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June 10, 2017

Painted Cows, Pink Planes and Inflatable Tanks: Strange and Unexpected Photos Show How Britain's Ingenious Tricks Fooled the Nazis

A war as extensive and long-lasting as World War II produces an incalculable number of artifacts. And museums as big and well-stocked as the Imperial War Museums have plenty of the ones you’d expect to find: tanks, jets, helmets, guns, and the like. But there was a whole lot more to the war—and a surprising amount of it is, well, downright weird.

Weird War Two pulls the strangest items from deep within the IWM’s archives to offer a surprising new, wildly entertaining angle on the war. From wacky inventions such as flying jeeps and bat bombs to elusive secret agents, from wholly bizarre propaganda posters to a dummy whose role as a decoy enabled a daring escape, and from inflatable tanks to painted cows—really—Weird War Two reminds us that human ingenuity is boundless, yet at the same time that usually means that truth ends up stranger than fiction.

1. Huge Helpers

Animals have taken part in conflict in a variety of different ways. Kiri and Many were circus elephants in Hamburg, Germany. Their great strength was used to clear wreckage after bombing raids. Here they are seen moving a wrecked car from a bombed-out garage.

2. Fashion Plate

Winston Churchill was frquently photographed in his siren suit, a one-piece garment similar to a boiler suit, that could be easily pulled on over other clothes when the air raid siren was sounded. He had them made in a variety of different materials, including pin-stripe and black velvet for evening wear. One of his siren suits can be found in the Churchill Museum at Churchill War Rooms.

3. Sea Dog

Animals didn't always serve a practical role. Sometimes they were simply mascots, helping to boost moral as Venus, the bulldog mascot of the destroyer HMS Vansittart, demonstrates.

4. Soft Shoe Shuffle

These sinister-looking overshoes were designed for Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents operating in South East Asia. They were intended to disguise footprints to fool the Japanese into believing they belonged to a local rather than a soldier.

5. Road Safety

Due to the threat posed by air raids, from 1 September 1939, blackout conditions were imposed in Britain. The lack of illumination meant brought many changes to everyday life. Here an Essex farmer paints a black cow with white stripes in case it should wander on the road after dusk. The stripes were supposed to increase the visibility of livestock to the motorists in the blackout.

6. Ready for a Woof Landing

Salvo, the 'Paradog' completing a parachute jump during training at Andrews Field, near Great Saling, Essex. These dogs were dropped behind German lines to accompany Allied D-Day troops and sniff out mines.

7. Ape Escape

According to legend, if Gibraltar's Barbary macaques ever leave the rock, it will cease to be a British territory. In 1942, the number of apes living there dwindled to a dangerously small handful. Rather than tempt fate, Churchill ensured the numbers of apes on the rock were topped up with new specimens from Morocco and Algiers.

8. Blow Me Down

Deception and misdirection played a large part in the plans for D-Day. Inflatable Sherman tanks were just one example of a range of many dummy vehicles create to deceive the enemy.

9. In The Pink

This striking pink Spitfire may have stood out while it is on the ground but once it was flying, things were very different. Some Spitfires were painted ‘Camoutint Pink’ to camouflage them when flying at dusk or dawn.

10. Taking the Mickey

Colorful ‘mickey mouse’ gas masks were designed to make the mask less intimidating to small children. IWM North has one of these masks on display.

11. Having A Cat Nap

Believe it or not, this cat hammock was far from the only example found in the IWM archives. Here the mascot of the ship HMIS Godavari, a Persian kitten, can be seen reclining in its special hammock but you can find Frankenstein the cat in a similar hammock on HMS Belfast.

(Images © Imperial War Museums)


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