Creating fake Paris: how one man built a mock city to fool WW1 German bombers
As German aircraft attacked Paris during WWI, one man had an idea: what if you could fool the enemy into dropping their bombs elsewhere? Gavin Mortimer tells the story of an audacious wartime ruse...
Tucked away in a British newspaper called The Globe in its edition of 4 October 1920 was a short story with an intriguing headline: “A Mock Paris: French Plan to Hoodwink German Raiders.”
The ruse, explained the paper, had only just come to light, and it was almost too fantastical to be true. “Camouflaged streets, factories, dwelling houses, railways, with stations and trains complete, and in fact a camouflaged capital, was the gigantic task on which French engineers were engaged when the Armistice put an end to military operations,” ran the report. It was the brainchild of an electrical engineer called Jacopozzi; a way to draw German aircraft away from the capital and onto a fake conurbation where bombs could fall without causing death and destruction. But the Germans sued for peace as the city began to take shape and Jacopozzi’s ingenuity was never put to the test.
Paris was first bombed by German aircraft on 30 August 1914, the first time that a capital city had been attacked in such a manner. Four small bombs were dropped from the hands of Ferdinand von Hiddessen and his observer from their Rumpler Taube monoplane. The casualties were minimal, but the wider psychological damage was profound. A little over a decade after the Wright brothers had made the first brief flight in an airplane, the Americans’ invention was a new and terrifying weapon of war.
The home front was now a battlefront, and women and children were no longer safe from enemy fire.
Death from above
There were other sporadic attacks in the 18 months that followed, including the first attack by Zeppelins (named after their inventor, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin) in March 1915. The airships came from their bases in Belgium, but none caused serious casualties. However, on 29 January 1916, two Zeppelins appeared in the grey winter sky over the French capital. Their bombs wreaked havoc, killing 24 and wounding 30.
The funerals of the dead were held on 7 February 1916 in a service that brought Paris to a standstill. Thousands of mourners lined the streets as six gun carriages carried the coffins to the Church of Notre-Dame de la Croix, and politicians and other dignitaries walked behind. The service was conducted by Cardinal Leon Adolphe Amette, the archbishop of Paris, who delivered what one British newspaper described as a “moving oration”. “Before you lie the victims of German barbarity, who fell on no field of battle,” he proclaimed.
“Their death will help the cause of mankind and will strengthen the vigorous determination to conquer, to reduce the enemy to impotence, and to prevent a repetition of his crime.” But the impotence was all French as the air attacks increased in the months that followed. Paris had a respite in 1917 when the Germans switched the focus of their air attacks to London, using their latest bomber aircraft, the Gotha. One raid in June left 162 Britons dead. The French knew their turn would come. But how could they defend themselves?
How Fernand Jacopozzi built a fake Paris
A man who thought he had a solution was an electrical engineer called Fernand Jacopozzi. A Florentine by birth, Jacopozzi had previously worked on the Paris International Exposition in 1900, a world’s fair that celebrated the achievements of the past century and looked forward to what the next 100 years held. Jacopozzi believed it would be a century of progress, one which could prove lucrative for an electrical engineer such as himself. He remained in Paris and, according to one contemporary newspaper, “made a special study of electric lighting”.
How Jacopozzi became involved in this secret project is unclear - for obvious reasons. But at some point in late 1917, he was commissioned by the DCA [Défense contre Avions, the War Office department charged with protecting France from air attacks] to build a fake Paris in order to fool German bombers.
As outlandish it sounds to modern minds, the plan made sense at the time. Enemy aircraft navigated their way to the capital at night not by technological aids but by topography. They simply followed the River Seine and then dropped their bombs. But the Seine is a meandering river that, once it cuts through the heart of Paris, under its famous bridges and past landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, then doubles back on itself not once, but twice, like the humps of a camel. It was on the second of these ‘humps’, in the suburb of Maisons-Laffitte, that the French instructed Jacopozzi to construct his phoney city. However, there were to be two other “zones of false objectives”: a fake industrial zone would be created at Vaires-sur-Marne, situated 10 miles east of the capital, while the suburb of Saint-Denis would be relocated to Villepinte in the northeast.
Light railway system
Jacopozzi began his work at Villepinte in 1918, constructing a replica of the Gare de l’Est railway station - one of Paris’ busiest - and even fabricating a moving train. Drawing on his years of study of electrical lighting, the Italian used wooden boards for the train’s carriages, and for the interior lights he rigged up an ingenious system of lights on a conveyor belt. From the air it appeared that the train was moving.
The industrial zone was next. Jacopozzi once again used wooden boards for the shell of the factories and for the roofs he used canvases craftily dappled with various hues of paint. With a clever combination of different coloured lamps - whites, yellows and reds - he recreated the fires and vapours emitted by a factory during the manufacturing process. The key was subtlety; he didn’t want to arouse the Germans’ suspicion by lighting up his fake creations like a Christmas tree.
It was painstaking work but Jacopozzi had all but finished when German Gotha aircraft raided the capital on 16 September, dropping 22,000 kilos of bombs that left six dead and 15 wounded. Next time the bombers returned the subterfuge would be put into operation. But there wasn’t a next time. Two months later the war ended and Jacopozzi was denied the chance to see if his ingenuity had outsmarted the German pilots.
Nonetheless, the French government believed they had created an important form of defence should enemy bombers appear over Paris in a future war. A veil of secrecy was thrown over Jacopozzi’s creation, one which was lifted in 1920 when the British press got hold of the story. The Globe had the scoop at the start of October, but it was The Illustrated London News in its edition of 6 November 1920 that really brought Jacopozzi’s invention to life in a photo essay headlined: “A False Paris Outside Paris — a ‘City’ Created to be Bombed.” There were photographs, maps and explanations, all of which amounted to what the newspaper called “remarkably interesting revelations”.
What they didn’t disclose, however, was the name of the man behind the sham city. But Jacopozzi was honoured by the French government with the presentation of the Legion d’Honneur, and he enjoyed great success in the 1920s. Having illuminated the Eiffel Tower, he also installed floodlights on the Place de la Concorde and lit up several other popular landmarks in the city. The corporate world spotted the potential in Jacopozzi’s talent and Citroën hired him to create a large luminous advertisement of one of their motor cars on the Eiffel Tower.
Jacopozzi died in Paris in 1932. “He attracted world interest by his illumination of the Eiffel Tower, and did much to make Paris the City of Light,” remarked The People newspaper in a short paragraph about his passing. There was no mention of Jacopozzi’s contribution to the French war effort but no news is better than fake news. Or in his case, a fake city.
World War II's phantom armyDeception would also play a crucial role during the Allied invasion of France in 1944
There was also a cunning plan to hoodwink the Germans during World War II, although this time it wasn’t a city but an army that was crafted to deceive. Planning for the invasion of France – D-Day – by the Allies began in earnest in late 1943. Once the landing beaches in Normandy had been selected, an operation was conceived to fool the Germans into believing that the landings would actually occur 150 miles east, close to Calais, where the Channel is at its narrowest between England and France.
Gavin Mortimer is a historian and author. His books include Guidance from the Greatest (Constable, 2020) and David Stirling: The Phoney Major: The Life, Times and Truth about the Founder of the SAS (Constable, 2022)
This article was first published in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed Magazine