Sun Tzu said all warfare is based on deception. During the Second World War, the British certainly took his advice.
From conjuring up a phantom aircraft carrier at the mouth of the River Plate to enlisting a corpse into the Royal Marines. The lengths of British trickery knew no bounds.
In 1944, the art of deception was employed again as the Allies prepared to launch the greatest amphibious invasion in history.
The obvious route into Nazi occupied Europe was across the Straits of Dover. It was the narrowest point between Britain and the Continent; furthermore the crossing would prove easy to support from the air. The First United States Army Group – FUSAG – dutifully assembled in Kent ready for action.
Aerial reconnaissance reported mass formations of tanks, transport and landing craft. The airwaves buzzed with orders and communications. And the formidable George S. Patton was placed in command.
Utterly believable and completely fake: a complex diversion, designed to conceal the true target of Operation Neptune, the beaches of Normandy.
The divisions were fiction. Their barracks were constructed by set designers; their tanks were drawn out of thin air. But the deception campaign designed to support Operation Overlord, code-named Operation Bodyguard, didn’t end there.
Window and Ruperts
As zero hour approached, the Royal Navy deployed diversionary forces in the direction of the Pas de Calais. 617 Squadron, the Dam Busters, dropped aluminium foil – chaff, then code-named Window – to create vast blips on German radar, indicating an approaching armada.
To draw yet more German strength away from the beaches, an airborne assault was conducted north of the Seine on 5 June that saw hundreds of paratroops land behind enemy lines. But these were no ordinary soldiers.
At 3 feet they were a little on the small side. And though you could never normally accuse a paratrooper of lacking guts, in this case you’d be right because these guys were made of sand and straw.
They were known as Ruperts, an elite division of brave scarecrows, each fitted with a parachute and an incendiary charge that ensured they’d burn up on landing. They were accompanied on their first and only jump by ten SAS soldiers, eight of whom never returned.
The full scale of Operation Bodyguard encompassed decoy operations and feints across Europe. The British even dispatched an actor to the Mediterranean, because he bore a striking resemblance to Bernard Montgomery.
The spy network
At every stage the operation was supported by espionage.
Germany had established a network of spies in Britain in the early years of the war. Unfortunately for the German military intelligence, the Abwehr, MI5 had succeeded in rooting out and in many cases recruiting not just elements of the network but in fact every spy the Germans had sent.
Even as the Allies were establishing a bridgehead in Normandy, double agents continued to feed intelligence to Berlin about the coming attack further north.
The success of Bodyguard was such that over a month after the D-Day landings, German forces were still poised to face an invasion in the Pas de Calais.