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A Brief History of Naval Smoke Screens

Republic of Korea amphibious assault vehicles release a smoke screen before hitting the beach during a Cobra Gold 2010 amphibious landing demonstration PHOTO: US Navy

PortandTerminal.com, July 5, 2020

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – In warfare, a smoke screen is used to mask the movement or location of military units such as infantry, tanks, aircraft or ships.

The concept of military smoke screening dates back at least two thousand years. One of the earliest documented uses of the smoke screen in combat was the burning of green vegetation by the Romans and later the burning of peat moss by the Vikings.

During the American Civil War, smoke screens were used to cover the retreat of troops in battle as shown here in the painting of Stonewall Jackson pursuing the Federal Army in 1862, frustrated by their use of a smoke screen to hide their retreat.

 “Soon the sky was overcast with volumes of smoke, which almost hid the scene, and wrapped every distant object in a veil, impenetrable to the eyes and telescopes of the officers alike”

Painting titled Blind Pursuit
General Stonewall Jackson’s pursuit of the Federal army stalled by a unique tactic usually not associated with the American Civil War: a smoke screen. Painting: “Blind Pursuit” by Don Stivers

Orchard heaters

An early technology used to create a smoke screen in warfare was the smudge pot, aka the orchard heater. The orchard heater was invented in 1907 by W. C. Scheu as a more effective method to protect orchards from frost than the previous approach of lighting open fires.

Citrus worker lights smudge pots in an orange grove
Citrus worker lights smudge pots in an orange grove. Courtesy of the David Boulé Collection, via KCET. 

Smudge pots were later adapted to by the military and used by the Germans, the Japanese, and the United States Navy during WWII to provide cover for troops and for signalling.

These adapted orchard burners also saw civilian use during wartime in Britain to provide cover from the persistent and deadly Nazi Luftwaffe bombing raids.

Naval Smoke Screens

A modern “thousand-ton” destroyer lays down a thick smoke screen
A modern “thousand-ton” destroyer lays down a thick smoke screen during maneuvers—a good tactic in 1917 (and decades before the invention of radar). Credit: Scientific American, March 3, 1917

By the end of WWI some naval ships were being fitted with apparatuses that would allow them to produce smoke screens.

These inventions used heavy oil pumped directly into the engine’s combustion chambers and created huge columns of thick, black and toxic smoke that poured out of the ship’s smokestacks.

There were many problems though, their toxicity not being the least of them. Hundreds of gallons of heavy oil were necessary to create a wall of smoke less than a mile long, and the smoke cloud that was created was lighter than air and dissipated rapidly. Because of this, many ships would be required to make sufficient cover for a fleet. This type of smoke production saw very limited use in the naval battles of WWI. 

Airplane 1920s creating smoke screen to hide ship at sea

Another approach that was being experimented with by the end of the WWI and into the early 1920s was the use of recently invented airplanes to create smoke screen “curtains” behind which naval vessels could retreat unseen. The substance used to create these smoke screens was titanium tetrachloride, a yellow, non-flammable, corrosive liquid. In contact with damp air, it hydrolyzes readily, resulting in a dense white smoke.

The Patterson System

The Patterson smoke screen system changed everything.

Alonzo Patterson was, during the prohibition days, a well known and highly successful rum runner given the name “Smoky” by the agents who attempted to chase his fleet of ships while being foiled by his smoke screen.

Near the end of Prohibition, Patterson became a Customs Agent and gained several contacts in the government. When US involvement WWII seemed imminent, Patterson’s contacts in the government, aware of the effectiveness of his smoke screen, asked him to refine his technology for military use.

Patterson employed the help of his chemist friend Harold Levy (the chemist who also invented Cellophane, among other significant chemical inventions), to perfect the chemical formulas already developed by Patterson years ago while Patterson worked on refining the apparatuses necessary to the smoke production system.

Within a matter of months, the two had refined the smoke screen system used by Patterson during his rum-running days, and the invention was presented to the government during several demonstrations.

In the end, the Navy and the other branches of the military, found the smoke screen to be highly effective and extremely important to combat.

Navy boat creating a smoke screen (1944)

The “smoke” created by this technology was neither a smoke (like the product of the combustion smoke screen methods) nor a chemical gas (like the product of the chemical smoke bombs) but was a vapor of a specially designed formula created by Patterson. This formula was referred to as the Patterson secret formula by the military researchers, but shortly after its implementation, the composition was known as “fog oil,” a name that had not entered the lexicon until Patterson’s invention.

Smoke screen generator mounted for use
Smoke screen generator mounted for use
Smoke screen generator in operation
Smoke screen generator in operation

Prior to the Patterson system, military smoke screening was, at best, a minimal factor in combat, but with the Patterson system, military strategy was forever changed by the numerous offensive and defensive advantages created by the first-ever effective large area smoke screen.

Patterson’s invention is credited with saving literally thousands of lives during WWII.

Smoke generator used to cover bridge building activities during World War 2
Smoke generator used to cover bridge building activities during World War 2
D-Day landing in Normandy (1944). Allied troops disembark from their landing craft with a fading smoke screen ahead providing limited cloaking.
D-Day landing in Normandy (1944). Allied troops disembark from their landing craft with a fading smoke screen ahead providing limited cloaking.

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