How did they set about kidding Mr. Hitler? (D-Day, 6 June 1944)

The actual invasion plan – as opposed to the total bullshit being fed to Germany

The ‘D’ in D-Day might just as well have stood for ‘deception’. 

Quicksilver, Fortitude, Bodyguard, Cockade, Garbo, Mutt and Jeff – what could such a motley jumble of words have to do with the Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944?   Well they all fed, in one form or another, into operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy, and Operation Neptune, the naval phase of the D-day invasion which established crucial beachheads in mainland Europe through which France, Belgium and the Netherlands were liberated and, ultimately,  the surrender of Germany was brought about. 

During the darkest days of World War Two Winston Churchill made one of his many gnomic and quotable statements. He said, ‘in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.’ (An axiom he had certainly cherished when he was Secretary of State for War during the Irish War of Independence). It was such a good line that they called an entire operation after it. ‘Bodyguard’ became the codename for the dark arts employed to make sure that the Nazis were as unprepared as possible for the Allied invasion of Europe on 6 June 1944. Because of the military build-up on the English south coast they knew it was coming. But they were duped into expecting the hammer blow to fall near the major French port of Calais .  

To help pull an entire wardrobe over the eyes of the Nazis, Operation Fortitude: South (through a wholly owned subsidiary called Operation Quicksilver) created an entirely fake US army group, complete with inflatable or cardboard tanks constructed by movie set-builders, to impress German reconnaissance flights. This was the gloriously fictional 1st US Army Group (FUSAG), thinly staffed with actual human beings and supposedly under the command of George Patton, a controversial and ambitious US General who, the Germans would have assumed to have been in charge of something. The Germans had a lot of time for Patton, which, given his own latent fascist tendencies is hardly surprising. Patton went along with the plot enthusiastically. He allowed himself to be photographed visiting dozens of spurious military sites populated by tanks that wouldn’t even hold water. 

British soldiers with superhuman strength or a cardboard tank?

Th 1st US Army Group probably even had the inevitable supply of tights and chocolate to be given out to susceptible English ladies easily impressed by tans and perfect teeth.  Fake wedding notices certainly did appear regularly in English newspapers announcing that yet another randy GI had plucked a flower of British womanhood and intended to take her away from Old Blighty when Hitler had been put in his place. The fictional Army Group even had its own insignia. For example, the phony 135th Airborne Division had a highly decorative and menacing shoulder patch depicting a large ugly spider about to pounce on something unsuspecting – a bit of a metaphor for the entire invasion plan. Sham shoulder patches were diligently flashed with impunity around centres of population near Dover by the few actual employees of FUSAG where it was suspected that the Germans might have had a few observant agents who would take note and alert Adolf. 

Just in case the German agents were playing tennis or just not very vigilant, a wounded German tank officer was conveniently released for treatment back home in Germany. This was in the days before the NHS. He was told he was being escorted through Kent and, en route, was allowed by his careless jailers to make careful note of the massive troop build-up in that part of southern England. ‘Oh look Hans, there’s an entire tank brigade out your starboard window. And what about that infantry division doing manoeuvres on that ridge up there?’ Even a dummkopf would have concluded that this force was soon be coming ashore at Calais a few miles across the English channel. (This was also in the days before the Channel Tunnel). In point of fact the ailing Panzerman was being transported through Hampshire and this was the army that was about to be aimed at the five Normandy beaches codenamed Juno, Gold, Sword, Omaha and Utah in a belated response to William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings. But his debriefing must have been interesting, and the useless intelligence he produced must have really excited his interrogators. 

However, a crucial element in the campaign of deception surrounding D-day was not inspired set-dressing and Patton photo-ops, it was good old-fashioned espionage and the classic ‘Double Cross’. The truth was that most of the German spies in England in the early years of the war had long since been rounded up and turned against their masters, acting as double agents. One of these was codenamed Garbo. He was a Spanish citizen, recruited by the Germans, who had offered his services to the British and who created a network of almost thirty entirely fictional ‘agents’ that he claimed were supplying him with vital information, such as the third secret of Fatima and the assurance that the square on the hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides of a triangle. Garbo’s false information was designed, as was most of the other intelligence stardust, to convince the Axis powers that the American, British and Canadian invasion was going to come via the Pas-de-Calais, and probably around Christmas 1950.

Just in case Hitler was dubious about the attack being aimed at such an obvious target as the French port closest to England, Operation Fortitude: North was dreamed up to convince him that the attack might even be coming through Norway.  Another fictional force was created for this little confidence trick. This one was the British Fourth Army, headquartered in Edinburgh Castle, staffed by the wiliest of ‘wallahs’ and with the invasion plans secreted about their sporrans. The assistance of Mutt and Jeff was useful too – not the cartoon characters but two more exceptionally dodgy secret agents with infra dig codenames who were supplying bogus intelligence to their gullible German masters. 

To help authenticate Mutt and Jeff’s fictions about this belated British response to the medieval incursions of the Vikings, there was a lot of easily interceptible junk radio traffic about winter holidays and kayaking in fjords. Well, actually it was about things like inquiring as to the best bindings for cross country skis and what kind of oil was required in sub-zero temperatures. These, apparently were the norm in pre-climate-change Norwegian high summer. Maybe the Germans should have copped onto that one!  Anyway, it was all enough to ensure that Germany left 13 divisions—more than 100,000 men—twiddling thumbs in Trondheim, far away from any possibility of reinforcing the troops defending Normandy. The thirteenth of those divisions was only despatched by Hitler to defend Mr. Quisling and his fellow Nazi puppets towards the end of May 1944, a couple of weeks before the balloon went up hundreds of kilometres away. None of them, however, was of much use to Mr.Quisling who was terminated with extreme prejudice by a firing squad of unimpressed fellow Norwegians in October 1945.  

Alan Turing – mathematical genius and Bletchley Park codebreaker

The celebrated codebreakers at Bletchley Park also played their part in this massive deception. They appear to have been able to decipher encoded German messages hours before they were even despatched. This was thanks to their friend Enigma and their employee, the mathematical genius Alan Turing, later rewarded for his war service by being hounded into suicide because of his homosexuality. Thanks to Enigma, Turing and many other boffins Bletchley was able to tell the Allied generals that the Germans had been royally conned and confidently expected the Allied invasion to take the shortest route across the channel rather than risking extra hours on the open sea by moving on Normandy. 

You may be shocked to learn that all the British officers who were privy to the invasion plans were ‘bigotted’. This did not, however, mean that they necessarily harboured white  supremacist attitudes—though some of the more imperialistic among them probably did—it was simply a way of referring to those who were ‘in the know’ about the master plan. There are disputes about what the word ‘bigot’ stood for. In the 1990s Lord Killanin, a senior British Army staff officer in 1944, told me that it was an inversion of the words ‘To Gib’, short for ‘To Gibraltar’. This was a phrase that pre-dated Operation Overlord and was stamped on the travelling orders of military planners bound for the disputed Rock attached to neutral Spain who were planning the invasion of North Africa in 1942. It might also be an acronym of ‘British Invasion of German Occupied Territory’. Take your pick. 

It was, however, common parlance in 1944. Killanin told me he would often begin conversations with other military personnel with the words, ‘Are you bigotted?’ If they looked offended, he would turn the conversation to the weather or horse racing. If they indicated that they knew exactly what he was talking about—presumably by touching their right nostril while extending their left hand in a chopping motion and tugging the crease of their trousers—he could relax in the knowledge that they were au fait with the details of the forthcoming invasion of Europe and he wasn’t going to concede a global conflict to Germany on penalties.  He also pointed out in that interview, that armed with an intimate knowledge of the entire battle plan he made a number of return trips to Ireland where he might easily have been kidnapped by German agents and have blown the whole plan!  

The Allies almost blew it without his assistance during Operation Tiger in April 1944. This was a full scale rehearsal for the invasion. It took place on Slapton Sands in Devon. This exercise turned into a full scale FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition). It began with communications problems that led to a number of friendly fire deaths. That cock-up, however, paled into insignificance with what was to follow. Allied landing craft and associated vessels were spotted by half a dozen German submarines which proceeded to  wreaked havoc with their torpedoes and caused the deaths of almost 750 US soldiers. The whole debacle was hushed up for years. 

But, even more consequential in the longer term than the unnecessary deaths of the American marines, was the realisation that a number of British officers with ‘bigot’ documents had also gone missing in the English channel after their boat was torpedoed. A desperate search was organised to recover their bodies before the Germans did. Fortunately all were pulled from the water in time. Though whether the Germans would have trusted any random British military fatality floating in the sea is debatable. Whether they knew it or not they had been badly stung in like manner by Operation Mincemeat, a British undercover action in 1943.

To divert attention from the impending Allied invasion of Sicily that year the body of a deceased civilian was appropriated by agents of British intelligence. The corpse was given the identity card of the fictional Major William Martin as well as a variety of other personal items. These included a photograph of his fictitious girlfriend Pam! The body was then dumped in the sea off the Spanish coast equipped with false top secret documents indicating that the anticipated Allied invasion in the Mediterranean would come through the Balkans. Simultaneous attacks on Greece and Sicily were mere diversions – which in the case of Greece was true. The British hoped that when the body was recovered by neutral Spain the regime of Generalissimo Franco,  would happily share this intelligence with their Fascist brothers and sisters in Germany. General Franco’s secret police duly obliged. The documents were returned to the British consulate in Madrid but only after they had been opened and studied. On 14 May 1943 a German communication was decrypted by Bletchley Park. This made it clear the Germans had bought the ruse. German troops were diverted to Greece and the Balkans while the Allies marched into Sicily (with the generous assistance of the local Mafia – that bit is also true!). The whole episode was captured (and heavily fictionalised) in a 1956 film The Man Who Never Was. The lead in the film was not taken by the famous British/Hollywood actor Leslie Howard who, by coincidence, had been shot down and killed in the Bay of Biscay at around the same time as Major Martin was supposed to have died in the same stretch of water!

In the weeks prior to the Normandy invasion there was one unexpected intelligence ‘snafu’—that’s a military acronym standing for ‘Status Nominal – All Fouled Up’ or, if you prefer a little bit of the vernacular and a healthy dose of cynicism, ‘Situation Normal: All Fucked Up’. This was when military planners began to notice some of their key D-day code words appearing in the Daily Telegraph crossword. It all started quite casually when, in February 1944 the word ‘Juno’ appeared as a solution to one of the puzzles. Noithing to see here, really. A month later, however, ‘Gold’ turned up, and then ‘Sword’. Given the number of words that appear in a week of crosswords it could all just have been an amazing coincidence. Then, on 2 May another significant clue appeared in that day’s edition. Seventeen across read, ‘One of the US’. The solution, which showed up the following day, was ‘Utah’. On 22 May three down was, ‘Red Indian on the Missouri’. The answer to that little poser was ‘Omaha’.

Now the spooks were getting very worried. Five days later there was an apparently innocuous reference to ‘Big wig’ in eleven across. The solution to that one was ‘Overlord’. You can probably see where this is going. On 1 June, four days before the original scheduled D-day, the solution to fifteen down, ‘Brittania and he hold to the same thing’ was ‘Neptune’. It was only then that MI5 decided it was time to have a quiet chat with the crossword setter, one Leonard Sydney Dawe, a local school headmaster.  The following day’s Telegraph was pulled from circulation, and so was Mr. Dawe. The latter was released after the invasion, having experienced the sort of interrogation normally reserved for German agents. He later recorded that he feared he was going to be shot.

It took forty years for the truth to emerge when one of Dawe’s former pupils, one Ronald French, went public. His narrative was a curious one. Dawe, it transpired, relied on his students to help him compile the crossword. He would set them the task of arranging words on a grid and he would then come up with puzzles to which the words were the solution. According to French he, and many of the other boys under the tutelage of Dawe were regularly exposed to the supposedly top secret D-day codewords because they, or their parents, hung around with indiscreet American and Canadian military types in a south coast military base. These garrulous North Americans used the codewords openly in their daily conversations, but, one hopes, without revealing their origin. It was French who had innocently inserted the codewords and had been upbraided by Dawe for so doing after the schoolmaster was released by the MI5 hounds. Subsequently, Dawe, after examining one of French’s notebooks and seeing the words that had clearly been causing his interrogators so much angst had burned the offending object and had sworn his student to secrecy on the nearest bible. Dawe himself was interviewed by the BBC in 1958 where he spoke about his interrogation but not about the bizarre genesis of the tell-tale clues in his crosswords. He might not have wanted his employers to know that he was using child labour in their compilation. 

One of the most entertaining ruses employed by the Allies was to use a Monty tribute act in order to convince the Germans that nothing was about to happen. An Australian actor named Clifton James, who bore a striking resemblance to Field Marshal Montgomery and who was trained to suppress his Antipodean tones and mimic Monty’s distinctively plummy Anglo-Irish accent, was sent on a jolly to Algiers (headquarters of ‘mon General’ Charles de Gaulle and the Free French forces) on 26 May. His instructions were to hit the town and make sure he was seen by some of the underemployed German spies tripping over each other in that North African sanctuary. They were meant to conclude that if Monty was back in North Africa on an El Alamein nostalgia tour there was no chance of a European invasion kicking off in his absence.     

Arguably, however, much of the deception effort, at least its visual element, was, as we would say in Irish, ‘obair in aisce’ i.e. rather a waste of time. By the first half of 1944 it wasn’t as if the Germans had the capacity to organise regular overflights of the British mainland. So, making cardboard tanks and balsa wood aircraft for their delectation was probably of limited value, though it certainly gave a lot of creative and extremely devious spooks something to do while they waited for the ‘big show’. The Germans were also being bombarded with a hell of a lot of  spurious intelligence information and sham radio traffic, some of which they probably were not even intercepting and more of which they did not have the time or the opportunity to decipher. So, much of what passed for creative intelligence was little more than white noise which made a lot of people feel they were doing their bit, and rather ingeniously, for the war effort.  

Whether it was all a tad over the top or not is debatable, but it was certainly effective. The Germans took what they were being fed seriously enough to believe that the allied force on the south coast, apparently aimed at Normandy, was the decoy not the real McCoy. This allowed the 150,000 troops landed on the five Normandy beaches to experience relatively modest casualties – except at Omaha where the American 1st Infantry Division, and other units, took a mauling. 

With hundreds of thousands of Allied troops coming ashore in Normandy you might think the gig would be up as far as sustained deception was concerned. Not so. Eisenhower wanted to convince the Germans that the attack on Normandy was only a piece of elaborate misdirection, like one of those ‘razzle dazzle’ plays in American football where the quarterback eats the ball and runs all the way into the endzone for a touchdown. Even with Allied troops inching closer to Paris Agent Garbo was still feeding garbage to the Germans. He pointed out that Patton was still at home washing his hair in the south of England, so this could hardly be the real thing. No, the genuine article would shortly be dropped on Calais so please don’t move too many German troops 250 kilometres to the south to meet a counterfeit threat from Dad’s Army and ENSA. 

So impressed was Hitler with Garbo and his intelligence network that he waited for weeks before giving up on Calais and sending troops from there to meet the real threat. Garbo was so highly regarded by the Axis powers that he was actually awarded an iron cross in absentia by Germany before the end of the war. 

A Normandy beach in the years prior to social distancing

The Allies also had their own agents beavering away in occupied France. According to the late Keith Jeffrey, in his magisterial history of MI6, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) helped devise something called the ‘Sussex scheme’ in late 1943, in collaboration with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the forerunner of the CIA, under the command of Irish-American General William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan—and the French Bureau Central de Renseignments et d’Action (BCRA)—antecedent of the SDECE. The ‘Sussex Plan’ involved parachuting two-person teams of French-born agents into northern France. By the time of D-day fifteen teams had been infiltrated and managed to provide useful intelligence on German troop movements. Some consideration was also given to a co-ordinated assassination campaign aimed at German senior officers, administrative officials, and Vichy collaborators. This was abandoned, however, because the risk of overwhelming retaliation against civilian populations was deemed disproportionate to the benefits that would accrue from killing a few generals and bureaucrats. One senior spook (William Cavendish-Bentinck, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Sub Committee) dropped the idea with considerable reluctance, noting that he disliked the scheme ‘not out of squeamishness, as there are several people in this world whom I could kill with my own hands with a feeling of pleasure and without that action in any way spoiling my appetite.’[1]  So say all of us and more power to your hyphen! If only you’d been a Black and Tan Ireland might still be British—perish the thought.  

So, although the arrival of 5000 ships, 1200 aircraft and more than 150,000 troops off five Normandy beaches on the morning of the 6 June 1944 is clearly the antithesis of ‘deception’ large dollops of that commodity went into the planning and the execution of the plan that advanced the Allies from ‘the end of the beginning’ to the ‘beginning of the end’. 

[1] Keith Jeffrey, MI6: the History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949, (London, 2010), 539.