When the Allied landing forces went ashore on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the victory we as a free world have celebrated ever since was a long way from being a sure thing. In fact even the General Staff who had planned the world’s most complex military enterprise in history gave success no more than a fifty-fifty chance. They knew it was one thing to get 175,000 seasick soldiers and all their fighting equipment ashore on the five Norman beaches that first day in the face of determined resistance, and quite another to fight their way off those beaches in order to establish an offensive bridgehead from which to prosecute a whole new war on the European continent. The entire “house of cards” rested upon the concept of complete surprise.
The campaign of deception began long before the Spring of 1944 and was many-faceted. It was christened “Operation Fortitude” and was so nuanced and comprehensive in its details that it was described by Churchill as a “bodyguard of lies”. At its heart was the objective of convincing the enemy that the inevitable invasion of fortress Europe would not take place on the Cotentin Peninsula. The initiative had two parts: “Fortitude South” set out to convince German Intelligence that the invasion would target the Pas de Calais - the most logical choice for many reasons, including its port facilities and the narrowness of the Channel at that point. “Fortitude North” supported the alternative idea of an invasion through Norway, this latter concept a threat which troubled Hitler greatly, since the only remaining base for his U-boat offensive was housed there.
With the help of Hollywood set designers, entire “hoax” armies – with thousands of acres of make-believe tanks, guns and trucks – mushroomed close to English ports which would have pointed to a Pas de Calais invasion target. Even U.S. General George S. Patton was assigned paper command of this ghost “Army-in-waiting”, much to his own disgust. Realistic radio traffic, mimicking all the details of such an undertaking added to the believability of the world’s biggest lie, and in one instance, the body of a deceased British military officer with “secret” orders in his inner pocket was left where it would fall into enemy hands.
One of the most spectacular successes of the Fortitude managers was made possible as a consequence of “Operation Double Cross”, a little known allied coups dating back to 1940. Early in hostilities, British Intelligence was able to secretly roll up the entire spy network Nazi Germany had set up in England. All of these enemy agents were “turned” – that is “convinced” to remain in place, but under the control and direction of their new allied “spymasters”. These agents were constantly “fed” information which was sufficiently credible to keep their German controllers convinced of their safe status, at the same time using them to “leak” other material. In the weeks leading up to D-Day, Operation Double Cross became a major communication vehicle in sustaining the deceptions designed by Allied planners.
Between the perceived need to defend Norway on the north, and the Pas de Calais in France, the Germans had diverted 90,000 troops and several Panzer Divisions from the very place where they could have reacted quickly to the Normandy invasion on D-Day.
So effective was the great deception that even two days after the landings at Normandy had taken place, the German High Command continued to believe those landings were merely a diversion, and that the real invasion would come elsewhere.
Facing “the great unknown”, men of the first wave approach Omaha Beach the morning of June 6, 1944 in an LCVP – “Higgins Boat”.
Papier-mâché and rubber tanks, trucks, guns and planes at the heart of Operation Fortitude, make up a “phantom” Army which filled farm fields near Devon, convincing Germans of a false Allied channel-crossing strategy.