In 217 BC, Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, who had recently invaded Italy, goaded the commander of a Roman army sent to oppose him into a rash pursuit. On June 24th, 217 BC, Hannibal used deception and guile to lure his pursuers into a trap along the northern shore of Lake Trasimene. There, he sprang on his unsuspecting pursuers history’s largest tactical military ambush.
Hannibal had defeated two Roman armies in northern Italy in 218 BC, so Rome’s consuls for 217 BC were sent to deal with him. One of the consuls, Gaius Flaminius, gathered the survivors of the earlier defeats. Reinforced by new recruits, he formed them into an army of about 30,000 men and marched south to defend Rome.
Hannibal followed Flaminius, as the Roman consul headed to Rome. Marching faster, the Carthaginian commander 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 forced to hurry his army to catch up with Hannibal before the Carthaginian reached Rome.
As Hannibal continued his march southward towards Rome, with Flaminius in hot pursuit, the Carthaginians 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.
It was a great spot for a great deception. Hannibal set up his camp on the eastern end of the defile. He deliberately positioned his army’s encampment to make sure that it would be clearly visible to Flaminius when the Roman consul got there.
In preparing his ambush at Lake Trasimene, Hannibal formed his heavy infantry in front of his camp, facing the road down which the Romans would arrive. Their presence was an open challenge to battle. They were also baited in a carefully laid trap. On the forested hills north of the road, Hannibal concealed his cavalry, light infantry, and Gaulish allies. He then waited to see whether his deception would work. The waiting ended on the morning of June 24th, 217, when Flaminius arrived with his Roman army at the defile’s entrance.
When he saw the Carthaginian camp, with the enemy army arrayed to offer battle, Flaminius was relieved to have finally caught up with his quarry. Unwilling to chance Hannibal’s slipping away again, he immediately advanced upon the Carthaginians. Tunnel visioned on the enemy he had been so hotly pursuing, the Roman consul failed to check whether the forested hills overlooking the road along which he would march contained any threats.
In his eagerness to finally come to grips with Hannibal, Flaminius did not bother scouting the road for threats, before marching his army into the defile leading to the Carthaginians. Hannibal’s concealment of forces in the hills flanking the road was helped by a fortuitous fog, which reduced visibility.
Once the last Roman entered the defile, trumpets were blown and the trap was sprung. The concealed forces rushed down from the hills to fall on the flank and rear of their surprised enemy. The Romans suddenly found themselves surrounded on east, north, and west by the enemy, while the lake blocked them to the south. Hannibal’s great deception had worked flawlessly, and Flaminius’ army was wiped out. Out of 30,000 Romans who marched into battle that day, about half were killed or drowned, while the other half were taken prisoner.
Dusan “Dusko” Popov (1912 – 1981) was WWII triple agent who received medals from both the Germans and the British. A largely unrecognized hero, Popov played a significant role in the Allied deception that secured success on D-Day. Popov did it in style: helping defeat the Nazis while living the dream life of playboys, partying it up in top-notch night clubs and casinos with a bevy of beauties and famous actresses.
Popov pulled it off because he was blessed with natural charm, smoothness, good looks that set hearts aflutter, plus an agreeable manner that drew people to him. His charisma, coolness, wit, and looks, made an impression upon a British intelligence officer named Ian Fleming. After the war, Fleming created James Bond and modeled much of Agent 007 upon the smooth Popov.
Popov was born into a wealthy Serbian family. His grandfather was a rich banker who owned factories, mines, and retail establishments, and his father increased the family wealth by adding real estate to its investment portfolio. Popov, an avid outdoorsman and athlete since childhood, thus grew up in the lap of luxury, attended by servants in the family’s numerous villas, or while sailing the seas in one of the family’s numerous yachts.
Popov became a playboy at an early age. His father built his kids a huge seaside villa, and gave them generous allowances that allowed them to host lavish parties. However, Popov’s father did not simply spoil his kids rotten: he ensured that they get a top-notch education. Thus, by the time Popov was a teenager he was fluent in French, German, and Italian, in addition to his native Serbian. Those linguistic skills came in handy when he walked the roads of deception in WWII.
25. Expelled From School, Then Expelled by the Nazis
Popov studied in England – where he got expelled from a prestigious prep school – and France. He then returned home to study law at the University of Belgrade. At age 22, soon after the Nazis assumed power, he went to Germany to get a Ph.D. There, he befriended a rich German student named Johnny Jebsen, who held anti-Nazi views. Until then, Popov had simply been a dilettante playboy, with no interest in politics. His time in Germany taught him to loathe the Nazis, and he developed strong political opinions against them.
Popov was indiscreet, however. In 1937, he was arrested by the Gestapo on suspicion of being a communist, and tossed into prison. His friend Jebsen came to his aid, alerting Popov’s father, who in turn got the Yugoslav government involved. After high-level contacts between Yugoslavia’s prime minister and Herman Goering, then head of the Gestapo, Popov was released from jail, but ordered expelled from Germany.
Getting expelled from Germany did not improve Popov’s opinion of the Nazis. When WWII commenced, he was primed and eager to pay them back if the opportunity presented itself. It presented itself when his friend Jebsen, whose family’s business needed favors from Popov’s, informed him in 1940 that he had joined Germany’s military intelligence, the Abwehr. Popov passed that information to a contact in the British embassy, along with the observation that Jebsen was not fond of the Nazis.
Jebsen sought to recruit Popov as an Abwehr agent. The British urged him to play along, recruiting him as an MI6 double agent to further Allied deception plans. Popov eventually turned Jebsen, and recruited his German recruiter into British intelligence as a double agent. Popov also fed information to his native Yugoslavia’s intelligence, making him a triple agent. He moved to London, and his family’s business activities gave him cover to travel back and forth to neutral Portugal. There, Popov met his Abwehr contacts, and fed them information provided to him by the British service that ranged from harmless truths, to half-truths, to outright misleading.
The Abwehr was pleased with Popov’s reports. Although some of his handlers grew suspicious, they kept mum. For one, an assignment to German military intelligence in Portugal was a cushy gig compared to less attractive ones, such as a posting on the Eastern Front. For another, many in the Abwehr, from its chief Wilhelm Canaris on down to lower officials such as Johnny Jebsen, disliked the Nazis and did what they could to sabotage them.
The Abwehr sent Popov to America in 1941, furnishing him with a small fortune and tasking him with gathering intelligence on the country’s defenses. The information sought included an extensive list of questions about Pearl Harbor, in which Germany’s Japanese allies were keenly interested. The British worked with the FBI to handle Popov while in the US, but J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men lacked the vision and finesse of their British counterparts. Instead of using Popov as a double agent in deception operation to suss out German intentions and feed them misleading information, Hoover simply wanted to use him to catch German spies.
Edgar Hoover did not pass Popov’s Abwehr questions on to American military authorities – particularly the ones asking about Pearl Harbor’s defenses. After the Japanese attack wrecked the US fleet there a few months later, Hoover’s oversight should have wrecked his career. However, Hoover was himself an expert at the art of deception when he wanted to be. He buried his mistake deep in the FBI’s secret archives, and it did not come out until after his death.
In the meantime, the prissy FBI Director, whose private life was even more scandalous than Popov’s, got moralistic about the double agent’s playboy antics. Hoover even threatened to have Popov arrested under the Mann Act for travelling with a woman across state lines “for immoral purposes”.
While Popov was in America, the British assigned naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming to watch his every move. The future author of James of Bond followed Popov around as he made the rounds of nightclubs and casinos, womanizing, splurging the cash furnished him by the Abwehr, and making a killing at the roulette tables. The style and panache left an impression that would find expression years later in Agent 007. Some famous scenes from Casino Royale were based on Fleming’s observations of Popov in American casinos.
Eventually, Popov’s relationship with the FBI grew toxic, and threatened to get worse. So British intelligence recalled him to London, where he continued to feed the Abwehr false information. His biggest contribution came in the intricate Allied deception plans, collectively known as Operation Bodyguard, which sought to mislead the Germans about the planned invasion of France.
Popov played an important role in a sub-plan of Bodyguard, known as Operation Fortitude, of which more below, under the entry for another Allied deception agent, Juan Pujol Garcia. Popov fed the Germans made up details about a fake American army in Britain, such as its units, strength, and organization.
The Germans bought the deception. Their faith in Popov’s information was reinforced when they eavesdropped on fake radio traffic between the fictitious units. To reinforce the deception, German reconnaissance planes were allowed to fly over Britain and photograph concentrations of tanks and transports that were actually inflatable dummies.
Popov and the Operation Fortitude’s deception paid off in a big way. His part in the intricate Allied deception helped convince the Germans to keep part of their army waiting to defend against an invasion that never came, instead of rushing to counter the D-Day invasion. That gave the Allied beachhead in Normandy a vital breather. It was used to consolidate, reinforce, and eventually break out of Normandy and chase the Germans out of France.
After Paris was liberated, Popov was sent there to establish a British intelligence network. With Yugoslavia turning communist after the war, there was no future for the Serb playboy Popov back in his home country. So he stayed in the West, where he prospered as a businessman. Popov was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his wartime exploits – a nice accompaniment to the medals given him by the Germans during the conflict – and eventually became a British citizen. A playboy to the end, he died in 1981, after years of heavy smoking and drinking, and many, many, women.
From 1801 to 1805, a fledgling America fought The First Barbary War against the Barbary states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli. At issue was the Barbary states’ predation on – or piracy of – 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 managed to refloat the Philadelphia, and towed her into harbor for salvage and restoration. The ship was too powerful a prize to allow it to remain in the pirates’ hands, so the US Navy decided to recapture or destroy it. The result was one of the US Navy’s earliest deception operations.
The mission to recapture the USS Philadelphia 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. The Intrepid was then used in a deception operation to recover the captured American frigate. On the night of February 16th, 1804, Decatur and a volunteer crew sailed the Intrepid, disguised as a Maltese ship flying a British flag, into Tripoli’s harbor.
Decatur and his crew feigned distress, claiming to have lost all anchors in a storm. Their 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.
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 wrongfoot his opponent. He put in 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 the 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 Gaugamela. 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 Persians 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 Pujol’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.
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 traveled 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