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A Visual Guide to the Fake Fleets and Inflatable Armies of World War II

Military units in both the Allied and Axis powers used air-filled tanks and straw airplanes to deceive enemies.

From afar, this British dummy tank would be easily fooled for the real tank it stands next to.
From afar, this British dummy tank would be easily fooled for the real tank it stands next to. NARA/111-SC-216202-001

The image above depicts a clever trick played on battlefields during World War II: Bobbing next to a sturdy metal tank is a rubber inflatable copy meant to fool enemies. An army could look twice as large as it was thanks to elite divisions of the military that specialized in the art of decoys and deception.

Military units within both the Allied and Axis forces practiced and deployed an assortment of peculiar, yet effective tactics, from building inflated dummy tanks to constructing wooden artillery and straw airplanes. A fleet of dummy tanks could lead an enemy to overestimate a force’s actual strength or draw an attack away from a vulnerable area, explained Gordon Rottman in World War II Tactical Camouflage Techniques.

Two U.S. soldiers examine a fake tank made out of wood. It was built on top of a German four-ton truck.
Two U.S. soldiers examine a fake tank made out of wood. It was built on top of a German four-ton truck. NARA/111-SC-196913-001

“Decoys are extremely important in deception planning,” stated an U.S. army field manual published in 1978. Something as simple as “a log sticking out of a pile of brush can draw a lot of attention and artillery fire.”

New photos uncovered by the National Archives reveal the elaborate artistry behind building a “fake army.” The featured photos taken between 1942 and 1945 depict the variety of creative deception tactics developed by the Japanese, German, and British military.

In Okinawa, these fake straw planes were innocently sitting along the edges of the airfields near Kadena Town. They caused many American pilots to send bursts of machine gun fire into them.
In Okinawa, these fake straw planes were innocently sitting along the edges of the airfields near Kadena Town. They caused many American pilots to send bursts of machine gun fire into them. NARA/111-SC-205559-001

During both World Wars, artists, filmmakers, scientists, and sculptors were handpicked by the military and called upon to use their visual and creative skills to design camouflage and decoys. Beginning in World War I, artists used “dazzle camouflage” and painted battleships with odd, multicolored patterns to distract far-off enemies, while female art students designed camouflage “rock” suits that they tested in Van Cortlandt Park in New York.

A dummy 155mm gun erected in Forte dei Marmi Area, Italy. These guns were used along with flash simulators to deceive the enemy.*
A dummy 155mm gun erected in Forte dei Marmi Area, Italy. These guns were used along with flash simulators to deceive the enemy.* NARA/111-SC-233236-001

The United States recruited over a thousand men from art schools and ad agencies for the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, or “Ghost Army,” which staged more than 20 battlefield deceptions between 1944 and 1945. In England, a group of surrealist artists started the Industrial Camouflage Research Unit just after the war began in September 1939, wrote Peter Forbes in Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage.

Japan's advanced decoy techniques are well-illustrated by this view of a dummy tank found on Iwo Jima. It was constructed out of consolidated volcanic ash, which is soft and can easily be cut with a knife.
Japan’s advanced decoy techniques are well-illustrated by this view of a dummy tank found on Iwo Jima. It was constructed out of consolidated volcanic ash, which is soft and can easily be cut with a knife. NARA/111-SC-208998-001

The dummies took on many forms, including stationary structures that supplied the outline of machinery and a simulation that was mounted on a truck. Inventions could be simple and crude, such as stacking up old tires and propping up a log to simulate an artillery piece, explained Kenneth Blanks in his thesis on tactical decoys.

On the other hand, some deceptions were large-scale, such as fake roads and bridges made out of canvas and burlap. At a distance, the elaborate dummy tanks could easily be confused for the real thing. They were made of an assortment of canvas and plywood, inflated rubber, and drain pipes to form the gun. A Japanese fake tank constructed out of rubble and volcanic ash was commended for its attention to detail and artistry. Inflated tanks were not only used to trick the enemy, but also served to practice formations.

Many of the dummies were also easy to transport and assemble. An inflatable tank could be unfurled from a duffle bag, pumped with air from a generator, and completed in just 20 minutes.

Watch soldiers set up inflatable decoys in the video below:

Entire decoy airfields were made by Britain’s Royal Air Ministry. Instead of hiding the easily spotted structures, they designed dummy airfields filled with dummy planes that were imitations of satellite stations. The unit also lit oil fires, called “starfishes,” in harmless locations after the first wave of a bombing raid, making subsequent waves believe those areas were targets, explained Forbes. While preserving the real fleet, the tactic wasted the enemy’s bombs and ammunition.

This dummy plane stood beneath a shelter at Camp Chorrera in Panama. Taken in 1942.
This dummy plane stood beneath a shelter at Camp Chorrera in Panama. Taken in 1942. NARA/111-SC-237644-001

And these efforts proved to be extremely effective. For example, in the summer of 1940, Colonel J.F. Turner of the Royal Air Ministry organized 100 dummy airfields and built about 400 dummy aircrafts to confuse German aerial bombers. In one raid on August 4, 1940, three waves of bombs struck the decoy structures, leaving the real factory almost unscathed. Turner’s sophisticated dummy aircrafts “saved hundreds of lives and vital war production facilities,” wrote Blanks. Similarly, the U.S. military’s Ghost Army saved tens of thousands of soldiers’ lives, estimated The Atlantic.

A soldier stands next to a British dummy tank.
A soldier stands next to a British dummy tank. NARA/111-SC-217854-001

This ingenious craft has since faded with time. Sophisticated surveillance technologies, such as satellites and drones, have since made ballooned tanks, straw airplanes, and other visual ruses less effective. But the decoy armies of World War II remain a captivating example of the intricate art of military deception and trickery in action.

Explore more dummy installations from World War II below.

A dummy bridge built out of canvas and burlap. It was partially destroyed by Germans who saw it above the city of Pisa.
A dummy bridge built out of canvas and burlap. It was partially destroyed by Germans who saw it above the city of Pisa. NARA/111-SC-219216-001
When deflated, these large dummy tanks are compact and easy to carry.
When deflated, these large dummy tanks are compact and easy to carry. NARA/111-SC-217851-001
Made by the British Army, this deflated rubber tank only needs 20 minutes to assemble.
Made by the British Army, this deflated rubber tank only needs 20 minutes to assemble. NARA/111-SC-216201-001
A British army engineer uses a forge pump to inflate the turret of a rubber dummy tank. The tanks were designed and used by the British to simulate tank positions in the field. Taken in Italy in 1944.
A British army engineer uses a forge pump to inflate the turret of a rubber dummy tank. The tanks were designed and used by the British to simulate tank positions in the field. Taken in Italy in 1944. NARA/111-SC-217856-001
Here, a soldier is inflating the body of the tank.
Here, a soldier is inflating the body of the tank. NARA/111-SC-217852-001
A soldier stands next to an inflated dummy tank made of rubber.
A soldier stands next to an inflated dummy tank made of rubber. NARA/111-SC-217857-001
Two soldiers prop the tank on its side.
Two soldiers prop the tank on its side. NARA/111-SC-217853-001
British soldiers place a dummy tank into a camouflaged position.
British soldiers place a dummy tank into a camouflaged position. NARA/111-SC-216204-001
A fake Japanese AA gun constructed around a fish oil and acid producing factory off a beach in Japan.
A fake Japanese AA gun constructed around a fish oil and acid producing factory off a beach in Japan. NARA/111-SC-213310-001
Dummy Japanese gun emplacements along the beach at Rendova Island.
Dummy Japanese gun emplacements along the beach at Rendova Island. NARA/111-SC-18592-001
An American soldier looks at one of the German dummy tanks near Metz, France.
An American soldier looks at one of the German dummy tanks near Metz, France. NARA/111-SC-196519-s-001
A pole camouflaged as a gun left behind by the Nazis.
A pole camouflaged as a gun left behind by the Nazis. NARA/111-SC-201374-001
A dummy pontoon bridge made out of wood frames covered with cloth. It took the 84th Engineers 12 hours to build the bridge across the Rhine River at Petersau, Germany. It was meant to fool the Germans into thinking there were more bridges across the river than there actually were.
A dummy pontoon bridge made out of wood frames covered with cloth. It took the 84th Engineers 12 hours to build the bridge across the Rhine River at Petersau, Germany. It was meant to fool the Germans into thinking there were more bridges across the river than there actually were. NARA/111-SC-222564-001

*Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled a location in Italy. It is Forte dei Marmi, not Forte dei Maimi.