Hand-in-hand with the tricky art of large scale camouflage goes wholesale deception of the enemy with dummy tanks and guns, fake towns and wharves and railways. Even non-existent fighter pilots have done their bit. Efforts of the “deception officer” specialist in make believe, can have rich and sometimes spectacular results, as instanced here by Alexander Dilke
One of the most ingenious tricks of the war, resulting in two fighter planes being shot down by a "ghost" pilot, was revealed in the official story of the air battles of Malta. It was in April 1942, when the Luftwaffe in strength was making its most determined efforts to finish off that "unsinkable aircraft-carrier." Ammunition and planes were short. Sometimes the handful of planes went up without ammunition and bluffed the Messerschmitts, which showed great respect for the few Spitfires and never knew whether these were armed or not.
One day German bombers came over with a fighter escort when no British planes could be sent up. Group Captain A. B. Woodhall, in charge of the Operations Room, had a happy inspiration. He created an imaginary "Pilot Officer Humgufery" and started giving him orders over the radio. The orders were "received" by a Canadian pilot with an unmistakable voice who happened to be in the Operations Room at the time. He replied in the name of Humgufery as if he were in the air.
The Germans intercepted the messages, and soon came the cry "Achtung! Spitfeuer !" The enemy had picked up the "ghost plane," which presumably they imagined was above them and coming out of the sun. Just what they thought we shall probably never know, but their confusion was such that they proceeded to shoot down two of their Messerschmitts. Those two planes were credited to the imaginary "Pilot Officer Humgufery."
One of the most spectacular bluffs was carried out in Libya by a small party of the South Nottinghamshire Hussars, It was necessary to keep the Italians in Maktila, which they held very strongly, while an attack was mounted in another direction. The instruction to the Hussars was, "Keep them on the hop!" They were given a fairly free hand and four wooden guns with a number of dummy men. For some days they patrolled round the Italians outer defences, but the Italians stayed in their strongpoints and refused to reveal themselves. It was therefore decided to mount a fake attack to stir them up.
In darkness the four dummy guns and about twenty dummy men were placed in position. Then the party’s one real field gun was concealed about 400 yards from the Italians position. The attack was made at dawn, with a maximum of noise and much bomb throwing, which the Italians apparently mistook for shelling. They decided to retire into the fortress in the face of such a strong attack, and were followed up by the one real gun firing shells as fast as it could.
When they reached the fortress; the Hussars began to prepare to follow up the unexpected success of their attack. But before they could do so the defenders, convinced they were surrounded by a powerful force, put up the white flag and surrendered. Over 5,200 men laid down their arms to a handful of live men, twenty dummies and four wooden guns!
No wooden horse of Troy but a dummy found on an abandoned airfield in Holland taken by our troops in their advance late in 1944. The retreating Nazis "stocked" many of their airfields with these lath-and-plaster horses and cattle, hoping to delude the R.A.F. into the belief that they were quiet farmsteads.
Armies had officers who were specialists in the art of bluffing. An officer appointed to carry out a big deception had to go to work like a stage manager; in fact one of the experts was formerly a famous stage manager. He had to be prepared to use his ingenuity in producing "props" to convince the audience of enemy reconnaissance pilots that his "show" was genuine, and may have to carry realism a long way, hoodwinking friends as well as enemies.
General Platt, when he was G.O.C. for East Africa, revealed after the Abyssinia campaign that on one occasion a "deception officer" he selected for a vital task was so good that he deceived everyone, including General Platt. The occasion was the attack from the Sudan, when it was planned to go for Kassala. But the Sudan is not an easy country in which to conceal large numbers of troops, and it was important to deceive the Italians about the direction of the attack, because if they had had time to reinforce the attack would have been fruitless.
Sudan was full of enemy spies and the deception officer had to back his bluff with some real stuff. He persuaded the Royal Navy to start lengthening a wharf at a Red Sea port. He had hundreds of men extending a railway. He erected a field hospital and even sent doctors and nurses there. The wharf was never used, and it was not until, long after that the Navy discovered its leg had been pulled. No troops ever travelled along the railway extension, and doctors and nurses at the field hospital waited in vain for casualties. But the bluff was completely successful. Spies sent back plenty of information which was correct, and for that very reason the Italians were completely deceived. The attack on Kassala was successful, and although hundreds of men had laboured at installations never intended for use they had not laboured in vain.
Dummy tanks were probably the invention of the Germans, and when the full truth is known it may be found they carried out one of the biggest bluffs in history in the years immediately before the war. We used them effectively in North Africa at different times. On one occasion 7,000 Axis soldiers surrendered to 25 wooden tanks and eight wooden guns. Success at EI Alamein was at least partly due to the way the enemy was bluffed over the 10th Corps. This Corps was engaged in very convincing training some fifty miles from the front just before the battle. It was moved up at night at the critical moment and the enemy thoroughly deceived.
One of the quiet pieces of bluff carried out by deception officers was discovered when Tobruk was captured in January 1942. Documents complete with many details were found in the Italian headquarters, describing a newly arrived Australian division in Egypt. The Italians even had the exact date of disembarkation, figures for the equipment and names of the ships from which it had landed. This would have been splendid for the Italians if the Australian division had existed. But it was entirely imaginary. Someone had "planted" it on the enemy, who probably paid quite a lot of money for the "information.
The air war had given rise to camouflaging of vital targets, and the Germans had spent millions on building dummy towns concealing landmarks and so on. It was all a very delicate business, calling for keen appreciation of the enemy’s psychology. On one occasion the Germans bluffed the R.A.F. They put a few landing lights on a dummy airfield, and turned all the lights full on at the real aerodrome. They guessed our bombers would go for the dummy, thinking that the excessive lighting at the other aerodrome was intended to catch the eye. This trick, of course, did not work twice. We had been equally successful, and had attracted bombs to dummy targets by camouflaging them just badly enough to enable them to be detected.
The simplest bluffs were often the most effective. Three men ordered to delay advancing Germans in a village took six beer bottles and placed them across the road at even intervals, then retired to a house to watch. A German appeared, eyed the bottles cautiously, and went back, evidently to report. Others appeared, but another half-hour was wasted before the Germans picked off the bottles one by one from a safe distance, then, finding nothing happened, they became even more cautious, thus lengthening the delay we desired.