A mobile tank dummy created by magician and illusionist Jasper Maskelyne. Source: warandgame.com
THE GENERALIST has long been fascinated by this topic, This post was triggered by a feature by Allan Mallison in The Times concerning a new book - ‘The Phantom Army of Alamein: How the Camouflage Unit and Operation Bertram Hoodwinked Rommel’ by John Stroud [Bloomsbury].
The Camouflage Unit, Mallison writes, was ‘ a small army of painters and carpenters, many of them straight from the West End Theatre, Ealing and Elstree, photographers and draftsmen “kidnapped from every part of the Army”. Also the flamboyant stage magician Jasper Maskeleyne ‘whose imagination, inventiveness and technical skill was matched only by his ability at self-publicity.’
Operation Bertram’s main role was to convince Rommel that the British were going to attack from the wrong direction. To this end, they needed to disguise 600 tanks to look like lorries and create ‘the illusion of 600 tanks in an entirely different area. Thy had ‘exactly 25 days to complete their work and pull off an unprecedented military coupe de theatre.’
This picture shows how they disguised the real tanks; picture of dummy tank at top. They also succeeded in ‘conjuring up two divisions, field guns and supporting vehicles with wood, string and straw.’ The deception worked perfectly and made a major contribution to the British victory at El Alamein.
Many of these techniques were subsequently used in the run-up to D-Day.
According to Wikipedia, the Americans had their own thing going – The Ghost Army:
The Ghost Army was a United States Army tactical deception unit during World War II officially known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. The 1,100-man unit was given a unique mission within the Army to impersonate other U.S. Army units to deceive the enemy. From a few weeks after D-Day, when they landed in France, until the end of the war, they put on a travelling road show, using inflatable tanks, sound trucks, phony radio transmissions and playacting. They staged more than 20 battlefield deceptions, often operating very close to the front lines. Their mission was kept secret until 1996, and elements of it remain classified.
A documentary ‘The Ghost Army’ by Rick Beyer, due for screening on the US network PBS in 2013 makes the story sound even more fascinating.
‘In June 1944, a secret U.S. Army unit went into action in Normandy. The weapons they deployed were decidedly unusual: hundreds of inflatable tanks and a one-of-a-kind collection of sound effects records. Their mission was to use bluff, deception, and trickery to save lives. Many were artists, including some who would become famous, including a budding fashion designer named Bill Blass. They painted and sketched their way across Europe, creating a unique visual record of their journey. The story of what these men accomplished was hushed up by the Pentagon for more than forty years.’