As the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy approaches, you will no doubt read stirring accounts of the bravery and heroism of Allied troops that were involved. You’ll read about the logistics miracle that made the landings possible as well as the subsequent thrust into France. There will be articles about the planning that went into the attack (out the window when so many units failed to land on their designated stretch of beach), and the turn of the weather upon which Operation Overlord depended.
But before the 5,000 ships, 13,000 aircraft, and 160,000 men steeled themselves for combat as they approached the Normandy coast, the battle — and probably the war — had already been won.
A gigantic deception was being perpetrated on the German army by the most colorful cast of characters ever tasked with winning a war. Double agents, con men, British noblemen, radio operators with a sense of humor, and, finally, the most colorful soldier of them all: General George S. Patton.
The deception — known as Operation Bodyguard — had a dozen different elements each designed to further the basic goal: confuse the Germans about where the landings would take place, keep them guessing about how many troops were engaged, and mask the actual date of the assault. “Bodyguard” was chosen as a name for the operation based on one of Winston Churchill’s most famous quotes: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
Deception had attended every major Allied landing up to that time, and we were getting very good at it. Part of the reason was that the British had broken some high-level German army codes and were able to read some of what the Nazi plans were. But for two years prior to D-Day, the British and American spymasters had come up with several gimmicks that were destined to flummox the Germans on the lead up to D-Day.
It all began with Operation Double Cross — the capture of most of the German spies in England and their transformation into the most effective double agents in Europe. The operation was run by MI5 and was overseen by the Twenty Committee chaired by Sir John Cecil Masterman, who would go on to become vice chancellor at Oxford. Masterman designed an intricate plan that had the double agents feeding disinformation to the German army intelligence organization known as the Abwehr. Most of it was useless — or even fanciful, like reporting that the British had developed electric canoes — but there was just enough truth in the reports to get the Abwehr to place great faith in their spies. By June 1944, that confidence in their intelligence would be their undoing.
Essentially, Operation Bodyguard was the overall designation for a series of smaller operations. The most important of these was Operation Fortitude South, where, with spectacular panache, British intelligence built an entire American army out of nothing — First Army Group South, or FUSAG. Using deception techniques honed in Sicily and North Africa, fake radio traffic was generated, dummy rubber landing craft, tanks, and planes were placed in plain view, “leaks” to diplomats were generated, and having General Patton, who the Germans were convinced would command FUSAG and lead the invasion, show up in a variety of locations to keep the Germans guessing about where the main thrust of the invasion would take place.
All of this disinformation was regularly “confirmed” by the Abwehr‘s trusted spies in England, who were following the orders of the Twenty Committee.
Perhaps Fortitude’s most notable success was convincing the German high command that the invasion would take place at Pas-de-Calais and not Normandy. Reading German wireless messages, the allies discovered that the German army believed that’s where the invasion would occur anyway, so it was easy to feed into their expectations.
Other elements of Bodyguard were designed to freeze German garrisons in Greece, the Adriatic, Norway, and the Bay of Biscay in France. The more troops they could pin down elsewhere, the fewer could be rushed to Normandy in the days following the invasion. The Nazis already outnumbered Allied forces considerably in France and hiding the actual invasion site for as long as possible was paramount in order to give General Montgomery, the overall commander of the invasion forces, time to build a broad front.
Indeed, the plan worked to perfection. Fully seven weeks after the Normandy landings, Hitler and Reich Main Security Office (who had destroyed the Abwehr in 1943) were insisting that the D-Day landings were a diversion and the blow would fall on Pas-de-Calais. By the time the German army realized their mistake, it was too late.
One final deception was carried out by the U.S. Army Air Force in the days leading up to the invasion….
A massive bombing campaign was carried out against targets in and around Pas-de-Calais that gave the Germans supreme confidence that the invasion would occur there and not at Normandy.
One deception, immortalized in the film The Longest Day, featured hundreds of dummy paratroopers dropped from planes far from Normandy in the early morning of June 6. As they hit the ground, packs of firecrackers designed to simulate gunfire began exploding. Some brave British Special Operations forces landed with the dummies and played phonograph recordings of soldiers talking and moving around.
But Bodyguard was far from being over when D-Day arrived. To maintain the fiction of a Pas-de-Calais landing, the British unleashed their best double agent, a Spanish businessman code named “Garbo.” His real name was Juan Pujol Garcia and he had volunteered in 1940 to take on the incredibly dangerous job of working as a double agent for the British.
Garcia is actually the only known operative to be decorated by both sides during the war. The Germans trusted him so implicitly that when he told them Normandy was a ruse designed to make the German army take forces from the Pas-de-Calais, Hitler and the high command believed him. Post-war discovery of German government records confirms that the Nazis remained convinced for seven weeks that Normandy was a feint, thus freezing the German 15th Army in Pas-de-Calais.
Operation Bodyguard is considered a tactical success. But was it really necessary? Ben Macintyre’s excellent book on Bodyguard, Double Cross, was critically reviewed in the Guardian by historian Simon Winder:
But even the most cursory reader of Macintyre’s account has to be chilled by the stupidity of it all. A counter-argument could be made that the agents themselves were the greatest threat to D-Day. With total air, naval and code-breaking superiority by the summer of 1944, the allies had effectively sealed Britain off. Left to their own devices, the Germans had no idea what was going on and were obliged to spread ever thinner forces across dozens of possible invasion locations from Norway to the Pyrenees.
The only substantial German source therefore was a handful of weirdos in St James’s, prone to tiresome cricket analogies and themselves harbouring a Soviet agent. The Germans came extremely close to realising that the agents were fakes – the Abwehr had been shut down earlier in the year, its functions taken over by the ferocious Reich Main Security Office and its disloyal and corrupt officials arrested, tortured and killed. The greatest danger to D-Day (aside from bad weather) now became the loopy telegrams and invisible ink letters sent as part of “Operation Fortitude”. If even one of the agents were to be blown (and one was teetering on the verge of giving herself away out of irritation that the British had accidentally killed her dog), then it would become clear that the one place they were not talking about was the real landing site, ie Normandy. It is a tribute to Macintyre’s skill that the reader is haggard with anxiety as D-Day approaches – as, at any moment, one of these people could betray the great Anglo-American crusade. But I am not sure that this is the effect he wishes to achieve.
Macintyre may have overlooked some obvious drawbacks to the schemes of the Twenty Committee, most notably that the chances of being detected were growing greater as their plans expanded. And Garcia, the star of Double Cross, was not the most stable of individuals. Still, those “loopy telegrams” actually worked — so complaining in hindsight might be seen as sour grapes.
By the time the soldiers hit the beaches of Normandy, they were given every possible opportunity to succeed thanks to possessing the best equipment, experiencing the best training regimen, and the employment of a disinformation campaign second to none.
Without Bodyguard, the Allies may still have prevailed. But the cost in blood would almost certainly have been higher.