Lies to protect the truth

“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

–       Winston Churchill to Josef Stalin

Military history abounds with stories of bluff, deception and feints – lies seem to be the constant companion of military genius. Few operations, however, have been as comprehensively swaddled in so impenetrable a shroud of subterfuge as the Normandy landings of D-Day.

A vivid and fascinating book by Ben Macintyre, Double Cross: The True Story of The D-Day Spies, tells the story of Britain’s audacious bluff – a piece of counter-intelligence that was so successful it completely fooled the Nazi war machine, saved thousands of soldiers’ lives and possibly shaped the successful outcome of the war.

The D-Day spies were responsible for feeding the German Abwehr (military intelligence service) the false information that would convince Hitler that the Allies were planning to land in the Pas de Calais. Macintyre’s book goes on to tell their incredible story:

“The key D-Day spies were just five in number, and one of the oddest military units ever assembled: a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a Serbian seducer, a wildly imaginative Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming, and a hysterical Frenchwoman whose obsessive love for her pet dog very nearly wrecked the entire deception.”

Their codenames became memorable footnotes to the military history of the Second World War: Bronx, Brutus, Treasure, Tricycle and Garbo. Their story seems to proves the rule that the truth is stranger than fiction.

The D-Day spies were a vital component of what Allied High Command had codenamed ‘Operation Bodyguard’. The codename was a nod to Churchill’s widely quoted quip to Stalin, but also demonstrated what the Allied intelligence services hoped to achieve. Bodyguard was the overarching plan of deception and was itself accompanied by a bodyguard of subplots and operations.

The principle objective of Bodyguard was to convince Hitler and the German High Command that the Allies were targeting the region around Calais for their main continental landing. A secondary objective was to create the impression that the Normandy landings were merely a feint for the main Allied thrust elsewhere and thus prevent the beachheads being overwhelmed by German forces.

It was achieved by a plethora of inventive techniques, including the creation of vast fake armies in both southern England and Scotland. This was the heart of Operation Fortitude, a plan to use physical deception and radio traffic to convince the Germans that vast armies were being gathered in Kent (for Fortitude South’s fake plan to attack the Pas de Calais) and around Edinburgh (Fortitude North’s supposed targeting of Norway).

Stage set designers, carpenters and technicians created whole armies comprising of inflatable tanks, fake landing craft, dummy airfields and decoy lighting. The whole was rendered more believable by organising high profile visits, including General Patton, Churchill and the King. Information was fed into the network of double agents across the Continent to reinforce the bluff.

Fortitude is the most famous of Operation Bodyguard’s sub-plots. It was not, however, the only game in town. In total, over 30 distinct operations and plans are listed in the index to Macintyre’s book covering the 1943 – 1944 invasions of Europe. It is worth considering some of these plans to appreciate the full breadth of the Allied deception.

  • Operation Cockade  – this operation, launched in 1943, was in many ways a forerunner to Operation Bodyguard. It attempted to fool the Germans into believing an attack on Western Europe was imminent. Operations Starkey, Wadham, and Tindall attempted to fool the Germans into believing attacks on Bologne, Brest and Norway respectively were imminent. This was designed to relieve pressure on the Allies in Sicily and on the eastern front.
  • Operation Copperhead – the Australian actor M. E. Clifton-James, with his popular Montgomery impression, was deployed in Gibraltar and North Africa to fool the Germans into thinking that Field Marshal Montgomery was far away from England and thus the invasion of Europe could not be imminent.
  • Operations Glimmer (air) and Taxable (sea) – planes of the Royal Air Force and small ships from the Royal Navy were used to create the impression that the main thrust of the Allied invasion of Europe would come in the Pas de Calais. British bombers dropped metal-foil strips of chaff to generate radio noise and the appearance of a great aerial fleet.
  • Operation Graffham – a plan to put diplomatic and economic pressure on neutral Sweden to convince the Germans that Norway was about to be invaded.
  • Operation Hardboiled – an early plan to convince the Germans that an invasion of Norway was imminent.
  • Operation Ironside – attempted to keep Panzer divisions tied down in south-western France by feigning an Allied attack on France’s western seaboard and aimed at Bordeaux. It included the suggestion that American troops would be sent directly into battle from America.
  • Operation Midas – one of the canniest deceptions, Operation Midas saw the Abwehr tricked into sending money to support its agents in Britain. As these were British controlled double agents, Operation Midas had the delicious effect of making the Germans pay for the British intelligence operations.
  • Operation Mincemeat – top secret Allied invasion plans were found on the body of a British officer washed onto the shores of Spain. The plans made clear that the key Allied advance in the Mediterranean would be against Greece and Sardinia and that any attack against Sicily would be a feint. The Germans celebrated their intelligence coup but so did the British – the body, documents and plans were an elaborate fake to draw Axis forces away from Sicily.
  • Operation Skye – the creation of massive amounts of radio traffic in Scotland to add weight to Operation Fortitude North’s fake attack on Norway.
  • Operation Titanic – dummy parachutists were dropped over a wide area to the east and west of the Normandy beaches to create the impression that Allied forces were opening a much wider front.
  • Operation Zeppelin – designed to depict a potential amphibious landing on Crete, western Greece, or the Romanian Black Sea coast.