Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Bodyguard of Lies: How a Fake Army Helped Win The War in Europe

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
---Sun Tzu

He who defends everything defends nothing.
--Frederick the Great

In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.
--Winston Churchill


The success of the allied war effort did not lie solely on the battlefield or in the skies over Europe. Countless men and women toiled behind the scenes, engaged in the intricate art of deception. Agents parachuted into Occupied Europe, sometimes disappearing under the German Nacht und Nabel program. Others survived and sent valuable intelligence back to England. Theirs was a secret war where few won medals but many died, often after being tortured by their captors. It is the stuff that makes great spy novels or movies, but receives little serious study. Don’t worry! I don’t plan to do any serious study here either!

The origin of the deceptive operations surrounding the Normandy Invasion began shortly after the Fall of France. Following the unsurprisingly rapid surrender of the French (they have a habit of that after all!), the Germans set about preparing for a future invasion of the French Coast. This was before the United States even entered the war. By June of 1944, the Germans had four years to ready themselves for an all out assault. Given that, all things being equal, an amphibious operation favors the defender, this presented a major challenge for the Allies. When Normandy was selected as the invasion site, this was the most precious and highly guarded piece of information held by a select few people. If it fell into German hands, the war might very well be lost. Enter Operation Bodyguard.

This was an appropriately named operation as the lies served as the bodyguard for the truth, just as Winston Churchill said. This was a very large plan with numerous smaller plans, each with their own operational names. Some tried to sell a fake invasion site, others spread misinformation via double agents, and others conducted counter surveillance to make sure the Germans did not find out the truth. Here we would call this operation “Top Secret” but the British, with their greater grasp of a language which is, after all, their own, classified it “Most Secret”.  Of all the operations, the one that I will focus on here is Operation Fortitude, specifically, Operation Fortitude South.

The Germans logically believed that the invasion would happen at the Pais de Calais as it was the most narrow point of the English Channel, only 22 miles from the English Coast. The goal of this operation was to sell Calais as the invasion point, in other words, tell the Germans what they want to hear. But how? The Germans were not stupid, after all, they had conquered much of Europe. Simply leaking fake invasions plans would not work. No, you have to make it look like an army is preparing to invade. But how do you do that?

The answer is simple enough to be obvious. You have to make a fake army. We created a fictional paper army called the First U.S. Army Group and let it out that it was commanded by General Patton. This again was a smart move because the Germans considered him to be our best commander. I believe Hitler once called him the “crazy cowboy general.” British intelligence had an ongoing operation called Double Cross which involved sending misinformation through double agents. Selected bits of information would be passed through them to reinforce the overall operation. Bogus wireless messages were sent between fake units to make it look like an army was staged just across the Channel from Calais. But the best part was creating the fake army. Literally.

German spies on the ground might try to get close to the staging camps to photograph units and so Allied Intelligence came up with a secret evil plan to fool them. They built fake tanks and fake aircraft. They also built real camps but with no real soldiers in them. How well did this work? So well that when three days after D-Day, the Germans stumbled across a real copy of our plans in an abandoned landing craft, Hitler thought they were fake! He insisted that the Normandy invasion was a diversion and the real invasion would come at Calais. This bought valuable time for the Allies and kept the vaunted Desert Fox, General Erwin Rommel, from throwing the invasion back into the sea. By the time Hitler realized the error of his ways, it was too late.

So here’s to the unsung heroes of Operation Bodyguard and its subcomponents.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. Note: My grandfather was temporarily in charge of a unit charged with sending fake wireless messages. He also helped coordinate the movement of the fake army.

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