Bat Bombs

29 Aug, 2010 | HistoryTdp

I have been listening to the audiobook of Bill Bryson’s At Home, which is superb.  I like Bryson’s work anyway and was a particular fan of A Short History of Nearly Everything.  So I am very much enjoying At Home and the insights it brings (he does like asking questions you don’t generally think of, like why do we have salt and pepper on the table, why those condiments specifically and nothing else?).  One of the bizarre historical stories that appears (to do with guano, which is about fertilization, agriculture and leads back to gardening and the humble lawn) is about the Bat Bomb.

This was an idea pioneered in WWII as a weapon to use against the Japanese.  Although many bat species are endangered today, at the time bats were around in huge numbers (several million in a large cave was not uncommon), which meant they could be used in large numbers for maximum affect without harming the population.  The idea was simple, catch a lot of bats (they were planning on releasing over a million), attach small incendiary devices to them with timers, load them onto a plane and release them over Japan near morning.  The bats would, in the approaching dawn, find a roost and then the timed devices would detonate causing mass fires.

It sounds like something cooked up by a second-rate comic book villain, but this was a real project, known to the military as Project X-Ray.  In fact, it had several test runs.  One with dummy weapons and one, for some reason, with live fire weapons at an airbase in the south-western United States.  It proved so successful it burnt down most of the new airbase and a general’s car.  The problem was it was completely indiscriminate.

In the end, while still working out the kinks, the atomic bomb (Manhattan) project came to fruition and it was decided the bat bombs were no longer needed.  There’s a book on the subject if you’re inclined to find out more.

These were by no means the only animals to be used for military means, in WWII alone there were projects for pigeon-guided missiles, anti-tank dogs and the US Navy still uses dolphins and sea lions.