Alexander the Great of Macedon pulled off one of his greatest military deceptions at the Battle of the Hydaspes River in May of 326, BC. Facing the Indian king Porus, who challenged Alexander with a powerful army in the Punjab, the Macedonian conqueror set out to wrong foot his opponent. He put in a motion a carefully planned deception that caught the Indian king 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 at the borders of his realm. He beat them to the Hydaspes River, which Alexander needed to cross if he was to penetrate into Porus’ territory. The Indian king waited on river’s far bank with his army, guarding against a crossing.
When Alexander the Great and his Macedonians arrived at the Hydaspes River, King Porus camped his army across the river from the invaders. He then shadowed the Macedonians’ movements from the opposite side, as they 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 Alexander tried to cross in the face of opposition, the Indians would be able to strike the Macedonians when they were at their most vulnerable, mid-river. King Porus’ men could also fall upon and overwhelm a portion of Alexander’s men on the Indian side of the river, before the entire Macedonian army had completed the crossing and brought its full strength to bear. Alexander needed a deception to help get his men across safely.
Alexander the Great marched his men up and down his side of the Hydaspes River each day. The Indians vigilantly shadowed those movements at first, but over time, it became routine, and they grew complacent. Alexander’s deception had worked. With the Indians lulled, Alexander quietly drew off the bulk of his army, leaving behind a contingent to make noisy demonstrations in order to keep King Porus’ men fixated on them.
In the meantime, Alexander hurried to a crossing upriver, and safely got his force across the Hydaspes, unopposed. Once he reached Porus’ side of the Hydaspes, Alexander advanced to attack him. He caught the Indians in a pincer between the main force under his command, and the smaller contingent he had left behind on the opposite side of the river. When the battle commenced and King Porus’ army turned to face Alexander, the smaller Macedonian contingent left behind crossed the river, and fell upon the Indians’ rear and flank. The result was a total Macedonian victory.
In 9 AD Arminius (circa 18 BC – 19 AD), a German leader of the Cherusci tribe who served in the Roman military, pulled off one of history’s greatest deceptions and most momentous betrayals. It transformed him into a Roman villain, and a German national hero. Arminius’ gigantic statue and memorial, the Hermannsdenkmal, stands today near Detmold in Westphalia, close to the site of that deception.
A Romanized German who rose to command an auxiliary cohort, Arminius won the admiration and confidence of the Romans. They granted him citizenship and high social status, enrolling him in the equestrian, or knightly, class. He was posted to the Rhine, where he served under Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman general related by marriage to Emperor Augustus, who tasked Varus with completing the conquest of Germania up to the Elbe River. Varus was heavy handed however, and heavily tasked the German tribes. So they rebelled. That was when Arminius decided he was more loyal to his fellow Germans than to his Roman employers.
While acting as Varus’ guide in 9 AD, Arminius lured him and his army into an ambush, known as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Three Roman legions were annihilated, and Varus was forced to commit suicide to escape the ignominy of capture. The catastrophe shocked Rome, and in its aftermath, Augustus took to roaming his palace, banging his head against the wall and wailing “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”
Aside from ruining the tranquility of Rome’s greatest emperor in his twilight years, Arminius’ deception halted Roman plans for expansion into Germania and Central Europe. The impact of Germania’s remaining outside the Roman Empire was great. The region eventually became a springboard and highway for the waves of barbarians who eventually destroyed the empire. Unlike neighboring Gaul, Germania was not Latinized. The resultant cultural and political differences were reflected in the centuries of antagonism between the French and Germans, which greatly impacted Europe for nearly two millennia.
On October 1st, 331 BC, Alexander the Great faced Persia’s King Darius III at Guagamela. The Persian monarch’s army significantly outnumbered that of the Macedonian conqueror. Darius 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 a battlefield deception that is considered to be one of history’s most successful.
Alexander rode off with most of his cavalry, including his elite Companion Cavalry, towards the right of the field, accompanied by some light infantry. He placed the light infantry between his cavalry on that side of the field, and the Persian chariots, to keep the chariots from striking his cavalry’s exposed flank.
As Alexander the Great rode off with his cavalry to the right side of the field at Gaugamela, the Persian cavalry opposite shadowed him. The Persian horsemen rode parallel to Alexander, to make sure he did not outflank the Persian line. That was the goal of Alexander’s deception: 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, or hypaspists, keeping pace with him, to his right. The hypaspists were concealed from Persian sight by Alexander’s cavalry, which lay between the Persians and the Macedonian monarch’s light infantry. The result was three parallel lines moving towards the right side of the field. There was the Persian cavalry, then Alexander’s cavalry, whom the Persians could see, and Alexander’s light infantry, whom the Persians could not see.
The Persian cavalry kept shadowing Alexander and his cavalry as they moved to the right of the battlefield at Gaugamela. Eventually, the Persians got ahead of the Macedonians, and outflanked what they assumed had been Alexander’s attempt to outflank them. Then, having gained what they assumed the “advantage” over their enemy, the Persian cavalry charged.
Alexander’s deception had worked, because getting charged by the Persian cavalry on that side of the field was what the great conqueror had hoped his enemy would do. When the Persian cavalry shadowed Alexander and kept pace with him as he rode to the right of the field, a gap had opened in the Persian line. A gap where the Persian had cavalry originally been at the start of the battle. Alexander’s goal all along had been to carry out a deception that drew the Persian cavalry out of position in order to produce that very gap (see map above). A gap into which Alexander intended to charge.
When the Persian cavalry charged Alexander the Great’s cavalry, he unleashed the light infantry hypaspists who had accompanied him, of whose presence the Persians were unaware. While the hypaspists engaged the Persian cavalry, Alexander left them to it, along with most of his cavalry, to keep the enemy horsemen busy. He then neatly disengaged his elite Companion Cavalry from the fray. Turning direction, Alexander led the Companion Cavalry 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 a furious cavalry charge headed straight at him, without enough cavalry of his own in position to challenge Alexander, Darius panicked and fled the battlefield. The result was a decisive Macedonian victory.
Operation Bodyguard was a multifaceted and complex intelligence and deception plan to trick and confuse the Germans about the time and location of the Allies’ intended invasion of Europe in 1944. As Winston Churchill put it: “In wartime truth is so precious, that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies“.
Operation Bodyguard had three goals. First, was to conceal the actual time and date of the invasion. Second, to convince the Germans that the main invasion would land in the Pas de Calais. Third, to convince the Germans after D-Day to maintain a strong defense in the Pas de Calais for at least two weeks, rather than rush its defenders to reinforce their troops in Normandy. To realize their goals, the Allies set in motion history’s greatest military deception plan.
Operation Bodyguard turned into a massive, sprawling, and multifaceted deception plan. All of its components aimed to prevent the Germans from discovering the when and where of the Allied invasion of France. One of Bodyguard’s sub-plans was Operation Fortitude, which created a fictitious “First US Army Group” (FUSAG) in southeast England under the command of general George S. Patton. Fortitude used a variety of schemes to sell the Germans on the existence of FUSAG.
Fake radio traffic was conducted between fictitious FUSAG units. German aerial reconnaissance was allowed to overfly and photograph concentrations of FUSAG tanks and transports. In reality, the tanks and transports were just inflatable dummies, that looked like the real thing from the air. Most importantly, German intelligence was fed fake reports via double agents and turned spies, about FUSAG’s intentions to invade the Pas de Calais. A subsidiary, Fortitude North, created a fictitious British Fourth Army in Scotland, and convinced the Germans that it planned to invade Norway, in order to tie down the hundreds of thousands of Germans there.
The D-Day deception was helped greatly by one of history’s greatest espionage adventurers. Juan Pujol Garcia (1912 – 1988) was an eccentric Spaniard who wanted adventure and excitement, so he hoaxed the Nazis with fictional spying during WWII. The hoax grew into the greatest double cross operation of the conflict, and played a significant role in ensuring Allied victory on D-Day and in the subsequent Normandy Campaign.
Pujol hated fascists, and when WWII began, he decided to help the Allies “for the good of humanity”. However, when he offered his services to British intelligence, they declined. Pujol’s determination to get some wartime excitement did not lessen. He posed as a Nazi sympathizing Spanish government officer, and offered his services to the Germans. They accepted, and ordered him to Britain, with instructions to recruit a spy network.
Instead of heading to Britain, Juan Pujol Garcia went to Lisbon, Portugal. From there, he simply fabricated reports about Britain, using content culled from public sources. He embellished that and seasoned it with his own active imagination, then sent the resultant “intelligence reports” to his German handlers as if he was writing from Britain. The Germans bought it, and begged for more. So Pujol invented fictional sub-agents, and used them as sources for additional fictional reports.
Intercepting and decoding secret German messages, the British realized that somebody was hoaxing the Germans. Upon discovering that it was Pujol acting on his own, they belatedly accepted his offer of services. Giving him the codename GARBO, they whisked him to Britain, where they built upon his imaginary network. Under British control, Pujol’s ad hoc fibs were transformed into an elaborate deception operation, that lasted for years. During that time, the Germans were carefully fed a massive amount of often true but useless information, mixed in with half truths and falsities.
Juan Pujol Garcia and his fictional sub-agents sent German intelligence a flood of reports from Britain. That transformed him, in German eyes, into their most successful spy. The moment for cashing in on that trust came during the buildup to D-Day and the subsequent Normandy campaign. The ultimate aim of the painstakingly crafted deception was to convince the Germans that the Normandy landings were just the first in a series of planned invasions. Allied intelligence wanted the Germans to believe that an even greater invasion was planned against the Pas de Calais.
On the eve of D-Day, British intelligence set out to cement Pujol’s credibility with the Germans. They had him send his German handlers a message alerting them to the invasion, a few hours before it began. It was a calculated risk: British intelligence reasoned that, by the time Pujul’s warning worked its way from German intelligence to commanders in the field, the invasion would have already taken place. Thus, the warning would do the enemy no good, and simultaneously enhance Pujol’s credibility with the Germans.
With Juan Pujol Garcia’s reputation at his highest with his German handlers, British intelligence went in for the kill, to cash in on their carefully crafted deception. Building upon the years of trust, Pujol informed the Germans that the Normandy landings were diversionary: the real blow would fall upon the Pas de Calais a few weeks later. That was coupled with other measures, such as the fictional First US Army Group, under the command of George Patton, that was massed across the English Channel opposite the Pas de Calais.
It worked. The Germans were convinced during the critical weeks in June of 1944, following the D-Day landings in Normandy, to keep powerful formations in the Pas de Calais. There the Germans remained, waiting for an invasion that never came, instead of rushing to Normandy to help destroy the vulnerable Allied beachhead there. By the time the Pas de Calais formations were finally released, the Allies had amassed sufficient forces in Normandy. First, they defeated the German attacks, then went on the offensive, broke out of the Normandy beachhead, and swept across France, liberating it within a few months.
As to Juan Pujol Garcia, he was decorated by both sides. He received an Iron Cross from Germany, plus a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) from Britain. After the war, fearing reprisals from the Nazis, he faked his death in Angola in 1949, then moved to Venezuela, where he ran a gift shop and book store.
Pujol led a quiet life until 1984, when he agreed to be interviewed for a book about agent GARBO. Its publication finally brought his exploits to the light of day. He was received at Buckingham Palace, and was lionized in Britain. On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Pujol travelled to Normandy, where he paid his respects to the dead. He then returned to Venezuela, and died in Caracas four years later.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading