Bat bombs, inflatable tanks, human torpedoes… Secret services or military headquarters happen to have some odd ideas, and in that regard, World War II proved to be the perfect testing ground. Here are some of the weirdest military operations ever designed.
Whatever their purpose — camouflage, infiltration, deception, espionage, sabotage –, world armies have always vied to be the most ingenious in order to surprise their enemies. War is, indeed, a fertile ground for innovation. “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results” Winston Churchill wisely warned… Let us round up some of the weirdest WW2 military operations which — surprisingly — did not achieve posterity.
The inflatable army
While they were preparing for D-Day, seriously considering Normandy, the Allied powers wished to divert Hitler’s attention from their target. They thus imagined a massive deception plan nicknamed ‘Fortitude’ that was deployed as soon as early 1943. A special unit, the ‘Ghost Army’ was tasked with flooding radio channels with fake messages, broadcasting ‘noise’ of a heavily-equipped advancing army through their loudspeakers, and crafting a phoney army to be spotted by German spies (inflatable tanks, DIY-planes…). To give their deception plan a more realistic touch, some of the Ghost Army members — most were not actually military personnel — wore officer uniforms, and Patton himself took part in the operation.
Batman got it right
Sure, it sounds like one of Batman’s coolest gadgets, but it is a far cry from fiction. Bat bombs were military prototypes designed by the US Army in January 1942. It all started with the suggestion of an American dentist who, upon his return from vacation he spent in bat-infested Carslbad Caverns (New Mexico), sent a letter to the White House advising to convert those animals into flying bombs. “This man is not a nut, Roosevelt argued. It sounds like a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into.” That being said, science took the reins.
Following months of efforts and frustration, American war engineers eventually made a bat bomb prototype out of that wild idea. It could be home to hundreds of bats, each of them fastened to a time bomb. How to use it? Step 1: release the bomb over a Japanese city (remember, it’s WW2). Step 2: the chiroptera instinctively find shelter into the locals’ attics. Step 3: as the timer ends, the bomb explodes, spreading fire from the inside of the house for maximal havoc.
However, the testing of the bat bomb proved far from conclusive (an American military base burned down) and, with $2 million already spent, scientists directed their efforts towards the atomic bomb.
We owe the invention of the first ‘human torpedo’ to the Italian naval forces — it occurred in 1918, by the end of the Great War. It was not used, however, but the prototypes were safely locked away — and when WW2 broke out, the torpedoes came naturally out of their boxes. The original design was 6-meter (20-feet) long and could be ‘ridden’ by two swimsuit-wearing soldiers. It could give rise to laughter, weren’t it for the 250 kilos of explosives they carried in the head of the torpedo… Upon an encounter with an enemy submarine, the drivers needed to place the bomb close to the keel of the ship, and then swim away as fast as they could. In the Mediterranean, the Italian unit headed by Valerio Borghese (‘the frog prince’ as he was nicknamed) sunk several Allied cruisers in 1941.
Japanese engineers went a step further, adding a cockpit to the original design so it could be home to pilots embarked upon suicide missions. There were other water kamikaze: some called fukuruyu (‘crouching dragons’) were basically frogmen with bamboo spears topped with loaded mines. Upon the passage of an enemy submarine, the dragons would simply drive the spear (and the mine) into the vessel. Contrary to Italian special units, most of the Japanese soldiers did not survive the process. Fortunately, their use was very scarce.
Devon, England, in April 1944. The dress rehearsal of D-Day has just ended — it was codenamed Operation Tiger and the least that can be said, is that it was not sucessful. Not a bit. For 9 days, Allied units (more than 23,000 soldiers) have been fumbling with maneuvers at Slapton Sands, a beach that looks just like Omaha and Utah, although it is located across the Channel. And while the location was a good pick, the performance of the soldiers has not boosted the troops’ morale — it was all panicky and disorganized, a far cry from what is expected from one who intends to invading France… And, worse of all, some Nazi S-Boote (submarines) happened to be just there and torpedoed the Allied fleet, killing 950 soldiers.
‘Operation Tiger’ has, for a long time, been kept secret for it did not shed such a positive light upon the Allies. Still, that nightmarish rehearsal had good consequences: it proved disastrous enough to improve radio communication between US and British forces and make both side aware of the importance of life jackets. Lessons were learned…
A 40-year long quarantine
Biological warfare has a long history (medieval times notoriously featured a sultan catapulting plague-ridden corpses over the ramparts of a besieged castle), but WW2 scientists took the subject all the more seriously that their side’s victory may well depend on it. Chemical weapons research was massively undertaken in German, British and U.S. laboratories alike through the 1940s. Everything was tested: botulism, tularemia, brucellosis… British researchers also considered pelting the German countryside with anthrax-infested linseed cakes, so as to contaminating the cattle and adulterating their enemies’ food.
That secret operation — codenamed Operation Vegetarian, of course — needed to be tested first, so Gruinard Island, a small island off the east coast of Scotland, was picked as the testing spot. However, the anthrax spores proved so virulent that all the island’s sheep dropped dead in no time… To get rid of them, the cadavers were thrown into the sea and part of the cliff was dynamited for good measure… But that was not enough. A dead sheep stranded on yet another Scottish shore, where it was partly eaten by a dog, spreading the virus further… Overall, that dog aside, two horses, three cats, seven cows and fifty sheep died. As British authorities could not fully decontaminate the island, the latter was purchased by the government in 1946. Five million linseed cakes were incinerated and the quarantine of Gruinard extended… until 1986.
A Nazi invasion for a good cause
To promote war effort, fear is sometimes a better motivator than patriotism… With that in mind, the Canadian army set up a mock-up Nazi invasion in February 1942. The ‘If Day’ operation gathered 3,500 soldiers and took place in Winnipeg, Manitoba. And it was probably one of the strangest sights of WW2.
On February 19, starting at 6 AM, phoney bombardments began and the locals woke up to the sound of sirens. A few hours later, soldiers wearing Nazi uniforms (smartly borrowed from Hollywood wardrobes) roamed around the city, maltreating civilians and plundering stores. Books were burnt in front of the Winnipeg Library, and the city streets rechristened with German-sounding names. As for the local paper, it became ‘Das Winnipeger Lügenblatt’ (the Winnipeg lies-sheet) and was stuffed with propaganda messages.
The operation was successful and more than $3 million were raised to promote war effort. Obviously, the local citizens had been warned in advance to avoid panic or rebellion… However, two casualties were reported: a soldier with a twisted ankle and a woman who had cut her finger while preparing her morning toast… More frightened than hurt, then.
- Claude Quétel, Les opérations les plus extraordinaires de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, Perrin, 2019.
- Wendy Lawrance, Exercise Tiger: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Silent Few, Fonthill Media, 2013.
- Evan Andrews, “D-Day’s Deadly Dress Rehearsal”, History.com, 27 avril 2017.
- “The British Plan to Cover Germany With Anthrax”, Today I Found Out, 26 décembre 2017.
- Tristin Hopper, “Rare photos from ‘If Day'”, National Post, 21 février 2019.