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Operation Bodyguard: The Absolutely Crazy (And Successful) Plan to Fool Hitler Before D-Day

Just past 6 am on 6th June 1944, the largest amphibious invasion fleet the world had ever seen appeared out of the dawn mist off the shores of Normandy. At 6.30 am men began wading ashore across all five landing beaches, many staggering through a hail of bullets raining down from the German defenders above. It would be nearly a year before the Nazis finally surrendered, but this was the beginning of the end. 

The success of D-Day was far from assured from the outset. Allied commanders knew that gaining a vital foothold in continental Europe would likely come at a horrific cost. In the end, losses were significantly less than had been envisioned, thanks in no small part to the complex deception plan the Allies had used to confuse the Germans over the whereabouts of the landings. The world will forever remember Operation Overlord as one of the defining battles of World War II – but without Operation Bodyguard, the outcome may well have been very different. 

Operation Bodyguard

The importance of Operation Bodyguard is a topic that historians keep coming back to. Not to discuss whether or not it was a success, but just how much of success it was. The grand Allied plan was designed to confuse the Germans into spreading their troops thinly across a wide area. Quite simply, if the Germans knew exactly where the landings would be, the chances of success were slim. The Nazis may have gone through a chastening experience on the eastern front, but the Wehrmacht was still a fearsome proposition. 

This was a plan of such dizzying scope and complexities it can be difficult to keep up and involved everything from double agents, fictitious armies, inflatable tanks, dummy parachutists, fake radio broadcasts and bombing raids on targets that were not immediately needed following D-Day.   

Operation Bodyguard not only worked, but it also acted as the springboard for the success of Operation Overlord. Intercepted communications between the Japanese Ambassador, Hiroshi Ōshima and Adolf Hitler one week before D-Day revealed the level of success, with the German leader stating clearly that he expected the main Allied invasion force to attack Calais. He was of course, completely wrong. 

The Atlantic Wall

Not only would the Allies be facing one of the most lethal armies we’ve ever known, but they would also have to break through the mighty Atlantic Wall. In 1942, Hitler’s invasion plans of the United Kingdom had all but evaporated. Now embroiled in chaotic, bloody fighting on the eastern front, the German leader looked to shore up his defences on the western front. If he couldn’t get over to Britain, he was determined to prevent anybody from coming the other way.  

A series of small scale commando raids had been carried out by the Allies to test the viability of a full-scale invasion, while no doubt acting as the fly in Hitler’s ointment. Some, like the attacks carried in Norway, proved successful, while others, such as the debacle at Diep in France, were nothing short of target practice for the well dug-in German defenders. 

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel visiting the Atlantic Wall defences near the Belgian port of Ostend, part of the fortifications which today comprise the Atlantic Wall Open Air Museum at Raversijde.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel visiting the Atlantic Wall defences near the Belgian port of Ostend, part of the fortifications which today comprise the Atlantic Wall Open Air Museum at Raversijde. By Bundesarchiv is licensed under CC-BY-SA

In response, Hitler ordered the construction of a vast array of defensive fortifications that would spread from the Bay of Biscay, where France and Spain meet, to the icy northern coast of Norway – a distance of some 6,200 km (3,852 miles). A total of 2,000 main fortifications were built along the wall, with tens of thousands of smaller bunkers, trenches and other buildings also constructed.

It was a fearsome barrier but one that was certainly not perfect and Hitler knew it. He placed his finest General, the much-feared and well respected Field Marshal Edwin Rommel, in charge of securing the wall in 1943 and further improvements were made along the line, but in reality, it was simply too big to defend all of it with any great conviction. 

Choices

The Allies watched the construction of the Atlantic Wall with great interest. Of course, it would have been absurd for Hitler not to fortify his position, but as the fortifications and thousands of miles of defensive barriers went up, the planned invasion of Europe suddenly became a monumental undertaking.

The Allies had plenty of choices where to attack, but none were ideal. The bedlam that had ensued when they’d tried to land against a well-defended port at Diep had taught them a painful lesson. The invasion of Europe would have to begin in a relatively isolated spot. 

In the end, four sites came under serious consideration, Brittany, the Cotentin Peninsula, Normandy, and the Pas de Calais area – the closest point to the UK, but also the most obvious. The first two options were rejected as both were peninsulas and could easily be cut off by the Germans, while Pas de Calais was ultimately shunned for being plainly obvious and where they would most likely meet the fiercest opposition. That left just one standing – Normandy – but while the Allies made up their minds quite early, the plan was to keep the Germans guessing right up until the final moments. 

A Whole lot of Deception

Operation Bodyguard had begun back in 1943 and was split into a series of smaller operations designed to gently suggest a certain likely location for the Allied landings. And I do mean gently there because one of the master strokes of Operation Bodyguard was to not overcook the deception. Imagine just simply leaving some breadcrumbs and allowing the enemy to come to their own conclusions. 

As well as the four locations initially shortlisted in France, the Allies also made a strong showing of a possible invasion of Norway and also in positions in the Mediatarrean. 

Broadly speaking, we can break the main operations, under Operation Fortitude, into two; Fortitude North, which would give the impression of an attack on Norway and Fortitude South, which would allude to an invasion of Calais. Then we have Operation Ferdinand, designed to convince the Germans that the allies would invade Genoa and so pull them away from the planned landing in southern France that would take place after D-Day.

Operation Zeppelin, which included the offshoots of Operations Vendetta and Turpitude, involved a bewildering five-stage deception plan that included fictitious landings against Greece, Albania, Croatia, Turkey, Bulgaria and also France. Then we have Operation Royal Flush in which Allied ambassadors in neutral countries, namely Spain, Turkey and Sweden, would make some subtle, but not so subtle, overtures to the neutral governments over their involvement after the invasion of Europe with the hope that rumours would eventually find their way back to the Germans.   

Sadly we don’t have nearly enough time to go through this all, so we’ll focus on the main operations instead.  

Fortitude North

Let’s begin in the cold frigid north. Surely such a massive European invasion wouldn’t come through Norway? Hilter thought it was unlikely, but the lengths at which Fortitude North went meant that thousands of German troops remained in Scandinavia to counter any possible invasion. 

And as you would have it, the British already had a fake army headquartered in Edinburgh Castle. In 1943, during the build-up to the Allied invasion of Sicily, the British had created the fictitious British Fourth Army during Operation Cockade as a way of pulling German forces away from the Italian island. 

Unlike Fortitude South, Fortitude North primarily focused on false information communicated via radio. Essentially radio operators mimicked the build-up of a real-life army, when in fact it simply didn’t exist. The British media even got in on the act by transmitting football scores and wedding announcements to the swelling number of imaginary men stationed in Scotland waiting for the invasion of Norway. 

In early spring 1944, to add a little extra spice, the British launched several commando raids on the Norwegian coast, aimed at destroying industrial targets, such as shipping and power infrastructure as well as hitting military outposts. Exactly the kind of actions you would take if you were readying an invasion force. 

There has been some debate as to the success of the wireless transmitting and in fact how much the Germans were actually listening, but what is clear is that when D-Day began, Hitler still had thirteen army divisions in Norway – thought to number over 400,000 men. Whether it was down to the Allied operation or simply Hitler’s own delusions over his future Third Reich empire, the fact that so many troops remained marooned in Scandinavia away from the fighting would be vital to the success of D-Day.         

Fortitude South 

Fortitude South was a significantly larger operation than its northern cousin. The problem here was that the Allies knew they had to amass their invasion fleet in the south of England. So how do you quietly build up soldiers and military equipment for the largest amphibious landing in history without the Germans noticing?   

Well, like any magician will tell you, it’s all in the hands. The Allies were fully aware that such a build-up would not go completely unnoticed, but luckily for them, a certain Heir Hitler was gazing in the wrong direction. 

As I mentioned earlier, an attack on the Pas de Calais area was the most obvious point. It provided the shortest route across the channel, it had a harbour and also lay close to the Belgium ports further north. And perhaps best of all, it was also the shortest, most direct route into Germany.  

Fortitude South involved the creation of another fake army, this time the 1st U.S Army Group, but the masterstroke was to involve the man who the Germans feared more than any other. General George S Patton is a name that had gone down in military folklore – on both sides of the fighting. To the Allies he was a brilliant maverick, capable of inspiring astonishing success on the battlefield but also a man who could be brazenly uncompassionate, highlighted by his slapping of soldiers who were suffering from shell shock – an incident that saw him severely reprimanded   

To the Germans, he encapsulated their worst nightmare. Old Blood and Guts, the fierce, heartless Yanky was by far the General they feared most and with Patton withdrawn from the public eye after the slapping incident, he was seen as the perfect person to lead a completely fictitious army planning to attack Calais. 

And unlike Fortitude North, which lay outside of German reconnaissance aircraft range, the preparations in the south had to look as real as they could be. The Allies needed to convince the Germans that the primary invasion would come through Calais to such an extent that even after D-Day had begun, and soldiers were arriving on the beaches of Normandy, that it was simply a large-scale diversion that would ultimately be followed by an even greater attack on Calais. 

Fake buildings, landing strips and barracks were constructed in the south-east of England and were regularly toured by Patton to add a further sense of plausibility. Along with this, dummy aircraft and landing crafts also added to the sense of a massive military build-up. 

Just as in the north, radio messages coordinating the massing of the fake 1st U.S Army Group no doubt helped convince the Germans. Radio traffic increased dramatically as the invasion date neared as Allied bombers began hitting strategic targets such as railways, bridges and military installations close to Calais. 

Lastly was the use of double agents during the whole deception process. By this point, most German spies in the UK had been caught and either executed or turned, after which they began feeding the Germans the bogus information regarding the plans to attack D-Day. As well as that, the Allies utilized some superb homegrown spies during Operation Bodyguard. The most famous of these agents was a Spaniard by the name of Juan Pujol García aka Garbo. A man fiercely loyal to the Allies but who passed on such impressive and substantial information to the Nazis he was eventually awarded the Iron Cross – he was also awarded an MBE in the UK. Garcia created a fictitious spy network of 27 fake individuals all bankrolled by the Germans, and fed a torrent of information that went all the way back to Hitler. Perhaps more than any one person involved in Operation Bodyguard, Garcia’s role in convincing the Germans that the Allies would arrive in Calais, was nothing short of extraordinary.       

They Came From Above

As the time to D-Day became a matter of hours and not days, Operation Titanic got underway. I’m well aware that you’re probably already lost with the sheer amount going on in the build-up, but it does speak of the extraordinary lengths that the Allies went to, to give Operation Overlord the best possible chance of success.

On the night of 5th June, with real airborne troops readying themselves for the frankly terrifying drop into the darkness of occupied France, roughly 400 0.9 metres (3ft) tall dummies known as Ruperts were parachuted into areas East and West of Normandy. With them went a small detachment of SAS troops who then operated loudspeakers on the ground, playing recordings of gunfire and men shouting to one another – again to disrupt German defences and generally confuse the entire situation.  

Later on, once D-Day had begun for real, the Allies began dropping aluminium foil, known as Window or Chaff. The aim here was to try and give the impression of a large scale-invasion fleet on radar screens. A large number of small boats towing large radar reflecting balloons also began to steam towards Calais.     

D-Day Begins    

As D-Day began it was clear that Operation Bodyguard had worked, at least in the early stages. But while the Allied invasion force met a much lighter German army that it could have, much still depended on whether the Germans pulled divisions from other areas to reinforce Normandy once they knew that a large invasion was underway. And this is where Operation Fortitude really came into its own. 

What appeared off the coast of Normandy was monstrous in size and most likely for the hapless German defenders staring out at this vast armada it must have been perfectly clear that this was where the main invasion was coming. But Operation Fortitude had sowed so much doubt in the mind of the Germans that their response remained paralysed, completely unsure where the reserve troops were needed. The fact that Rommel was back in Germany for his wife’s birthday and Hitler’s staff were too scared to wake him after news of the invasion came in, no doubt helped the Allied cause. 

Quite remarkably, the Allies managed to keep up their ruse of a planned invasion of Calais until as late as September 1944 – a full three months after D-Day. Even after it became clear that the Normandy landings were not fakes, as many 22 divisions were ordered to remain in Calais to counter the anticipated ‘real invasion’ that would soon come. It was a horrible miscalculation by Adolf Hitler and one that aided the Allies enormously. 

The Beginning of the End

I think we all know where the story goes from here, but what we shouldn’t forget is the hellish fighting that the Allies had to overcome to break out from Normandy. Securing the beaches had been a herculean effort, but the bloody carnage in the fields of Normandy would come at a high price for the Allies. 

And this was a price that may well have been insurmountable had the Germans poured in the full might of their reserves. Instead, Hitler and his commanders dithered and on 21st August 1944, the Falaise Gap, a pocket of German soldiers numbering over 50,000 was entirely encircled near the small town of Falaise. Many managed to escape, but it proved to be a huge turning point. A few days later Paris was liberated and on 30th August 1944, Operation Overlord was finally concluded.

It had been a hard-fought few months with many aspects having proved to be considerably more complex and frustrating than the Allies ever imagined – but it could have been so much worse. While men, guns and bullets were needed on the ground to drive the Germans back, the battle of deception was absolutely pivotal. We will forever remember Operation Overlord, but its success was laid on the foundation of thousands of fake radio messages, hundreds of messages passed on by double-agents, make-believe armies and the masterstroke of using the most feared general the Allies had as a fictitious leader, to carry the most dramatic sleight of hand in modern warfare.        

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