Last year, we looked at 4 Base Workshop and their extraordinary output of spares and equipment. Within these were various new pattern items, those things created to try and solve a problem or fill a gap, and the inclusion of ‘General Manufactures’ in 10 Sub Workshop’s capabilities ‘was largely influenced by the ever changing nature and magnitude of the orders for “Special Devices”.’ (A:1960.0299). This article will focus on deception devices with a further article to follow on anti-mine tank rollers and mine detectors.

Deception was used widely through the war, and indeed long before that, and took many formats. Disinformation could be achieved through false reports about movements or strengths (for example, opening up leave availability to make it seem like an operation would not be imminent), entire false divisions raised in the ORBAT and supported by associated HQ radio chatter and promotions, and of course reports from spies turned double agent.

A dummy Dakota fuselage. E:09.0498.044.

Depending on the theatre, these deceptions could not exist for too long without some form of physical evidence to back them up however - this could be in the form of dummy vehicles, changing one vehicle to look like another, or setting out lights to simulate an airfield. Even less tangible were the Light Scout Car companies which could get quickly into position and project audio of a larger tank division, by cover of night or sandstorms, and could be further reinforced with smoke machines aimed to simulate the smell of diesel engines and cookhouses, and ‘mess-making equipment [… used to] represent general scarring from the passage of numerous men and vehicles.’

The Middle East was particularly reliant on these physical deceptions due to the proximity of lines and the 8th Army became quite famous for their effective use of them. For example, at one point a ‘force of three hundred tanks’ was called to be created in order to stall Rommel and give the 8th Army time to regroup at Tobruk. This no doubt contributed to 4 Base Workshop’s report that ‘manufacture of new pattern eqpt[sic] and “strange devices”[…] threw a great load on wksps[sic] and exercised the inventiveness and ingenuity of pers[sic].’ (E:08.0415.07).

A variety of tank dummies. A:1967.0810.02.

One interesting device produced by 10 Sub Workshop, referred to as a Sunshield in the Middle East but a Houseboat in Britain, proved ‘invaluable in the desert and contributed greatly to victory at El Alamein.’ The Sunshield was a canvas cover and frame which went over a tank in order to disguise it as a truck and could take as little as ‘four men in five minutes’ to fit. Similar concepts existed to make field guns and their trailers also look like trucks, as well as the inverse used to make B vehicles look like tanks. This, combined with the dummy tanks, allowed divisional movements to be disguised and make it appear as if the armoured attack was coming from a completely different location.

Sunshield on a Churchill tank. E:15.0824.

There’s no doubt that deception tactics and these devices contributed greatly to Allied success (although of course it is impossible to fully assess their impact when a frequent consequence is the inaction of the opponent) and by the end of the war, dummies had been used and produced to such an extent that examples could be found for ‘every major type of tank, both British and American,’ as well as a variety of trucks, artillery, and even aircraft. The manufacture and complexity also developed throughout the war – where early dummies were made of wood and canvas, later models were inflatable and much quicker to assemble, although this did have problems of its own!

A slightly deflated Sherman tank decoy in Canada, 1948. E:06.0561.176.

References, unless otherwise stated, are from Holt, T., The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War, Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Zoe Tolman, Assistant Archivist

This article was published in The Craftsman, 1 April 2022.