A story from the Second World War that is often told and retold by fans of military history has it that German forces built decoy fake wooden airfields to deceive enemy pilots – so Allied forces, on learning of the plot, retaliated by dropping fake wooden bombs as a joke.
The tale goes that the Germans meticulously built a fake airfield in occupied Holland, complete with hangars, oil tanks, gun emplacements, vehicles and aircraft – all made out of wood – in an effort to fool pilots of the RAF and Allied forces into targeting the decoy instead of real airfields located elsewhere in the vicinity.
Stories that have now become entrenched in urban legend suggest that the German forces took such a long time to complete the project, that Allied reconnaissance pilots had ample time to observe what was happening, take photos of the fake wooden airfield, and report back to headquarters.
The legend suggests that, on learning of the fake airfield, a Royal Air Force aircraft decided to cross the Channel, and circle the fake airfield, before dropping a large wooden bomb with “Wood For Wood” written on it – perhaps as a joke to wind up the enemy or to let the enemy know that Allied forces were on to their decoy plot.
However, did these events really take place? Did Allied forces really drop a fake wooden bomb as a joke, or is this story, like many from the Second World War, simply an urban myth forged out of exaggerated tales – tales which have been inflamed even further since the advent of the internet, with many rumours, anecdotes and myths doing the rounds on social media and elsewhere?
Away from the internet rumour mill, there is certainly much anecdotal evidence that lends weight to the story and gives credence to the notion that fake bombing raids may well have been carried out by Allied forces on fake German decoys.
Wood For Wood: The Riddle Of The Wooden Bombs
Author and historian Pierre-Antoine Courouble researched the story for a documentary, 'Wood For Wood', and his book ‘The Riddle Of The Wooden Bombs’ in which he examined whether the dropping of so-called fake bombs was a serious act of psychological warfare or simply some lighthearted humour to lift the spirits of young pilots during the dark days of the Second World War.
The author collected some 303 testimonies from former soldiers, members of the Resistance, military personnel or pilots including what is perhaps the most convincing account of such a story happening from Lt Col (Retd) Werner Thiel.
Lt Col (Retd) Werner Thiel, a young Luftwaffe pilot in 1943, claimed he saw the dropping of wooden bombs on a fake airfield near Potsdam. Speaking in December 2010 about his memories, Lt Col (Retd) Thiel said:
“At the end of October 1943, there was a general warning that we activated the light beacons and moved the aircraft from the fictitious airfield.
“We had a dozen fake planes made of wood, plywood, canvas and ropes.
“There was only a roar and no explosion. In the morning we left cautiously, fearing time bombs.
“And here we didn’t believe our eyes.
“There were six to ten bombs on the floor, made of quality solid wood with ‘Wood For Wood' written on them.”
Courouble asks Lt Col (Retd) Thiel what he thought at the time to which he replies, saying:
"We thought it was meant as a joke. Something like 'look how stupid you are. You built a dummy airfield. We saw it and it’s not worth dropping a real bomb'.”
A photograph of Lt Col (Retd) Thiel, taken on the day he spoke about the fake bombs, appears to show the former pilot holding a wooden item that looks similar to what he describes seeing in 1943.
Other accounts also give weight to fake wooden bombs being dropped on fake enemy targets.
The Airborne Museum in Sainte Mère Église, France, previously had on display, as part of its collection, what it described as a fake bomb. The note underneath the museum artefact said:
“This fake bomb was dropped in 1944 in a fake airfield in Normandy.
“The Allied Airmen had a sense of humour!”
A photograph of the museum's fake bomb has often been circulated by social media commentators as evidence that supports the story of fake wooden bombs being dropped on enemy targets.
Courouble's search has prompted many others to tell their own story of the myth, as documented on his ‘Wood For Wood’ website.
Retired German Air Force General Eberhard Eimler - Inspector of the Air Force from 1983 to 1987 and Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 1987 to 1990 – was pleased that the subject of fake wooden bombs was being tackled by an historian and asked:
“During the Second World War, did pilots of the opposing sides engage in acts of mockery towards their adversaries?
“The participants in these stories were pilots who were just 20 years old.
“Was their humour a release from the fear and horror of war?
“Or was it used by the warring parties as a means of psychological warfare?”
Former fighter pilot and once head of Patrouille de France - the French equivalent of the RAF Red Arrows - Colonel (Retd) Pierre-Alain Antoine also wrote in support of the story. He did not claim to witness the dropping of the fake bombs, instead, he explains the history as he knows it, saying:
"The Allies knew about the Germans’ fake airfields, but the Germans also knew the positions of those of the Allies.
“There were bombings by both sides on fake targets with wooden bombs to show that the bomb dropper was not taken in.
“I do not think that the use of wooden bombs was decided at the highest level in the hierarchy.
“I rather think that the decisions came from the people in command at levels further down (squadron, wing, etc.).
“The wooden bombs, which were identical to the real ones, were used for training purposes, but cost far less.”
Hiding In Plane Sight
Another anecdote supporting the theory that wooden bombs were dropped on decoy airfields by Allied pilots comes from the diary of American journalist William L. Shirer, ‘Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941'.
On November 27, 1940, he wrote of a “funny” story he had been told, saying:
“X ... says the British intelligence in Holland is working fine. Both sides in this war have built a number of dummy airdromes and strewn them with wooden planes.
“X says the Germans recently completed a very large one near Amsterdam.
“They lined up more than a hundred dummy planes made of wood on the field and waited for the British to come over and bomb them.
“Next morning the British did come. They let loose with a lot of bombs.
“The bombs were made of wood.”
Just two months before this diary entry Shirer notes that the Germans had discovered many of Britain’s decoy airfields, saying:
"He relates that the British have built a number of dummy airfields and littered them with wooden planes, but the Germans have most of them spotted by now."
In his 1943 book 'Modern Airfield Planning and Concealment', author Merrill E. De Longe also wrote about the use of decoys to protect airfields and how a wooden bomb was dropped. He said:
“One example in the Netherlands was constructed with particular care, made almost entirely of wood and including hangars, gun positions, aircraft and vehicles.
“However, it took so long to build that Allied photo interpreters had plenty of time to observe it.
“The day after it was finished, a solitary RAF plane flew over and circled the field once before dropping a large wooden bomb."
However, historians say there is little or no hard documentary evidence that confirms that Allied pilots genuinely dropped a fake bomb on an enemy target, either as a joke or as part of their own decoy operations.
It is well documented that Allied forces used decoys to deceive the enemy and divert attention away from genuine airfields and possible battle locations in order to save countless lives.
Several deception operations used clever distractions like inflatable tanks in the seaside town of Hastings and double agents in Europe to dropping fake airmen into enemy territory and dummy armies.
Therefore, it may fit the narrative to suggest this might have included fake wooden bombs.
That said, one fake wooden bomb often referred to and pictured online when the myth is discussed appears to be, upon closer inspection, a Mark IV Aircraft Float Light – often used by Allied forces like the US Airforce and the Royal Australian Air Force.
The Smithsonian National Air And Space Museum describes the float light as being:
“A smoke-producing flare designed to be dropped by an aircraft over open water for drift sighting during the day or night.”
It was used from the late 1930s and made by Triumph Explosives Inc based in Maryland, USA.
The Australian War Memorial website describes the wooden and metal item as being "shaped like an aircraft bomb and is designed to float on the water surface while giving off a signal light.”
They were designed to help find crashed aircraft and pilots.
Some historians, used to relying on proof of events from things like log books or official archive material, dismiss the 'Wood For Wood' story as an urban legend.
Why would pilots risk their lives to fly into enemy territory for a joke? What a waste of time and resources at a time when we were at war?
An alternative theory is that the story of the wooden bombs might simply be a case of mistaken identity. Perhaps it was in fact Mark IV Aircraft Float Lights that were seen being dropped during reconnaissance or observation missions for tactical support on the ground?
Much of the evidence lies in the re-telling of stories passed down from parents and grandparents but to what extent can decades-old stories, perhaps told at family gatherings, be relied upon?
There appears to be little hard evidence and no conclusive documentation that confirms if wooden bombs were really dropped or not.
However, Pierre-Antoine Courouble's 303 testimonies do at least provide some compelling anecdotal accounts that tend to suggest that there might be some truth in the myth after all.
Do you think wooden bombs were deliberately dropped on decoy airfields to mock Nazi Germany or is this simply an urban legend? Email [email protected] with your thoughts.