Operation Fortitude: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Great D-Day Deception

Operation Fortitude: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Great D-Day Deception

Michael Walker - January 5, 2017

The Allied invasion of Normandy is a well-known, illustrious and inspiring event, 156,000 troops, 5,000 ships and landing crafts, 50,000 vehicles, 11,000 aircraft, and 13,000 paratroopers from a host of nations invaded a 50 mile stretch of French coast. The operation opened up a much-needed second front in Europe and led to the liberation of France and the downfall of Hitler’s Germany. A lesser-known story of the history of D-Day is the complex deception campaign which preceded the landings.

Initial planning for the landings began in 1943 and it was evident to both the Allies and the Germans that there were only three possible landing sites for the Allied troops; the area around Calais, known as the Pas de Calais, the Cherbourg peninsula, or the Normandy beaches. All three possible sites were known to the Germans. The Allies could only land on a beach that could be protected by fighter planes flying out of southern England. Faced with only three possible landing sites the Allies began an operation that would deceive the German high command into thinking the attack would happen at the most obvious site, the Pas de Calais area, only 20 miles from the English coast. The operation was named Operation Fortitude (part of an overall deception campaign named Operation Bodyguard) and it is one of the most complex deception campaigns ever attempted, here is the story of how it was achieved.

Operation Fortitude: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Great D-Day Deception
AmericanWWII – Patton’s Ghost Army

1. Rubber Tanks

What do you need if you want to convince your enemy that you are preparing the largest amphibious invasion of all time? That’s right … balloons, lots of them, shaped like tanks.

Large numbers of inflatable tanks and trucks were scattered around the Kent countryside in an elaborate attempt to fool the Germans. Dummy landing craft floated alongside wooden and rubber battleships in the English ports whilst papier-mache tanks and artillery units littered the fields.

The planning of this deception was conducted to the minutest detail, a selection of tanks and artillery units lying dormant in a farmer’s field may raise German suspicions that the planned ‘invasion’ was fake, to quell these suspicions the Allies employed men with specially designed rollers to create tank tracks in the ground. Any enemy reconnaissance plane would take the tank tracks to be genuine and report back to the German high command that a large military buildup was occurring 20 miles away from Calais in the Dover area.

The Germans were well aware of the logistical problems of keeping a large army in the field and would have been looking for any signs of supply chains in the Dover area. The Allies solved this problem by using set designers from the silver screen. Film industry stagehands were employed to create a sham fuel depot at Dover, the facility got the royal seal of approval when King George VI visited the depot. The facility was so ‘real’ that during German bombardments, pyrotechnics were used to stimulate fires and damage from the occasional hit.

The German reconnaissance pilots were quite surprised to find how easy it was to fly over south-east England in 1944, compared to earlier missions the pilots had a free run to photograph and document the build up of what seemed to them a mass array of troops and machinery, little did they know that the pilots of the Royal Air Force had been ordered to let the Luftwaffe reconnaissance planes take their photographs as part of the deception. The German pilots were allowed and encouraged to photograph the inflatable balloons, which seen from above looked like Sherman tanks.

Operation Fortitude: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Great D-Day Deception
Ramkass Collection – Fake Divsion Shoulder Patches

2. Fake Army

What good is an inflatable army if you don’t have a fake army of men to compliment the tank balloons? Inflatable tanks and artillery units, wooden and rubber ships and a wooden Hollywood fuel depot do not make a dummy war, but fake armies just might. The collection of fake machinery would mean nothing without a fake army reinforcing the deception.

The Allied high command planned on using ten divisions for the fake Calais assault, 6 of these divisions would be purely fictional and the remaining units were the real American 5th Corps and the British 1st Corps. The fake army group was given the name First US Army Group (FUSAG) and was ‘stationed’ in south-east England.

This deception gave the Germans the impression that the invasion force was much larger than it was. The deception worked so well that even after the Allies landed in Normandy, the Germans were still expecting a much larger invasion coming across the strait of Dover, and that the invasion of Normandy was just a diversion.

The American 5th and British 1st Corps, who would later take part in the Normandy landings had no trouble appearing as a lean fighting machine, ready to take on the Germans at the earliest possibility, but the imaginary units were meant to have over a million men in their ranks, and these dummies had to look active as well. Fake tent cities were erected across the countryside, fake mess halls, fake hospitals and even a fake sewage treatment works were erected.

We can imagine the escapades soldiers get up to when they are preparing to go to battle and it was no different for the fake units of fighting men. The local papers were full of letters from local vicars horrified at the behaviour of the foreign troops, of course these stories were as fake as the rubber tanks and all part of the detailed deception plan, as were the fake shoulder patches worn by operatives on leave in London. To ease the enthusiasm of the fake foreign troops the First US Army Group needed a commander, a fake general.

Operation Fortitude: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Great D-Day Deception
Pinterest – General George Patton in Uniform

3. Fake General

There was nothing fake about Lieutenant General George S. Patton, a bear of a man who preferred “a German division in front of me, than a French division behind”, was an authentic commander of men. What you saw is what you got, but the quick-tongued, aggressive and passionate veteran of countless battles was used as an effective pawn in the deception game. Known to many as “Old Blood and Guts”, he was well known in German military circles.

The Germans held him in high esteem and felt he was the Allies’ best general and the man destined to lead the invasion. When news reached the Germans that Patton had been made commander of the First US Army Group it became clear that the Allies would invade from their base around Dover across the Channel to Calais.

Patton was ordered to keep a low profile during this period, his behaviour during his campaign to invade Sicily in 1943 had made him something of a public relations liability. War is hell, but slapping combat soldiers (and knowing Patton as we do, we can guess that it wasn’t a gentle, playful slap) who are suffering from combat fatigue was a step too far, and the resulting press coverage had led to Patton being removed from the command.

The slapping incident also meant Patton had no chance of commanding American troops during the initial Normandy landing. All of these incidents meant that one of the most ferocious Allied generals was left commanding an army of inflatable tanks and dummy soldiers. Without Patton’s appearance in Operation Fortitude, the fake invasion plan would not have looked as genuine.

4. (Dis)Information

The fake tanks, the fake unit, and Patton’s presence amongst his ‘army’ would mean nothing if the Germans did not take the bait. The German reconnaissance planes did their part by taking photographs of the build-up of tanks and troops in the Dover area, but what was needed to make the deception a success was much more concrete information. Namely, precise and specific information on troop numbers and troop movements, the Allies achieved this by swamping the German high command with disinformation.

Operation Fortitude: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Great D-Day Deception
YouTube – Garbo, Double Agent

One of the unsung heroes of the Second World War was a Spanish student of animal husbandry called Juan Pujol García, perhaps better known by his British codename, Garbo or his German codename, Alaric Arabel. Garbo was a double agent. The British discovered Garbo when he was still an amateur spy, supplying the Germans with false information he created.

Garbo went on to work for the Double Cross Committee, a counter-espionage operation. As part of the Double Cross Committee, Garbo quickly gained the trust of the German intelligence agencies and supplied them with detailed yet misleading information of Allied plans.

Garbo managed to trick the Germans into believing he had a network of 14 spies working throughout the Allied high command supplying him with vital information. Garbo’s detailed reports on the growth of the First US Army Group stationed in southern England greatly aided the deception. Garbo was so convincing he was awarded the Iron Cross from Germany, which must have complimented the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) gong he received from the British.

Operation Fortitude: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Great D-Day Deception
Ravepad Images – The Atlantic Wall

5. D-Day and Beyond

The disinformation did not stop with the double agents. The Allies also used the power of radio to spread their message. The day before D-Day, on Monday 5th June, a number of small boats left England and headed into the English Channel. The boats were emitting false radio signatures which panicked the German surveillance operators who noticed strong echoes on the radar and raised the alarm. These transmissions coupled with the fake wireless traffic coming from the First US Army Group convinced the Germans that an invasion in the Calais area was inevitable.

The Germans had also noticed an increase in the bombing of the Calais area. Several thousand tonnes of bombs were dropped in the Calais region during the night of the 5th of June, this kept the soldiers of the German 15th army tied to the Calais area, awaiting the inevitable invasion. The Allied bombing had the advantage of knocking out transport and communication links in the area and just as importantly the bombing reinforced the idea that the Allies were planning an invasion of the heavily bombed Calais area.

The deception did not stop after the Normandy landings. The main aim of the deception was to convince the Germans that the real landings in Normandy were just a diversion and that the big attack would hit the Calais area. As the brave Allied troops were fighting their way across the Normandy beaches, Operation Fortitude stepped up a notch. The ports of south-east England saw an increase in dummy vessels and even the occasional real battleship was paraded to keep up the illusion.

At night, the docks were lit up in an attempt to persuade the Germans that supplies were being loaded onto the ships in preparation for an invasion. Radio transmissions, which had proved so effective during the first part of the deception suddenly fell silent – mimicking what happens the night before a real invasion. Naval activity, such as sweeping for mines, increased. All of this activity created an impression that another, much larger invasion would take place in the Pas de Calais area.

The German generals fell for the deception, they believed the Normandy landings were just a diversion and the real attack would land in the Calais area. The Germans kept 150,000 men on alert in the Pas de Calais area and decided not to send combat troops to Normandy from the Calais region. This delay in engaging the 15th army allowed the Allies to gain the upper hand in Normandy. The Germans would eventually engage the 15th army in August 1944, one month after the Normandy landings.

The Allied deception was a resounding success, the Germans were still chasing the shadows of the fictional First US Army Group up to September 1944. This forced the Germans to keep units in reserve in preparation for an attack on the Calais region, thus allowing the Allied armies to maintain and build upon the foothold they had carved out in Normandy. Operation Fortitude was a resounding success as is often the case we can leave the final words to the British wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, “In wartime truth is so precious that she should be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”