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Around the Great War > Small historical sketch of the fake illuminated Paris, by Fernand Jacopozzi

Small historical sketch of the fake illuminated Paris, by Fernand Jacopozzi

Simulation du faux Paris lumineux de Fernand Jacopozzi (image de synthèse, Gaspard Vivien). Plan du faux Paris, zone B’, L’Illustration n° 4048, 2 octobre 1920, p. 245, droits réservés. Détail du projet du faux Paris sur le méandre de la Seine entre Mais
© Xavier Boissel, Didier Vivien, Gaspard Vivien
Image locale (image propre et limitée à l'article, invisible en médiathèque)

At the end of the First World War, towards 1917, the French military staff decided to plan a replica of Paris and its surroundings with the intention of tricking the German planes which they were thought were likely to come and bomb Paris.

From 1915 onwards, it was mainly airships, the notorious “Zeppelins”, which bombarded the capital and its surrounding area. However, on 30 August 1914, a “Taube” (a German monoplane aircraft) flew over Paris, dropped four bombs – which neither killed nor injured anybody -, dumped a whole load of leaflets and a banner in the German colours. The aim of this raid wasn’t to kill anybody (because the bombs were only two kilos in weight), but was part of what is called “psychological warfare”. Other aerial incursions in the skies above the capital, although rare, occurred until July 1915. They did not cause any major damage (because the aircraft didn’t yet have any guiding devices), but their aim was rather to demoralise “the rear echelon”. You might think that these initial raids would plunge the people of Paris into a collective panic, but the effect was quite the opposite: “The Parisians were more given to a sense of curiosity than any feeling of fear. They come out brandishing their binoculars and would take their places on the benches of the squares and boulevards to wait for their attackers. They even went one better! The raised bridges of Paris were invaded and up on Montmartre people would hire chairs and telescopes to scour the skies as they waited for the appearance of the “daily Taubes”.1

The threat from the sky

But this carefree if not reckless attitude was to change very quickly: for considerable technical and tactical progress in the field of aerial warfare would be achieved in the space of barely two years. The arrival in the skies above Paris of first the Zeppelins in 1915 and from January 1918, the “Gotha” bombers would profoundly change the stakes of the war.

The long-held idea according to which the “the rear echelon” – the towns and cities located behind the front and their civilian population – was beyond the reach of the enemy, couldn’t be further from the truth: during the second half of the war, it was from the skies that a genuine danger and threat came. From 1915 – at the time when Europe was tipping into “total war” – The German high command decided to hit French and English cities hard in order to sap civilian morale. Until 1917, the German bombardments were basically carried out using Zeppelins, which were effective, but vulnerable: on 29 January 1916, a Zeppelin dropped 17 bombs on Eastern Paris killing 26 people in the Belleville and Ménilmontant districts.2

But this aerial attack was to be one of the last of this kind carried out by the Germans. During the night raids on London in the night of 19 to 20 November 1917, half the balloons were shot down. The failure of the Zeppelin airships forced the German high command to look for a new type of bombardment: 1917 saw the “Gotha G” German bombers make their appearance. They were a lot more manoeuvrable than the Zeppelins and were also more destructive: they could carry between 600kg and one tonne of bombs and had a range of between 550 and 1,200 km.3 They were a vast improvement on the very “amateurish” bombing of the “Taubes” of the summer of 1914 and the raids carried out by the “Gothas” were very much dreaded by the French high-command.

Creating a fake Paris

To deal with this situation, the French army deployed an anti-aircraft defence system involving: projectors, canons, barrage balloons. In August 1917 luminous camouflage operations were carried out in North-East Paris.

They were very rudimentary: As the Illustration newspaper had it “All we could do was set up a few acetylene lamps, alongside the dirt roads, so as to give the impression of avenues where the lights hadn’t been turned out.4

But soon, at the instigation of the Ministry for Aviation and the Civil Aviation Authority, a large scale  project intended to fool the enemy as to the exact position of Paris, was set up ; at the start of 1918, the decision was taken to simulate the whole of the Paris urban area ; “the difficulties involved were considerable”, in the words of the Illustration : “first of all one had to find locations on the map locations the layout of which resembled the places that one wanted to reproduce. For example, to simulate the Paris area it was necessary to find a loop in the Seine that was the same as that which crossed the capital and for which no camouflage trick would work. Then one needed to make sure that the zones which were to be presented to the enemy for bombardment did not contain any population centres.”5

Therefore the French government called upon private industry to design and carry out the necessary work for building this fake target; the decision was made to assemble decoys and to illuminate them so as to trick the enemy. It was the Italian born engineer Fernand Jacopozzi upon whose shoulders the responsibility fell, not just for deciding upon and drawing the plans for this fake Paris, but also for developing the night-time lighting.6

A city of light

This decision to build a fake Paris might seem completely nonsensical to people in the XXIst century. Even so it wasn’t completely lacking in common sense.

As it was, the daytime bombing of the capital was virtually a thing of the past by 1917, because it was considered far too risky what with the anti-aircraft defence systems which had become a lot more sophisticated since the start of the war; the large number of anti-aircraft artillery pieces around Paris was very dissuasive; so the raids were essentially during the night-time. At night the pilots who didn’t have radar would navigate using the moon and the light from the stars. A confidential French report published in 1918 all about the aerial bombing explains what can be seen depending on the visibility: woods, roads, rivers and lakes. This report pointed out that the visibility was excellent during moonlit nights and that “greater care and a few precautions on the nights when there was no moon” was needed and that finding the clues as to one’s location when the weather was very bad required “very careful work”.7

Today, one can easily understand that the pilots of night bombers would find their way to Paris by following the railways thanks to the lights of the steam trains. It is also possible that the enemy was aware of the construction of these fake targets.  But be that as it may, the main thing, as the article in L’Illustration summed it up, was that an enemy airman should be fooled by the “the mirage of a fake factory or simulated railway station”8. In an article in the French military Review which was published in the winter of 1930, lieutenant-colonel Vauthier, in his detailed reference to the building of the fake targets, concurred with the conclusions of L’Illustration: “When he sees a target of which he [the pilot] recognises the appearance, he will not always have the sufficient presence of mind nor have the necessary information in order to tell fake and real apart. Knowing of the existence of fake targets, he will tend to ask himself, even for the real ones: whether it is a fake one? The seeds of doubt which are thus sown in the attack are already a significant result.”9

It was with this reasoning in mind that the idea for a fake Paris was hatched; the plan for the fake targets was organised into three zones:

  • One zone to the North-East of Paris – replicating the built-up area of Saint-Denis, the factories of Aubervilliers, the gare de l'Est and the gare du Nord train stations, which formed target A – translated into a quadrilateral situated between Roissy-en-France, Louvres, Villepinte and Tremblay-en-France, the so-called zone A’.
  • A zone to the North-West of Paris: this was the most ambitious of the projects; a fake Paris – forming the target B – was to be on the bend of the Seine close to the forest of Saint-Germain. It was to replicate the railway which went round the centre of Paris along with certain notable sites in the capital such as the Champ-de-Mars, the Trocadéro, the Place de l’Étoile and the Opéra, the Champs-Élysées, the “grands boulevards” as well as the following train stations: Gare des Invalides, Orsay,  Montparnasse, Austerlitz and Gare de  Lyon. This target B’ was situated between  Maisons-Laffitte, Herblay and Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. It was here that the meander in the Seine deceptively resembled the one which crosses the capital.
  • A zone to the East: the simulated target C which was to feature a major urban area with fake factories in the regions of Chelles, Gournay, Vaires-sur-Marne, Champs, Noisiel and Torcy, was located in the so-called C zone.

A description of this project can be found in Quand Paris était une ville-lumière (When Paris was a city of light), the book by General Pierre-Marie Gallois10 which was notably about target B’: “Fake railway stations, squares and avenues, simulated by little lights skilfully laid out in the forest of Saint-Germain, would have given the enemy in the sky the illusion of flying above a city of Paris where the black-out had not been very well adhered to. What can only be described as rolling platforms, carrying storm lamps and pulled by horses would form “trains” entering and leaving “stations”, which themselves were marked by fixed lights. On the Seine, a few barges vaguely lit up would slowly move along. This was how the German airmen would be led astray, with the forest of Saint-Germain appearing to them to be a “lucrative” target.11

Another more precise and complete description of this plan can be found in the “Railways” special edition of La Vie du Rail of 11 November 1968, notably of the Nord-East zone: “in this work the electrical engineer needed not only the skills of his own profession but also a degree of subtle psychology which is what camouflage is all about. To imitate the lights of groups of moving locomotives, we would use different coloured lamps which would take it in turns to light up the steam which was produced artificially. Simulating the rail tracks was done by just placing canvasses on the ground. As for the signals, they were simulated by lamps of the colours codes used, placed two metres above the ground. The trains were wooden blocks placed along the ground, one after the other, like the carriages of a train. Side lighting would project light outwards as if from the windows of the train. But the “best bit” was the simulation of a train in movement. Over some 2,000 metres, the lighting would gradually run from one end to the other end over a distance corresponding to the length of an average train, to create the illusion of a moving train”.12 

The abandonment of the project

But in reality, only one part of the fake Paris was ever built and that was just a part of zone A’.

The construction work started to the North of Villepinte, in the area called the  “l’Orme de Morlu” (Morlu Elm),  with the fake gare de l’Est. It included “buildings, platforms, trains standing at platforms and trains moving, the beginnings of tracks and signals, and a factory with buildings and functioning furnaces. Furthermore, it was necessary to set up a group of transformers capable of bringing the electric current from the  Electricity and Power Company which was at 15,000 volts down to 110 volts”, according to L’Illustration.11 These wooden buildings were covered in “painted canvasses which were stretched and translucent , so as to imitate the dirty glass roofs of the factories. The lighting was set up underneath. It was made up of a double row, providing on one hand, normal lighting and, on the other, lighting which was reduced when there was an alert. For it was by using the resources discreetly that the illusion would be created.”13

By the way, these buildings “were only ready after the last German raid on Paris in September 1918; so they were never put to the test. Also, the armistice put an end to the whole project.”, explained the Revue militaire (Military Review)14 in 1930. “The war was over before the ploy could prove its worth.  The camouflage operation was unfinished when the armistice of November 1918 put an end to it. Jacopozzi’s  “fake Paris”  never got to be put into operation.”15 concluded similarly General Gallois. So the project never really got much further than the drawing board. By the very beginning of the 1920s, there was virtually nothing left of it.

The places where this facsimile town was to be built needed to be visited and meticulously surveyed, so that the slightest sign which would likely to help create the desired illusion could be picked up, the very heart of the urban structure needed to be investigated, bearing in mind what the area might give away. In as much as what appears to be real can always be deceptive, a certain credence needed to be given to the spirit of the place. In any case that’s how I went about it with my friend Didier Vivien, a photographer, and his son Gaspard, a student in architecture, in search of this fake Paris. So we “drifted” about the Paris region, in our search for the supposed remains; the book Paris est un leurre (Paris is a decoy) recounts this little adventure.

Notes :

1 Quoted by Jean Hallade in his book  “1914-1918, de l'Aisne on bombardait Paris”  (1914-1918,they bombed Paris from the Aisne département) Published by Marcel Carmoy, 1987. This curiosity on the part of the people of Paris about the first bombardments is reflected in the novel of Mathieu Larnaudie, Strangulation, Published by Gallimard, 2008, pages 263-264. Furthermore, the first aerial bombardment in History occurred on 1 November 1911 above the oasis of Tagiura, in Libya, when the Italian pilot Giulo Gavotti threw a Haasen hand grenade on to the natives below. On this question, please see the book by Sven Lindqvist, “Maintenant tu es mort” (Now you are dead). “Le siècle des bombes, The Serpent à plumes”, Coll. (The century of bombs, the feathered Snake)   Essays/documents, Paris, 2002.

2 C.f.the book by Maurice Thiéry, Paris bombarded by Zeppelins, Gothas and Berthas, Éditions E. de Boccard, Paris, 1921, pages 28-44.

3 According to Charles Dollfus and Henri Bouché, in their History of aviation, Éditions L’Illustration, 1938, page 328.

4 L’Illustration n° 4048, 2 October 1920, page 245.

5 Ibidem.

6 History of aviation, op.cit. page 330.

7 Manual of the aerial bomber, Henri Charles-Lavauzelle, Military publisher, Paris, 1918, pages 17-19.

8 L’Illustration, op.cit. page 246.

9 Revue militaire française (French military review), volume 35, January-March 1930, Berger-Levrault military bookshop, pages 211-213. These analyses can be found in the book of the same lieutenant-colonel Vauthier, The aerial danger and the future of the country published in 1930 available at Berger-Levrault. This book can be read at the BNF-Tolbiac – Garden level – shop side 8- LF195-1468.

10 Pierre-Marie Gallois, Quand Paris était une ville-lumière (When Paris was a city of light), Éditions L’Âge d’Homme, Lausanne 2001.

11 L’Illustration, op.cit. page 246.

12 Ibidem.

13 La Vie du Rail magazine of 11 November 1968, p. 75.

14 Revue militaire française (French Military Review), op.cit. page 211.

15 Pierre-Marie Gallois, Quand Paris était une ville-lumière (When Paris was a city of light), op.cit.