Out of the shadows: war and the Sydney zoologist

23 May 2003

Dr Ann Elias
Dr Ann Elias

By Alison Handmer

The discovery of a wartime photograph showing an aeroplane spiralling through a cloudy sky drew Dr Ann Elias, a lecturer at Sydney College of the Arts, into a rich field of historical detective work.

Closer examination showed the 1942 photograph was not what it seemed: the aeroplane was a model, the clouds cotton wool. Dr Elias became intrigued by the concept of substitution in photography and the art of camouflage.

Further research uncovered an Australian self-formed wartime group of practitioners, the Sydney Camouflage Group, whose members included photographer Max Dupain, Sydney University zoology professor William Dakin, and modernist painter Frank Hinder. With the help of a University Sesquicentenary grant, Dr Elias went in pursuit of their trail.

Her research has welded together military history and art, and has revealed the often uneasy relationship between proponents of camouflage and the armed forces.

A dummy tank
A dummy tank

"Camouflage is connected with illusionism," says Dr Elias. "It is a combination of deception and concealment." Professor Dakin's expertise had been honed in the study of how animals hide from their predators and prey, and he was quick to recognise that British and US methods and materials were unsuited to the Australian bush.

"Dakin devised a set of camouflage colours suited to the Australian landscape and was particularly concerned about the visibility of airfields in Australia from the air," said Dr Elias, sub-dean of post-graduate research at the SCA and a lecturer in theories of art practice.

"The group put together a little book called The Art of Camouflage, and Dakin impressed the government, which seconded him to the Department of Home Security. He chaired the Defence Central Camouflage Committee and became the Technical Director of Camouflage for Australia with responsibility for all military camouflage operations in the war."

Display of camouflage instruction books produced by William Dakin and the Dept of Home Security
Display of camouflage instruction books produced by William Dakin and the Dept of Home Security

But from the outset of the war Dakin was highly critical of the Australian military for its lack of planning, and in a letter to the Prime Minister, John Curtin, he accused the Army of bad practice with camouflage in New Guinea. He blamed the deaths of many Australian soldiers in the jungle on the incorrect camouflage colours of their uniforms.

Relocating to Canberra, he took with him from the University as his secretary Isobel Bennett, who later became a prominent marine biologist. Back in Sydney, Dakin had trained his zoology students to make camouflage nets, and others in his department organised women's groups to continue the work.

To maintain its effectiveness, wartime camouflage work was shrouded in secrecy, which is one of the reasons why Dakin's contribution remains relatively unknown. Dr Elias believes Dakin was also hindered in his work by the government's late recognition of its importance. It was only in 1941 that camouflage was made an urgent priority.

Australia's urgent need for better camouflage measures was brought home by the Japanese bombing of Darwin in February 1942. Ironically, the Zealandia, a ship full of nets and other camouflage devices, was sunk, still fully loaded, by a direct hit while at anchor in the harbour in the first air raids on the city.

Dr Elias also uncovered an extraordinary tale of the use of camouflage to "save" Goodenough Island off the coast of Papua.

"Goodenough Island was incredibly important in 1942 and 1943 when the focus of the war shifted to the south west Pacific, because ships had to pass beside it. The Japanese occupied it for some of 1942. In one of our hardest battles, the Australian soldiers attacked the Japanese, who departed, but there was a very small and struggling contingent of Australian army men, including engineers, who were left.

"It was supposed to be a stronghold, but they were waiting for help to arrive.

"They decided to stage a huge bluff, because Japanese reconnaissance agents were keeping a close eye on the island."

They fabricated dummy objects including a hospital, anti-aircraft guns constructed of simple logs pointed at the sky, and barricades of jungle vines which looked like barbed wire. By lighting fake cooking fires for large numbers of non-existent soldiers, and sending messages consistent with what a brigade of soldiers would be expected to send, they were able to keep the Japanese at bay until the real brigade arrived.

Dr Elias detailed the event earlier this year in Wartime, published by the Australian War Memorial.

"Military history is not my field, but I have enjoyed the collapse of the distinction between art and war, and I appreciate the way military engineers with flair for lateral thinking became artists."

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