History - D-Day Inflatable Decoys
There have been several stories relative to the D-Day invasion of France, which included the role of inflatable decoys. None of these reports includes the story of how the thought of an inflatable decoy became a reality and the actual products available to play their role in D-Day. Following is the report of one of the key participants in this mission.
At the beginning of World War I, the U. S. Rubber Company plant in Rhode Island was engaged in the manufacture of inflatable life rafts which Fred Patten, their Product Development Manager, had designed for the Navy and Army Air Force. Because of this, the U. S. Army Engineer Corp in late 1942 contacted Mr. Patten advising of their interest in developing an inflatable rubber aircraft to be used as a decoy. This prompted him to design and build, at the U. S. Rubber Company plant, a rubberized fabric structure that, when inflated, simulated an actual size B-26 bomber. In Sept. 1942 this unit was taken to an Army Engineer Base and inflated in a field not far from the Base airfield. After a short period of time, a fighter aircraft flying in the vicinity made two zooming dives over the rubber bomber, then radioed the airfield tower that a bomber had landed in a nearby field. This supported the Army Engineers in their inflatable decoy idea.
During this period, planning for the invasion of France occupied by the Nazis had begun. Top ranking officers under General Eisenhower concluded that convincing the Nazis that the invasion would take place at a location far from the actual location in Normandy would be a strategic coup. How to accomplish the deception became the mission.
The answer was to create an invasion force with fake tanks, artillery, and landing craft (LSTís) and place these units on the shoreline near Dover, England, across the channel from Calais, France, some 150 miles east of the actual invasion location.
The Army Engineers provided U. S. Rubber Company with drawings showing the outline and general design of the products to be simulated. Fred Patten, assisted by the engineering staff, designed the inflatable rubber tank, personnel carrier truck, artillery piece and 110 ft. landing craft requested by the Army Engineers.
It was now early 1943. When the date of the Normandy invasion was set by General Eisenhower as June 6, 1944, the big problem was time: how to build the equipment, get it to Dover, England, and train military personnel in its use before D-Day. The other problem was secrecy.
The Army Engineers arranged a meeting with Fred Patten and representatives of other rubber companies to establish a plan to accelerate manufacturing of the products and devise an atmosphere of production that would provide secrecy. Patten was put in charge of coordinating the operations. To accelerate production it was decided to split the fabrication of the products into sections, having one company make one section and another company make another. The sections would then be sent to a third company for final assembly. For example, one company was given orders to build a certain number of 4" diameter inflatable tubes in various lengths, which were then sent to another company to be formed into a framework. These inflatable frames were then sent to another company where the fabric covers were installed resulting in a structure simulating a real tank. The covers were painted in a camouflage motif. The landing craft was divided into three sections fabricated by three different companies, then shipped to the military unit assigned to the decoy mission where they would be laced together to form a 110 ft. landing craft.
This program not only speeded the manufacture of several items at the same time, but because most of the workforces saw only part of the product, the secrecy problem was made easier. Those who had assignments involving the finished item were led to believe that the inflatable structures were for training purposes, to provide equipment so that the different forces involved in a planned military engagement -- infantry, artillery, tank corps, landing craft -- could "walk through" their assigned roles in the engagement without requiring the actual tanks and landing craft which were needed for combat readiness.
To the gratification of all involved, and due to the joint efforts of the participating company experts in the field, the units were available and training completed in time to be deployed on the Channel coast near Dover, England before the Normandy invasion, June 6, 1944. General George S. Patton was put in command of the decoy army. With General Patton in command, the Nazis could never have doubted the threat of this army.
Nazi aircraft reported the Dover operation to their high command. The result was that the Nazi defense troops in France were spread out on the Channel coast of France with a major portion positioned in the Calais area. This thinned the defensive force which faced the actual invasion location (approximately 150 miles west of Calais). Historians have given credit to the decoy mission for contributing greatly to the successful invasion of France by the Allied Forces that brought about the defeat of the Nazis and the end of the war in August 1945.