Operation Dissimulation: WW2's biggest deception campaigns

A dummy tank
A dummy tank, Middle East School of Camouflage in the Western Desert, 1942 | Wikimedia | Public Domain

A considerable amount of the progression of the second world war can be attributed to a thoroughly unseen and altogether secretive force: spycraft. From Ian Flemming, the notable author of James Bond, to Roald Dahl - the exploits of British spycraft was popularised in mainstream media in the decades following WWII, but it wasn’t all martinis and Aston Martins that helped the Allies win the war. The outcome of each operation was a matter of life and death, and with the outcome of the war balancing on a knife’s edge, deception boarded on artistry to successfully fool the opposition. Here are three examples of deceptions and duplicities that changed the course of WWII.

Operation Mincemeat

When Glyndwr Michael died at the age of 34, little did he know that he was about to change history. Homeless, penniless, and friendless, Glyndwr died two days after ingesting rat poison in an abandoned London warehouse. When his body arrived at the morgue it flagged the attention of Ewan Montagu, the officer in charge of Operation Mincemeat. Glyndwr’s body was just what Ewan had been looking for.

At the time, British military was stumped. They were quickly approaching an impasse and desperately needed to get a stronger foothold in Europe. The perfect point of invasion was Sicily, but there was a big problem; the Axis powers knew this and were fiercely guarding the waters around the south of Italy. The Allies couldn’t get close to an invasion without being scuppered by the German U Boats. Something had to be done to distract the Axis and allow the Allies to slip into Europe with little to no resistance.

Stumped by all the options, the Allies turned to a memo that had circulated British intelligence that suggested several ideas that would lure German U-boats into minefields. Believed to have been written by Ian Flemming, Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley settled on number 28 on the list - ‘A Suggestion (not a very nice one)’. The idea suggested was that a body carrying important documents in a briefcase be ‘discovered’ by the Axis power. The contents of the briefcase would detail that the attack on Sicily was a feint, and the Allies were intending on landing in Greece instead.

Not only did the documents need to convince German command that they were real - the dead soldier carrying them also had to be convincing to sell the deception. It wasn’t enough that the forged documents that were found look legitimate - British intelligence had to forge a human as well.

Finding the right body to provide a convincing cover story proved difficult. While it wasn’t hard to find bodies at the time, finding a body that could be convincingly perceived as a Royal Marine Officer was another matter entirely. They needed a body that would have passed an autopsy report convincingly as the victim of an aircraft being shot down over the ocean.

A whole new identity was created for Glyndwr who became William Martin, a Royal Marine Officer. Among his official documents were pictures of his sweetheart, personal letters, identifications, and personal effects that created the picture of a whole human being. Details from wear and tear on his uniform, to an eyelash hidden in the documents themselves, were added to ensure a convincing level of reality, and considerations down to the style of underwear that William Martin would wear were deliberated carefully. No detail too small could be missed if Operation Mincemeat was to be successful. So when Royal Marine Officer William Martin was discovered by a fisherman in neutral Spain having seemingly died in an air crash, British intelligence held their breath waiting to see if Germany had taken the bait.

When Glyndwr’s body was returned to Britain along with the documents, forensic investigations suggested that the Germans had read them, and decrypted messages not too long after showed that German command was preparing for an invasion of Greece and Sardinia, and the Axis’ gaze was shifted away from Sicily.

Operation Bodyguard/Operation Fortitude

Operation Bodyguard was employed by the Allied forces throughout WWII as a misdirection tactic to manoeuvre Axis forces away from key points of invasion ahead of the Normandy landing. By creating the appearance that Allied troops were amassing closer to other areas, the hope was that Germany would withdraw troops from Normandy, allowing the Allied forces a greater chance of a successful invasion when the time came.

Operation Fortitude was split into two halves - north and south. Fortitude North was based in Scotland and employed various tactics to imply the massing of troops ready for an invasion of Norway. Secure that German forces wouldn’t be able to get close enough for reconnaissance without first alerting the Allies and being intercepted by the Royal Air Force, the British military didn’t have to focus too heavily on the physical illusion. Using radio broadcasts that were aimed at the non-existent troops, along with misinformation spread by double agents, the Allied forces were able to create a convincing front when in reality troops were much further south.

In the early spring of 1944, British Commandos carried out a series of targeted attacks in Norway. Destroying industrial and shipping infrastructure along with military posts, the attacks were designed to suggest preparations for an invasion that was never going to take place.

Meanwhile, further south, Fortitude South was employing similar tactics to hint at an invasion of Pas de Calais by the fictional First United States Army Group (FUSAG). With Calais having the shortest crossing point for the Allies of the English channel, and the quickest route to Germany - an invasion of Calais was highly likely. By compounding the belief of an attack at Calais, the Allies could convince the German forces that the landing at Normandy was the feint, and an attack on Calais was the real target. This way there would be confusion and disarray between the German forces as to where the threat lay when the Allies landed on Normandy.

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Operation Bertram

As with Mincemeat and Fortitude, Operation Bertram was all about diverting Axis attention away from vulnerable points so that the Allies had a stronger chance of a successful attack at El Alamein, Egypt. Led by Dudley Clarke, the operation was designed to misdirect Erwin Rommel and the German forces into believing that the Allied forces in Africa were planning to launch an attack much further south, and two days later than scheduled.

With effective access into Egypt to disrupt supply lines limited, it was expected that any attempt at attack would need to take place along the Egyptian coast. With the main supply road and Egyptian railway up for grabs, it was a highly vulnerable position for the Axis powers to lose. If the Allies wanted their chance, they needed to create a realistic feint that would allow them to divert enemy forces away, but also an element of surprise.

Alongside Operation Canwell, a series of electromagnetic deceptions over radio traffic, Operation Bertram was an intricate operation using camouflage, dummies, decoys, and sunscreen to conceal and misdirect the movements of the British tanks. Trucks were openly parked in a tank assembly area for weeks before the attack, whilst the tanks were parked further back - far away from the front line. Guns, canisters of petrol, and food were all disguised as trucks so that any aerial reconnaissance wouldn’t flag any suspicious movements or hints at mobilisation. Two nights before the attack, all of the trucks were replaced with tanks equipped with sun shields that would camouflage them as trucks for aerial reconnaissance, whilst dummy tanks were placed where the real tanks had been waiting previously.

As well as the deception of their tanks and artillery, Operation Bertram even went as far as to include a second double bluff. In the weeks leading up to the Battle of El Alamein, three decoy artillery units were placed. Carefully designed to look convincing at first, the decoys were left to degrade over the course of the lead up to the battle so that Axis reconnaissance would believe it to be a dummy and hold no threat. On the night before the battle, the dummy guns were replaced with real artillery.

Operation Bertram was so successful that, when captured, the Panzerarmee General admitted that they had believed that the Allies had at least one more armoured division than they did and that the attack would be taking place much further south, and at least two days later.

Written by:

Jo Rowan