Carlo Graziani October 15, 2009 3:23 PM

During that war, deceptions on this scale sort went from being an amateur pantomime show run by enterprising local commanders to being a major military activity for the Allies, in that they became the responsibility of relatively senior officers with large budgets and staff and respectable command authority.

Even early in the war, the British under Wavell (IIRC) pulled off stunts like this in Egypt, with divisions of inflatable tanks and wooden aircraft parked at potemkin aerodromes.

Certainly Southern California had plenty of potential consultants experienced at constructing large-scale scenery, and at deceiving distant audiences. I’d be surprised if the military didn’t tap deep into the Hollywood talent pool to pull this stunt off.

Beta October 15, 2009 3:34 PM

I wish I could remember the details of my favorite WWII camouflage story. A British expert (a stage magician in peacetime) was given a derelict passenger liner in a remote port (in Greece?) and told to make it look like a battleship to divert German bombers. He did his best, painted it grey, disguised the superstructure, put on fake guns made of sewer pipe, but it was no good, it just didn’t look like a battleship… It didn’t look like a battleship! He quickly disguised it as a passenger liner, splashed on a lot of white paint (but not all the way down to the waterline), put a canopy over the “guns” (but their shadows were still visible), and basically didn’t do a very good job. A Luftwaffe scout flew by, circled back for another look, and the next day wave after wave of German bombers were pounding it to scrap.

Chuvakim October 15, 2009 3:55 PM

I doubt it would have made any difference if the enemy had been able to mount an aerial bomb attack.

I imagine the axis powers had spies who let them know what really went on under there.

RH October 15, 2009 4:22 PM

I’m assuming the power of this cammo was that there was no GPS, so you have to spot your target by eye (and scan a LOT of land to do so)

BF Skinner October 15, 2009 4:23 PM

@Chuvakim “I doubt it would have made any difference ”

Given how random bombing was? Yeah.

Carlo Graziani October 15, 2009 4:24 PM


Possibly, but remember there was no GPS back then. Bomber pilots had to find their targets visually. Often they missed visual cues (a river, a road, a bridge) and wound up dropping their bombs in the wrong place even when the enemy wasn’t messing with their crude radio-based navigational aids. Now imagine a bomber pilot over Southern California, navigating by the stars and a compass, and trying to decide exactly which bucolic suburban subdivision to blast to bits…

Nobby Nuts October 15, 2009 4:28 PM

Re: Chuvakim

That’s an interesting point. I wonder if there were more or fewer enemy spies operating in the US compared with the UK? With the US being so large and relatively sparsely populated you’d have thought it easier for them to go undetected – or perhaps the sparseness made it harder to go undetected. I guess the UK was on a more direct wartime footing, and more accessible from at least one of the enemy countries than the US, which might have meant more spies gaining access, and there were I guess more immediate targets for the enemy to be concerned with. Also conversely the density of the population might have made them less easily detected too.


Jonadab October 15, 2009 5:18 PM

US being so large and relatively sparsely populated

Southern California isn’t sparsely populated, especially along the coast, which is where we’re talking about. Besides, you don’t need a high-quality spy with access to government secrets to know where there’s a factory with a fake housing division on top. That would be common knowledge. All you need is anyone who lives in the area (and is willing to help the other side).

But it ended up being moot because Japan couldn’t get close enough to the coast to deploy bombers over (continental) US soil — which is also why I contend that the US would have won the war even if Japan had the a-bomb and we didn’t. They could’ve maybe bombed Hawaii again, and they certainly could’ve bombed the Aleutians, but in a pinch we could have evacuated civilians from those places. California was much harder for Japan to reach, and they couldn’t get within two thousand miles of Washington DC; whereas, we flew planes over Tokyo, and any other Japanese city we felt like flying planes over, more or less at will. (Yes, it was an effort to do so and required strategic coordination and the pilots probably had to land in China and hope they’d find friendly forces and blah, blah, blah, but the point is we were able to do it whenever we decided to make it a priority.)

Lesser Whark October 15, 2009 5:46 PM

You’re probably thinking of Jasper Maskelyne. Unfortunately there’s some evidence that his great deceptions were… deceptive. See his Wikipedia article, especially the link to

@Nobby Nuts
A few German agents landed on the east coast by U-boat; many were caught within days. Some agents did send easily-found information (like convoy departure times), but the allies filled the same channels with fake agents and fake information. Some people even sent random numbers to the nearest German embassy just for the fun of it.

Probably the most successful agent in the US during the war was Klaus Fuchs, who worked at Los Alamos and sold nuclear secrets to the USSR.

Filias Cupio October 15, 2009 6:52 PM

A very likely apocryphal WWII story I heard: The Germans made a fake airfield with fake balsa wood planes to distract the British. The British responded by flying a mission – and dropping balsa wood bombs on it.

Ralph Dosser October 15, 2009 9:23 PM

I remember an odd story – possibly apocryphal – that after the risk was over, a rival company put a huge sign on their own roof saying “Lockheed,” with an arrow pointing to a Lockheed plant. The army was not amused and had them take it down. Like I said, may not be true, but still funny.

Steven Hoober October 15, 2009 11:30 PM

@Chuvakim had it right. I read about this in the paper books era for (as I recalled) the Boeing plant in WA.

They were entirely aware that the location of the plant was known. It was specifically to prevent easy aerial targeting during an attack. They also had suitably blacked-out lights in at least the “town” that I saw written up, so it looked like “not an airplane factory” even at night.

I suspect that if you had an enemy with good surveillance, a similar tactic would work well to disguise activity (like additional buildings) by obscuring the work. At least a little.

I believe they also did some other deception operations, but remember it more fuzzily. Like, it was hard to hide an airfield, so they painted the ends a grassier color to make it look less obvious or smaller, then cheaply paved or painted a nearby private airfield or empty chunk of land to look exceptionally like the pre-war photos the bad guys presumably had of the targeted runway.

This last sort of stuff only works well, of course, if no one knows you did it at ALL. A key point in the plot of Eye of The Needle, when Donald Sutherland as a Nazi spy photographs the fake invasion force bound for Calais.

Clive Robinson October 16, 2009 1:02 AM

@ Carlo Graziani,

“Certainly Southern California had plenty of potential consultants experienced at constructing large-scale scenery, and at deceiving distant audiences. I’d be surprised if the military didn’t tap deep into the Hollywood talent pool to pull this stunt off.”

Err no it was not Hollywood talent, but that found at Ealing and Shepperton both in South West London (UK).

There is a reason why most of todays Hollywood A-list stars know Shepperton, it is still regarded as having the best “movie set” talent in the world (as well as some of the bigest and best specialised sound stages).

Paul Collins October 16, 2009 1:10 AM

The one attack from Japan on the U.S. mainland that resulted in casualties (6), was via hand-made paper balloons, carrying small bombs, that were released by the thousands into the jet stream to drift across the Pacific. A few hundred made it to land. The only targeting was via altimeter (and timer?). Camouflage was no help in that case.

A documentary was recently made of this remarkable story:

noleti October 16, 2009 4:41 AM

similar stunts were common on all sides I assume, their aim was often to disorient bomber pilots who would drop their load according to landmarks.

Here is an except from a website I found on the topic,

i. German Attempts to Camouflage Cities

A huge structure was erected on the Charlottenburger Chaussee in Berlin, a broad avenue leading westward from the Tiergarten park into the heart of the area occupied by government offices, an ideal landmark for pilots. Along its entire length of 5 miles, wire netting covered with green cloth was installed. In an effort to lure British bombers away from Berlin, it is reported that the Germans have built a fake city to deceive the enemy pilots. Outside the city is a forest which has been cut through with lanes so that at night, from the air, it is apt to look like the Tiergarten. Fake roofs of cloth and paper are stretched between the trees and on the ground are low lights like those of a blacked-out city. Looking down at night, a flyer might think he was over the center of Berlin.

In their efforts to camouflage landmarks all over the city of Hamburg, the Nazis drained Binnen-Alster (a small lake near the harbor) and on it built imitation houses. Wooden bridges have been built on the Aussen-Alster Lake to simulate the well-known Lombards Bridge, which in turn, has been disguised to resemble the Jungfernsteig (a boulevard) complete even to a replica of the Alster Pavilion, Hamburg’s most famous cafe.

Again, between Laufen an Neckar and Nordheim, it is reported that a large railway station, complete in every detail, was erected in a large field, about a mile and a half away from Laufen toward Nordheim. It was exceedingly realistic, and at night had dim, colored lights to represent signal boxes, signals, etc. Fires were lit to deceive the airmen after raids. It was ineffective, inasmuch as Laufen has suffered heavy air raids.

averros October 16, 2009 5:00 AM

A brilliant example of military idiocy.

Apparently nobody bothered to figure out range of Japanese bombers before they ordered this fake landscape to be built.

Just confirms my long-held opinion that wars are fought by idiots – smarter people would’ve figured that they will be much better off if they just shoot their COs and go home. Or at least go away and let the morons to kill each other.

Aku October 16, 2009 5:13 AM

Also in Finland, in 1944 a fake city was built on the ice of Finnish Gulf near the capital city of Helsinki. There were streets and fake houses and small fires. Many Russian bombers were misled and this and other similar ruses saved the city from total destruction.

Marko October 16, 2009 5:13 AM

This paper baloons bombing sounds like a terrific threat that could be implemented by terrorists! Think: thousands of bombs attached to baloons coming from Middle East could kill thousands of American civilians. We might have kamikaze flying in the USA on these baloons as well. I think it would be wise to outlaw any kind of baloons… and kites, to be sure.

uk visa October 16, 2009 5:17 AM

I recommend the book Agent Zigzag to people interested in WW11 subterfuge. It contains fascinating info and photos of the ‘damage’ created by a famous magician to convince German handlers of espionage bombing.

Lesser Whark October 16, 2009 6:10 AM

@averros, @Paul Collins
The Japanese also did bomb the continental United States with one aircraft. Admittedly, this offense hardly needed defending against:

Still, I wouldn’t call this camouflage “military idiocy”. Before the war, many air forces believed that a concentrated bomber force was nearly invincible. Yes, they were wrong. So was Admiral Clark Woodward, who in 1939 said “as far as sinking a ship with a bomb is concerned, you just can’t do it.” The Second World War was filled with innovations and it’s all too easy to second-guess the leadership when they overlooked one threat to defend against another. If they’d installed this at Pearl Harbor, we’d be praising their foresight instead.

Mark October 16, 2009 7:39 AM

The military continue to use fake aircraft, but they need to be rather more sophisticated than during WW-II.

As an Air Cadet in the 1980s I visited RAF Abingdon (since closed) where they had on display a fake Jaguar aircraft.

I was told that the RAF assembled aircraft from components that had failed quality control. Although these were non-functional they not only looked authentic, they have the same radar signature as a genuine aircraft.

In peacetime these are sometimes towed to airshows as stationary exhibits. I imagine that they are also a safer way to train aircraft technicians.

jbmoore61 October 16, 2009 10:32 AM

Here’s the Boeing factory in Seattle in WWII . The camouflage is pretty good, but they didn’t disguise the runways and tarmac. Perhaps it was too expensive. Since high altitude bombing wasn’t that accurate, the main purpose of the camouflage was to confuse the bombardiers and throw off their aim since they are using landmarks and aiming at a specific point hoping to hit the target via ballistics. High altitude precision bombing in WWII was not that successful even when the target was clearly seen. This is why LeMay and McNamara gave up precision bombing and decided to fly the B-29s over Japan at low altitude with incendiary bombs. The crews’ accuracy improved, and if the majority of crews missed anyway, the surrounding fires would likely finish what they started.

AC October 16, 2009 1:57 PM


The most often stated reason for LeMay giving up daylight precision bombing of Japan was an unacceptable loss rate. The B29 was also equipped with radar targeting of sufficent accuracy for the delivery of incendiary bombs.

@Filias Cupio
The best version of the apocryphal WWII story includes the the British delivering the wooden bomb via a de Haviland Mosquito, a wooden bomber.

TS October 16, 2009 2:51 PM

@Chuvakim & Nobby

Remember, at the beginning of the war, the US rounded up everyone of Japanese descent (even American Citizens) and put them in internment camps for several years.

John Moore October 16, 2009 2:59 PM

That’s not entirely correct. B-29s had escort fighters for protection. The P-51 was capable with drop tanks of flying escort. According to McNamara in The Fog of War, they loaded up the aircraft with incendiary bombs and dumped most of their guns thereby saving a lot of weight which forced them to fly at night. Flying low improved bombing accuracy and they didn’t have to fight the jet stream and waste fuel. Since Japanese cities were mostly wood and paper, they burned well. The bombing radar was perfected against European cities which were made of brick and stone. It may have been less effective against Japanese targets. The change in tactics was calculated to increase bombing efficiency and effectiveness. LeMay was prepared to accept higher losses with this change in tactics if it would crush the Japanese. Flying lower was more hazardous because the bombers were more susceptible to antiaircraft fire at night. The crews felt it was suicide. The Army Air Force was prepared to accept whatever losses it took. They were trying to prevent an invasion of the main islands by making the Japanese surrender. No one wanted another Okinawa.

Here’s some links:

Chuvakim October 16, 2009 3:30 PM


Your point being? That only people of Japanese descent could possibly be a spy for the axis powers? Wrong.

Realist October 16, 2009 4:53 PM

An excellent book on this topic overall is “To Fool a Glass Eye”. Has this item and many more….

Roger October 16, 2009 5:59 PM

I see two problems with this:
a) in converting the sawtooth factory roof into suburban lawns, they seem to have blocked all the skylights. That’ll do wonders for productivity and/or the wartime power bill.
b) the most likely target markers for a pilot to use for high altitude visual bombing are to follow the railway line and bomb when the pipper hits the airfield. They have painted over the airfield, but the factory is still at the end of the built-up area when following the railway line.


Apparently nobody bothered to figure out range of Japanese bombers before they ordered this fake landscape to be built.

a) the Japanese had aircraft carriers. Not too many after Midway, but a few right to the end of the war;
b) figuring out the range of the enemy’s bombers is no easy task. Best to be a little conservative.
c) The carefully figured-out range from point b) could be instantly thrown into turmoil by the enemy developing another plane with the range to reach California from, say, their temporary holdings in the Aleutians. You then have about 12 hours to camouflage your factory.
d) Later, they built submarine aircraft carriers. Of course, no-one in the US knew that at the time, but hey, that’s why it pays to be a little conservative

Chuvakim October 17, 2009 4:33 PM

@Carlo Graziani: “…there was no GPS back then.”

Duhhhh, really? Thanks for reminding me, I didn’t realize that.

Dane December 12, 2012 11:35 PM

In terms of camouflaging potential targets of strategic bombing in ww2, what I am interested in is the possibility of building steam chimneys around the targets to put them under cloud cover during bombing raids. The Norden bombsight was quite ineffective when their was natural cloud cover. The other concept I am interested in is the possibility, during ww2, of fortifying factories to prevent damage instead of camouflaging them. wouls uch bomb-proof fortifocatio been possible and economically viable?

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.