By J David Truby
Would Hitler have ordered the invasion of the British Isles had he and his General Staff known that many of the automatic weapons and rifles shown in Home Guard news photos from 1940 were…wooden guns?
There is a story behind that question, but first a bit of background history.
Prior to World War II, the British government had already confiscated private firearms from its citizens in a flurry of anti-gun activity somewhat like the continued anti-gun hysteria in the U.S. today. As a result, the British were largely disarmed when Hitler’s armies stood poised across the very short moat of the English Channel, ready for invasion. Even as weapons came from America, there were simply not enough.
One of those weapons coming from America was the famed Thompson submachine gun. Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s legendary symbol of World War II spirit, was quoted in the U.S. press as saying, “General Thompson’s gun may be, pound for pound, the most devastating weapon ever devised for war.”
His words moved to action quickly. The British government, which had told Auto Ordnance, the Thompson gun builder, a few years earlier that it wanted nothing to do with “that tatty American gangster gun,” was suddenly ordering thousands of the submachine guns. The orders came so fast that Auto Ordnance had to subcontract to Savage Arms to meet British needs.
In February of 1940, the British government began placing orders on commercial contract for Thompsons and by year’s end had bought nearly 110,000 weapons. Then, in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt decreed Lend Lease operational for our future allies, which effectively opened the doors of our arsenals, sending thousands of machine guns and submachine guns, including Thompsons, to the beleaguered British.
With Dunkirk a horrendous reality, Britain had lost many of her soldiers and most of her modern weapons; the threat of a German invasion was right there, in His Majesty’s face, staring across the Channel. Britain was, as the cliché said so accurately, a tiny, beleaguered, isolated island in that lonely summer of ’40.
At this point, Churchill and his staff, as adept with the weapons of psychological warfare as with the hardware, knew they had to add some feint to their fight. Propaganda, a tactic, which would be called Psychological Operations, a couple of wars later, was ordered to the attack.
About the only time the military and politicians are friendly and cooperative with the press is when it suits their own purpose, i.e., propaganda. After the disaster/miracle of Dunkirk and the Hitler-threatened invasion of the Home Isles, the British needed propaganda ammunition almost as much as the real thing. Churchill, Britain’s Prime Minister knew the value of propaganda, having utilized it in one form or another his entire career, personal and professional.
Various British units, reserve and regular, passed around the supply of modern weapons and were duly photographed with them for the world’s press, so as to appear that all were fully equipped with modern, automatic weapons.
As Mike Willis, of the Imperial War Museum staff, noted, “My father’s Home Guard Battalion had a considerable number of Thompsons and BARs and occasionally they were stripped of these weapons so they could be passed along to other units, to be photographed with them, to make it appear that all men were well-armed.”
Because there were not enough weapons to go around, some training and firearms drills were carried out using replica guns made from wood, the main phantom armament for the forces of propaganda.
Mike Willis reports that there were considerable numbers of wooden rifles and submachine guns produced in England during 1940 and 1941. He notes that the specimens he’s seen show great variation in detail and sophistication.
The wooden weapons were produced by local craftsmen at small workshops scattered across the country, just as many real small arms were subcontracted. Although the major use of the wooden guns was for training, a lesser known and, perhaps more vital use was for Churchill’s propaganda war.
Some of these weapons, numbering in the hundreds, were more fully detailed and finished, so they could be visually and openly handled by forces guarding vital military and home defense locations. The idea was to fool German agents already in place on British soil into reporting that the supply of modern, automatic weapons was much more vast than was thought, thus, possibly delaying an invasion, according to reports from Churchill’s wartime papers.
The wooden Thompson shown in this article is 32 3/4 inches long and weighs 5 1/2 pounds, as opposed to a real Thompson M1928A1, which is 33 3/4 inches long and weighs 10 3/4 pounds. The Thompson M1, which closely resembled the wooden models, is 32 inches long and weighs 10 1/2 pounds. It is currently owned by a private collector in Pennsylvania.
A.E. Hale, a British Ministry of Defence officer during World War II, recalls the propaganda planning in general and the wooden guns in particular, saying, “We had wooden rifles and some other training weapons, including some of the Thompsons. Mr. Churchill had the brilliant flash that we could also use these finished training weapons in propaganda photos.”
Thus, Home Guard and other defense units posed for publicity photos, showing the front ranks armed with a variety of Thompsons, Enfields, Bren and Lewis guns. Cursory examination of other rows of guard and reserves showed similar weapons. Closer examination would have shown that some of these other weapons were wooden, dummy weapons designed to fool German analysts studying the press photos and motion picture newsreels to make an intelligence estimate of the British capability for resisting an invasion.
Hale said, “We knew their agents would eagerly send these photos, which did appear in ours and American newspapers and their newsreels, to their intelligence analysts. Our hope is that they’d be fooled into thinking we were armed far more capably than we really were.”
Yet, as even the casual Thompson expert will observe, the wooden gun shown here has a drum magazine. A drum could not be used in the real M1 model. Hale noted, “As our people missed that detail, perhaps the Germans did also. We had a lot of your very real 1928 models with drums, though, and they surely looked formidable, even in photographs.”
For whatever the reason, of course, the invasion of England never happened. Whether or not the wooden Thompson played more than a very minor role in that bit of history is open to broad speculation.
A.E. Hale speculated, “Back then I would have feared the result had we not tried everything in our arsenal of subterfuge including those wooden machine guns.”
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V6N6 (March 2003)|