A Brief History
On October 30, 1806, 5300 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. Lieutenant General Friedrich von Romberg must have been awful embarrassed when he found out the blunder he had made! Stettin, now known as Szczecin, Poland, was a fortified city, making the surrender all the more ridiculous. Apparently during campaigns at this time Prussian soldiers were not the Spartans of their day that Prussians are often portrayed as, since other surrenders to inferior forces had also taken place.
Lassalle apparently had demanded the surrender of Stettin and led the Prussians to believe he had an army of 30,000 men at his disposal. He lied. Other military leaders throughout history have won major battles through trickery, and here we tell you about just a few of those. (BTW, not all tricks work!) Here we tell you about just a few of these from World War II.
Numerous tricks were used by the Allies prior to the Normandy invasion of Europe (D-Day) on June 6, 1944. A fake army under the “command” of US General George Patton was set up in the South of England, complete with phony radio transmissions and inflatable tanks and trucks to fool aerial reconnaissance. Other efforts were made using false info given to spies and diplomats to make the Germans think the invasion would come at Calais instead of Normandy, trickery that caused the German High Command much hesitation on D-Day and failure to properly deploy their forces beforehand. In this case, the trickery worked.
Another elaborate ruse pulled by the Allies during World War II was the use of a dead body dressed and given credentials as a British officer carrying “official secret plans” allowed to wash up on shore in Spain, a country known to be friendly with Nazi Germany. Along with other deception techniques known broadly as Operation Barclay, this Operation Mincemeat using the dead body and fake documents sealed the deal so to speak, causing the Germans and Italians to believe the Allied invasion in 1943 was coming in Sardinia and Greece, when in reality it came in Sicily, to the surprise of the Axis forces. Mission accomplished, trickery at its most elaborate.
When the German pocket-battleship Graf Spee pulled into port at neutral Montevideo, Uruguay in 1939 after being damaged during the Battle of the River Plate, international rules allowed for a respite of only 72 hours before the ship would have to leave port and go back to sea, otherwise, the ship would be interned for the remainder of the war. British misinformation caused the Captain of the Graf Spee to believe a large force awaited him offshore, including an aircraft carrier and a battlecruiser along with the 3 cruisers Graf Spee had fought with earlier. Captain Langsdorff was fooled, and rather than risk having many of his men killed or his ship taken by the British while interned, he decided to scuttle his ship, losing it without a proper fight. Langsdorff was so upset over the unnecessary loss of his ship, he shot himself to death in December 1939 while laying on the ships ensign (flag).
Tales of military deception go back well before the Napoleonic Wars and World War II. One of the most famous examples is of course the legendary story of the Trojan Horse. While it is unknown if this episode actually occurred, purportedly Ancient Greeks defeated the Trojans by hiding some Greeks inside of a large wooden horse, while making the Trojans believe that the Greeks had abandoned their siege of Troy and left the horse behind as a gift to the Goddess Athena. The Trojans wheeled the horse into their city as a trophy and as they slept, the Greek soldiers inside of the horse snuck out and then opened the city gates to the rest of the Greek army so they finally could take the city. There are plenty of more recent examples of battles won by trickery as well. Question for students (and subscribers): What are some of your favorite tricks that helped win battles? Feel free to share those tales with your fellow readers in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Paret, Peter. The Cognitive Challenge of War: Prussia 1806. Princeton University Press, 2009.
The featured image in this article, an anonymous plate showing 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.
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