In A Nutshell
A nighttime raid by German bombers would have been devastating for Paris and its population. As a countermeasure, the French decided to build a scale replica of Paris 24 kilometers (15 mi) outside of the actual city. This plan wasn’t developed until the tail end of World War I, and went ultimately unfinished even though construction was begun.
The Whole Bushel
The threat of an aerial attack on Paris from German bombers was a very real one in the days of World War I. In 1914, German planes dropped four bombs (which did minimal damage and resulted in no casualties) on Paris, along with German leaflets and banners in an attempt to demoralize the French. (It didn’t work. In fact, sitting on rooftops and scanning the skies with binoculars, looking for the next display of German ingenuity, actually became a popular pastime.)
Later raids would prove to be much more devastating, and it didn’t take long for the French military to step up and decide they needed a plan to protect their home territory. In a plan only recently uncovered and released to the public in recognition of the 93rd anniversary of Armistice, the Defense Contre Avions (DCA) in France developed plans to build a fake version of Paris north of the real city, in the hopes of luring German pilots into bombing in the wrong place.
The location selected was an area outside of one of Paris’s suburbs called Maisons-Laffitte, about 24 kilometers away from the real city. The decoy Paris was to be laid out like the real thing, lit like the real thing, and the whole success of the plan relied on making German pilots believe it was the real city.
Construction was top secret, and surprisingly, many Paris residents didn’t even know what was going on. Private companies were hired to build the fake Paris, and build it they did.
Because of the presence of even rudimentary anti-aircraft defenses, daytime raids were too dangerous. They knew the Germans would be attacking in the night, making a properly lit decoy city a viable plan. Radar was a long way in the future at this point, and bombs were still being dropped by hand out of the bellies of bombers. Pilots were still relying on the illuminated railways to navigate across miles and miles of open countryside, and to ultimately find their targets. As long as the city looked realistic enough, they saw no reason why it wouldn’t work.
The life-size buildings were to be mostly made of wood, and were to include replicas of the Arc de Triomphe and the Opera. The reconstruction of Paris’s railway was crucial, as they knew it was going to be the tracks—unmistakable from the air—that pilots were going to be using to navigate. When construction began, it started with the railways, platforms, and factories, complete with translucent paint to give the illusion of glass. Different colored lamps mimicked traffic and train signals.
Since the success of the project relied on lighting, an electrical engineer named Fernand Jacopozzi was hired to oversee the lighting and wiring of the entire fake city.
The last German raid on Paris happened in 1918, and with the armistice of November, 1918, the whole plan came to an end. The actual construction that had been done was minimal, and what was there was quickly disassembled. Sadly, nothing remains today of Paris’s grand plan, save the blueprints of their fake city.