A Brief History
On October 30, 1806, 5,300 Prussian soldiers defending the city of Stettin surrendered to only 800 French soldiers commanded by General Lassalle, falling for the ruse that the French force was much larger. We previously used this example of wartime trickery as the start of our article, “Fooled You! Battles Won by Trickery.” Today we continue to explore the use of ruses, false information, decoys, fakes and general trickery in the conduct of warfare. Here are some more such incidents, and like our previous article, concerning World War II (with other tricky battles from other wars to follow in later articles):
Another of the many tricky stunts pulled by the Allies in conjunction with the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, was the use of fake paratroopers dropping from the sky to confuse German defenders on the eve of the D-Day landings. While real parachute operations were taking place, the Allies dropped 500 “paradummies,” 3 foot tall fake paratroopers onto areas intended to draw German soldiers away from real drop zones. In order to “sell” the ruse even more, the paradummies were designed to burst into flame upon landing, hopefully destroying the evidence of trickery. Finally, to really make the decoy paratrooper drops believed by the Germans, the Allies also dropped a few real paratroopers who played “war sounds” recordings to create the illusion of a raging battle!
During the North Africa Campaign by the British against the Germans and Italians (1940-1943), the British were particularly adept at fooling the Germans at every opportunity. Extensive use of fake radio transmissions and feeding suspected enemy agents false information was employed, and even a fake water pipe was constructed across the desert to make the Germans believe the British would be attacking in the direction of the water pipe instead of the real direction. Another ruse used by the British was extensive use of camouflage of their vehicles and emplacements, and the use of trucks dressed up to look like tanks to fool enemy reconnaissance. Small numbers of trucks were used to ride back and forth, thus kicking up large amounts of dust, giving the false impression of massive vehicular movement in order to throw off the enemy analysis of British movements. These combined efforts seem to have been fairly effective. The 1942 Battle of El Alamein was a particularly good example of British ingenuity.
In 1944, the US Navy and its allies had taken a decided advantage in the Pacific War against the Japanese Empire. General Douglas MacArthur was determined to reconquer the Philippine Islands and make good on his promise to “return.” During the Allied invasion of the Philippines, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, Navy Cross recipient and later Fleet Admiral (5 stars), got suckered by the Japanese into leaving the US landings in the Philippines at Leyte Gulf to chase a decoy force well north of the area. The lightly protected landing force survived only because of the incredible bravery of the men on the few smaller warships left in the area. As US Navy top brass wondered where Halsey and his big ships were, a message sent to Halsey asking where he was included an add-on decoy message “the world wonders” causing irate embarrassment to Halsey.
The Soviets were not to be left out when it came to using tricks to win battles. During the Kursk campaign in October of 1943, the Soviets spread rumors among their own men that their forces were much smaller than they really were, disinformation meant to reach the ears of spies for the Germans. The ruse was successful, and German agents reported a Soviet force of minimal proportions when in fact the Soviet troops outnumbered the attacking Germans 4 to 1! (Normal battle doctrine is the attacking force must enjoy a 3 to 1 advantage to ensure success.) The Soviets also employed extensive camouflage and were sure to move troops and supplies at night when the German recon aircraft could not see the movements. In order to minimize the damage caused by German bombing from the air, the Soviets constructed fake airfields and fake airplanes in order to draw attacks from German bombers, giving their real airfields a much needed respite. German estimates were of a Soviet force consisting of 400,000 troops, 1500 tanks, and a paltry air force. They were wrong! The Soviet forces attacked by the hapless Germans was in reality over 1.3 million men and 3000 tanks backed up by nearly 3000 airplanes. The German attack failed against the steel wall of Soviet defenses and led to a German retreat that continued until the end of the war. Kursk was the last of the big German offensive operations in the East and can be considered the real turning point of the war (sorry Stalingrad). In contrast to the Soviet efforts at deception, the German preparations were well documented by the Soviet intelligence system and Soviet generals were well aware of the formations and plans opposing them.
The battle does not always go to the strongest military force. Sometimes a bit of deception or even “trickery” as we like to call it makes the difference between winning and losing, or at least nearly winning or losing (as at Leyte Gulf). We will continue to explore the subject of military trickery during World War II and other wars in future articles, and no, we are not tricking you!
Question for students (and subscribers): What World War II battle do you believe would have benefited from some trickery by one side or the other? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Holt, Thaddeus. The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War. Skyhorse, 2010.
Latimer, Jon. Deception in War. Thistle Publishing, 2016.
Whaley, Barton. Stratagem: Deception and Surprise in War. Artech House, 2007.
The featured image in this article, an anonymous 19th century plate of the taking of Stettin by French troops in 1806, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.