The Allied invasion of Normandy is a well-known, illustrious and inspiring event, 156,000 troops, 5,000 ships and landing crafts, 50,000 vehicles, 11,000 aircraft, and 13,000 paratroopers from a host of nations invaded a 50 mile stretch of French coast. The operation opened up a much-needed second front in Europe and led to the liberation of France and the downfall of Hitler’s Germany. A lesser-known story of the history of D-Day is the complex deception campaign which preceded the landings.
Initial planning for the landings began in 1943 and it was evident to both the Allies and the Germans that there were only three possible landing sites for the Allied troops; the area around Calais, known as the Pas de Calais, the Cherbourg peninsula, or the Normandy beaches. All three possible sites were known to the Germans. The Allies could only land on a beach that could be protected by fighter planes flying out of southern England. Faced with only three possible landing sites the Allies began an operation that would deceive the German high command into thinking the attack would happen at the most obvious site, the Pas de Calais area, only 20 miles from the English coast. The operation was named Operation Fortitude (part of an overall deception campaign named Operation Bodyguard) and it is one of the most complex deception campaigns ever attempted, here is the story of how it was achieved.
1. Rubber Tanks
What do you need if you want to convince your enemy that you are preparing the largest amphibious invasion of all time? That’s right … balloons, lots of them, shaped like tanks.
Large numbers of inflatable tanks and trucks were scattered around the Kent countryside in an elaborate attempt to fool the Germans. Dummy landing craft floated alongside wooden and rubber battleships in the English ports whilst papier-mache tanks and artillery units littered the fields. The planning of this deception was conducted to the minutest detail, a selection of tanks and artillery units lying dormant in a farmer’s field may raise German suspicions that the planned ‘invasion’ was fake, to quell these suspicions the Allies employed men with specially designed rollers to create tank tracks in the ground, any enemy reconnaissance plane would take the tank tracks to be genuine and report back to the German high command that a large military buildup was occurring 20 miles away from Calais in the Dover area.
The Germans were well aware of the logistical problems of keeping a large army in the field and would have been looking for any signs of supply chains in the Dover area. The Allies solved this problem by using set designers from the silver screen. Film industry stagehands were employed to create a sham fuel depot at Dover, the facility got the royal seal of approval when King George VI visited the depot. The facility was so ‘real’ that during German bombardments, pyrotechnics were used to stimulate fires and damage from the occasional hit.
The German reconnaissance pilots were quite surprised to find how easy it was to fly over south-east England in 1944, compared to earlier missions the pilots had a free run to photograph and document the build up of what seemed to them a mass array of troops and machinery, little did they know that the pilots of the Royal Air Force had been ordered to let the Luftwaffe reconnaissance planes take their photographs as part of the deception. The German pilots were allowed and encouraged to photograph the inflatable balloons, which seen from above looked like Sherman tanks.