Bernard Montgomery, Christopher Priest, Clifton James, David Fisher, Dudley Clarke, Dusko Popov, Erwin Rommel, Glyndwr Michael, Jasper Maskelyne, John Mills, Joshua Levine, Juan Pujol, Nicholas Rankin, Winston Churchill
A year or so back, I came across a television broadcast of the old 1950s film, I Was Monty’s Double. It is not a very good film (Clifton James was not a particularly talented actor), nor was it an especially honest film (at least two better, and better known, actors were approached to take part in the deception before James; James was a drinker, who brought the deception to an end earlier than planned because he was drunk and Montgomery was a strict teetotaler; and the whole drama involving the John Mills character never happened); but I found myself intrigued yet again by the whole notion of wartime deception. This particular deception, Operation Copperhead, as it was called, doesn’t seem to have had much if any effect on the German war effort, but still the whole idea was just so bizarre.
Also, it reminded me of another film of similar vintage about another, and far more effective, wartime deception. And lo, The Man Who Never Was showed up on television just a little while later. What’s more, not long after that a different channel was showing a documentary, Operation Mincemeat, which filled in some of the details that the film missed (including giving the name of poor Glyndwr Michael, which hadn’t been released at the time the film was made, and who is one of the few civilians in the Roll of Honour on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website).
I Was Monty’s Double was a fairly simple deception: make Montgomery appear on Gibraltar and in Algeria, and the Germans will think the D-Day planning is not at an urgent stage, and maybe relax their attention a bit. The Man Who Never Was was a much more complex deception. Have a body wash up off the coast of neutral Spain as if he had died in a plane crash, have the body carry secret documents suggesting that the allied invasion of Southern Europe would be through Greece not Sicily, and then hope that the massive network of German agents operating in Spain would get hold of those documents and believe them. As if that wasn’t complex enough, they had to find the right body whose actual cause of death would not be detectable to Spanish pathologists (as it was, the body was kept on ice for so long that signs of decay were starting to show in the extremities by the time he was pushed into the sea off Huelva); then they had to create an entire backstory to make “Major Martin” appear like a real person and like someone who would be carrying such documents. What’s more, the documents contained a double bluff, since they referred to the actual plans for the invasion of Sicily, Operation Husky, but as if this was itself a deception to distract the Germans before the real attacks on Greece and Sardinia. It worked like a dream, Rommel along with masses of men and armour were actually moved from Sicily to Greece, then sat there with nothing to do throughout the Allied landings.
The more I learned about Mincemeat, the more complex it became. And then, in one of those instances that make you question the whole efficacy of algorithms, I was searching guitar tutor sites on Youtube when suddenly I came across a documentary about Operation Fortitude. Now, I knew vaguely about dummy armies being massed in Kent during the run-up to D-Day, but I knew no details, and I didn’t know it was called Fortitude. But the documentary did no more than whet the appetite, I had to know more. So I went out and got three books on the subject, as you do.
The first of these, Churchill’s Wizards: the British Genius for Deception 1914-1945 by Nicholas Rankin, would, I hoped, provide me with a good basic overview of the subject, which would allow me to fill in details later. And I suppose it did, to an extent, though not the extent that I’d hoped. This is partly because he keeps coming back to Churchill, even though Churchill himself was rarely more than tangentially involved in any of this; he likes to give detailed accounts of campaigns and battles which often involved little in the way of deception; and he is too easily distracted, an account of radio deception spends several pages talking about Tommy Handley and ITMA. If he had kept strictly to his subject, a 600-page book would have been closer to 300 pages, and all the better for it. Nevertheless, what is in there, for instance on camouflage in the First World War, is often very good, though I could have done with more detail, for instance, on how fake buildings and patterns of light and fire were used to deceive German bombers. What I particularly like is being introduced to
the extraordinary character of Dudley Clarke, brother of T.E.B. Clarke who would write so many of the great Ealing Comedies. Dudley seems to have expressed the family’s creative genius in the form of some of the great deceptions of the Second World War. It was Dudley Clarke who came up with the idea of the commandos, and later in North Africa decided to trick the Germans into thinking there was an elite commando unit operating behind their lines which he called the Special Air Service, only for David Stirling to think that was a good idea, and turn the deception into a reality. Then there was the curious incident in Madrid when Clarke was arrested by Spanish police in women’s clothing; no one has quite managed to work out what he was doing in Madrid or why he was in drag. Don’t you just want a full biography of Dudley Clarke?
At the opposite extreme to Churchill’s Wizards is The War Magician: The Man Who Conjured Victory in the Desert by David Fisher, which is the story of Jasper Maskelyne. Now I was interested in Maskelyne because he came from a family of stage magicians, his grandfather John Nevil, and his father Nevil, were both renowned magicians (and one or other of the Nevils, I suspect the elder, played a significant part in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige). But this is probably not the book to read. Fisher writes it like a bad novel, with conversations that could not possibly have been recorded (including one conversation between two men as they die alone) and lots of sentimental asides about Jasper and his wife. There is no source given for anything he tells us, and though he says at the start that some of the characters are composites we have no indication who these might be. But more than that, I don’t believe it, there are details that are simply wrong (Dudley Clarke is described as the head of a spy network, but Clarke had nothing to do with spies in that sense, and as the person in charge of deception throughout the North Africa campaign he would have been Maskelyne’s commanding officer) and others that are misleading (a number of the deceptions that Maskelyne is credited with inventing are variants of things being used extensively elsewhere). I don’t doubt that most if not all of the deceptions described in this book actually happened, I just think that Maskelyne’s role is being massively over-inflated. Rankin says as much in Churchill’s Wizards: “Maskelyne’s theatrical charisma has cadged him more credit than perhaps he deserves” (that “cadged” is a nice touch); but I think I would have doubted this book even if I hadn’t read Rankin first. (I’ve just checked on Wikipedia, which says that his very brief command of the Camouflage Experimental Section was not a success and he was transferred to welfare, ie, entertaining the troops, and that according to official records his wartime role was very marginal.)
Still, the deceptions that Maskelyne was, or claims to have been, involved in are quite spectacular. These include fooling German bombers into attacking an empty bay instead of the crowded harbour at Alexandria, and using dazzling lights so that pilots could not aim their bombs accurately at the Suez Canal. Most spectacular was the preparation for El Alamein. Rommel knew that Montgomery would have to attack somewhere along a relatively short and distinct line, but he did not know where or when. The allies started creating a water pipe towards the south of the line: this would be essential for supplying any advance, but the rate of construction was such that it could not be completed before November. Meanwhile supply trucks were parked and forgotten at the northern end of the line, while tanks were massed at the southern end, then, in a carefully stage-managed operation, the tanks were transferred to the northern end where they were disguised as trucks, while fake tanks replaced them at the southern end. When the attack came at the beginning of October, it took the Germans completely by surprise.
This deception, of course, recalls the preparations for D-Day, which brings me to the third and by a long way the best of these three books. Operation Fortitude: The Greatest Hoax of the Second World War by Joshua Levine tells a story that is more complex and more wide-ranging than I had ever imagined, and Levine tells it in a way that is compelling without reverting to the fake novelistic mode of Fisher, full of telling detail that is both more succinct and more convincing than Rankin’s rather long-winded manner.
It turns out that the fake tanks and the rest in Kent were largely irrelevant to the deception, because by this stage in the war the Germans didn’t have the facilities for reconnaissance flights. They were entirely dependent on their agents on the ground, and though they didn’t realise this, they didn’t actually have any agents. I have long heard the story that every German agent in Britain during the war was either captured or turned, but I didn’t know the details. Levine very carefully lays out how Operation Fortitude was almost entirely a product of the Double Cross system. Germany doesn’t seem to have thought to put any agents in place in Britain before the war, and the first ones they tried to infiltrate once war began were singularly incompetent and ill-trained. Some barely spoke any English, most seem to have had no knowledge of the geography of the country, all were rounded up within a day or so of landing. Of these, most were happy to play along with their British captors and start relaying false information back to their handlers. That was the tentative start of the double cross system, but it really got going with the appearance of two extraordinary characters. Dusko Popov was a Yugoslav lawyer and playboy (who may have been one of the inspirations for James Bond) who got himself recruited by the Abwehr, then went straight to the British and volunteered to be a double agent. Throughout the war he ran a string of fake agents in Britain that kept Germany informed of everything we wanted them to know. Then there was Juan Pujol Garcia, a Spanish chicken farmer who volunteered himself to the Abwehr only to sit in Lisbon making up stories based on a tourist guide and an old map of Britain. At one point he told his German handlers that a Glasgow workman would reveal any secret for a litre of wine, and nobody in the Abwehr blinked an eye. It took him several attempts to get the British to take him on as a double agent, but once they did he set up a network of fake agents even bigger than Popov’s, and remained Germany’s most trusted informant right up to the end of the war. With Pujol and Popov in place, and the dozens of agents they apparently controlled, the Abwehr decided it wasn’t worth the risk of trying to infiltrate any more spies, which is how Britain (through the Twenty Committee, the XX or Double Cross Committee, led by our old friend Dudley Clarke) more or less dictated everything the Abwehr knew throughout the war.
What I like about Levine is that he is not only a good storyteller who clearly relishes the various deceptions he describes, but he is scrupulous in showing how well or ill they worked. Fortitude was in two parts, for instance. Fortitude North suggested an army being amassed in Scotland ready to invade Norway, and though this seems to have worked to the extent that it kept German troops in Norway that might have been transferred elsewhere, that force was not huge and was not augmented by additional forces. So Fortitude North was not exactly a resounding success. Fortitude South, on the other hand, had the advantage that it was trying to suggest that the European invasion would come at the Pas de Calais. That was the obvious location for an invasion, and both Rommel and Hitler believed that that is where it would happen, so the deceivers were preaching to the converted. So successful were they that even after troops had landed at Normandy they were able to convince the German High Command that this was just a feint and the real attack would follow at the Pas de Calais once the troops there had been drawn away. Before D-Day, Eisenhower asked the deceivers to keep the Germans tied down at Calais for three days; he actually got more than two weeks.
Apart from the Levine, there have to be better books about the hall of mirrors that is British wartime deception. But even so, the stories they tell are endlessly intriguing. I have a feeling I’m developing another obsession.