Operation Fortitude was an elaborate, mind-boggling hoax – using decoys such as rubber tanks, canvas ships, plywood aircraft, and even dummy soldiers to fool the Germans about where we secretly planned to land on D-Day.
Everyone knew the Allies would eventually try to take back the continent. But when, and where? To refresh your knowledge of geography, Pas-de-Calais is an easy hop, just thirty miles away (about fifty kilometres) from England’s coastline. So it made perfect sense that the Allies would invade Calais.
But in fact, they secretly selected the beaches of Normandy, about one hundred miles away, or one hundred and sixty kilometres.
Here’s a map showing the relative distances.
The top-secret date was selected — the early hours of June 6, 1944.
But to keep the destination under wraps, an elaborate plan called Operation Fortitude used multiple layers of trickery. The most striking was the creation of two phantom armies – one in Scotland to threaten an invasion of Norway, and the other in southeast England to threaten Pas-de-Calais.
The latter, known as Quicksilver, established the imaginary First U.S. Army Group, headed by a real blood-and-guts general, Lieutenant General George S. Patton. His selection as head of the fake army was a stroke of genius, because the Germans believed he would play a major role in the invasion.
A team of camofleurs and theatre set designers was brought on board to mock up an entire fake army on the coast around Dover, the closest point to Calais. They created what was basically a rubber army. Here’s a photo of a fake tank under construction.
The shell was covered with rubber. The photo at the top of this page shows four men carrying a rubber tank, which must have been a shocking sight to those who didn’t know it was a “spoof,” as the dummy tanks were called.
(This incident appears in my upcoming novel. My heroine Rose is an aerial photographic interpreter, tasked with studying aerial photos of the fake army. She warns the army to move their spoofs in darkness, not in broad daylight when they can be spotted by enemy aircraft. To read more about the book, click Bird’s Eye View.)
Here’s another shot of a rubber tank, looking pretty darned realistic.
As a double blind, the dummy tanks were covered with camouflage — netting and fake leaves — but then the camouflage was allowed to deteriorate in the weather, so the Germans would see what they assumed were real tanks underneath.
Not only tanks, but inflatable trucks were created. Again, pretty convincing, don’t you think?
It doesn’t seem that plywood aircraft like this one could fool the German photo interpreters, but apparently they did.
German aerial reconnaissance wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as that used by the Allies, for good reason. The Allies needed to spy from the sky on the entire European continent, to find out what the enemy was doing. The Germans didn’t have to try as hard, because they had nothing to look at except Britain. This proved their downfall in the case of Operation Fortitude.
This fake aircraft looks much better than the first one.
Here’s a twenty-five-pound gun, made of plywood.
One of the most intensive efforts went into simulating the “invasion fleet.” The dummies themselves, code-named Bigbobs, were made of canvas stretched over a steel frame, floating on an array of 45-gallon oil drums.
Building the Bigbobs was very labour-intensive, as each kit had more than five hundred parts, filled six or seven three-ton trucks, and took twenty men six hours to assemble. When complete, each one weighed eight tons and looked convincingly like a real landing craft.
Dummy landing craft are shown here, tied together on a river near the coast.
To make sure the enemy aircraft got close enough to take some good pictures of the fake army, the anti-aircraft gunners had to do some fancy shooting – their shells had to get close enough to make it seem real, but obviously they had to miss!
Here’s a photo of women in uniform, members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service. They weren’t allowed to fire the guns, but they served as aircraft spotters and told the anti-aircraft guys when to get ready.
And here are the anti-aircraft guns themselves, known as ack-ack guns for the distinctive sound that they made. The English coast was heavily defended.
In the excellent Ken Follett thriller called Eye of the Needle, a German spy (code-named Needle, and played by Donald Sutherland in the movie) has photos of the fake army which he has to get back to headquarters in Berlin, so he can blow the whistle before the invasion begins. (To see my list of favourite wartime novels, click: Best Wartime Fiction.)
But the deception went much farther than visual.
In what was called a “closed loop,” double agents leaked false information to the enemy. Thanks to the British code-breakers working at Bletchley Park, their headquarters northwest of London, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the British government deciphered radio traffic that showed the Germans were buying into the deception. The closed loop was working!
Here’s a photo of Bletchley Park today, where some of the best minds in the world spent the war.
Other methods were used, too. Radio transmissions were faked, sending out false information to the Germans. The Allied reconnaissance aircraft flew two-for-one missions – for every flight over Normandy, they made two flights over Calais, to make the Germans think that Calais was the real target. And Calais was also the target for plenty of pre-invasion bombing.
Just prior to the invasion, further tricks were carried out. Lancasters dropped tinfoil strips called Window, which confounded German radar and disguised the position of the real bombers.
And dummy paratroopers made of rubber were tossed out over Calais.
Imagine the tension in the early morning hours of June 6th when the Allied forces swept ashore on the beaches of Normandy in France.
It was a staggering logistical feat. Some 175,000 men were landed on the first day, a number that swelled to 325,000 in the first week and eventually to 2.5 million.
They were delivered by 5,300 ships and supported by 50,000 vehicles and 11,000 planes. Never before or since have so many weapons of war been together in one place.
Meanwhile, the German forces were spread pretty thin (which serves them right for being so greedy). They had a whole bloody continent to defend. Their forces were scattered among Italy and Russia, the Balkans, Greece, Norway, southern France and northern France.
Even after June 6th, the Allies tried to keep the Germans guessing where the next blow would fall. If they ceased to believe in the Calais threat, then the substantial German forces guarding Calais would be sent to Normandy.
That’s when the Ghost Army went into action. The Ghost Army was a unit of eleven hundred men who had been hand-picked from New York and Philadelphia art schools and given a unique mission: to impersonate U.S. Army units to deceive the enemy. For a few weeks after D-Day, they put on a “travelling road show” in France with inflatable tanks and fake radio transmissions.
They even used sound recordings they had made back in the U.S., the sounds of armored and infantry units played with powerful amplifiers that could be heard twenty kilometres away. Here’s a photo of three Ghost Soldiers with one of their 500-pound speakers. Let’s hope they wore earplugs.
They staged more than twenty full-scale battlefield deceptions, often operating very close to the front lines. The unit is the subject of a 68-minute PBS documentary.
In these days of instantaneous global communication, it seems incredible that such a large-scale fraud involving so many different stunts and so many thousands of people could have been successful.
Thankfully, the Allies pulled it off.
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
Here’s a classic image of a caring nurse and a dashing wounded soldier on the cover of the August 23, 1941 issue. The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. To see all my covers, click Star Weekly at War.
To read about the illustrator who created the image, click Elizabeth Cutler.