One of my early posts on this blog was about a story which goes something like the following. The Germans are constructing a fake airfield to decoy Allied bombers, with dummy aircraft made out of wood. On the day it is finished, a RAF bomber swoops down and drops a single bomb on it — a bomb made of wood. The Germans look foolish: having tried to outsmart the Allies, it is they who are outsmarted. A moral victory for the good guys!
The details are usually vague and vary between tellings (it happened in France, or Belgium, or Egypt; late in the Second War, early on, or even in the First World War; sometimes it is the British who are on the receiving end of the wooden bomb; rarely does anyone claim to be an eyewitness). It sounds a lot like a joke, or an urban legend, which is what it has usually been dismissed as. I tried to work out if there was any truth to the story but have to admit I didn't get very far.
You might not think that there was anyway much to be said about such an obscure and perhaps trivial topic. Well, you'd be wrong! Pierre-Antoine Courouble has spent several years researching the wooden bombs and the result is this meticulously-endnoted 237-page book, The Riddle of the Wooden Bombs. He has scoured libraries, stalked bulletin boards, harassed museums and interviewed veterans for any information which might confirm that somebody, somewhere did drop wooden bombs on a fake airfield. And I would say he is successful in this task: he has found some wooden bombs in museum collections, and perhaps more importantly, found some eyewitnesses. There are still some gaps, but it does look like the wooden bomb story did happen in reality, and more than once.
The bigger question is: why? Courouble looks at a number of explanations, the most intriguing of which is that the wooden bombs were part of a SOE psychological warfare operation. This might sound fanciful, and admittedly there's no hard evidence for it (most SOE files were apparently lost at the end of the war, and many still are not open). But the lift to civilian morale in occupied France is very noticeable in many of the accounts Courouble has unearthed, and the relish with which the stories have been retold by veteran pilots speaks to similar effects in unoccupied Europe. And some of the wooden bombs apparently also carried propaganda leaflets inside ('Wood for wood, iron for iron'). It doesn't seem too fanciful to suggest that SOE perhaps carried out some wooden bomb operations, and fanned rumours of many more, as part of their brief to set Europe ablaze. But that is speculation, and Courouble rightly hesitates to claim more than the evidence can bear, leaving a (perhaps) final resolution to future researchers. He (again, I think, rightly) decided against looking at operational records and the like, in favour of canvassing the quickly-dwindling veteran community, but that should be the next place to look.
Along the way, Courouble also looks into the history of military decoys and training bombs, and there are some excellent photos of wooden pocket battleships and wooden coastal defence guns, as well as wooden Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. The writing style is lively and always interesting; there are a few places where the translation from the original French perhaps falls short (mostly military terminology) but it's perfectly readable. (And how many books written in English have a simultaneous publication in French?) Although Courouble never claims to be a professional historian, I certainly appreciate his attention to detail and his doubt over hypotheses; and as noted his endnotes are extensive. I would like to have seen a table of contents and/or an index: the main text is over two hundred pages long, which is a bit too long to be flipping back and forth looking for certain passages.
It might be asked why such an obscure topic deserves a book all to itself. My answer would be: because, as Courouble shows, it happened! And because nobody has studied it in any depth until now. Anyone who likes following historical detective work, or traveling down the lesser-known byways of history, might enjoy Courouble's book. And certainly anyone with any interest in the wooden bomb riddle at all will want to read The Riddle of the Wooden Bombs.
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