12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever

Khalid Elhassan - November 19, 2017

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Q-ship, with guns covered, and revealed. Joanne’s Ramblings


During WWI, as part of the effort to beat back the German U-boat menace, the British Royal Navy made use of special decoy vessels known as Q-ships, which were heavily armed merchant ships carrying concealed weapons. Intended as bait to lure enemy submarines, the seemingly unarmed Q-ships would unveil their guns and sink the U-boats once they emerged to make a surface attack.

During the war’s first years, before Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 and began sinking ships at sight and without warning, the standard operating procedure was for U-boats to hail a civilian vessels, allowing their crews an opportunity to take to their lifeboats, before opening fire and sinking the ship with a torpedo, or more often, with shells from the U-boat’s deck gun when practicable, in order to save the more expensive torpedoes for tougher targets.

The Q-ship decoys were usually trawlers or freighters carrying hidden guns in collapsible deck structures. They would sail routes known to be heavily infested with U-boats, in the hopes of attracting the attention of a German submarine and enticing it to make an attack. When hailed by the U-boat, a portion of the crew, known as the “panic party”, would act like normal merchant sailors, terrified by the sudden appearance of an enemy submarine, and rush to the lifeboats to abandon ship.

Since the use of expensive and powerful torpedoes to sink relatively easy targets such as trawlers and freighters would be overkill, and was also officially frowned upon, the U-boat’s captain would normally close the distance to the now “abandoned” ship, in order to open fire from close range and sink it with the deck gun. Once the submarine got close enough, hidden crewmen remaining on board the Q-board would haul down the merchant flag and raise the Royal Navy’s ensign, while other crew would collapse the deck structure, revealing up to four guns manned and ready for action, which would open fire and sink the surprised U-boat.

The decoy vessels were quite successful when first introduced, and within months, Q-ships claimed 11 German submarines. However, as the war progressed, German submariners learned to be wary, and to approach small vessels with a healthy dose of caution, lest they turn out to be Q-ships carrying concealed weapons. At the slightest suspicion, torpedoes were used as a first option to sink vessels from a safe distance. After the Germans turned to open submarine warfare in 1917 and began sinking ships without warning, the utility of the Q-ships came to an end, as their effectiveness had depended on U-boats hailing and coming close enough for the decoy ship to surprise them, and once the Germans abandoned that standard operating procedure, Q-ships became useless.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
USS Indianola. NavSource

Destruction of the USS Indianola

The USS Indianola was a Union ironclad river gunboat that served in the Western Theater during the American Civil War with the US Navy’s Mississippi Squadron, operating in the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. She ran past Confederate batteries in Vicksburg to reach the Red River and help block Confederate supplies from sailing down its waters, but once she got there she was set upon by Confederate rams on the night of February 24th, 1863, ran aground, and was captured.

The Indianola’s capture derailed the plans to blockade the Red River, and its presence in Confederate hands was too great a threat to Union operations in the region to be endured. Plans were thus made to recapture the ironclad or destroy it so as to deprive the enemy of its use, setting in motion one of the war’s most successful deception operations and hoaxes.

Union naval commander David Porter ordered the construction of a dummy ironclad out of an old coal barge that was made to resemble a real warship, with paddle boxes, fake gun emplacements out of which stuck “cannons” that were actually wooden logs painted black, and barrels stacked to look like funnels, out of which poured smoke produced by smudge pots to mimic the smoke produced by a steam engine.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Wooden dummy ironclad used to hoax the Confederates into destroying their recently-captured Indianola. Wikimedia

The dummy warship was then floated past Vicksburg, and when word that a powerful “ironclad” was headed their way reached the Confederate salvage crews working to repair and refloat the recently captured Indianola, they panicked, and in order to prevent the Indianola’s recapture, the Confederates set fire to the ship’s magazine and blew her up.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Murat stopping an Austrian sergeant from setting charges to destroy Tabor Bridge. Maquetland

Murat’s Seizure of a Danube Bridge

After Napoleon captured an Austrian army at Ulm in 1805, the Austrians’ Russian allies retreated across the Danube, hoping to buy time to regroup by interposing the river between themselves and the French. To keep Napoleon from crossing, all bridges over the Danube were destroyed, or rigged with explosives for destruction to keep them out of French hands.

Meanwhile, as the French approached Vienna on the Danube, peace negotiations were underway. Because it might prove unnecessary if the negotiations bore fruit, the Austrians refrained from blowing up Vienna’s bridges, but prepared them with explosives for destruction if the French tried to capture them. One of them was the Tabor Bridge, guarded by an officer named Auesberg.

On November 13th, advance French units, commanded by Joachim Murat and Jean Lannes, reached the bridge and stacked arms. Murat and Lannes then casually strolled across the bridge, conversing, laughing, and talking about the “just signed” armistice and peace treaty, while confused Austrian soldiers covered them with their muskets. Upon reaching the other side, they asked to see Auesberg, wondering if he had gone to witness the treaty signing.

While a message was sent to summon Auesberg, Murat and Lannes kept talking with the Austrian soldiers to distract them from French grenadiers now casually crossing the bridge. When Auesberg arrived, he believed the French officers, and when one of his sergeants voiced his suspicions, Murat berated Auesberg for allowing an enlisted man to mouth off, offend officers, and jeopardize the armistice.

The hapless Auesberg was shamed into arresting the sergeant, then turned control of the bridge over to the French. They promptly crossed the Danube, and within a month, destroyed the Austro-Russian armies at Austerlitz, the most brilliant of Napoleon’s victories. The unfortunate Auesberg was tried for dereliction of duty, convicted, and executed.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Stranding and capture of the USS Philadelphia. Ibiblio

Destruction of the USS Philadelphia

The First Barbary War (1801 – 1805), was fought between the United States and the Barbary states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli, over the Barbary states’ predation on American merchant shipping, and America’s refusal to pay tribute to halt the attacks. A US Navy squadron sailed into the Mediterranean to confront the Barbary pirates and to protect American shipping.

The squadron included the USS Philadelphia, a 1240 ton sailing frigate with 36 guns, which was quite powerful for its day. On October 31st, 1803, while chasing a pirate ship, the Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef two miles from Tripoli’s harbor. All attempts to refloat her failed, so her captain ordered her bottom holed, guns thrown overboard, and gunpowder spoiled before surrendering the ship and crew.

Notwithstanding her captain’s efforts, the Tripolitanians did manage to refloat the Philadelphia, and towed her into their harbor for salvage and restoration. The ship was too powerful a prize to allow to remain in the pirates’ hands, so the US Navy decided to recapture or destroy it, and the mission to do one or the other was assigned to Lieutenant Stephen Decatur.

Earlier, the US Navy had captured a Tripolitanian ketch and renamed her the Intrepid. It was restored to its original condition to look like a local ship, and on the night of February 16th, 1804, disguised as a Maltese ship flying a British flag, Decatur and a contingent of volunteers sailed her into Tripoli harbor. They feigned distress, claiming to have lost all anchors in a storm, and the pilot asked and was granted permission to tie up next to the Philadelphia.

Once tied up to the captured frigate, Decatur and his men overwhelmed her guards, using only cold steel without firing a shot so as not to alert the authorities. Upon confirming that the ship was repairable and seaworthy, but unable to sail her away themselves, Decatur and his men destroyed the Philadelphia by putting her to the torch, then made their escape.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Mongol generals Subutai and Jebe relaxing in the aftermath of their victory, as the captive Mstislav III is brought before them. Our Russia

Battle of the Kalka River

The Battle of Kalka River on May 31st, 1223, occurred at the tail end of one of history’s longest feigned retreats, in which a Mongol army led by two of Genghis Khan’s chief lieutenants, Subutai and Jebe, lured a much larger force of Russians and Cumans into chasing them across the Steppe for hundreds of miles, before the Mongols turned around and annihilated their pursuers.

Following Genghis Khan’s conquest of the Khwarezmian Empire, Mongol generals Subutai and Jebe, who had chased the defeated empire’s ruler to his death in an island on the Caspian Sea, got permission from Genghis to conduct a reconnaissance in force westwards, and with their force of 20,000 Mongols, raid into Iran, then northwards into the Caucasus, before returning to Mongolia via the Steppe north of the Caspian Sea.

En route, the duo met and defeated the nomadic Cumans, whose khan fled to the Kievan Rus and convinced them to help fight the Mongols. The Rus and surviving Cumans assembled an army of 80,000 men under the joint command of Mstislav III of Kiev, and Mstislav the Bold of Galich. They caught up with and defeated the Mongol rearguard, at which point Jebe and Subutai decided to lure their pursuers into an ambush.

Pretending to panic after their rearguard’s defeat, the Mongols conducted a feigned retreat, and the led their pursuers on a merry chase which lasted for nine days, during which their pursuers lost their cohesion and became strung out in a long column. Finally, on the 9th day, Subutai and Jebe set up an ambush, crossing the Kalka River and concealing their forces near the opposite bank.

When the pursuers began crossing the river, the Mongols waited until most had reached their side, before springing their ambush and charging suddenly out of their concealed positions to shower the Russians with a rain of arrows before closing in. The ferocious and sudden attack from an enemy whom they had thought was in panicked flight shocked the Russians and threw them into confusion, which swiftly turned into a rout.

The Mongols encircled their panicked opponents and butchered them, killing around 75,000 out of the 80,000 who had set out to pursue them. Of the defeated commanders, Mstislav the Bold escaped, while Mstislav of Kiev managed to reach a fortified camp on the Dnieper, where the Mongols surrounded him. He eventually surrendered in exchange for a promise of safe conduct back to his territory, but the Mongols reneged, slaughtered his men, and executed him.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Battle of Cannae. Dickinson College


Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca led an army into Italy during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC), with which he won a series of stunning victories against the Romans. The lopsided losses humiliated Rome and shook her hold on the Italy, as allies abandoned their allegiance and either joined Hannibal, or declared neutrality. The Romans appointed a shrewd general, Quintus Fabius Maximus, dictator for 6 months, and he adopted a delaying strategy against the dangerous Carthaginian that became known as “Fabian”. Realizing that Rome’s manpower resources exceeded Hannibal’s, Fabius turned to attrition, whittling the Carthaginian’s forces with skirmishes and raids on his supply lines, while avoiding pitched battle.

That stabilized the situation, but did not sit well with Fabius’ fellow citizens, who wanted to avenge the earlier defeats as soon as possible. When Fabius’ term expired, the Romans amassed 87,000 men, their largest army to date, and marched off to crush Hannibal. Hannibal, who had been frustrated by Fabius’ attrition tactics, was willing to accommodate the Romans and let them try. At Cannae, on August 2nd, 216 BC, he offered the Romans battle, pitting his army of 40,000 men against the Romans’ 87,000.

Hannibal adopted a tactical deception plan that was carried out to perfection. He placed his less disciplined Gauls in the center, in a formation that bulged out towards the Romans, and on either side of the Gauls, he positioned his disciplined African infantry (see map above). As the Romans advanced, the Gauls would give way, until their formation which had started off bulging outwards, bent and bulged inwards, forming a bowl shape or sack. Hannibal reasoned that the Romans, emboldened by their enemy giving ground and scenting victory, would rush into the sack.

Once inside the sack, the African infantry positioned to the Gauls’ sides would wheel inwards and attack the Roman flanks. By then, the Carthaginian cavalry should have defeated the Roman cavalry. It would then turn around, and attack the enemy infantry’s rear, thus completely encircling the Romans. All went as Hannibal had planned, and in a battle viewed to this day as the gold standard for tactical generalship, the Romans were surrounded and nearly wiped out, with only 10,000 out of the 87,000 strong army escaping, while the rest were either slaughtered or captured.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Battle of Lake Trasimene. Emerson Kent

Lake Trasimene

On June 24th, 217 BC, after goading the commander of a Roman army into a rash pursuit, Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, using deception and guile, lured them into a trap along the northern shore of Lake Trasimene. There, he sprang on his unsuspecting pursuers what is considered, in terms of the number of combatants involved, history’s largest tactical military ambush.

After Hannibal defeated two Roman armies in northern Italy in 218 BC, Rome’s consuls for 217 BC were sent at the head of two armies to deal with him. One of the consuls, Gaius Flaminius, gathered the survivors of the earlier defeats, and reinforced by new recruits, formed them into an army of about 30,000 men and marched south to defend Rome. Hannibal followed him, and marching faster, overtook and passed Flaminius, and got his own army between that of the Romans and their home city.

It was one of history’s earliest examples of a successful strategic turning movement, getting between a defender and his base. Taking advantage of that, and to draw out Flaminius and goad him into giving battle, Hannibal began devastating and burning the countryside as he marched south. Flaminius was compelled to hurry his army to catch up with Hannibal before the Carthaginian reached Rome.

As Hannibal continued his march southward, with Flaminius in hot pursuit, the Carthaginian came upon a suitable spot for an ambush at Lake Trasimene, about 80 miles north of Rome. There, a stretch of the road passed through a defile, hemmed in between the lake’s northern shore and forested hills. Hannibal set up his camp on the eastern end of the defile, so as to be within clear of sight of Flaminius when he got there.

Hannibal formed his heavy infantry in front of the camp facing the road down which the Romans would arrive, to challenge them into battle. On the forested hills skirting the road to the north, he concealed his cavalry, light infantry, and Gaulish allies, and waited. When Flaminius arrived at the defile’s entrance on the morning of June 24th and saw the Carthaginian camp with forces arrayed in front of it to offer battle, he was relieved to have finally caught up with his quarry, and unwilling to chance Hannibal’s slipping away again, immediately marched in to get at the Carthaginians.

In his eagerness, Flaminius did not scout the hills to the north of the road before marching his army into the defile, and the hidden Carthaginians’ concealment was further helped by a fortuitous fog that morning, which reduced visibility. Once the last Roman entered the defile, trumpets were blown and the trap was sprung, as the concealed forces rushed down from the hills to fall on the flank and rear of the Romans, who suddenly found themselves surrounded on east, north, and west by the enemy, while the lake blocked them to the south. Flaminius’ army was wiped out, and out of the 30,000 men he took into battle that day, about half were killed or drowned, while the other half were taken prisoner.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Macedonian phalanx attacking the Indian center in the Battle of the Hydaspes River, by Andre Castaigne, 1899. Wikimedia

Hydaspes River

At the Battle of the Hydaspes River in May of 326, BC, fought in what is now the Punjab between Alexander the Great of Macedon and the Indian king Porus, Alexander successfully carried out a brilliant military deception that wrong footed his opponent and caught him off guard, and set the stage for a complete Macedonian victory.

When Alexander marched into the Punjab, king Porus set out to intercept the invaders, and beating them to the Hydaspes river, which Alexander would have to cross to penetrate into Porus’ territory, the Indian king waited on the far bank with his army to prevent Alexander from crossing. When the Macedonians arrived, Porus set his camp across the river from Alexander, and shadowed the Macedonian’s movements from the opposite side, as the invader marched up and down the far bank in search of a safe crossing.

So long as Porus shadowed the Macedonians from the opposite bank, a crossing of the deep and fast-moving river could prove catastrophic if made against opposition, as the Indians would be able to strike the Macedonians at their most vulnerable mid-stream, or fall upon and overwhelm a portion of Alexander’s on the Indian side of the river, before the crossing was completed.

So Alexander set out to lull Porus by marching his troops up and down his side of the river each day. The Indians vigilantly shadowed those movements at first, but over time, became accustomed to them and grew complacent. Then Alexander quietly drew off the bulk of his army, leaving behind a contingent to make noisy demonstrations in order to keep the Indians fixated on them, while Alexander hurried to a crossing upriver and safely got his force across, unopposed. Once on Porus’ side of the Hydaspes, Alexander advanced to attack, and caught the Indians in a pincer between the main force under his command, and the smaller contingent left behind on the opposite side of the river to keep Porus occupied, which crossed the Hydaspes and fell upon the Indians’ rear and flank when they turned to face Alexander. The battle was hard fought, but the outcome was a total Macedonian victory.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Alexander the Great faking the Persian cavalry out of position at the Battle of Gaugamela. Quora


At the Battle of Gaugamela, October 1st, 331 BC, Alexander the Great’s army was outnumbered by that of the Persian king, Darius, who positioned himself at the center of his lines, with cavalry to either side, and chariots in front (see map above). Alexander beat him by pulling off one of history’s most successful battlefield tactical deceptions.

Alexander rode off with most of his cavalry, including his elite Companion Cavalry, towards the right of the field, accompanied by a scratch force of infantry, whom he interposed between his cavalry on that side of the field and the Persian chariots, to keep the chariots from striking the Macedonian cavalry’s exposed flank as he rode towards the right of the field. The Persian cavalry opposite Alexander shadowed him, riding parallel toward the right side of the map, to ensure he did not outflank the Persian line. That was what Alexander wanted: to remove as much of the Persian cavalry from their initial position as possible.

Alexander had a surprise for the Persian cavalry: while riding off toward the right, he had some light infantry keeping pace with him, but concealed from Persian sight by Alexander’s cavalry between the Persians and Alexander’s light infantry. The result was three parallel lines moving towards the right side of the map: the Persian cavalry, Alexander’s cavalry, whom the Persians could see, and Alexander’s light infantry, whom the Persians could not see and of whose existence they were unaware.

The Persian cavalry, shadowing Alexander as he moved to the right, eventually got ahead of him and outflanked what they assumed had been Alexander’s attempt to outflank them. Then, having gained the “advantage”, the Persian cavalry charged Alexander. That was precisely what Alexander had hoped they would do: in shadowing him and keeping pace as he rode to the right of the field, a gap had opened in the Persian line. A gap where the Persian cavalry had been at the start of the battle, and Alexander’s goal all along had been to draw the Persian cavalry out of position in order to produce that very gap (see map below).

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Alexander the Great’s change of direction and charge at Persian king Darius III’s position. Quora

That was when Alexander’s concealed light infantry came into play: when the Persian cavalry charged, Alexander released the hitherto concealed light infantry to engage the Persian cavalry, and left them, along with most of his cavalry, to keep the Persian cavalry busy. Then, he neatly disengaged his elite Companion Cavalry from the fray, and turning direction, rode back at their head in a wedge formation, straight for the gap in the Persian line where the Persian cavalry had been at the start of the battle.

A gap where the Persian king, Darius, happened to be. It was a surgical strike that won the day. Seeing Alexander leading a furious cavalry charge straight at him, without enough cavalry of his own in position to ward him off, Darius panicked and fled the battlefield. The Gaugamela battle scene in the movie Alexander faithfully depicted this maneuver as it was described by contemporary writers in Alexander’s day.