About Crafty Tricks of War

Dick Strawbridge's Crafty Tricks of War features some of the wackiest military wheezes in history. Among the most ingenious are those produced during World War II, when scientists were working flat-out to gain a technological edge over the enemy.

Crafty Tricks of War


Invented by Barnes Wallis to destroy the dams of Germany's industrial heartland on the Ruhr river, the bouncing bomb was a triumph of lateral thinking. Conventional bombs were useless against the Ruhr's giant dams, which were nearly 40 metres wide at the base and more than 40 metres high. The solution was a cylindrical bomb (or, more accurately, a mine) that, once dropped over the lake retained by the dam, would skip across the surface towards the dam wall. When it reached the wall, the mine sank, exploding against the dam. Dropping the bouncing bomb accurately required enormous skill and courage but, on the night of May 16-17, 1943, the RAF's 617 squadron, known as the Dam Busters, successfully destroyed the Mohne and Eder dams.


D-Day planners had plenty of headaches but one of their biggest challenges was getting the vast amount of equipment and supplies ashore. The Allies could not be certain of capturing a port in working order so they decided to commission the design of a portable, artificial harbour, known as the Mulberry. More than 200 huge concrete and steel chambers (the largest weighed over 6,000 tonnes), were towed across the Channel to form two Mulberry harbours off the beaches of Normandy. Seventy-four obsolete ships were carefully scuttled offshore to provide further breakwaters. Severe weather badly damaged one Mulberry but the remaining facility landed tens of thousands of tonnes of equipment, vehicles and supplies, including delicate and difficult loads.

A bit dishy: Dick Strawbridge revealing another invention for getting the upper hand

A bit dishy: Dick Strawbridge revealing another invention for getting the upper hand


Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most effective. Who would have thought that a humble piece of tin foil could bring a sophisticated air defence system to its knees? As RAF commanders prepared a series of devastating raids on Hamburg in 1943, they began looking for a way to confuse German radar operators. The solution was to hurl millions of paper-backed aluminium strips (code-named "Window") out of the bombers as they approached their target. Each strip registered as a blip on German radar screens and it became impossible to direct anti-aircraft fire or night fighters. Eventually, German radar operators learned to distinguish between Window and real aircraft but the system gave the RAF an edge at a crucial point in the air war.


A rifle that can shoot round corners? It sounds like something out of a science fiction film. But German scientists really did develop a curved barrel attachment that fitted on to the end of the MP44 assault rifle. This device deflected the path of the bullet by 30 degrees and, used in conjunction with a prismatic sight, the modified rifle was relatively accurate. The MP44 was chosen because it used smaller, less powerful bullets than conventional rifles.


Scientists working for Britain's Special Operations Executive equipped its secret agents with several fiendish weapons, including a firearm that could be hidden in a sleeve and a miniature gun disguised as a cigar. But the most unusual SOE "weapon" was surely itching powder. SOE agents contaminated uniforms with itching powder in an attempt to lower morale among selected groups of enemy personnel. U-boat crews were singled out for special attention. At least one operational U-boat had to return to base because the crew believed they were suffering from an acute skin condition that made it impossible for them to concentrate on their work. Itching powder was also placed into condoms destined for use by German servicemen stationed in Norway. Resistance sources reported that the results were extremely uncomfortable for the occupiers.