In Magic–Top Secret, Maskelyne sets up a decoy airfield which is soon bombed by the Italians. Maskelyne works hard to repair the site and to create faked bomb-damage. A week later there is a second attack. The bombs land with a mysterious thump and fail to explode. Maskelyne discovers they are wooden dummy bombs which have obscene messages scrawled on them.
He later learns that the retaliatory raid was carried out by Balbo, a famous test pilot before the war. A few weeks later, the Italian ace dies mysteriously in an accident on take-off.
But did this wooden bomb incident really happen? There is a major problem with this story. Balbo was killed June 28th, 1940, and not on take-off, but while flying over Tobruk, possibly downed by ‘friendly’ fire.
Balbo died eight months before Maskelyne reached Egypt.
This tale of decoy sites being attacked by dummy bombs appears elsewhere in the war literature. For example, Trevelyan mentions a similar story about Germans squandering bombs on Sykes’ dummy railhead in early 1942: “They later paid it the compliment, I believe, of dropping a wooden bomb on it.”
In a different context, President Roosevelt received the following intelligence briefing from Donovan, head of OSS: “For months, Berlin has been camouflaging its streets, squares, parks and lakes to confuse Allied fliers ... To show contempt for this German effort at camouflage, a single RAF plane flew over ... and dropped one wooden bomb.”
Was Donovan recycling a myth? Why would a pilot risk his life over heavily defended enemy territory just to drop a wooden bomb? And why alert the enemy of deficiencies in their camouflage efforts?
The latest reincarnation claims an OSS agent in the war witnessed a German plane dropping a wooden bomb into the Suez Canal near where the British had built wooden decoy anti-aircraft guns.
These combat legends will never die. Truth shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.