This week again marks the anniversary of D-Day, one of the most consequential military campaigns of World War II. On June 6, 1944, a naval armada carrying tens of thousands of American and British troops crossed the English Channel and landed on the French coast at Normandy in an attempt to regain a foothold on the European continent and eventually drive the Germans back to Berlin. Although the Allies had more military firepower than the Germans at D-Day, the Germans had the far superior defensible positions — they would be defending the beachheads from entrenched positions on cliffs — so Allied commanders were seeking any advantage they could find.
The one they arrived at was a doozy. They decided to launch Operation Fortitude, one of the most brilliantly conceived and orchestrated deceptions in military history. It resulted in German leader Adolf Hitler believing that D-Day’s main landing target was not Normandy but farther down the French coast at Pas-de-Calais. So that’s where Hitler sent the bulk of his defenses.
Operation Fortitude literally created a fake army on England’s Dover coast — Dover being a stone’s throw across the channel from Pas-de-Calais — for German reconnaissance to observe. Hollywood set designers were brought to Dover to construct dummy airfields, oil storage depots and landing craft. Life-sized inflatable rubber tanks and aircraft were lined up in rows so that German planes could get close enough to see their outlines, but not their authenticity.
Meanwhile, fake messages were sent from this “base” which gave the impression that lots of traffic and activity were occurring there. In addition, Allied double agents did a brilliant job of convincing German spies in England that Dover was the site of the main armada and Pas-de-Calais was the primary target.
And to top it off, word was spread that General George S. Patton, the Allied general the Germans most feared, was given command of this army. In truth, Patton was in military limbo, having been disciplined earlier for slapping a soldier whom he thought was a coward.
Finally, because the Allies’ secret Ultra machine had broken German codes, British and American intelligence could monitor how well Operation Fortitude was working.
The Germans were completely fooled. Hitler himself was so duped that even when Allied ships began landing at Normandy he refused to let his generals shift the bulk of their defenses there. Until it was too late Hitler was convinced the Normandy invasion was a mere diversion meant to shift his attention away from Pas-de-Calais!
In sum, Operation Fortitude was extremely important to D-Day’s success, which was itself critical to the outcome of the war. Battles are usually won by brute force, but sometimes it helps to engage in a little sleight-of-hand.