[Paleopsych] Telegraph: Our tangled wartime web

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Tue Feb 8 21:50:11 UTC 2005

Our tangled wartime web
Monday 31 January 2005

    Max Hastings reviews The Deceivers by Thaddeus Holt

    It is a curiosity of the 1939-45 conflict that, while the British
    produced few top-class field commanders and made lots of strategic
    mistakes, the machinery created by Churchill and his senior officers
    for directing the war effort was superior to that of any other nation.
    It was imaginative, flexible, kept all parties "in the picture", and
    gave full play to unusual people and ideas.

    Nowhere was this more conspicuous than in the exploitation of
    deception. From an early stage, British generals - notably Wavell -
    perceived the importance of misleading the enemy about allied
    capabilities and intentions.

    The first flowering of the deceivers' art took place in the desert.
    Its begetter was the brilliant maverick Colonel Dudley Clarke. A
    bachelor gunner officer born in the Ladysmith garrison during the 1899
    siege, Clarke conducted a guerilla campaign with the War Office, in
    support of his consequent claim to wear the South Africa medal.
    Malcolm Muggeridge described him as "a sharp little man with bright,
    quick eyes".

    Clarke's early military career was exotic, and included a spell as a
    pilot in the First World War, which caused him further to annoy the
    War Office by affecting RFC wings on his tunic. He can claim to have
    introduced the names of both the commandos and the Special Air Service
    to the British Army.

    In the desert under Wavell, he developed techniques for confusing the
    enemy about British plans, which influenced operational policy for the
    balance of the war. He was chiefly responsible for misleading the
    Germans about where Montgomery's main thrust would come at Alamein.

    The most notable hiccup in Clarke's career came at the end of 1941,
    when in an excess of enthusiasm he disguised himself as a woman and
    attempted to dally with German agents in Madrid, an exploit which
    ended with his arrest by the Spanish police, fury among the British
    intelligence services, and a request to Lord Gort, governor of
    Gibraltar, that he should interview the offender and establish that he
    was sane. This episode cost Clarke a reprimand from Auchinleck,
    Wavell's successor, but did no lasting harm to his career in the

    Clarke is only the most notable of the characters portrayed by
    Thaddeus Holt in this meticulous, encyclopaedic history of wartime
    deception. Here also is Colonel John Bevan, the stockbroker who became
    head of the "London Controlling Section" which devised the vital
    deception plans for D-Day, who exploited his impeccable establishment
    connections to conduct a notably unconventional war. Here is
    Wing-Commander Dennis Wheatley, the popular novelist, who made himself
    an invaluable social emissary and documentary drafter for Bevan.

    Ewen Montague was a barrister in naval uniform who wrote the
    best-selling post-war book and film The Man Who Never Was about the
    LCS operation to deceive the Germans about the 1943 Sicilian invasion
    using false plans attached to a uniformed corpse which was then
    launched into the sea off Spain to be found by German sympathisers, as
    indeed it was. Holt describes Montague mercilessly as "self-satisfied,
    self-important and treacherous" - the last, because of his chronic
    disloyalty to Bevan.

    Peter Fleming, the celebrated gentleman travel-writer, followed Wavell
    to India to run Eastern deception operations, but these seldom came to
    much. Operations in that theatre were overwhelmingly dominated by the
    Americans, not much interested in deception. The Japanese high command
    paid little attention to its own intelligence service, staffed by
    officers so dense that they often failed to notice Fleming's
    laboriously planted documents and exotic stunts. Fleming emerges from
    Holt's account as an upmarket boy scout.

    Yet Fleming's words best identify a key element in deception, which
    lay at the heart of British success and relative American failure. "It
    is impossible, or at least highly dangerous, to attempt to tell a
    lie," he wrote, "until you know what the truth is."

    Success requires that the high command should tell the deceivers
    everything about its real intentions, as - for instance - MacArthur in
    the Pacific never would. It also demands the orchestration of false
    wireless traffic and captured enemy agent reports in the most subtle
    and sensitive fashion. American handling of "turned" agents was in the
    hands of the FBI. Its director, Edgar Hoover, was suited neither to
    subtlety nor to co-operation with other services.

    The British deceivers, by contrast, became the intimates of their
    masters. Bevan enjoyed ready access to Churchill and Alan Brooke.
    Dennis Wheatley wrote: "had Johnny Bevan asked the Chiefs of Staff for
    a couple of divisions to play with, they would have given them to him
    without argument".

    Thaddeus Holt, an Alabama lawyer who once served as a Deputy
    Under-Secretary of the US Army, has produced a masterly study. The
    author explains the nature of deception, which demands constant
    psychological study of "the customer" - the enemy's intelligence
    service. First it was necessary to provide the Germans with a much
    exaggerated view of Allied capabilities by creating fictitious
    formations and deployments; then to direct the enemy's attention to
    possible alternative targets for Allied forces. To succeed, it was not
    enough to make the enemy think wrongly. He must be provoked into
    acting wrongly, or rather rightly from the Allied viewpoint.

    Much sensational rubbish is written about wartime intelligence. Holt
    displays exemplary moderation and judgment. The Italians, oddly
    enough, possessed abler intelligence staffs than the other Axis
    powers. The Germans and Japanese were much readier to believe reports
    from "turned" agents run by MI5 and the "XX Committee" than
    information fed to them through false wireless traffic, to which much
    allied effort was devoted.

    It is seldom possible to assess the success of a given deception
    scheme conclusively, says the author, save for the most famous of all,
    "Fortitude", which kept the German 15th Army in the Pas de Calais for
    vital weeks after D-Day in Normandy. Yet unease about threats to the
    Balkans and Norway, diligently fostered by the deceivers, kept the
    Germans in constant uncertainty until late 1944, when the war's
    endgame became so obvious that strategic deception was no longer

    Holt does his best to show that American commanders overcame initial
    scepticism, and grew to recognise the importance of deception. In
    truth, however, deception was a British triumph, of which Thaddeus
    Holt has produced a worthy celebration.

    Max Hastings's latest book is 'Amageddon: The Battle for Germany
    1944-45' (Macmillan).

    The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War
    Thaddeus Holt
    Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £30, 1,148pp
    ISBN 0297848046

More information about the paleopsych mailing list