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When April Fools go to war

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Probably more of an honest accident than a prank (Photo: histomil.com)

April Fools' Day is a tradition that goes back at least to the 14th century, and is referred to in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. A similar concept, the Feast of Fools, predates even Chaucer's time, though was associated with other dates. Today, on April Fools' Day, we have compiled a few pranks, some jesting, but others very serious, that occurred during World War II.
 
Itching powder. A classic gag item, itching powder was put to serious use by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret organization also nicknamed "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare." Most of the SOE's schemes were quite lethal; the itching powder plot was relatively benign. Made of ground-up glass wool, the powder was sent to various resistance groups in Nazi-occupied Europe via secret airdrops. Once the powder was put inside clothing, it was practically impossible to remove it. Skin coming in contact with the substance would start itching intolerably, and any scratching would turn the sensation into an even worse burning. On the Greek island of Crete, locals put the powder on the beds of German soldiers quartered in their home. In many other places, the powder was given to washing women charged with washing German uniforms, with predictable results. Beside the obvious extreme discomfort, the prank also caused German officers to order mass delousing and request unnecessary medical supplies to combat what they assumed to be lice infestation.

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World War II-era itching powder (Photo: Jonathan Pow)

Laxatives under the sea. Another classic prank, laxatives were also put into wartime service. The Kingdom of Norway was overrun by Nazi Germany in the spring of 1940, and a resistance movement sprung up in the occupied country. Many partisans "part-time," meaning they had to work a job to sustain themselves and their families even while they participated in anti-Nazi activities, and quite a few of them worked in the sardine canning industry. In the winter of 1940, Vidkun Quisling's pro-Nazi government ordered the entire sardine catch to be turned over the Nazis, where much of the supply would be sent to U-boats. The Norwegian resistance asked the Special Operations Executive for help, and the Brits were more than happy to oblige. They've smuggled barrels of croton oil to Norway. Made from the Indian plant called "purging croton" or "jamaal gota," croton oil was used as a very powerful laxative at the time. Sardine cannery workers slipped some of the stuff into the cans, with the taste of the fish suppressing the oil's own flavor. The canned sardines were the shipped to the German submarine base at St Nazaire in France, where they were added to the U-boats' provisions, with extremely unpleasant effects once the boats were out at sea.

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German U-boat at St Nazaire (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

As an interesting note, croton oil also had another, much less prank-like use in the war: the U.S. Navy added it to the rectified grain spirits that were used to fuel torpedoes in order to prevent sailors from tapping into the torpedo fuel for a bit of booze. In response, the seamen devised jury-rigged stills to separate the oil from the alcohol.
 
Porn is bad for morale? In a widespread prank whose working mechanism was a lot less obvious than the above tricks, several belligerent nations tried to drop large amounts of pornographic leaflets on enemy troops to demoralize them. The specific line of reasoning varied from country to country. British pamphlets often featured very explicit depictions of Eastern European forced laborers (many of whom were really transported to Germany) having their way with German ladies, implied to be the German soldiers' wives and girlfriends.

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A German leaflet telling British soldiers what their girlfriends are doing with the Americans stationed in England (Image: imgur.com)

American leaflets also often depicted the soldiers' wives and lady friends in the arms of other men, but they depicted Nazi officials as the paramours, suggesting that the soldiers were being cuckolded by their own leaders and higher-ups. Naturally, the Axis powers also produced similar leaflets, depicting the American and British soldiers' ladies in the company of other men.

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"The Girl You Left Behind" (Image: German propaganda)

The Japanese also took a lesson from a World War I German idea and printed "surrender tickets." These depicted a nude woman (to give American soldiers an excuse to hang on to the flier) and instructions on how to surrender, with a promise that ticket holders will not be shot. It is generally assumed that smutty leaflets failed to achieve their goal, and were used by their recipients as plain old pornography.

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A Japanese "surrender ticket" from 1942 (Photo: rarehistoricalphotos.com)

One particularly visionary prank idea was to drop a large amount of particularly perverted pornography near Hitler's headquarters, so he would find it during a walk. The idea's originators at the Office of Strategic Services (the CIA's predecessors) hoped that Hitler, who was believed to be a sexual deviant with strongly anti-pornographic views, would suffer a nervous breakdown. The plan was quickly vetoed by an Army Air Force colonel.
 
Nazis (not) invited. Sweden was a neutral country in the war, but most Swedes had little love for the Nazis. In May 1944, two local anti-Nazis, Ewan Butler and Janet Gow, learned of a very fancy, very exclusive gala and theatrical performance that was planned for the local German community in Stockholm. Admittance to the gala was strictly by invitation, and invitations could only be acquired at the German consulate.

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German actor Georg Alexander, who was the star guest at the gala (Photo: Alexander Binder)

Butler and Gow forged 3,000 fake invitations to the gala, and acquire a list of Swedish Nazi sympathizers from, you guessed it, the Special Operations Executive in Britain. They've sent 1,500 of them two invitations each, asking them to attend in the finest evening wear. On the evening of the gala, the Nazi organizers were swamped with would-be attendees holding fake tickets. Swedes on the streets could finally see who among them were Nazis. The Germans with real tickets had to push their way past the hopefuls, which was uncomfortable for the former, and humiliating for the latter who felt they were being treated like second-class Nazis.
 
Wooden bombs for wooden airfields. One particular World War II prank that's often told but never verified for certain is the famous story of the wooden bombs. As the story goes, the Germans built several fake airfields out of wood late in the war to confuse the Allies about the location of real ones. Supposedly, the Allies launched either one or several attacks against these airfields, dropping fake wooden bombs to let the Germans know their trickery was uncovered.

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A decoy German airplane, ostensibly at one of the decoy airstrips (Photo: histomil.com)

We don't really know if this actually happened. The story can usually be traced back down to old German soldiers as sources, but never to any American or British airman who actually participating in such a raid. On one hand, the story sounds false for pretty simple reasons. If you know that your enemy is engaging in subterfuge, and know what exactly that subterfuge is, you don't want to let them know you're onto them. It's much better to let them go on believing they've had you. And while wooden bombs might be cheap, the real aircraft sent on a prank run, the real fuel burned by the planes and the real crews onboard are very expensive, and might be shot down by real German flak batteries or interceptors.

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One of the "fake bombs" ostensibly dropped on decoy airfields. Some critics claim this object is, in fact, a Mark IV Float Light, a flare used for drift sighting over water. (Photo: Airborne Museum, Sainte Mère Eglise)

On the other hand, it has been suggested that letting the Germans know the game was up might have had real military value. According to this theory, not bombing the fake airfields or bombing them with real ordnance might have led the Germans to believe that their trick worked, which in turn might have prompted them to build even more fake airfields, enough to actually confuse the Allies. But as it stands, we'll probably never know if the story is true or a fib.
 
Pranks, much gentler ones than those above, were also played on one's own side. One popular prank among British conscripts was the "saluting trap." Conscripts were required to salute every time they passed an officer, and the officer had to return the salute. Therefore, squaddies (the British slang for a private) would gather into large groups and march past an officer, spacing themselves so that the man had to constantly raise and lower his arm, eventually getting a muscle burn.

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Field Marshal Montgomery performing a British salute. No information on whether he was ever salute trapped, personally. (Photo: usmilitariaforums.com)

Another, similarly innocuous British prank occurred among the commandos who participated in the St Nazaire raid (Read our earlier article – The greatest raid of all). Trapped on a ship at sea for two whole days with nothing to do but wait for an upcoming very lethal battle, they found a way to release some of what must have been an unimaginable tension. Soldiers started to make sandwiches with ingredients such as soap and hair cream and trying to get their comrades to take a bite.
 
In the American military, Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT, predecessors of the modern-day SEAL teams) liked to play a little prank on the Marines. Many battles for hotly contested Pacific islands began with UDTs sent ashore to gather intelligence and to demolish beach obstacles and coral reeds that landing craft might run aground on. Marines, being Marines, often bragged about how they'll be the first on the beach. Many Marines ended up getting ashore, often under heavy enemy fire, only to find a sign left behind by a "frogman" (and likely placed the night before) welcoming him to the island, often directing him to the nearest U.S.O. (United Service Organizations) locale for a bit of rest and entertainment he was surely in need of.

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One of the many signs left by the UDTs for the Marines to find (Photo: U.S. military)

Finally, here's the story of a prank that technically wasn't a prank, since it was announced in advance. On the morning of February 19, 1942, the Canadian city of Winnipeg in the province of Manitoba was attacked by German troops, overrunning the local defenses in two and a half hours of fighting that involved an air raid, a power blackout, bridges being demolished and German ground troops storming the city. Only it didn't really happen. IF Day was a publicity stunt intended to increase support for the war (and the purchase of war bonds) in Canada. The German stormtroopers were young members of the local Board of Trade in Hollywood costumes, the bombers Canadian planes painted to resemble German ones, and the defenders real soldiers and civilians firing blanks. Blowing up bridges was simulated with dynamite explosions throwing ice debris on them and coal powder making smoke.

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Fake German soldiers harassing a real newspaper seller on IF Day (Photo: Western Canada Pictorial Index)

For the rest of the day, the locals had a taste of Nazi oppression with workers being harassed by "German soldiers," local officials marched off into an "internment camp," and a German occupation paper being printed. The swastika flag was raised over the city, a "Nazi educator" taught "Nazi Truths" in the primary school, and even an honest-to-God book burning (of old and damaged brooks from the library that were slated for destruction anyway) was held. Now, the publicity event announced beforehand in papers and on the radio, but some residents neither read nor heard it, and were genuinely surprised by the event, making it something of a not entirely deliberate prank.

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The fake book burning on IF Day (Photo: rcmpveteransvancouver.com)
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