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Magic, illusion, camouflage and trickery during WW2

HMS Centurion as a target ship

HMS Centurion as a target ship

HMS Centurion disguised to look like HMS Anson but with wooden guns

HMS Centurion disguised to look like HMS Anson but with wooden guns

Final resting place of HMS Centurion as a D-Day blockship

Final resting place of HMS Centurion as a D-Day blockship

Suez Canal - one of 21 dazzle lights

Suez Canal - one of 21 dazzle lights

Tank fitted with powerful dazzle lights to protect advancing forces.

Tank fitted with powerful dazzle lights to protect advancing forces.

Saw enclosed in a ring for POW camps

Saw enclosed in a ring for POW camps

POW silk maps and Monopoly set containing real local money.

POW silk maps and Monopoly set containing real local money.

Single shot 0.45 ACP pressed steel pistol dropped to the resistance.

Single shot 0.45 ACP pressed steel pistol dropped to the resistance.

POW various devices hidden in a shoe brush

POW various devices hidden in a shoe brush

Single shot 0.22 small caliber pistol disguised as a cigarette.

Single shot 0.22 small caliber pistol disguised as a cigarette.

Small caliber 0.22 pen pistol

Small caliber 0.22 pen pistol

Sachet of the "who me" stink liquid

Sachet of the "who me" stink liquid

Tank disguised as a truck

Tank disguised as a truck

Dummy truck

Dummy truck

Another dummy truck being easily carried

Another dummy truck being easily carried

Inflatable dummy tank light enough to be carried by just four

Inflatable dummy tank light enough to be carried by just four

Inflatable dummy landing craft

Inflatable dummy landing craft

Dummy aircraft for decoy airfields

Dummy aircraft for decoy airfields

Dummy 25lb field gun and tractor

Dummy 25lb field gun and tractor

Starfish  device in action

Starfish device in action

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The Great Panjandrum designed to breach the Nazi Atlantic walls

The Great Panjandrum designed to breach the Nazi Atlantic walls

An exploding rat designed to destroy furnaces and factory boilers.

An exploding rat designed to destroy furnaces and factory boilers.

Unrotated projectile for ship anti aircraft

Unrotated projectile for ship anti aircraft

Diagram of poison dart

Diagram of poison dart

Dummy anti aircraft gun

Dummy anti aircraft gun

During WW2, particularly in the early days when Britain stood alone, things were looking very bleak; the British Government was desperately seeking an advantage and was open to all ideas, however fanciful or outlandish.

We will start this article by looking at a well-known individual, the highly regarded 1930s stage magician, Jasper Maskelyne, who, at the outbreak of the Second World War, approached the War Dept. with the suggestion that he could use his illusion and magical skills to create astonishingly elaborate deceptions to fool the Axis powers.

He explained to them how his advanced illusionary technique, from his stage show, could be modified and scaled up to create massive deception incidents and divert German aggression away from important targets, while at the same time giving every impression that our forces were far stronger than they actually were.

To Jasper’s surprise the Government was highly enthusiastic and grasped his proposal with both hands and he set to work immediately. During 1940 his team started creating fake coastal gun emplacements which enticed the German bombers to divert their attention away from real strategic defences. Each time they attacked and destroyed or damaged these fake installations, more were simply built using stage materials and moved about, as if they had been repaired and re-sited.

However, it was in North Africa that Maskelyne talents really came to the fore and where his fertile imagination created his best illusions, not just static decoys but mobile illusions under real wartime conditions.

He started by disguising real tanks as fake cargo trucks & vice versa and false ground forces which moved using a unique wire movement system. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, himself was deceived by these illusions when his Panzer forces approached the fake tanks of the British forces. Maskelyne had mounted mirrors on high posts and objects were coated with reflective paint so that the sun reflected off them and the flickering on the horizon appeared to the Germans as a massive British armoured force advancing in the distance. Confused the Panzers halted and then turned back for instructions as to how this unexpected threat should be handled.

As a master of deception and using skills developed from his stage shows, Maskelyne produced camouflage coatings for his fake tanks and equipment in the desert where no such paint or special materials were available. It is known that he even used liquid spoiled food mixed with camel dung to create the patterns.

Dummy battleship

A major project involved HMS Centurion which started life as a battleship of the King George V class built in 1911 and entering service in 1913, about a year before the outbreak of the Great War. With the post war signing of the Washington Naval Treaty the Centurion, by now a very outdated design was disarmed and transformed into a target ship in 1924 to replace HMS Agamemnon (a pre-dreadnought battleship). It continued in this role, based in Portsmouth, until April 1941, when it was disguised with wooden framed, canvas covered superstructure, shortened funnels and various scrap metal, wood and pipes to give it a passing resemblance to the battleship HMS Anson at that time under construction in Portsmouth.

Between 1942 and 1944 she remained anchored off Suez as an anti-aircraft ship with additional enhanced 20mm cannons although her main armament remained phoney. This dissuaded the activities of the Royal Italian Navy operating in the area thanks primarily to the perceived threat of its fake 13.5inch (wooden) guns which convinced the enemy commanders not to approach the area.

Finally the last mission for the venerable Centurion, with a skeleton crew of just 70, was to take part in the Normandy landings when she was scuttled on the 9th June 1944 as a breakwater for the Mulberry B Harbour near Arromanches-les-Bains. However, having accomplished her job superbly she was eventually scrapped in situ in the 1950’s.

Alexandria Harbour and the Suez Canal

We already know that Maskelyne was very imaginative in his use of camouflage and deception. In the early days of the war he set about resolving the almost impossible job of finding a way to completely conceal Alexandria harbour in North Africa. This was a vital port for the British army, handling troops and equipment for the impending desert conflict and consequently was a constant prime strategic target for the Luftwaffe bombers.

As luck would have it there was a similar shaped harbour just three miles away at Lake Mariout and it was carefully set up with searchlights and anti-aircraft guns to engage the enemy planes. It was complete with fake buildings, cargo handling equipment and even a replica lighthouse. It was mostly bombed at night and when the aircraft came the lights of the real Alexandria harbour were turned off and the fake harbour lights at Lake Mariout were switched on and anti-aircraft guns started to engage the bombers. From the air this duplicate harbour, with identical light patterns, was the perfect illusion and the German planes having been lured away from the real thing just bombed the desert sand.

To complete the illusion, on the following day, his men made the original harbour appear as a mess of wreckage by having fake debris strewn all over the ground. Similar to techniques used on a film set, chunks of theatrical material were positioned to look like smashed buildings and fake cracks were expertly painted on roofs of buildings and even the water tower was disguised to make it appear that enormous damage had been inflicted. Following the raid, during daylight hours when the enemy surveillance planes came over, they took pictures of the apparent damage to the town and harbour and satisfied with their work the target immediately dropped in priority and frequency of raids.

An even greater task was to disguise the Suez Canal and the shipping using it. To achieve this he proposed constructing 21 ‘dazzle lights’ along the length of the Canal. These powerful searchlights each contained 24 different spinning beams, which projected via a revolving cone of mirrors a wheel of spinning light nine miles wide. This was designed to dazzle and disorientate enemy pilots so that their bombs were likely to fall off-target or, temporarily blinded, they were forced to abort their mission. Maskelyne dubbed this the “Whirling Spray”. It was claimed that this radical defensive shield of light was highly effective under test and was a major reason why the Suez Canal remained passable for the duration of the war; although there is some doubt that the “Whirling Spray” was ever fully completed and was only partially operational.

Dazzle tank

A similar secret light weapon was known as the “Canal Defence Light”, a powerful carbon-arc 13-million candlepower searchlight mounted on a tank, with a bulletproof shutter allowing the light to flicker on and off six times a second, designed to illuminate the battlefield and dazzle the enemy. The dispersion angle of the beam was reported to be set to 19 degrees which with the CDL tanks placed 90 feet apart, in line abreast configuration, the first intersection of light was around 80-100 yards ahead and at 1000 yards the beam was around 340 yards wide by 35 feet high. This set up formed a dark triangle, surrounded by blinding light, between and in front of the CDL’s into which conventional fighting tanks, flame-throwing Churchill Crocodiles and infantry could move forward unseen.

As mentioned when going into action an armour plated shutter was electrically flicked back and forth at about six times a second. When the first tests were carried out it was thought that this flickering motion may have a damaging effect on the eyes of the driver or any observer and might cause temporary blindness, but this was not the case to any extent, or the most for more than a few seconds.

It was the flickering strobe aspect, however, that made the CDL very special. The manufactures found that when it was operating, it was almost completely impossible to locate the position of the vehicle accurately.

During testing a CDL-equipped tank was driven towards a 25-pound anti-tank gun. Even as it closed from 2000 yards to 500 yards, the experienced gunners (using blank practice rounds) were unable to score a hit. During debriefing, when asked to indicate the route taken by the CDL tank, the observers drew a straight line, while in actual fact the tank had been zig zaging across the range. Over three hundred CDLs were built, using Matilda, Churchill and Grant tank chassis and these could have played a major role after the D-Day landings, but instead, they remained unused in store. The reason for this seems to be the concept and potential power of the CDL was kept extremely secret. "Even the Generals who should have used it were unaware of what the tank could do," complained its inventor, Marcel Mitzakis and those that had only heard of it had great difficulty believing that a simple flickering light could have this devastating effect.

The war back in Britain

Back in England, in 1940, as a nation we were ill prepared for an invasion, with only the powerful Royal Navy and plucky RAF to dissuade any ideas of seaborne assault. Having lost a huge amount of mobile equipment at Dunkirk, the Army had too few mobile heavy weapons to fight off a concerted German landing. To compensate for this, Maskelyne created a large fleet of dummy tanks and equipment together with model soldiers which to the German photo recognisance aircraft flying above; it looked like there was a huge army ready to defend England in the south.

By now Jasper Maskelyne and his techniques, had become a valuable asset to Britain during World War II and he had become legendary as an integral part of a special unit focused on the action along the Suez Canal and the surrounding area. With his in-depth knowledge of illusion, Maskelyne was able to create ingenious and very large scale illusion systems that virtually made tanks and armoured vehicles invisible from the air and hid whole armouries and supply stores.

Maskelyne had joined the Royal Engineers in 1940 and was trained at the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle, where he was certain that his stage skills could be used to create even more sophisticated camouflage. He convinced a group of sceptical army officers by creating the illusion of the German warship “KMS Lützow” on the Thames, by the Houses of Parliament, using only mirrors and a model. Impressed, the military eventually deployed him to the Western Desert in North African, although he spent a good deal of his initial spare time there entertaining the troops, which was a great morale boost, in an otherwise bleak area.

In January 1941, General Archibald Wavell created "A Force" for subterfuge and counterintelligence. Maskelyne was assigned to it and recruited a group of 14 assistants, including an architect, art restorer, carpenter, chemist, electrical engineer, electrician, painter, and stage-set builder. Because of their proven talents the group was nicknamed the "Magic Gang" and they were responsible for a number of remarkably effective illusions. They used painted canvas and plywood to make jeeps look like tanks complete with fake tank tracks and conversely to make tanks look like cargo trucks. They created illusions of whole armies and the previously mentioned huge battleship to be stationed in the Mediterranean Sea.

His finest work came in 1942, when Maskelyne was part of the team working on Operation Bertram, before the battle of El Alamein. His task was to make German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel think that the attack was coming from the south, when in fact British General Bernard Montgomery planned to attack from the north. 1,000 tanks were either hidden or disguised to look like common trucks while in the south, the Magic Gang created thousands of fake tanks with convincing pyrotechnics. There was a replica railway line (described below), fake radio traffic, and fake sounds of construction. They also built a dummy water pipeline, also described below and made it look as if it would never be ready before the attack.

He needed to conceal 150,000 British troops with 1,000 artillery pieces and tanks. Somehow he cleverly achieved this right under the noses of the Germans.

Part of the deception involved having a small team of soldiers apparently burying a long pipeline in the south with the result that General Rommel thought they were putting a supply pipeline in for the big assault. What was actually happening was the team were digging and burying over and over again a number of half steel drums that from the PR aircraft looked like a pipeline. The evidence was overwhelming and Rommel consequently gathered his resources for an attack from the south but the surprise attack from the North caught the Afrika Corps completely unprepared thus resulting in a major victory for the British.

Shown in the photographs are examples of the various camouflage tactics that were used. Some are quite detailed models of a tank, truck or aircraft, but others are quite crude representations boosted with padding underneath or made from inflatable rubber or rubberised canvas. From the air, they were convincingly real to the German pilots.

The Magic Gang disbanded after the desert battle and, although Winston Churchill praised their efforts, regrettably, it was felt in many places that Maskelyne and his team did not receive the appreciation they deserved.

War effort work in other places.

Jasper Maskelyne the great magician of the British Empire was kept fully occupied in many theatres of war. He had been loaned to the Malta garrison by the 8th army in the desert. The magician planned some great surprises for the Luftwaffe that he knew would be turning their attention to the island fortress soon.

The skies were empty of British aircraft over Malta for several weeks on Lieutenant General Bernard Cyril Fryeburg’s orders. He wanted the Axis to be overconfident that Malta had been effectively put out of action. In the meantime Maskelyne and his magic crew had painted realistic looking dummy craters on the runways that made them look unusable from the air. Special screens were built, looking like defence bunkers around the airfields, but concealing Spitfires and other aircraft. At the right time the British fighters were unleashed and created havoc among the Axis bombers, reducing the damage and daily raids significantly.

Work for MI9 and British Intelligence

In 1939, the British military established MI9, a specialist unit of intelligence agents formed to aid resistance fighters and assist escaped POWs to make their way home. Getting suitable escape equipment inside hostile prison camps took some serious innovative thinking and later on Jasper Maskelyne became a key adviser in that department.

Unlike the appalling civilian concentration camps, Nazi prisoner of war camps had to obey at least some rules of the Geneva Conventions to maintain some minimal standing as a “Fair and Humanitarian Nation”. One of those rules was allowing care packages for prisoners from humanitarian groups, such as the Red Cross, an opportunity which MI9 exploited to its advantage.

Most tools and escape equipment would be quite obvious so Maskelyne and MI9 created a number of clever, covert contraptions such as, saws secreted in combs and rings, playing cards that contained maps of the surrounding area and cricket bats where the handle contained a concealed saw, and the blade of the bat doubled as a shovel. Other sporting equipment included a baseball glove that was actually a concealed stone hammer.

Fine detail escape maps were printed on silk which had the qualities of being able to be folded very small and not to rustle when used. Others seemed to be printed with a pleasant design but when immersed into a simply obtained chemical turned into highly detailed maps of the area.

They were pretty ingenious and developed other trickery included shoelaces embedded with high tensile abrasive wire that could saw through bars. An outrageous plan was to send board games that contained real local currency sandwiched between the normal fake notes, which brought a new dimension to the game Monopoly.

The MI9 team succeeded in getting more than 1,600 spy gadget care packages into German POW camps, fooling the guards thanks to MI9s trickery.

Maskelyne’s fire resisting cream:

This was the result of experiments into the search for a fire-proofing compound for fabrics. The composition is a paste of soap, flour or shredded asbestos and water. It is remarkably effective, many think, in some respects, producing a superior standard fire-fighting suit. Above all it provided, at negligible cost, an emergency means of dealing with outbreaks of fires in places where full firefighting apparatus was not available

They greatly improved on the construction of the fake tank by producing a collapsible Dummy Tank made of canvas on a light mild steel rod framework. It could be carried nine to a standard 3-ton lorry, and could be easily lifted by just two men; replacing the old wooden type which scarcely stowed three to the vehicle and required about 12 men to lift each one.

Double agent

A British double agent reported to his German handlers that he had blown up an important industrial building, destruction of which was confirmed by recon flights. “Fritz” was welcomed home by the Nazi intelligence agents, briefed on his next mission and sent back into the field. What the Nazis didn't realize was that "Fritz" was also "Agent Zigzag," also known as Eddie Chapman, the most successful double agent in history. The so-called bombing Fritz pulled off was actually nothing more than another Jasper Maskelyne subterfuge which disguised the building with some painted canvas, fake bricks and debris. The magic team had created a perfect illusion of a destroyed building.

This success allowed Chapman to spend the rest of the war playing the part of a successful spy for the Reich. They gave him a yacht, 110,000 Reich marks and an Iron Cross and promoted him to Oberleutnant, all while he was passing vital information to the British.

As Maskelyne was well known and an interesting character, it did remove the focus from other men within operations such as General Sir Archibald Wavell, Lieutenant Colonel Barkas, and Captain RJ Morrison, about whom there is more evidence of their involvement in the design of unique and innovative deception devices and gadgetry.

Disposable single shot pistols

Thousands of very cheaply made pre-loaded pressed steel single shot (and some multi-shot) pistols were manufactured by British and American companies with simple pressed steel facilities and airdropped to resistance fighters in Europe. In addition they made and distributed small calibre single shot firearms disguised as cigarettes and single shot smoking pipes.

Before leaving the subject of Jasper Maskelyne, after the war he retired to Kenya, and lived his life as a farmer and favourite resident, giving driving instructions and magic lessons, finally passing away in 1973 aged 71.

Using film studios

As mentioned above, Maskelyne was not the only one to use special effects and trickery to aid the war effort.

In 1939 Colonel John Turner was seconded to Shepperton Sound City Film studios and was put in charge of constructing an extensive and elaborate network of dummy airfields and hundreds of decoy sites throughout Britain.


Like the British the Luftwaffe used pathfinder aircraft to illuminate the target area prior to the raid, by dropping incendiary flares. To counter this danger, men on the ground made sure those flares were extinguished as quickly as possible after they'd been dropped and replaced by decoy fires in areas of no value. These decoy devices, which were codenamed "starfish", were placed near to areas at risk of being bombed by the Luftwaffe.

There is currently a programme of reconstructing one of the 237 starfish sites at Whixall Moss in North Shropshire, which will form part of a nature trail for visitors to learn about decoys from WW2. The county council has been in charge of constructing the 65 fire boxes using replica baskets, said that the “starfish” concept remained on the "top secret" list until into the 1960s. The starfish fires were remotely ignited via electrical cables by men stationed nearby to make it appear as if the area was already under attack, whereas the fake starfish fires were actually in barren areas of no value. It was an important strategy to divert the Germans and Whixall was part of a chain of three that included Llandegla in Wrexham and Llanasa in Flintshire designed to protect Manchester, Merseyside and Crewe. About 700 Luftwaffe bombing missions were decoyed into attacking starfish sites across Great Britain during WWII, saving valuable resources and lives.

'Special effects'

Major industrial cities created a more difficult problem to conceal and lighting engineers were particularly important to enable the disguises to be made to look as realistic as possible and local builders, enlisted to help and were often sent to the film studios on a two-week course. The film engineers and stage set designers taught them special effects, for instance, if they were building a decoy near a town where there were known to be foundries or steel fabrication, they might use strobe lights to give the effect of welding or to recreate sparks coming off the tracks in areas where trams and electric trains were used. An area of water with a street lamp hanging over it might be used to look like a reflection coming off a nearby canal, river or lake. These decoys had to be constructed as cheaply and quickly as possible as they would take at least a month to set up.

The decoys took many forms and must have caused much confusion for the Luftwaffe and their planners.

It was not just industrial areas that needed their attention, every airfield and fighter station had at least one decoy and some had two or three.

The Pinewood Studios in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, which now runs Shepperton Studios, became a centre of dummy construction. “A lot of it would literally have been smoke and mirrors," said Gareth Owen, who has written books on the history of both Shepperton and Pinewood.

They were responsible for producing dummy weapons, buildings, barges, tankers, aircraft and even dummy people and animals were all made at Pinewood using canvas, papier mache and wood suitably transformed by film camouflage techniques.

A variety of World War II decoys were given code letters to identify their purpose.

K: Decoy Airfield. Day-time use with dummy parked aircraft, vehicles, buildings, people, etc.

Q: Decoy Airfield. Night-time use with dummy flare path lights, landing lights and obstruction lights

QL: Night-time Decoy Town with various lights (sparking and strobe to represent welding and electric railways) to trick bombers away from industrial and residential areas.

Starfish: Night-time Decoy Town with various fires to simulate pathfinder flares and bomb hits, as described above.

Fulmodestone airfield near Fakenham Norfolk was a decoy for Foulsham.

Gravesend fighter station, from the air just looked like a field of pasture and had two decoy airfields in the surrounding area (One at Cliffe Marshes, the other at Luddesdown) in order to deceive German intelligence. The decoy airfields were equipped with dummy aircraft and buildings and Luddesdown was even fitted with full decoy landing lights.

It was not only airfields that needed decoys, measures had to be taken to protect naval bases. Burgh St Peter in Norfolk and Lound in Suffolk were both decoys for the ports of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, Suffolk respectively

Three naval decoy sites in Essex, near Walton-on-the-Naze, one at Thorpe-le-Soken, and also East Mersea were decoys for the naval base at Brightlingsea

Middlesbrough, Nottingham, Portsmouth and Cardiff were among other industrial cities protected, by decoys.

Airframe fitters and sheet metal workers worked day and night to build sections of the Wellington bomber and many of the completed aircraft they made were given nick-names of film stars working at Pinewood Studios at the time.

The British decoy set-up was so extensive that it was unlikely that German intelligence had no knowledge of what was going on and this supposition was supported by the fact the studio was targeted by bombing raids more than once. There is a wall plaque at Pinewood which marks an attack in October 1940 which tragically killed two young evacuees from London who were sent to work at the studio.

As well as building the dummy aircraft, the RAF and Army Film and Photographic Units who were based at Pinewood during WWII, also built a startling selection of other decoys.

Records show that the German aircraft attacked the decoy targets every bit as much as they did the real towns and consequently if the decoys hadn’t have existed the Germans would have continued successfully attacking highly industrialised and populated areas causing even greater damage and loss of life.

Poison darts

Between 1941 and 1945 the research scientists at Porton Down worked on a particularly nasty weapon, which thankfully was never used, although was tested to the detriment of a number of sheep. The plan was to air release 500lb canisters each containing a lethal cloud of 30,000 mustard gas poison (it is actually unlikely mustard gas was used, it would have been something more like the very secret Sarin nerve gas) tipped darts, each weighing 4 grams, to kill troops and not damage buildings.

The "grooved zinc alloy dart" would contain a small poison pellet in the hollow needle section, kept in place by a cotton wool and wax seal, with a simple kinetic energy system to pump the poison on contact while a paper tail would keep it flying straight at up to 250ft per second. (see photo).

The mustard gas or nerve gas poison was released when the skin was broken bringing about a swift and nasty death unless pulled out within 30 seconds and even then causing disabling injuries, collapse and possible death within half an hour.

The dagger point hollow needles came from the Singer Sewing Machine Co. Ltd in Bristol and the Biology section at the experimental station in Porton Down were stopped by secrecy constraints from explaining exactly what they needed the needles for. One letter from Singer, dated December 24th 1941, begins: "In reply to your letter of the 23rd instant, we are afraid we do not quite understand your requirements from your remarks, it would seem that the needles are required for some other purpose, other than sewing machines."

This form of chemical warfare was not used for various reasons but probably the overriding one was the risk that the Germans would retaliate in kind.

Throughout the period 1939 to 1945 there were various, otherwise unknown, people who were responsible for taking advantage of the services of many imaginative minds.

General Sir Archibald Wavell,

His foresight culminated in arranging the appointment of Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier) Dudley Clarke to head up MI9 who were responsible for military A force deception.

Lieutenant Colonel Barkas,

During the Great War, he had an illustrious career serving in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign at Suvla Bay, and then in the hell of the Battle of the Somme in France, where he won a Military Cross. Between the wars, Barkas worked on silent and feature films, starting as a writer and producer, and then directing his own.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Barkas ran popular demonstrations of camouflage techniques. Often using about 50 or 60 trucks, coaches and smaller vehicles he would discuss with the NCO’s how to disguise them from discovery from the air. He would park a line of vehicles by a hedge and then drape them with camouflage nets to give the appearance of a thick belt of vegetation, or arrange vehicles, using boards, to create a pitched-roof outhouse to a building. When ready the military observers would arrive, and Barkas would give them an introductory speech about camouflage methods to defeat aerial reconnaissance. Finally he would then signal the start of the exercise and the unit would hide all its vehicles, followed a moment later, by a search aircraft. It rarely found more than a few of the vehicles.

Barkas set up the "Camouflage Development and Training Camp" at Helwan, Egypt in November 1941, with the zoologist Hugh B. Cott as his chief instructor. He was promoted to the new position of "Director of Camouflage", with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Operation Crusader - Barkas together with the artist Steven Sykes contrived to construct a convincing dummy railway to Misheifa to lure the enemy bombers from the real railhead, nearby, at Capuzzo which was, at that time, fully occupied bringing essential material for Operation Crusader. This large scale and complicated piece of deception involved laying 6 miles of dummy track, building a replica freight train, fake sidings, and a whole selection of mock-up tanks, trucks and packing cases to look as if they had been delivered by the railway. To complete the effect more than 100 British bombs were deliberately released onto the decoy Misheifa railhead, which then seemed so realistic that it had the result of halving the attacks on the real thing at Capuzzo. Barkas noted that “men who specialise in camouflage must be among the few that invite bombing to substantiate their work." This novel approach was achieved in just a few weeks, despite severe shortages of men and raw materials.

Operation Bertram - Barkas' camouflage unit helped General Montgomery to gain victory at El Alamein by virtue of a large scale deception codenamed Operation Bertram which started in August 1942 until the actual battle in October. Among other things, hundreds of real tanks were disguised as common supply trucks in the northern sector, while dummy tanks, supplies and a complete fake pipeline was deployed in the south. Some of this has been described elsewhere in this article. The deception was a great success, misleading Rommel's staff to believe the allied attack would be from the south and to concentrate their substantial armour to confront the British there. Part of this operation has been described above and among many others was orchestrated by Captain Jasper Maskelyne. Barkas made Tony Ayrton his deputy for Operation Bertram and Ayrton worked tirelessly to put in place all the complex schemes needed and to repair the damage when they were hit by a severe sand storm.

Captain RJ Morrison

Another significant name is Captain R. J. Morrison. He has been often overlooked with regard to his contribution to the Alexandrian decoy project and there is plenty of evidence, on record, of his involvement in the design of unique and innovative deception devices and gadgetry.

As you study military prowess it is apparent that strength of numbers and firepower whilst essential, can be significantly neutralised by fooling the enemy into attacking non-existent or worthless targets. The work of these deception units saved countless lives and avoided the destruction of essential targets. Because of the secrecy involved very few of the above men ever received their just recognition and many of the ideas remain confidential even today.


Not all magic tricks or subterfuge devices gave workable or predictable results; some were almost amusing and others just silly or at worst downright dangerous.

Exploding Rats:

When France fell, Winston Churchill vowed to “set Europe ablaze.” To achieve that, British secret agents were equipped with an assortment of very creative disguised explosive devices, bombs were manufactured to look like bars of soap, shoes, wine bottles, bicycle pumps, lumps of coal and suitcases.

Probably one of the most novel devices was the "explosive rat". A hundred were acquired by an SOE officer ostensibly for laboratory experiments. The dead rats were skinned, packed with plastic explosive, and carefully sewn up. The idea was to place a rat among the coal or coke pile beside a boiler. When the fireman or caretaker found them, without close examination they would be thrown onto the fire, resulting in a huge explosion and destruction of the boiler and surrounding plant.

That was the theory -The device caused considerable problems to the enemy, but not quite in the way that was intended. The Germans accidentally found the consignment of dead rats before they could be used for "operational purposes”. But their discovery had a surprising beneficial effect when the rodents were exhibited at all German military schools. This prompted a hunt for hundreds of rats which the enemy believed had already been distributed all over the occupied territories. The resulting trouble caused to the Nazis was a much greater success to us than if the rats had actually been used.

The “Who Me?” Stench Spray

An adaptation of the rather childish toy, the stink bomb, this “weapon” was known as the “F*rt bomb or the “Who Me” or “Not Me” device. The smell was so bad that it was described as resembling “the worst dustbin left in the street for a long time in the middle of the summer.” Developed by the Office of Strategic Services, it was intended to be used by the French Resistance to demoralize and embarrass German officers by spraying the backs of their trousers with the content, which smelled of faecal matter. While very effective, the sulphur compounds used were extremely volatile and, in consequence, very difficult to control and distribute. As a result, unless very careful, the person spraying the substance often got as smelly as his unfortunate victim.

Unrotated Projectile

This is one of those ideas that looked good in principle, but proved unreliable in practice. A British innovation, the Unrotated Projectile was a short range rocket-propelled anti-aircraft weapon with wires and small parachutes attached (see diagram). The concept was to create an aerial minefield where any aircraft flying through the protected area would be at risk of snagging a cable which would pull the explosive rocket towards it, detonating on impact. However, it was susceptible to a slight change of wind direction which could cause the rockets to drift back onto the ship that launched them. Despite this, it was used extensively during the early days of World War II, particularly by coastal ships and trawlers, which had no other form of anti-aircraft defence.

The Great Panjandrum

When the Nazis built a massive concrete wall ten feet high and seven feet thick along the Atlantic coast, Churchill instructed the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development to come up with something, high explosive, which could vault over it and explode with significant destructive power.

Their solution was the Great Panjandrum, a cordite rocket-propelled rolling wheel with a deadly payload. Unfortunately, the rockets tended to come loose and fly everywhere, and the Panjandrum never got to reliably go over the wall

However the designers persevered with the concept and with modifications continued to test the Great Panjandrum. It was an unlikely, even crude rotating pair of skeleton wheels loaded with explosives that hardly looked like a weapon, but more like something cumbersome from the Great War. This strange, almost laughable weapon was the culmination of a weapon design that was capable of being launched from a landing craft, rolling down the ramp, up the beach and up over the Atlantic wall, which as we said was a 10-foot high, 7-foot thick concrete coastal fortification. The panjandrum was made up of two 10-foot diameter metal wheels joined by a central drum filled with high explosives. Cordite rockets were attached to the outside edge of each wheel in order to propel the missile and catapult it at 60 mph into its target.

However, the rockets were not only not powerful enough, but fell off easily and they regularly failed hilariously in tests, with the resulting different thrust outputs causing the weapon to veer about uncontrollably, a danger to anyone in the vicinity, friend or foe.

(A mock up version of this weapon appeared in an episode of the television comedy “Dads Army - Series 5 Episode 12: Round and Round went The Great Big Wheel)

Results of this lateral thinking

This type of subterfuge, creative camouflage and outrageous thinking resulted in many devices giving a significant saving of innocent lives and considerable damage to the enemy, hitting him where and when he least expected. Firepower, inhumanity and brutality were the ways chosen by the Nazis and the Japanese who were beaten ultimately by nations who had a greater respect for civilian human life and tried to fight a war in a fierce but generally humane way.

I can’t leave the subject without relating an amusing anecdote told by many Allied Second World War pilots. The story goes that the Luftwaffe built, in occupied Holland, a decoy "airfield," with their customary meticulous attention to detail. It was constructed almost entirely from wood and canvas with wooden framed hangers, oil tanks, gun emplacements, trucks, and aircraft. However they took so long to build their decoy that allied photo experts had plenty of time to decipher the PR photos and report the results to Bomber Command. The final day of completion eventually dawned and the decoy was complete. Early on the following morning a lone RAF aircraft made a perilous crossing of the Channel and making an exaggerated low pass, circled the airfield once, and released a large bomb made completely of wood! The Germans were completely nonplussed realising that all of their effort and hard work had been ridiculed.

Copyright Peter Geekie 2015

Does this article give an interesting overview of the subject

© 2015 Peter Geekie


Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on August 02, 2016:

Dear Hector

Thanks for another constructive comment.

As they say "the quickness of the hand deceives the eye"

kind regards Peter

Hector on August 01, 2016:

Another fascinating article, I knew a little about tricks but didn't realise they were that inventive. Good writing and voted up

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on March 14, 2016:

Exactly, many of these devices had uses in the cold war to come.

kind regards Peter

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on March 14, 2016:

And most often they succeeded in their allotted tasks. There are some who dispute the light illusion dreamed up by Maskelyne that was meant to disguise the Suez Canal, saying that only one piece of experimental apparatus was set up. It could be that when Maskelyne wrote a book about his wartime escapades the powers-that-were wanted to hush them up (didn't want the Russians to get wind of how the Germans were foiled).

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on March 13, 2016:

Some of these devices were almost jokes although they were quite deadly.

Thanks for your comments.

Kind regards Peter

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on March 12, 2016:

Hello Peter, just been through this piece with a fine-tooth comb (disguised obviously as a 'Lanc'). You've put a fair bit of detail into it, I noticed. On the Great Panjandrum, the man who came up with it was a naval officer of standing. When it was tested one of the senior officers took his dog along for a day out at the beach. The Panjandrum turned at one point and started to chase the dog. Nice piece of comedy.

Well presented article that looks at hoodwinking in a different way.

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on December 07, 2015:

Dear Bob

Thanks for your comments. I try to update my articles when time allows. I have several articles in skeleton form just need the impetus to publish them.

kind regards Peter

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on December 06, 2015:

Dear Trevor

I have a few other examples but not enough to make an article. I will put a little time into this.

kind regards Peter

diogenes from UK and Mexico on December 06, 2015:

Some more absorbing "tricks" added to this already fantastic hub. You have guilt-tripped me, Peter, so many of my articles need a makeover. Sigh. The ennui of old age.


Trevor on December 05, 2015:

The British always had this ability to think outside the box particularly with their backs against the wall. Do you have any other examples of their trickery ?

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on March 26, 2015:

Thank you Peter

Yes he had the ability to use his skills to the countries advantage.

kind regards Peter

diogenes from UK and Mexico on March 26, 2015:

What a magisterial hub article! Length justified by spellbinding content. I knew absolutely nothing about this chap and his great achievements.

Top marks Peter

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on March 26, 2015:

Dear Kieran,

Thank you for your comments.

Many of these things I know to be true and accurate as my father was an RAF pilot and I have his escape silk maps watch/compass and kit.

kind regards Peter

Kieran Gracie on March 26, 2015:

I love stories like these, made even more enjoyable because they are true. There is no way of telling exactly how valuable these deceptions were but they must have had quite an important role in fooling the enemy into taking useless action. There are some interesting exhibits in both the Imperial War Museum and the RAF Museum in London, particularly things like the silk maps and 'monopoly money' mentioned in this wonderful Hub. Voted up and interesting, and thank you Peter Geekie for writing it.

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