For nearly two years of the war the Royal Navy used a fleet of wooden warships fitted with dummy guns to hoax enemy reconnaissance aircraft and bombers. They were merchant ships with elaborate superstructures of plywood and canvas, painted to transform them into replicas of R-class battleships and an aircraft carrier.
Dummy warships had been used with success in 1914-18, and in 1939 a new force of dummy ships, known as Fleet Tenders for purposes of security, was constructed on the instruction of Mr. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. Three 7,900-ton merchant ships were used: the S.S. Pakeha and S.S. Waimana being turned into the 33,500-ton battleships Revenge and Resolution, and the S.S. Mamari becoming the aircraft carrier Hermes.
They were manned by naval “runner” crews, and their holds were filled with thousands of empty barrels to give them greater buoyancy in the event of their being hit by bombs or torpedoes. Many rumours, which are known to have reached the enemy, were started by the appearance of one of these mystery ships in ports in Scotland and on the Tyne. By 1941 the dummy warships had served their purpose. S.S. Mamari (alias Hermes) had been wrecked off the Wash; the other two were handed back to their owners and still sail as merchant ships.
It was left to a real battleship, the 33-year-old H.M.S. Centurion, disarmed under the Washington Naval Treaty, to carry this imposture into foreign waters. In a fortnight in April 1941, while the Devonport dockyard was under heavy air attack, she was fitted with a dummy after-funnel, mainmast, main armament and, with a crew of 16 officers and 265 men, set out on a 20,000-mile trip round the Cape that ended at Bombay. In June 1942 she sailed in a Malta convoy that was intercepted by the Italian Fleet. She was repeatedly attacked by bombers, shot down one Stuka, and damaged at least four J.U.188s. Her greatest danger was that her wooden armament might catch fire.
Once, in a monsoon in the Indian Ocean, her dummy “A” turret was swept overboard by a heavy sea, and astonished lookouts in the convoy reported a 14-in. gun floating down the fairway! Perhaps her strangest trip was the voyage home manned by a scratch crew of naval officers and men due for repatriation. Their main armament was half-a-dozen rifles, apart from the dummy guns. When they entered the Suez Canal from the Bitter Lakes a signal was made to the ship from the Senior Naval Officer ashore. “You leave the Pyramids on your left”, it said. The Centurion was finally sunk as a blockship off the Normandy coast on D-Day to form a breakwater for landing craft – part of the Mulberry project.