12 of the Greatest Military Bluffs in History
12 of the Greatest Military Bluffs in History

12 of the Greatest Military Bluffs in History

Khalid Elhassan - September 2, 2017

12 of the Greatest Military Bluffs in History
Surrendered American garrison marching out of Fort Detroit. Over There

Surrender of Fort Detroit

In the early days of the War of 1812, British general Isaac Brock marched on Fort Detroit with a force of 1330 men, comprised of 330 Redcoats, 400 Canadian militia, and 600 Native Americans, supported by 3 lights guns, 5 heavy guns, 2 mortars, and 2 warships. Brock’s target was garrisoned by a force nearly twice the size of his own, comprised of 600 US Army regulars and nearly 2000 militia, sheltered within the protective walls of a fortress bristling with over 36 cannons, commanded by an American Revolutionary War veteran and hero, general William Hull.

Brock learned from captured despatches that American morale was low, that the garrison was short of supplies, and that his enemies were in mortal fear of his Native American allies. Emboldened by that information, Brock decided to immediately attack Detroit, and playing upon American fear of Indians, arranged for a misleading letter to fall into American hands, that greatly exaggerated the number of his native allies from an actual 600 to a fanciful 5000.

Brock also tricked the Americans into believing that he had more regulars under his command than was the case, by dressing up his Canadian militia in castoff British regimental uniforms. Outside Detroit, he had the same troops march in a loop over the same stretch within eyesight of the garrison, then ducking out of sight, then returning to march anew as if they were fresh reinforcements. Brock also ordered his soldiers to light 5 times as many fires at night than was the norm, in order to further convey an illusion of greater strength. General Hull’s already low confidence collapsed at the prospect of facing a strong British army accompanied by 5000 Natives.

Brock sent a message demanding surrender, informing Hull that he did not want to massacre the defenders, but that he would have little control over his Indian allies once fighting commenced. Hull decided it was futile to resist. Unwilling to sacrifice his men against hopeless odds, and fearing for the women in children inside the Fort, including his own daughter and grandchild, he raised a white flag and asked Brock for three days to negotiate the terms of surrender. Brock gave him only three hours before he would attack. Hull caved in, and surrendered his entire command of nearly 2500 men, three dozen cannons, 300 rifles, 2500 muskets, and the only American warship in the Upper Lakes. The British cost was 2 men wounded.

The surrender of Fort Detroit was a military disaster for the US, derailing as it did plans to invade and seize Canada early in the war, before the British had time to rush in reinforcements. It reinvigorated the Canadians, who had been pessimistic about the prospects of defending Canada from forcible annexation by the US, and fired up Native Americans in the Northwest Territory to war against US outposts and settlers.

An American invasion of Canada was attempted later on, but by then the British and loyal Canadians were better prepared and more confident, and forced the invaders back across the border. As to general Hull, after his release from British captivity, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be shot. However, his life was spared out of consideration for his heroism decades earlier during the American War of Independence.

12 of the Greatest Military Bluffs in History
Union 13 inch mortar battery during Siege of Yorktown in 1862. Wikimedia

John B. Magruder and the Siege of Yorktown

In March of 1862, Union General George B. McClellan outflanked the Confederate main army in Northern Virginia by landing 121,000 men on the Virginia Peninsula to the south, between the James and York rivers. The goal was to march up the Peninsula and capture Richmond before the Confederates had time to rush in reinforcements to protect their capital, and things went smoothly at first, as McClellan successfully disembarked with no difficulty, and began marching to Richmond.

The only opposition standing between McClellan and Richmond were 12,000 Confederates at Yorktown, commanded by John B. Magruder and outnumbered 10 to 1 by Union forces. Magruder, realizing his small force stood no chance in a fight, and desperately needing to buy time until reinforcements arrived, set out to bamboozle McClellan into slowing down.

Fortunately for the Confederates, Magruder was the right man in the right place at the right time. Renown before the war for his florid manner and proneness to theatrics and ostentatious displays, Magruder resorted to theatrics and display to put on a show and trick McClellan into believing that he faced far stronger opposition than was the case. Taking advantage of the small Warwick river which separated him from the advancing federals, Magruder set out to convince McClellan that its 14-mile length on the opposite bank was heavily fortified and strongly garrisoned. While the fortifications were real, Magruder lacked the men to occupy them in any strength that could have stopped McClellan had he attacked.

Magruder directed his forces to create a din, with drumrolls and men cheering in woods behind the lines, to fool their foes into believing there were far more Confederates in the vicinity than was the case. He also employed the same column of men over and over, marching them within sight of the federals to take up positions on the defensive line, then slipping away outside the Union observers’ line of sight, reassembling in column, and marching back to the defensive line to take up defensive positions once more.

With such theatrics, Magruder convinced McClellan that the Confederate positions were too strong for a frontal attack – a task made easier by McClellan’s predisposition to take counsel of his fears and believe himself outnumbered. On April 5, 1862, the Union commander ordered a halt on his side of the Warwick River, had his men dig in, and set out to conduct a siege when he could have simply bulled through, swatted Magruder aside, and seized Richmond as it was his for the taking.

For a month, McClellan methodically prepared for a huge attack to break through Magruder’s “strong defenses”, concentrating men, guns, and munitions for a massive bombardment scheduled for May 5, 1862, followed by an overwhelming attack. Having already bought his side a month to prepare for the defense of Richmond, Magruder slipped away on the night of May 3, leaving behind empty trenches for the enemy to occupy. McClellan resumed his advance on Richmond, but by then the Confederates had concentrated sufficient forces to thwart him.

12 of the Greatest Military Bluffs in History
Boer raid on British position during Siege of Mafeking. Pinterest

Robert Baden-Powell and Siege of Mafeking

During the Boer War, Colonel (later Lord, and founder of the Boy Scouts) Robert Baden-Powell was in command of the garrison in the besieged town of Mafeking in South Africa. He had initially seized the town by bluff during the runup to the outbreak of hostilities, and held on to it with a steady diet of bluffs during the subsequent siege after the war began.

Powell, who had been ordered to raise two regiments of volunteers, began storing his supplies in Mafeking, but was prevented from openly garrisoning the town before the war started because doing so was deemed impolitic and provocative. He hit upon a ruse to get around that, by politely asking the townspeople for permission to send guards to protect his supplies. They consented, and Powell sent in his entire force of nearly 1500 men. When the townspeople protested, he responded that he had never specified the size of the guard.

When the war began soon thereafter, Baden-Powell found himself besieged by a Boer force 5 times more numerous than his own. To keep them wary of a direct attack, he began burying mysterious boxes around the town’s periphery. When asked, he responded that they were powerful new landmines, the latest in British technology. To demonstrate, he had a couple blown up within sight of Boer sympathizers, whom he then allowed to slip out of town to inform the enemy. In reality, the boxes blown up had been stuff with the town’s entire stores of dynamite, while the other boxes buried around the defensive perimeter contained nothing but sand.

Another bluff revolved around barbed wire, of which Baden-Powell had none. Barbed wire was known to be effective in slowing down a charge, and since he wanted to discourage the numerically superior Boers from charging and overrunning his defenses, Baden-Powell set out to convince them that he had plenty of barbed wire. What he did have was plenty of the wooden posts from which barbed wire was strung, so he directed that they be hammered into the ground all around the defensive perimeter. From a distance, even with binoculars, barbed wire is difficult to see, but the wooden posts from which it is usually strung are readily visible, and the sight of a line of such posts in the distance is indicative of barbed wire fences. To further mislead the Boer watchers, Baden-Powell had his men drop to the ground whenever they reached a line of wooden posts, then crawl “beneath” the imaginary barbed wire to get to the other side, before getting back on their feet, dusting themselves off, and carrying on.

With the help of bluffs such as the fake super landmines and imaginary barbed wire, coupled with a heavy dose of stubborn and bloody resistance when the situation warranted, Baden-Powell fought off the enemy and withstood the Boer siege for 217 days, holding on to Mafeking until he was finally relieved by the arrival of a British army that chased off the Boers and lifted the siege.

12 of the Greatest Military Bluffs in History
German troops, preceded by regimental band, march across Rhine bridge into demilitarized zone. Imperial War Museum

Remilitarization of the Rhineland

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles forbade the defeated Germans from stationing armed forces in the Rhineland – a region in western Germany bordering France, Belgium, and the Netherlands – and expressly specified that a violation “in any manner whatsoever… shall be regarded as committing a hostile act“. The demilitarized Rhineland was the single greatest guarantor of peace in Europe because it made it impossible for Germany to attack her western neighbors.

Simultaneously, because it left Germany defenseless on her western borders, it made it impossible to attack her eastern neighbors because doing so would leave her open to a devastating attack from those eastern neighbors’ ally, France, on Germany’s unprotected west.

While a demilitarized Rhineland was positive for European peace, it was a humiliating negative for German pride, and one of Hitler’s most popular campaign promises during the Nazis’ rise to power was to remilitarize the Rhineland. In 1936, Hitler decided to send soldiers into the Rhineland – a huge risk, considering that the German military at the time was in no condition to do anything other than beat a humiliating retreat if the Western Allies had opposed the remilitarization with even minimal armed force. Hitler however gambled that while the Western Allies had the power to thwart him, they lacked the will to actually use that power.

On March 7, 1936, against the advice of his generals, Hitler ordered 19 German battalions to occupy the Rhineland, in direct violation of the treaties of Versailles and Locarno. He won the gamble: the British and French protested, but neither took direct action to enforce the treaties’ terms. Having taken the measure of France and Britain, Hitler’s appetite was whetted for ever riskier gambles in which he calculated that he could act egregiously, secure in the knowledge that the Western Allies would strongly protest and vehemently condemn, but stop short of direct action. He kept escalating until his invasion of Poland in 1939, when he was stunned that Britain and France had finally had enough and declared war.

12 of the Greatest Military Bluffs in History
Map of Operation Bertram. Obscure Histories

Operation Bertram

The strip of land over which the 1942 Battle of El Alamein was to be fought was bounded to the north by the Mediterranean Sea, and to the south by the Qattara Depression, impassable to armor and wheeled vehicles (see map above). Operation Bertram was a misdirection plan employed by the British to deceive Erwin Rommel about British intentions regarding the direction of their upcoming attack. That was particularly important because Rommel faced fuel shortages which made redeployment of most of his troops, particularly the Italians, difficult or even impossible once fighting commenced. Wherever Rommel deployed his forces, that is where most of them would remain during the battle, so the British set out to convince him to deploy them in the wrong place.

The British planned to attack in the north, and to conceal that a specialist unit is known as the Camouflage, Development, and Training Centre (CDTC) was cobbled together from filmmakers, stage magicians, painters, sculptors, and architects, and tasked with flummoxing the enemy. The CDTC set out to hide the actual troop and materiel buildup in the north, make what buildup could not be concealed appear slower than it actually was, and convince the enemy that the main attack would fall upon the southern sector of the line and not the northern.

To that end, the British fed the Germans misinformation via turned spies, and borrowing from stage magic, built wood and canvass contraptions to fool German aerial reconnaissance by making concentrations of armor appear like trucks, and make transport trucks look like menacing concentrations of tanks. To misdirect about the buildup of supplies and munitions, the CDTC set up fake ammunition dumps, and with water being the most precious resource in the desert, whose concentration offered strong indicia of intent, built a 200-mile dummy water pipeline to the southern sector of the Alamein line.

The deception worked, and when the Battle of El Alamein commenced with a massive artillery bombardment on the night of October 23, 1942, the enemy commanders were surprised that the British Eighth Army’s main thrust came in the north, and not in the south as had been expected. As had been predicted, fuel shortages prevented the Axis from effectively redeploying troops from the southern sector to reinforce and meet the threat to the north. The battle ended in a complete British victory, and a retreat that culminated 6 months later in the complete surrender of all Axis forces in North Africa.

12 of the Greatest Military Bluffs in History
Inflatable dummy tank used in deception plan to mislead the Germans about Allied intentions in the runup to the Normandy landings. Alchetron

Operation Bodyguard

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

Operation Bodyguard was a multifaceted and complex plan to deceive the Germans about the time and location of the Western Allies’ intended invasion of Europe in 1944. The plan had three goals: conceal the actual time and date of the invasion; convince the Germans that the main invasion would land in the Pas de Calais; and convince the Germans after the Normandy landings to maintain a strong defense in the Pas de Calais for at least two weeks, rather than drain it of defenders to reinforce their troops in Normandy.

A sub-plan of Bodyguard was Operation Fortitude, which created a fictitious “First US Army Group” in southeast England under the command of General George S. Patton, and sold its existence to the Germans with a combination of fake radio traffic between fictitious FUSAG units, allowing German air reconnaissance to fly over and photograph concentrations of FUSAG tanks and transports that were, in reality, inflatable dummies, and feeding German intelligence fake reports via double agents and turned spies about FUSAG’s intentions to invade the Pas de Calais so as to tie down the German defenders there. A subsidiary, Fortitude North, created a fictitious British Fourth Army in Scotland and convinced the Germans that it planned to invade Norway so as to tie down the German divisions there.

After D-Day, Bodyguard prevented the Germans from committing fully to a counterattack by convincing them that the Normandy landings were not the main event, but the first in a series of landings. The German high command was thus led to keep units guarding other potential landing sites, mainly the Pas de Calais which was threatened by the fictitious FUSAG under Patton, instead of sending them to reinforce the defenders in Normandy.

Bodyguard had hoped to convince the Germans to stay put in the Pas de Calais for two weeks after D-Day, instead of immediately sending the units there to reinforce Normandy. The plan worked so well that the Germans stayed put in the Pas de Calais for seven weeks instead of the hoped-for two, which allowed the Allies time to build a beachhead in Normandy, before breaking out to liberate France and Western Europe.

12 of the Greatest Military Bluffs in History
Destroyers and destroyer escorts from Taffy 3 laying smokescreen while under fire during Battle off Samar. Wikimedia

Battle off Samar

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, history’s biggest naval engagement, was the outcome of a complex Japanese plan featuring many moving parts and attacks from various directions, all intended to draw off the main American fleet guarding the American landings at Leyte Gulf and send it on wild goose chase, at which point a powerful Japanese naval contingent would fall upon the unprotected Leyte Gulf and devastate the Americans there. The plan worked well. Japanese aircraft carriers were dangled as bait for Admiral William F. Halsey, and he steamed off with his powerful 3rd Fleet to sink them, telling nobody. He left behind a small fleet of escort carriers and destroyer escorts that had been repurposed for ground attack and support duties and had little in the way of anti-ship weapons.

While Halsey was off chasing the Japanese decoy fleet, a powerful fleet of 23 Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, including the world’s most powerful battleship ever, the 18.1 inch gun Yamato, showed up north of Leyte Gulf, steaming towards the landing site under the command of an admiral Kurita. The Americans were caught by surprise, as it was assumed that Halsey was in the north guarding against attack from that direction.

The only thing standing between the Japanese and a massacre of the Americans at Leyte Gulf was an underwhelming collection of escort carriers and destroyer escorts, of whom the northernmost contingent which first came in contact with the Japanese, 7 destroyers and destroyer escorts nicknamed “tin cans” for their lack of protection, was commanded by rear admiral Clifton Sprague and known as “Taffy 3“.

Aware that his destroyers’ 5 inch guns stood no chance against the armored behemoths steaming towards Leyte Gulf, but also aware that thousands of Americans would die if the Japanese reached the unprotected ships in Leyte, Sprague ordered Taffy 3 into a suicidal charge. The desperate attacks of the American “tin cans” were supported by planes flown from the escort carriers, making strafing attacks or dropping high explosives suitable for ground attack but mostly useless against the Japanese ships, and when they ran out of ammunition, kept making dry strafing and bombing runs to discomfit the Japanese.

So reckless and incessant were those gadfly attacks that the Japanese admiral lost his nerve. Convincing himself that the opposition he faced was far stronger than it actually was, and must be the first outer layer of a powerful US naval presence, admiral Kurita, who had an overwhelming naval victory in his grasp if had steamed on for another hour to bring his heavy guns within range of Leyte, turned his ships around and sailed away, gifting the Americans in Leyte Gulf with an unexpected and seemingly miraculous reprieve.


Sources For Further Reading:

Deep English – Christopher Columbus Used the Moon To Feed His Men

Smithsonian Magazine – Columbus’ Confusion About the New World

History Collection – A New World: 6 Ways the Journeys of Columbus Changed Civilization

Encyclopedia Britannica – Robert Baden-Powell

The Guardian – Mafeking Revisited

Encyclopedia Britannica – Battle of Leyte Gulf

American Heritage Magazine – The Battle Off Samar

The National WWII Museum – Eyewitness to the Battle off Samar and the Loss of the USS St. Lo