Western Europe 1939-1945: Deception & Bluff

Did the British really employ magicians and practical jokers?

Extracts from memorandum by the First Lord of the Admiralty to the War cabinet, October 1941

Catalogue ref: CAB 86/1

Memo on using coal dust as camouflage for coastlines; CAB 86/1

Memo on using coal dust as camouflage for coastlines; CAB 86/1


Memo on using coal dust as camouflage for coastlines; CAB 86/1

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What is this source?

This is a memorandum or note from the First Lord of the Admiralty to the War cabinet commenting on the use of coal dust to camouflage the coastline.

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Experiments were carried out to use coal dust to disguise the outline of the coast and other inland waterways and rivers, thus making it difficult for German bombers to attack ports, docks and estuaries. The film of coal dust would cut out any reflection from the water and make it less visible.


What’s the background to this source?

After the Battle of Britain in October 1940, Hitler had renewed plans for Operation Sealion (the invasion of Britain) in the spring of 1941. However, with the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, it became unlikely that Hitler would invade until this conflict on the Eastern Front was resolved.

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The Battle of the Atlantic however, continued at this time. The Royal Navy, along with other Allied navies had the task of defending from German surface and U boat attack, merchant ships carrying essential food and supplies.


It’s worth knowing that...

These plans to camouflage the coastline were rejected in the end. There were too many problems. It was a wasteful use of vital coal during wartime and caused rivers to silt up. Tides would wash away the coal dust film and break up the cover.

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This experiment shows that the government was interested in the use of camouflage and was prepared to consider all sorts of ideas!


How does this source help us to understand why D-Day was successful?

  1. What was the main idea behind this experiment?
  2. Why was it not really practical?
  3. Why might people today object to such plans?
  4. Do you think this source can help you to convince your friend that the British used deception tactics in WW2?

You could do this as a presentation or a written report. Use the following report sheet to help.