[Paleopsych] Telegraph: Our tangled wartime web
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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,
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
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
The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £30, 1,148pp
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