The Literal Origin of Smoke Screens

Smoke screens were widely used in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

These days, a smoke screen is typically understood as a public relations ploy to mislead the masses. You would typically hear someone say, “That was just a smoke screen to hide the real problems of the country.”

In politics, smoke screens could be anything outrageous, such as scandals, intentional public gaffes, preposterously callous and bigoted statements, and even pulling faces on national television. They are meant to divert the public’s attention from something more unpalatable. 

But smoke screens were actually literal blankets of smoke used by the military to hide the movements of its forces and protect them from enemy attacks. 

In World War I and World War II, smoke screens or smoke curtains were widely used to protect battleships from the enemy. In naval battles, smoke curtains would be deployed from an aircraft to obscure the enemy's line of sight, but this had a major drawback: It also obscured the caster’s view of the battlefield. 

Titanium tetrachloride was commonly dispersed from an aircraft. It is a highly volatile liquid that immediately hydrolyzes when released into the air. It becomes a dense, white smoke made of particles of hydrochloric acid and titanium oxychloride.

Smoke Screens During the Battle of Leyte Gulf

The world’s largest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, was not exempt from the use of smoke screens. 

During one of the skirmishes of the battle, U.S. Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague ordered his carriers to launch their planes, then fall back quickly behind their escorts of destroyers. The destroyers quickly deployed a smoke screen to protect the carriers. 


The Yamato

Photo by Imperial Japanese Navy | Public Domain.

Although a number of Sprague’s destroyers were sunk in the battle, most of the carriers managed to escape, thanks to the smoke screen initially deployed by the destroyers. Admiral Sprague lost only a carrier, which was sunk by the legendary Japanese battleship, the Yamato, which was also the biggest battleship ever built. 

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Mario Alvaro Limos
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