Yesterday there was quite a bit of activity on Twitter in response to the following tweet:
— Kate Pearce (@secvalve) November 20, 2016
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:
For those asking. This is the book and the footnote. pic.twitter.com/dbj6bkb0cD— Kate Pearce (@secvalve) November 20, 2016
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:
— PsyWar.Org (@psywarorg) November 21, 2016
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.
Merrill E. DeLonge, Modern Airfield Planning and Concealment (New York: Pitman, 1943), pp. 135-6. ↩
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