The origin of the wooden bombs

Yesterday there was quite a bit of activity on Twitter in response to the following tweet:

Yes, it's our old friends, the wooden bombs! A number of people linked either to me or to one of my posts on the topic -- the first one trying to pin down the reality of the story in response to a Snopes debunking, the second one reviewing Pierre-Antoine Courouble's book which, for my money, did just about do that, and the third one passing on an appeal from Jean Dewaerheid, Peter Haas and Courouble for further eyewitnesses, which, as far as I know did not eventuate. From time to time these get linked from Reddit or some listicle site, making them probably the most popular posts on Articles, but it's all heat and no light. However, the Twitter discussion did uncover one new source of information which would seem to confirm the origin of the wooden bomb story as a British psychological warfare operation.

That didn't come from the book read by @secvalve, who did however helpfully provide more details:

So the book is Jon Latimer, Deception in War (originally published 2001), which cites M. E. DeLonge, Modern Airfield Planning and Concealment (New York: Pitman, 1943), p. 135. This is good; from the title it's right on topic and it was published during the war. And it's available online. The author -- given as Merrill E. De Longe on the title page but DeLonge elsewhere -- was a major in the US Army Air Corps, a pilot as well as an architect. So he was perhaps in a position to know about any real wooden bomb incidents. Unfortunately, his version of it is just as vague as all the rest:

It is reported that in Holland the Germans spent many weeks carefully building a dummy airdrome. Finally it was completed and the very next day the British dropped a lone bomb on the field. The Germans must have been surprised when they found that the bomb was wooden.1

So that's no help. (Note too that Latimer seems to have interpolated many details which aren't in DeLonge.)

But another Twitter user, @psywarorg, did provide a useful primary source:

It seems that the wooden bomb story began as a 'sib' (from the Latin sibilare, to hiss) -- a rumour created by the Underground Propaganda Committee (UPC), originally part of Department EH and then the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was formed in 1940 to fight against the impending invasion using psychological means. The above is an extract from an online article by Lee Richards, who also published it in his Whispers of War: Underground Propaganda Rumour-mongering in the Second World War (PsyWar.Org, 2010). The original rumour is given as:

The Germans built a dummy aerodrome in Normandy with wooden planes. Next night the RAF bombed it -- with wooden bombs!

The sib number is S/116, dated 17 January 1941; the archival reference is not explicitly given but would seem to be The National Archives, FO 898/69, and/or FO 898/70, which as Graham Cole commented here a couple of years ago contains 'notes from meetings to choose false rumours to be distributed via embassies etc [including] the story of wooden bombs dropped on German fake airfields (dated January 1941).'

Courable has long suspected some kind of SOE involvment, and it makes a lot of sense that they might try to propagate such a story to make the Germans look foolish, in Germany, in its conquests and in neutral countries. But there's a problem. Richards and Cole both say that this particular rumour was not approved for distribution (according to the former because it was considered 'liable to compromise intelligence sources'). But obviously, if the UPC was the source, then the wooden bombs rumour must have been released somewhere, sometime. And if William Shirer is to be believed, it was already in circulation in Berlin in November 1940. So it seems that the surviving archival record cannot quite explain the origin of the wooden bombs, though we are clearly getting close.

If the wooden bombs story originated at a desk in London rather than on a Continental airfield, does that mean it never happened in reality? Unsurprisingly in this era of 'fake news', a number of people on Twitter pointed to the original Snopes article or to @psywar's response and bemoaned the credulity of everyone who took the initial tweet at face value. And they have a point. But to repeat, Courouble found enough evidence to show that Allied aircraft dropped wooden bombs were dropped on fake German airfields on some occasions (and see here for his interview with Werner Thiel, a former Luftwaffe officer who claimed to have witnessed just this, in October 1943 at Borkheide). And just because something is an urban legend -- as is obviously the case here, given the multiple incompatible versions of the story -- doesn't always mean it never happened. Folklorists even have a term for acting out an urban legend in reality: ostension. In fact, this is what I originally suggested what had happened, way back in 2005. So I still think this story is a bit more complicated, and a bit more interesting, than real vs fake.

  1. Merrill E. DeLonge, Modern Airfield Planning and Concealment (New York: Pitman, 1943), pp. 135-6. 

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6 thoughts on “The origin of the wooden bombs

  1. Alan Allport

    "Courouble found enough evidence to show that Allied aircraft dropped wooden bombs were dropped on fake German airfields on some occasion."
    I haven't read the book ... but all I'm seeing in that link are some allusions to hearsay accounts of the old-soldier variety, which prove absolutely nothing, surely.

  2. This is actually even cooler than the story itself. We didn't even need to actually do it; we just started a rumour to mess with their minds and it worked.

  3. Alan - not so, I'd recommend reading the book. It's a remarkable effort, and deserves to be taken seriously, as it's a work of credible, original research.

  4. Post author


    You could be right, apart from the evidence in the book (which never seems to be to hand when I write one of these posts, this time it's in a different state altogether...) I was thinking to myself about what the difference is between the wooden bomb claims and the various eyewitness claims of third atomic bomb missions that crop up here from time to time -- I'm definitely more sceptical of the latter. There's no archival evidence of either, so a pure Rankean would dismiss both. But here it's easy to imagine why there might be no archival evidence, e.g., because if it ever happened it might have been unofficial; conversely I've never seen a credible reason why an abortive third atomic mission would still need to be secret. And it's easy to imagine that a wooden bomb 'attack' could have happened, because all you need is a camouflaged airfield, a wooden bomb, and an idiotically gung-ho pilot, all of which we know existed. The barriers for a third atomic bomb mission are much higher, given the scarcity of atomic bombs in 1945 and the investment in aircraft, air, ground and technical support personnel needed for a mission to happen. So old airmen's tales they might be, but I don't see any a priori reason to disbelieve them on that basis alone.

  5. Steve Paradis

    I've encountered this story at various time, but only fairly recently was it so completely debunked. Sorry to say, not before some trusting soul spent years trying to track down the fictitious pilot's name and hometown.
    Some stories, however too good to be true, are ardently believed for that same reason.

  6. Post author

    Thanks, Steve -- interesting! You're right: some stories just are too good to not be true. I'll admit the wooden bomb story has many of the same hallmarks of the Mindanao P-40 yarn. And yet... and yet!

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