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The Crucial Deception

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The main effort by the Western Allies to defeat Nazi Germany began with the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Surprise, essential to success, was complete. The German high command did not even believe it was the main attack. They believed the "real" invasion would come in mid-July about 150 miles northeast of Normandy near Calais on the Straits of Dover. For weeks after the invasion their decisions were based on this false belief, making the Allies' subsequent battle across Normandy less costly than it might have been. British and American intelligence specialists deceived the Germans with an elaborate deception plan, codenamed Fortitude, causing them to mistake the Normandy invasion for an Allied stratagem to draw their forces from the Pas de Calais region. As a result, they kept some reinforcements from Normandy that might have tipped the balance there. Hitler's chief of staff, General Alfred Jodl, called this mistake Germany's "fatal strategic error."

The deceptionists who planned Fortitude were amazed that it remained plausible in enemy minds much longer than they intended. They had hoped to confuse the Germans about Allied intentions and capabilities before D-Day and for at least six weeks thereafter. But the falsehoods of Fortitude endured even into September. On September 10, 1944, when Allied armies had liberated most of France and Belgium and were poised to enter the Fatherland, the German high command alerted its top generals by radio signal that a new American army of at least 100,000 troops was forming in England and would soon move to the continent. Yet the army was fictitious; it did not exist. It was part of the ongoing Fortitude hoax. The British intercepted and decrypted the German radio message: "According report hitherto reliable source [sic]. American troops concentrating on large scale in Southampton area. Report appears trustworthy and fitted in with plans connected with the regrouping of FUSAG." FUSAG referred to the phantom First U.S. Army Group. Fortitude had convinced the Germans that FUSAG was genuine.

The success of Fortitude appears more remarkable since in early 1944 almost everyone in Europe and North America knew that the Allies would soon launch the "second front" invasion from Britain against Germany's so-called Fortress Europe. The steady buildup of forces in Britain was too immense to conceal. Churchill and Roosevelt promised Stalin at Teheran in late November 1943 that they would make the cross-channel attack the following spring. From the lowest private in the German army to Adolf Hitler, the Germans expected the attack on the French coast.

On November 3, 1943, Hitler issued a directive designating northern France as the theater to receive top priority in 1944."The danger in the East remains, but a greater danger now appears in the West: an Anglo-Saxon landing! . . . If the enemy succeeds in breaching our defenses on a wide front, consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time. All signs point to an offensive against the Western Front of Europe no later than spring, and perhaps earlier."

Hitler also indicated where he thought the attack would occur."I have decided to reinforce the defenses in the West, particularly at places from which we shall launch our long-range war against England. For those are the very points at which the enemy must and will attack; there-unless all indications are misleading-will be fought the decisive invasion battle." (italics added)

Hitler's reference to "places from which we shall launch our long-range war against England" could mean only the Pas de Calais where Germany was constructing launch ramps for the V-1 pilotless planes, precursors of the Cruise missile, which would begin raining down on London during the following summer, each with a one-ton warhead. Other reasons compelled the Germans to focus on the Pas de Calais. Lying next to Belgium on the Straits of Dover, the narrowest part of the English Channel, it has the shortest distance (only twenty-one miles) for air cover and sea transport from Britain. Its firm, expansive beaches could support tanks and heavy vehicles, and it is on a straight line route from Britain to the heart of Germany's heavy industries, the Ruhr. The Germans thought the Allies would have to capture a big seaport right away, and Europe's finest port, Antwerp, is near the Pas de Calais. Yet by fixating on the Pas de Calais, Hitler planted the seed of his and Germany's deception and ultimate destruction. Fortitude's planners understood that the best deception is attained by feeding an opponent with falsehoods which he wants to believe.

Hitler operated on intuition rather than intellectual analysis. His pendulum of hunches swung menacingly toward Normandy before D-Day. Even so, most Germans believed his prediction about the Pas de Calais was confirmed in January 1944, when General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force with headquarters in southern England. As certain as the Germans might feel about the Pas de Calais, they could not be entirely sure. They needed exact answers to the questions of where, when, and in what strength the Allies would return to the continent. Other deception plans threatened them with attacks in the Balkans, on the Mediterranean coast of France, in the Bay of Biscay, and in Norway. Allied deceptionists feared that a phantom impulse, a blunder, an accurate tip, or even a false report from any source could provoke the Germans to reappraise their bent toward Calais and focus instead on Normandy.

Hitler, in a rambling monologue during the spring of 1944, expressed the dilemma he would face when the attack came. "It would be splendid," the Fuhrer muttered, "if one could get a good idea in the first moments of the landing, which is the diversion and which is the full-scale assault." About the same time, Eisenhower referred to the landings rather differently in a comment to his chief deception officer: "Just keep the [German] 15th army out of my hair for the first two days. That's all I ask." The German 15th army defended the Pas de Calais. As it happened, Hitler mistook the real assault for the diversion, and Eisenhower's deception staff did better than he had asked.

Invasion planners expected the margin for success on Normandy's beaches to be narrow. A textbook used at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff School before the war instructed that "Descents upon a hostile coast, if opposed, have a very small chance of success." (italics added) General Douglas MacArthur, while head of the U.S. Army, had contended that amphibious landings were not feasible, when opposed. Both were echoing conventional soldierly thought after the enormous losses inflicted by the Turks on the British making amphibious landings on the Gallipoli peninsula at the Dardanelles Straits in 1915.

If the Germans could learn when and where the landings would occur, they could concentrate their reserves from other parts of France and western Europe and push the invading force back into the sea before it could be enlarged and consolidated to defend itself. Erwin Rommel, the legendary German general who commanded coastal defenses from Holland to the Loire told his staff: "The major moments of weakness will occur during the actual landings and shortly afterwards." Against men wading through the surf after a sea voyage, German forces massed near the invasion area could be overwhelming. They would know the terrain and could get to the invasion beaches by walking or riding bicycles, if necessary; both were common modes of transportation in the German army.

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