Hidden History: inflatable tanks, fake Paris, and other subterfuge of the World Wars

Mon Oct 15, 2018


Deceit and confusion are nothing new to war. In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu wrote that “all warfare is based on deception.” The pursuit of warfare deceit perhaps reached its zenith during the two World Wars, wherein decoy soldiers, tanks, and even towns were constructed by both sides in attempts to fool the enemy and divert attention away from actual military assets.

During World War II (WWII), the 1944 Battle of La Ciotat saw the U.S. military drop 300 fake paratroopers (affectionately referred to as “Oscars”) just north of the French commune in an attempt to divert German troops away from the actual invasion forces. Unfortunately, concrete data on the performance of these “Oscars” is currently unknown.

More substantially, British forces would pioneer the use of dummy tanks throughout WWII. Throughout the North African Campaign, British Royal Engineers would construct up to two dummy tanks per day, referred to as “spoofs.” Oftentimes, these decoys would simply consist of a steel frame covered in canvas and mounted onto a jeep. These spoofs would be deployed in great number, both to make German intelligence believe that the Allies had far more tanks than they actually had and to deceive German intelligence as to the true location of the Allied forces. While these dummy tanks were clearly distinguishable up close, reconnaissance airplanes would have a very difficult time telling apart an actual tank from a fake one.

Interestingly, the U.S. Army actually continues to deploy modern dummy tanks. An imitation version of the M1 Abrams main battle tank exists that not only captures its appearance but also generates a fake heat signature capable of fooling infrared detectors. These fake M1 tanks, when disassembled, only weigh 50 pounds and take up the same amount of space as a duffel bag. Also, a single fake Abrams tank only costs $3,300 to create (as opposed to $3.45 million a real one costs), so you can be sure your tax dollars are being spent properly.

However, the art of war subterfuge reached its most ridiculous form near the end of World War I (WWI), when French military command found themselves contending with the new threat of long-range aerial bombardment. The solution that French planners found to defending the capital city of Paris against German bombers was simple: construct a fake second Paris to fool them. Thus, dozens of private firms were called to create a fake second Paris some 15 miles away from the actual city along the River Seine. These contractors would go as far as to create a fake version of the Arc de Triomphe alongside fake rail lines and wooden building replicas with translucent paint creating the impression of dirty factory windows. French electrical engineer Fernand Jacopozzi was called upon to add the final illuminations to the fake City of Light, scattering lamps throughout the dummy city to give the impression of human settlement.

However, the fake city never fell victim to German bombing, not being finished until September 1918, just a few months before the war’s end. The fake city was quickly deconstructed and built over, only just recently being rediscovered by Parisians in 2011. Jacopozzi would later go on to become much more known for illuminating the Eiffel Tower for the first time.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons




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Appears in
2018 - Fall - Issue 6