During WWII, Axis and British armies chased each other back and forth across the deserts of Egypt and Libya. By the fall of 1942, things were headed for a climactic showdown battle at El Alamein. The strip of land over which the battle 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.
British intelligence devised Operation Bertram, which sought to deceive Axis commander Erwin Rommel about the direction from which they would 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 initially 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 Rommel in the north. 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 British troop and materiel buildup in the north. They also sought to make what buildup could not be concealed appear slower than it actually was. All their efforts were geared towards convincing the Axis commanders that the main attack would fall upon the southern sector of the line, and not the northern.
To misdirect Axis attention and get it to focus on the southern part of the front instead of the northern, the British fed the Germans misinformation via turned spies. They also borrowed from stage magic, and built wood and canvass contraptions to fool German aerial reconnaissance by making concentrations of armor appear like trucks, and making transport trucks look like menacing concentrations of tanks.
To further misdirect about the buildup of supplies and munitions, the CDTC set up fake ammunition dumps. They also took advantage of the fact that water was the most precious resource in the desert, whose concentration offered strong indicia of intent, and built a 200-mile dummy water pipeline to the southern sector of the Alamein line.
Operation Bertram’s deception worked. When the Battle of El Alamein commenced with a massive artillery bombardment on the night of October 23rd, 1942, Axis commanders were surprised that the British Eighth Army’s main thrust came in the north, and not in the south as they had expected.
As British planners had 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 six months later in the complete surrender of all Axis forces in North Africa.
As part of its effort to beat back the German U-boat menace during WWI, the British Royal Navy resorted to deception. It used 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. The decoys were quite effective for a while before Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 and began sinking merchant shipping at sight and without warning.
Early in the war, the standard operating procedure for U-boats was to surface and hail a civilian vessel, allowing its crew an opportunity to take to their lifeboats. It would then open fire and sink it with a torpedo, or more often, with shells from the U-boat’s deck gun when practicable, in order to save the significantly more expensive torpedoes for tougher targets. However, if the hailed ship was actually armed – as Q-ships were – the U-boat would be in trouble.
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 behave like normal merchant sailors. They would act terrified by the sudden appearance of an enemy submarine, and rush to the lifeboats to abandon ship.
The use of expensive and powerful torpedoes to sink relatively easy targets such as trawlers and freighters was considered overkill, and was also officially frowned upon. So U-boat captains would normally close the distance to the now “abandoned” Q-Ship, in order to open fire from close range and sink it with the deck gun.
However, once the submarine got close enough, hidden crewmen remaining on board the Q-Ship would haul down the merchant flag and raise the Royal Navy’s ensign. Simultaneously, other crewmen would collapse the deck structure, revealing up to four guns manned and ready for action, which would open fire upon and sink the surprised U-boat.
The Q-Ships were initially quite successful, and within months, the decoy vessels had 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.
In 1917, the Germans turned to open submarine warfare, and began sinking ships without warning. That ended the utility of Q-Ships since their effectiveness had depended on U-boats hailing and coming close enough for the decoy ship to surprise them. Once the Germans abandoned that standard operating procedure, Q-ships became useless.
24. Tricking the Confederates Into Destroying A Valuable Captured Ship
During the Civil War, the Union’s USS Indianola ironclad river gunboat served in the Western Theater 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. However, once she got there she was attacked by Confederate rams on the night of February 24th, 1863, ran aground and was captured.
The Indianola’s capture derailed Union 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. So plans were made to recapture the ironclad, or destroy it so as to deprive the enemy of its use. That set in motion one of the war’s most successful deception operations.
23. The Dummy Ironclad That Made Dummies Out of the Rebels
Union naval commander David Porter ordered the construction of a dummy ironclad out of an old coal barge. It was made to resemble a real warship, with paddle boxes, and fake gun emplacements out of which stuck “cannons”. The guns were actually wooden logs painted black, and the funnels were just barrels stacked atop one another, with smoke produced by smudge pots to mimic the output of a steam engine.
The dummy warship was then floated past Vicksburg. 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. In order to prevent the Indianola’s recapture, the Confederates set fire to the ship’s magazine, and blew her up, thus depriving themselves of a valuable prize.
Zhuge Liang (181-234) was a wily Chinese military strategist famous for his deceptions. In 208, during the buildup to a climactic battle between armies separated by the Yangtze River, he was maneuvered by opponents to commit himself to furnish 100,000 arrows within a few days – a seemingly impossible task. After mulling it over, Zhuge gathered a flotilla of river boats, lined them up with bales of wet straw, and waited for a foggy night.
When it arrived, he had the boats quietly rowed across the river and, undetected, positioned them in a line close to the enemy camp. At a signal, his crews erupted and broke the night’s silence by shouting, beating drums, clanging gongs, and creating an unholy din. Startled, the enemy camp awoke in a panic, and convinced they were facing a surprise night attack, unleashed a storm of arrows at the boat silhouettes flitting in the murk – arrows that were embedded in the bales of straw lining Zhuge’s boats. Then, his pincushioned boats groaning with the weight of more than 100,000 captured arrows, Zhuge departed.
Another of Zhuge Liang’s deceptions became proverbial in China as the “empty fort strategy“. It occurred when he was tasked with defending a walled city with a severely undermanned garrison. A vastly superior enemy army approached – one against which Zhuge’s miniscule garrison stood no chance.
Rather than barricade the gates, he threw them open, then grabbed a musical instrument and played it nonchalantly atop the entrance. When scouts informed the enemy commander what they saw, he rode to the gates to see them wide open, looked up at the walls and saw them unmanned, and heard Zhuge playing music above. Suspecting a trap, the enemy commander turned his army around and left.
20. The Boy Scouts’ Founder Used Deception to Defend a Town
During the Boer War (1899 – 1902), 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 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. However, he was prevented from openly garrisoning the town before the war commenced 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.
Baden-Powell’s ruse to get his force into Mafeking set the tone for the string of deceptions he would use to hang on to the town. When the war began soon thereafter, Baden-Powell found himself besieged by a Boer force five times as big as 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 stuffed with the town’s entire stores of dynamite, while the other boxes buried around the defensive perimeter contained nothing but sand.
Another of Baden-Powell’s deceptions revolved around barbed wire, of which he 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. He had no barbed wire, but he did have 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. However, the wooden posts from which barbed wire 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. Upon reaching the “other side”, they would get back on their feet, dust themselves off, and carry on.
Deceptions such as the fake super landmines and imaginary barbed wire helped immensely with the defense of Mafeking. Between such sneaky ruses, and a heavy dose of stubborn and bloody resistance when the situation warranted, Baden-Powell fought off the vastly more numerous Boers and held on.
Against all odds, he and his men withstood the siege for 217 days. Baden-Powel held on to Mafeking until he was finally relieved by the arrival of a British army that chased off the Boers and lifted the siege.
16. Christopher Columbus Overawes Natives by Predicting an Eclipse
Predicting an eclipse to overawe naïve natives is as cliché a Hollywood or pulp fiction trope as it gets. But it reportedly actually happened in real life with Christopher Columbus and a tribe of Arawaks in the Caribbean. It began in June of 1503 when the famous explorer was forced to beach a damaged fleet in Jamaica. The native Arawaks were friendly at first and furnished the castaways with food and shelter.
However, as the days turned to months, the new arrivals began to wear out their welcome and the natives grew less friendly – among other things, Columbus’ crew were in the habit of assaulting and robbing the Arawaks, and raping their women. Finally, after six months of rising tensions and tempers, Columbus’ crews mutinied and launched an all-out attack on their hosts and murdering some, prompting the Arawaks to stop bringing them food. So Columbus threatened to take away the moon unless the natives resumed helping him and his crew.
Faced with starvation and the possibility that the enraged Arawaks might fall upon him and his marooned men and massacre them all, a desperate Columbus hit upon an ingenious plan. While perusing an almanac which contained astronomical charts covering solar and lunar eclipses from 1475 to 1506, he noticed that a total lunar eclipse was due shortly, on the night of February 29th, 1504. So Columbus arranged a meeting with the Arawaks’ chieftain and told him that the Christian God was angry with the natives for not feeding Columbus and his men.
He informed the Arawaks that his furious God would demonstrate His wrath three nights hence by turning the moon blood red, then blotting it out as a harbinger of the calamities He was about to unleash upon the natives. The Arawaks laughed it off, until the appointed night when Columbus’ prediction came true and the moon turned red, and then started disappearing. According to Columbus’ son, the terrified Arawak “with great howling and lamentation came running from every direction to the ships laden with provisions and beseeching the admiral to intercede with his god on their behalf“. They promised to cooperate if Columbus restored the moon back to the way it was.
As the Arawaks grew distressed and panicked at Christopher Columbus’ seeming ability to command the moon, the explorer pressed his advantage and played it up for all he was worth. He told the locals that he would have to check with his God and see if He was in a forgiving mood. Retiring to his cabin, he used his hourglass to time the eclipse, and at its peak, he emerged to announce that he had interceded for the Arawaks with God, who had agreed – just this once – to forgive them and allow the moon to return.
The moon gradually reappeared just as Columbus finished talking, and from then on, the Arawak leaned over backward to be helpful and kept Columbus and his crew supplied and well-fed. The castaways spent a leisurely time for the remainder of their stay in Jamaica, until rescue ships arrived to take them off the island months later.
13. Napoleon’s Marshalls Bluff the Austrians Into Surrendering a Vital Bridge
Napoleon’s 1805 Ulm Campaign culminated in his capture of an entire Austrian army. In the aftermath, the Austrians’ Russian allies retreated to the north bank of the Danube, and hoped for breathing space to regroup by putting that river between themselves and the pursuing French. To that end, all bridges spanning the Danube were either blown up or prepared with explosives to detonate at a word of command to prevent their capture by the French.
In the meantime, peace negotiations were underway as the French neared the Austrian capital of Vienna on the Danube. In order to not cast a pall over the negotiations, and because it might prove unnecessary should the negotiators succeed, Austrian authorities forebore from blowing up Vienna’s bridges, but rigged them up for detonation if the French tried to seize them. One such was the Tabor Bridge, entrusted to Count Auesberg. In one of history’s most brazen deceptions, two of Napoleon’s Marshalls tricked the unfortunate Auesberg into handing the bridge over.
In an uncertain environment in which hostilities might end at any moment with an armistice and peace treaty, the French army’s vanguard neared the Tabor Bridge on November 13th, 1805, and halted. Two of Napoleon’s enterprising commanders, Marshalls Joachim Murat and Jean Lannes, then casually ambled to the bridge.
Seemingly without a care in the world as confused Austrian guards aimed their muskets at their breasts, Murat and Lannes laughed and expressed their pleasure with the “just concluded” armistice and peace treaty. Once they reached the other side, still maintaining a carefree air, they asked to see Count Auesberg, wondering if he had already gone to attend the peace signing ceremony. As a messenger was sent to fetch Auesberg, the Marshalls chatted with the guards to distract them from the French soldiers who were now casually crossing the bridge.
A wily Austrian sergeant suspected a ruse and lit the fuse to the explosives set in place to blow up the Tabor Bridge. A quick-thinking and quick-acting Marshall Lannes extinguished it, berated the sergeant for trying to destroy public property, then sat on a cannon as he smoked a pipe. When Count Auesberg arrived, he bought the Marshalls’ story. When the suspicious sergeant protested, Murat berated Auesberg for his soldiers’ indiscipline and allowed an underling to mouth off and jeopardize the armistice.
Auesberg was browbeaten into arresting the sergeant, then turned control of the bridge over to the French. They used it to cross the Danube. Less than a month later, they crushed the combined Austro-Russian armies at Austerlitz, the masterpiece battle of Napoleon’s career. As to the hapless Count Auesberg, a court-martial convicted him of negligence, stripped him of his rank and honors, and ordered him shot. Luckily for him, the death sentence was stayed, and he was pardoned in 1812.
10. The CIA Plan to Dampen Protests by Manipulating Rain
By the early 1960s, South Vietnam’s president and US puppet ruler Ngo Dinh Diem and his regime were on the ropes. His rule, marked by extreme nepotism, extraordinary graft, and astonishing levels of corruption, was hugely unpopular. Between that, a steadily intensifying Viet Cong insurgency, and economic hardships, South Vietnam was seething.
Protests were erupting up and down the country, only to be brutally put down by Diem’s security forces. That only added fuel to the fire and gave the South Vietnamese more cause for protest. However, bad as Diem might have been, he was still America’s Man in Saigon. So the US government tried to do what it could to prop him up – before finally abandoning Diem and backing a coup that overthrew him. Before washing its hands of Diem, however, the US thought up some batty ideas of supporting him, such as manipulating the weather to make it rain on protesters.
To discourage anti-Diem protests, the CIA and the US military cooked up a plan to seed clouds and make them, literally, rain on the parades of anti-Diem protestors. Doing so, it was hoped, would dampen turnout and disperse the crowds. That did not save Diem, who was overthrown and assassinated in 1963, but cloud seeding survived to be used as a tactic in the Vietnam War.
Codenamed Operation Popeye, modified cargo planes began flying over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1967, releasing silver and lead iodide flares. The goal was to increase the monsoon period’s rainfall, and thus negatively impact the routes used to supply and reinforce communist forces in South Vietnam. By the time Operation Popeye was terminated in 1972, over 2600 missions had been flown, during which roughly 47,000 cloud seeding charges were dropped. Their impact on the Ho Chi Minh trail and communist supplies and reinforcements were next to nil.
8. “In Wartime Truth Is So Precious, That She Should Always Be Attended by a Bodyguard of Lies”
The above quote by Winston Churchill explains the motive and aim of Operation Bodyguard, history’s greatest psy-op and deception operation. A multifaceted and complex plan, Bodyguard sought to deceive the Germans about the time and location of the Western Allies’ intended invasion of Europe in 1944.
The plan had three goals. First, was to conceal the actual time and date of the invasion. Second, was to convince the Germans that the main invasion would land in the Pas de Calais. Third, was to 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. To realize their goals, the Allies set in motion history’s greatest military deception plan.
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. A variety of means were employed to sell the fake army’s existence to the Germans. Fake radio traffic was generated between fictitious FUSAG units, knowing that the Germans were listening in on Allied radio traffic. German reconnaissance airplanes were allowed to fly over and photograph concentrations of FUSAG tanks and transports, that in reality were inflatable dummies.
The Germans were also fed fake intelligence 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 Germans there.
6. Deceiving the Germans Into Defending an Unthreatened Area
After D-Day, Operation Bodyguard kept 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. That allowed the Allies time to build a beachhead in Normandy, before breaking out to liberate France and Western Europe.
Perhaps no single person made a greater contribution to the success of Operation Bodyguard than Juan Pujol Garcia (1912 – 1988). An eccentric Spaniard, Pujol’s desire for adventure and excitement led him to hoax the Nazis with fictional spying during WWII. The hoax grew into the greatest deception 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, he was rejected. Undeterred, he posed as a Nazi-sympathizing Spanish government officer and offered his services to the Germans. Their military intelligence, the Abwehr, accepted and ordered him to Britain, where he was to recruit a spy network.
4. An Adventurer’s Fake Spy Network Fools the Nazis
Juan Pujol Garcia had neither the means nor the intent to head to Britain and set up a spy network there, as instructed by the Germans. Instead, he went to Lisbon, and from there, made up reports about Britain with content culled from public sources, embellished and seasoned with his own active imagination. He then sent them to his Abwehr handlers as if he was writing from Britain. The Germans swallowed 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 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, transforming it into an elaborate double-cross operation that carefully fed the Germans a massive amount of often true but useless information, mixed in with half-truths and falsities.
The flood of reports from Juan Pujol Garcia, and from his steadily growing network of fictional sub-agents, transformed him in German eyes into their most successful spy in Britain. The moment for cashing in on that trust came during the buildup to D-Day and the subsequent Normandy Campaign. The ultimate aim was to convince the Germans that the Normandy landings were but the first in a series of planned invasions, with an even bigger one planned against the Pas de Calais.
To cement Pujol’s credibility with the Germans, British intelligence had him send a message alerting the Germans to the invasion a few hours before its commencement. They figured that by the time it worked its way from German intelligence to commanders in the field, the invasion would have already taken place. Thus, the warning would do the Germans no good, but still serve to enhance Pujol’s reputation.
Having spent years building up Pujol’s credibility with the German Abwehr, the time finally came to cash in on the Nazis’ misplaced faith in the Spanish adventurer. Going in for the kill, Pujol informed the Germans that the Normandy landings were just a diversion, intended to juke the Germans by getting them to send reinforcements from, and thus weaken, the real Allied target: the Pas de Calais. That “real target” was to be invaded a few weeks after Normandy.
That, coupled with other measures, such as the fictitious First US Army Group, under the command of George Patton, was massed across the English Channel opposite the Pas de Calais, convinced the Germans. During the crucial weeks of June, 1944, they kept powerful formations in that region, rather than rush them to Normandy to help destroy the vulnerable Allied beachhead. By the time the Pas de Calais formations were finally released, the Allies had amassed sufficient forces in Normandy to not only defeat German counterattacks, but to then go on the offensive, and breaking out of the beachhead, sweep across and liberate France within a few months.
As to Juan Pujol Garcia, he gained the distinction of attaining 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. There, he ran a gift shop and book store.
Pujol led an anonymous life until 1984, when he agreed to be interviewed for a book about agent GARBO. As a result of the ensuing publicity, he was received at Buckingham Palace, was lionized in Britain, and on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, traveled to Normandy to pay his respects to the dead. He died in Caracas four years later.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading