This blog post was written by Jane Rosen and Dominic Hewett, Research Support Librarians at IWM London, for History Day 2023 and explores library material relating to the IWM’s current exhibition

IWM’s new exhibition Spies, Lies and Deception opened in October with audience expectations of James Bond martinis and inventive car chases, or the love affairs of Sidney Reilly. The reality is perhaps more George Smiley, and the exhibition covers more than the standard Philby, Burgess, and Maclean material. Indeed, it covers more than conventional spying.

Alongside the spies and the secret workers, including Philby, Fuchs and Noor Inayat Khan, the exhibition provides a glimpse into camouflage, decoys, and many forms of misdirection. The visitor can find stories of sabotage and saboteurs alongside the deception of black propaganda, false information, and fake news. Operation Mincemeat is covered but there are also decoy dummy heads from the First World War. How did the Collections Access and Research Team contribute to the exhibition and what further assistance can we provide to people who want to know more about the subject?

Camouflage and Decoys

The new exhibition provides an insight into wartime camouflage and decoys through three items from the IWM Library collection. The artist Solomon J. Solomon was a pioneer of military camouflage in the First World War, designing armoured observation points disguised as trees along the Western Front, inspired by French designs. He spent much of the latter half of the war attempting to develop effective camouflage for tanks using netting. His 1920 book Strategic Camouflage recounts his team’s wartime efforts, though it also reveals Solomon’s obsessive belief that the Germans had hidden vast armies and hangars using camouflage netting and perspective tricks.

Solomon's work Strategic Camouflage showing plans for field hangars

The Second World War saw deception efforts on an even larger scale, with one famous example recounted in the filmmaker Geoffrey Barkas’ book The Camouflage Story: (from Aintree to Alamein). Barkas led Operation Bertram, misleading Germany regarding the size and location of Allied forces ahead of the Second Battle of El Alamein. Real tanks were disguised as trucks, while dummy tanks were created out of boxes and palm fronds covered in tarpaulin to trick the Axis into expecting an attack further south. Among Barkas’ team of camouflage and deception experts was the stage magician Jasper Maskelyne, whose much-disputed account of the war, Magic – Top Secret, is also held in the IWM collection.

A third example of misdirection is exemplified in the exhibition by the Luftwaffe Target Map for Tuddenham in Suffolk. This was a decoy airfield, constructed to draw enemy bombing away from nearby RAF Mildenhall. Engineers constructed a dummy runway complete with fake aircraft to lure day bombers, while landing lights drew the attention of night bombers. This decoy airfield appears to have been rumbled by the Luftwaffe, however, as the map is labelled ‘Scheinflugplatz’ – ‘mock airfield.’

Luftwaffe Target Map for Tuddenham in Suffolk

Fake News and Deception

The library’s black propaganda collection features prominently in the exhibition with a display of its printed material. We hold the most complete set of British Second World War black propaganda – an exciting example of fake news in practice, as Britain set out to convince Germany that there were people in high places working against Hitler, that there were subversive groups working in their country, and that the resistance was stronger than the reality in the occupied countries. Examples include leaflets advising soldiers on the methods of pretending to be ill that were hidden in cigarette paper boxes left on tables in cafes by Special Operations Executive (SOE) operatives.

Set of fake Deutsches Reich stamps featuring Himmler in order to spread false news that he was planning to supplant Hitler

Recent publications

The history of espionage, sabotage, and deception remains as compelling as ever to historians and biographers. Our library has recently purchased two new biographies of intelligence agents, from the Second World War and the Cold War. The first of these is Sonia Purnell’s A woman of no importance: the untold story of the American spy who helped win World War II. The subject of this biography is Virginia Hall, the American agent who ran a network of spies and saboteurs in France for Britain’s SOE. Another recent acquisition is Love and deception: Philby in Beirut by James Hanning, which focuses on the Soviet agent Kim Philby’s time spent in Lebanon as Middle East correspondent for The Observer and The Economist. These published biographies are often informed by IWM’s document collections of private papers, letters, and diaries. With recent attention on the importance of hybrid warfare in the contemporary world, there is no doubt that wartime subterfuge and misdirection remain highly relevant, and we continue to collect the latest research on the topic.

Material from our collections can be viewed in our Research Room at IWM London. Appointments are required, and bookings need to be made via our online portal. You can find more of our holdings by using IWM’s online collections search.

Spies, Lies and Deception is open at IWM London until 14th April 2024 and is free to visit. For more information, please see our website.