electrical engineer Fernand Jacopozzi worked out the best combination of colored lights to mimic a working city. Sham Paris was never completed, as construction ceased when the war ended in November of 1918.
Razzle Dazzle Ships
Camouflage at sea is a whole other ball of wax. The reflection of the water, lack of landmarks, movement, and the enemy's technology all combine to make hiding a ship vastly different from land-based disguises. During World War I, German U-Boats fired torpedoes not at the ship itself, but where the ship was expected to be by the time the torpedo got there. By disguising not the ship, but the ship's speed, you could cause those torpedoes to miss their targets. To do this, British naval officer Norman Wilkinson developed Dazzle camouflage to confuse the enemy's eye into miscalculating the size and speed of a target. Forms of this camouflage are still used today.