The 6 Craziest Disguises Ever Used in the History of War
The ancient Greeks made the Trojan Horse the most famous disguise of all time, which, as we've noted before, was a mind-blowing achievement in propaganda -- no one would really try to sneak past enemy defenses inside a huge wooden horse. No, in real life, armies have much, much stupider methods. Like ...
The Papier-Mache Horse Carcass
During World War I, both sides sat in trenches for literally years on end, blasting away at each other until the terrain in between them came to resemble a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland. This created a problem: How do you sneak out toward the enemy trenches without being seen when you've already obliterated everything around you until the entire landscape is just a flat expanse of charred dirt and corpses? Well, the French army had a perfect way to solve this: Disguise yourself as a dead thing.
The idea came when a horse broke loose, ran wildly toward the German trenches and got shot in what was probably the animal version of suicide by cop. "Hmmm," somebody said, "look at that horse carcass -- you could almost hide a dude inside one of those." Of course, hiding a soldier in the actual carcass would be crazy. No, they did the sane thing and built a hollow papier-mache replica of the dead horse, with a gun port elegantly situated in its anus.
Sometimes war has a dark grandeur. This was not one of those times.
After dark, a group of men sneaked out into no man's land right up near the German trenches, dragged away the dead horse and replaced it with the model with a sniper inside. He also had a telephone wire that ran back to his own trenches so he could send back reports of German movements.
They kept this up for three days before some German soldier just happened to spot a man climbing out of the dead animal they'd shot a few days before, probably thinking it was giving birth to him, like in that Ace Ventura sequel. Still, they destroyed the decoy, which didn't stop the French from trying it again a few more times.
Some attempts were better than others.
Warships Full of Cross-Dressing Sailors Pretending to Be on a Cruise
Meanwhile, at sea during the same war, German U-boats were wrecking most of the Allied merchant fleet. The British noticed that the subs stayed far away from any ships that could actually shoot back, so it made sense to disguise the warships as small merchant ships. They also noticed that the subs surfaced when they attacked, so the idea was that they could lure the Germans to what looked like an easy target, then blow them to smithereens when they broke the surface. This was not by itself a particularly crazy idea.
But this disguise had to be convincing, by golly! Historians have written entire books about the British "genius for deception." They had a reputation to uphold, so this is where things got downright weird. The sailors donned costumes, so they wouldn't look like military when viewed through a periscope. Some of them dressed as women and walked around on deck snuggling with other dudes. Some dressed with fake parrots, or in blackface.
"It looks great, man. No way this offends literally everyone in the future."
They even choreographed elaborate displays where once a U-boat was spotted, they would act like panicked civilians and begin to abandon ship while making a show of running into each other and tripping and falling. Some crews would even jump into the lifeboats and pretend to accidentally leave someone behind, and he would stand on the railing screaming for them to come back and get him.
Meanwhile, guns were hidden all over the ships, behind normal-looking hatches, inside shipping crates, under fake smokestacks, behind false walls and inside fake lifeboats. Once the unsuspecting U-boat surfaced for the easy kill, the captain pulled a lever, all the trapdoors would open and guns would point out the sides and blow the baffled Germans to hell. Or that's how they tell the story anyway. You know how war stories are.
"-- and then I cock-slapped the entire 4th Panzer division across the Rhine."
Oh, and apparently at least 70 German submarines actually fell for this, and 14 of them were sunk, making cross-dressing sailors the seventh leading cause of death for WWI German submariners.
And the second leading cause of questioned sexuality.
A Soldier Hidden Inside a Fake Tree (for Months)
Near Messines in Belgium in 1917, the Germans decided that they needed to spot artillery across a little patch of forest called Oosttaverne Wood, which was a pretentious name for a cluster of a hundred or so dead trees surrounded by mud and more dead things.
It's like a crop circle of sadness.
A spotter couldn't hide in the branches of a dead tree (it's easy to spot a guy when there are no leaves), and they had no fake horse corpses around. So, the Germans took some sections of steel pipe and built a 25-foot-tall armor-plated fake tree. It had bark made of painted iron. A soldier climbed inside and had a little seat and a tiny window to look out of and spy on the Brits.
Our guess would be that he spent a ton of time jackin' it. You'd have to, right?
Since a dead tree suddenly growing out of nowhere overnight would have looked suspicious, the Germans had to wait until nightfall and cut down one of the real trees. With artillery firing the whole time so the Brits wouldn't hear the axes, they cut it down and set up the fake tree in its place. It's the kind of disguise that, say, Elmer Fudd wouldn't catch, but you'd think one of the soldiers peering through binoculars on the other side would notice it eventually.
You'd be wrong -- the tree sat undetected for months, until the Brits tunneled under the German lines and blew up their trenches from below, like the opening scene of Cold Mountain, except 19 times over. Even then, the hollow tree was so well hidden that even though they were in control of the area and camping right next to it, no Allied soldiers noticed it for seven freaking months.
"Tanks" Made from Used Cars and Garbage
During the 1999 Kosovo War, NATO sent hundreds of planes to bomb Serb troops in Kosovo every day for 78 days straight. NATO commanders claimed that this rain of destruction destroyed 120 tanks, 220 armored personnel carriers and 450 artillery pieces and killed 5,000 Serb soldiers.
So imagine their surprise when after the war was over the Serb army that rolled out of Kosovo looked pretty much the same as the one that had rolled in. It turned out NATO had barely touched it. So ... what exactly had they been bombing that whole time? A bunch of laughably bad fakes.
It looks more like the result of a freak car accident that would land someone on 1000 Ways to Die.
The Serbs knew that their air force was complete crap and incapable of defending the country. So, knowing that the NATO bombers would have free rein, they built fake tanks, fake artillery, fake anti-aircraft guns -- basically an entire fake army for the bombers to destroy. And then they put it places where it was sure to be spotted. Real stuff was hidden deep in the woods or inside buildings. And they really didn't try very hard -- here is an "artillery gun" made from a pipe and plastic sheeting ...
Ladies and gentleman, the Fauxitzer.
... which looks more like laundry. What was more important was that they had heaters inside them so they would show up on IR sensors as vehicles with their engines running.
The real stuff was hidden in places like this ...
... and moved around at night or in bad weather (and also massacred innocent people. We didn't say they were good guys).
In the meantime, many mannequins gave their lives for the cause.
Commandos in Fake Boobs and Blackface
The thing about all of the disguises on the list so far is that they looked ridiculous close up -- they only worked because they were being viewed from the air, or from across a smoky battlefield. So what if you had to disguise some commandos who were going to be walking right past enemy guards? You'd have to come up with something amazing -- lives are at stake here.
Or, you come up with something so stupid that the enemy finds it too awkward to make eye contact. Such was the thinking of Israeli special forces commandos who infiltrated Beirut in 1973 to kill three leaders of the PLO. To not arouse suspicion, they took several hulking special forces guys and dressed them up as women, complete with wigs, high heels and fake boobs.
"Uh, guys, the mission's been over for like a month ..."
Pairing up with men dressed as men, they walked along in each other's arms like they were on dates. They walked right past police, bodyguards, etc. without raising any questions, such as why that woman had a five o'clock shadow and an Adam's apple, or what that lump was that looked like an Uzi hidden under their clothes.
When they got to the Palestinian leaders' bedrooms, they kicked in the doors, whipped out their guns and killed everyone.
Oh, and lest you think this was a bad career move, one of the "women" was Ehud Barak, who later became Prime Minister of Israel and is currently Defense Minister.
We repeat: People died because they mistook this man for a woman.
The Israelis hardly invented this technique, by the way. In 1943, 11 Australian commandos, all white, disguised themselves as Malay fishermen by dyeing their skin brown and boarding a fishing boat. They sailed through 2,000 miles of Japanese-controlled ocean from Australia to Singapore. At one point they even traveled right alongside a Japanese warship without them noticing anything strange (which was good, because none of the commandos could speak Malay). They then took canoes right into Singapore Harbor, where they blew up seven Japanese ships before escaping.
So racism is OK as long as you have plenty of bombs and canoes.
But to top them all, Sarah Edmonds, a 21-year-old white woman working as a spy for the Union Army, infiltrated Confederate territory in Virginia disguised as a black man. Somehow, this totally worked, and she snagged the plans to a fort and the identities of some Confederate spies before "escaping" back to Union lines.
Yet neither of her identities were allowed to vote.
A Ship Disguised as an Island
In February 1942, in the midst of World War II, the Japanese completely wrecked a combined Dutch-American-Australian-British fleet at the Battle of the Java Sea. Only four Dutch warships were left in the Dutch East Indies. They decided to try and escape to Australia, but with the seas full of Japanese warships, and the skies swarming with Japanese planes, the chances of sailing through 1,000 miles of hostile ocean to safety were not good. Sure enough, all but one of the ships were sunk within days.
The only survivor was the minesweeper Abraham Crijnssen. The ship had hardly any guns and was ponderously slow, and the crew knew that making a run straight for Australia would mean getting spotted from the air and bombed into shark food.
So they got a better idea: They would disguise their ship as an island. The crew cut down a bunch of trees and set them up on the deck to look like a jungle canopy. Vertical surfaces were painted to look like rock cliffs.
Deception was much easier back when everything was black and white.
Now, disappearing islands are one thing, but islands slowly moving toward Australia are generally targets for closer investigation. So they could only move after dark, and during daylight hours the ship anchored close to shore to look like just another island. Since there are 17,508 islands in Indonesia, they were gambling that the Japanese probably wouldn't notice that there were now 17,509, and one of them just happened to appear in a different place every day.
It's like a war-themed Magic Eye photo.
By moving a little bit each night, the Abraham Crijnssen evaded a Japanese destroyer that sank some of the other ships trying to get away. No aircraft recognized that one of the islands below them was boat-shaped and had antennae and was changing places every night. After eight days of this, the ship reached Australia and fought with the Allies until the end of the war.
Keep that in mind the next time somebody tells you your stupid idea isn't worth trying.
It tastes just like licking an Irishman.
For more wartime insanity, check out The Top 8 Unintentionally Hilarious Vehicles Ridden Into War and Nuke the Moon: 5 Certifiably Insane Cold War Projects.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out Terrible Director Choices for Famous Movie Remakes.