World War Two: Fooling Hitler

Britain's ingenious deception methods during World War Two were immeasurable. Without them the Allies may never have achieved an eventual victory and the assistance of Britain's film studios during the war was to prove crucial. Without the invention of phantom armies, the D-Day landings would never have succeeded and how did one of Britain's most notorious pre-war criminals become a double agent and pull off one of the biggest deceptions of the war?

Agent Zigzag

Throughout the Blitz on London, German bombing raids had inflicted heavy casualties on the capital's people and by the end of 1941, a total of 43,000 civilians had been killed. The bombing and later the V1 and V2 rockets, caused total devastation.

As well as military warfare, the Allies looked at means of deception in their attempts to win the war. One of the Ministry of Defences' plans was to use a notorious criminal and double-agent to fool the Germans.

On the morning of the 30th January 1943, people around the Hatfield area of Hertfordshire were waking up to destruction. It appeared that someone had sabotaged the DeHavilland aircraft factory. This is where they built the famous Mosquito aircraft, one of Britain's most effective fighter bombers and one of the Luftwaffe's foremost and principle targets.

From 1941-1944, the Mosquito was the fastest fighter bomber the Allies possessed, it could out-manouevre every other type of aircraft they had and it's sheer speed would act as it's defence mechanism.

These figher bombers were causing the Germans no end of problems, by 1945 they had targeted Nazi rallies in Berlin and wiped out countless German factories and transport links, as well as destroying Gestapo headquarters in both Oslo and Copenhagen.

It was no surprise that the Nazis were so keen to destroy the factory, archive photographs show the apparent damage to the factory caused by alleged saboteurs, but in fact, the factory had never been damaged at all.

The explosion and apparent destruction were all an elaborate hoax designed by Eddie Chapman, now one of the most important double-agents of the second world war. Whilst serving a prison sentence on the occupied Channel Islands in 1940, Chapman offered his services to the Germans.

He was even sent on a year long sabotage training course by the German Secret Service. Chapman had allegedly been working for the Germans and they had instructed him to bomb the DeHavilland factory. But as soon as they parachuted him into Britain, he went straight to the police and MI5 to turn himself in.

He offered himself forward as a double-agent, so the British authorities arranged to put him in a safe house in the Hendon area. It is said that Chapman was given the name Zigzag as he would never give anyone a straight answer and gained the reputation as one who 'ducks and dives'.

In December 1942, Chapman stayed at the Comet Hotel in Hatfield to organise his plan to "blow up" the DeHavilland factory. The deception would have to be faultless if it was going to convince the Germans and MI5 needed to be sure that their double-agent wouldn't crack under interrogation.

The British Film Industry was then brought in to make the explosion look convincing. Their camouflage experts were used to being drafted in to various places to carry out secret war work and so knew not to ask too many questions on what they were required to do.

They then took a series of photographs to show the extent of the fake damage and it was very convincing indeed, especially to a German reconnaissance aircraft thousands of feet up in the air.

Chapman's deception plan completely fooled the Germans and on his return to Germany under the guise of a German spy, he was awarded the Iron Cross, the only Briton ever to receive it, and it made him feel untouchable.

Shepperton Studios, England.
Shepperton Studios, England.
One of a number of dummy tanks built during World War Two (note the stretched canvas on the side of the tank)
One of a number of dummy tanks built during World War Two (note the stretched canvas on the side of the tank)

Canvas planes, Wooden Tanks & Dummy Hangers

The Air Ministry's decoy programme was so secret that the department didn't even have a name. and they commandeered half of Britain's film studio space for war purposes.

Shepperton studios close to Heathrow Airport, became the headquarters for the Air Ministry's secret programme. In these studios were built hundreds of fake aircraft, tanks and boats. these were made from just canvas and wood, but to a plane 30,000 feet up in the air, they would look utterly convincing.

In addition to this they also built dummy hangers and fake tyre tracks to convince the Germans that what they were seeing was the real thing.

The talented craftsmen were the film industry's painters, plasterers and carpenters, who would usually be employed in the construction of film sets. The planes had wood frames and were covered in painted canvas, they were then sent wherever they were needed in kit form, easy to assemble.

They even had a fake runway which could be packed up and moved around the country to wherever it was required. A team of six men could easily set up a whole squadron of dummy planes overnight. Factory roofs were painted to look like housing estates and the real aircraft were hidden whilst fake planes were put out on display.

However, Shepperton Studios itself was vulnerable to attack as it was located very close to the Vickers Armstrong aircraft factory. Many stray bombs actually fell on the studios and two 15 year old boys were killed by one of these stray bombs in 1940.

The Other D-Day

Decoy buildings and vehicles confused the Germans into bombing the wrong targets. Many lives up and down the country were saved as a result.

Skilled craftsmen were also behind an elaborate hoax to fool Hitler when they tricked him into thinking that the D-Day invasion would come at Calais.

By 1943, Germany occupied most of Europe and the combined Allied forces of Britain, America and Canada were planning for a massive assault on the French beaches of Normandy in order to liberate France.

But they wanted the Germans to believe that the invasion would comne further around the coast at Calais.

Operation Fortitude was concocted and would be one of the most elaborate deceptions of World War 2.

A skilled team would create the illusion of a large invasion force being assembled in Kent, Dummy tanks and aircraft were built and placed in fake camps and harbours were filled with canvas landing craft.

The artists and carpenters were known as camofleurs and had also built fake bridges, jeeps and even soldiers.

MI5, MI6 and the armed forces were all in on the elaborate sceme and hundreds of these fake vehicles were built and placed along the edges of forests and roads in the Kent countryside.

This would hopefully fool any German reconnaissance aircraft into thinking that this was the Allies main army and therefore where the main D-Day assault would come from.

The hoax was a total success, Hitler and his generals bought the deception hook, line and sinker.

Even when the real Allied forces landed at Normandy, the Germans believed it was just a diversion and by the time they realised it was not, it was too late.

D-Day Artwork

Day of Days by Dave Harris
Day of Days by Dave Harris

The President's Brother

Germany's deadly V1 weapon however, threatened to interfere with the Allies plans for the D-Day invasion, so further ways of outwitting the enemy had to be devised.

On the summer evening of August 12th 1944, a formation of Allied aircraft led by a Liberator bomber, flew across the skies of Suffolk, when suddenly the aircraft burst into flames and exploded.

The plane was on a top secret U.S. Navy mission called Operation Anvil, on it's way to bomb the Nazis V1 launch sites on the North coast of France.

The Liberator had set off from it's airfield in Suffolk at 17:52hrs on it's 150 mile journey. The aircraft was packed full with explosives and eighteen minutes into the flight, the pilot turned on the automatic pilot, so he and the crew could get ready to bail out of the remotely controlled plane.

But as he did this, it is believed a faulty radio signal interfered with the plain's auto pilot system and the Liberator subsequently exploded into flames, killing all on board.

It was said to be the largest explosion over England in the entire second world war and the aircraft's crew never stood a chance. The damage was strewn over four square miles and amazingly no one on the ground was hurt by the falling wreckage of the aircraft.

The mission had been kept secret for over 20 years, but declassified information later revealed that the pilot of the Liberator was a Leiutenant Joe Kennedy Jnr, the older brother of none other than JFK (John F. Kennedy), the future president of the United States.

Operation Anvil had proved to be a total failure and this top secret mission would probably have faded into obscurity, had a Kennedy family member not been on board.

Radar masts in World War Two
Radar masts in World War Two
Radar Display of World War two
Radar Display of World War two

Our Secret Weapon

From mid-January 1935, scientists had been working on a new invention that would aim to fool the Germans for the entire duration of World War Two.....Radar.

When it became apparent that there was more than likely going to be a war, a committee was formed in late 1934.

In 1935 this scientific committee did a series of theoretical studies into physics and why aeroplanes interfered with radio transmissions.

They then developed a method in which radio waves could detect these aeroplanes and therein radar was born.

This secret weapon had the Luftwaffe baffled and their Commander in Chief Hermann Goerring, failed to understand it's purpose.

The Nazis could see the Radar transmittors on the coast of England and expected to pick up radio signals from them.

But the information was being sent back to Fighter Command by telephone and by 1937 there was a network of Radar stations around Britain for detecting enemy aircraft.

Radar was probably the most important weapon Britain had during the Battle of Britain in 1940, but there was another secret weapon being devised to outwit Hitler under the sea, codenamed Operation Pluto.

British ships laying the PLUTO pieline in WW2
British ships laying the PLUTO pieline in WW2
The PLUTO pipeline
The PLUTO pipeline

Fuelling The Allied Advance

Throughout the second world war, the public zoo on the Isle of Wight at Sandown was a derelict 19th century fort. But, what the Nazis didn't know was that this was a top secret base that would prove essential to the eventual liberation of France in 1944.

Operation PLUTO, which stood for Pipe-Line Under The Ocean, was quite literally just that, a fuel line that stretched all the way to France in order to keep the Allies moving with fueled up vehicles after the initial landings on D-Day. This system used a massive series of hidden pumps, 13 in all, each weighing 7 tonnes.

One of these is now a museum piece at the Sandown zoo, once home of it's secret location. Years after the war, it was used to pump water at the Thames Barrier in London before ending up back at the zoo.

Incredibly the pipeline once stretched all the way through France, Belgium, Holland and all the way to Berlin, if the Germans ever found out about it, the Allies would probably not have succeeded in winning the war.

Millions of gallons of petrol, aviation and other fuels were pumped to the continent under complete secrecy. Due to technical difficulties however, it wasn't until September 1944, three months after D-Day, that the pipeline was finally ready to pump the fuel.

But by the end of the war in May 1945, the PLUTO pipeline had pumped over 172 million gallons of fuel to the Allies to assist in their advance to Berlin and eventual victory.

It's incredible to imagine the scale of how these scientists, artists and even the British Film Industry played such a huge and important role in the eventual Allied success in World War Two, most of whom carried out their work in total secrecy, but were silent heroes all the same.

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Comments 8 comments

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 5 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

I was aware of some of the Allies' efforts to fool the Germans during World War II, Dave Harris, but not nearly in so much detail as you've offered here. It's fascinating history. Thanks.


Dave Harris profile image

Dave Harris 5 years ago from Cardiff, UK Author

Thanks William, glad you enjoyed it. It's amazing how naïve the Germans were in some respects.


rcgal profile image

rcgal 5 years ago

I loved reading about Agent ZigZag and Operation Pluto. MrBNaylor's YouTube channel has some video footage of Pluto in action, provided by the Imperial War Museum. It has some war footage of the De Havilland Mosquito, too, carrying out a raid against German troops.


ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

It is amazing how many plans, people and ideas were implomented in the war. A very good hub.

Wasn't the story of ZigZag made into a movie? I believe it was called CrissCross.


Dave Harris profile image

Dave Harris 5 years ago from Cardiff, UK Author

Thankyou ruffridyer, I'm not certain about CrissCross, but there was a movie called Triple Cross starring Christopher Plummer about Eddie Chapman and Tom Hanks is reportedly due to direct a new film on agent ZigZag aswell. New Line Cinema has won the rights to Ben Macintyre’s book, “Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal.” And, award-winning actor Tom Hanks, will develop it with his producing partner, Gary Goetzman.


ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

Yes Triple Cross! That was the movie. Thank you.


WesternHistory profile image

WesternHistory 5 years ago from California

Very good hub. Interesting information.


Dave Harris profile image

Dave Harris 4 years ago from Cardiff, UK Author

Thankyou WesternHistory, I appreciate your comments and I'm pleased you found it of interest.

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