With the 75th anniversary of D-Day approaching, I want to reflect on a subject that people often misunderstand.
After World War II ended, the public learned of Allied deception efforts to confuse the German high command. The most successful trickery disguised where the Allies intended to open the Second Front in western Europe. The coordinated hoax known as Operation Fortitude spread false information to convince Hitler and his generals that the D-Day landings would take place near Calais. British and American intelligence agents devised elaborate schemes to turn the Germans’ focus to the narrowest part of the English Channel and away from the Normandy beaches. Publicity surrounding General George Patton’s presence in southeast England and the staging of dummy vehicles and landing barges appeared to indicate an invasion of the northeastern French coast. Double agents fed disinformation to German intelligence services that led them to fixate on the Pas de Calais sector.
Film clips of men inflating fake tanks and aircraft have made for good theater on recent TV shows. Commentaries by historians tout the success of Fortitude. It fooled the Germans! Because of that, Hitler positioned the bulk of his panzers and infantry forces near the Flanders coast. Even after D-Day, the clever deceptions persuaded the Germans to keep their panzers in the north and delayed their counter-attack in Normandy. Such comments lead viewers into thinking that without Fortitude the Germans would have reinforced Normandy and crushed the invasion.
I believe the recent hype over-states the importance of Operation Fortitude.
The Role of Uncertainty
Allied intelligence operations did succeed. The German high command thought the D-Day invasion would come in Flanders. However, this misconception did not significantly influence the Germans’ disposition of their forces, nor did it need to. Uncertainty dictated German defensive planning.
Barring precise and firm proof of enemy intentions, something almost impossible to obtain, defenders must account for all enemy options. There are never enough troops to cover everywhere. Therefore, a defender looks at the terrain then deploys forces to block enemy avenues of attack. A sensible plan concentrates precious combat assets on the most dangerous avenue for two reasons. First, it’s a way to redirect the enemy to an area that is less threatening and/or easier to defend. Second, if the enemy does attack on the most dangerous route, the defender can commit the bulk of his forces at once.
German Defensive Planning
Put yourselves in Rommel’s and von Rundstedt’s shoes then look at a map of the English Channel. Aside from being closer to England and offering a quicker channel crossing, Calais posed a greater threat than Normandy. Allied air cover could extend deeper and stay longer over the invasion area. In addition, a landing at Calais would put the Allied armies north of the Seine and Somme Rivers. Because of that, it provided a shorter and easier route into Germany. As a result, the Germans had to place their panzers in Northern France and Belgium to cover this Allied avenue. Otherwise, they would have invited disaster.
German defensive planning achieved some of its purpose. The Allies chose the safer avenue and landed on the Normandy coast. It took them three months of brutal fighting to reach Flanders, as opposed to landing there on D-Day.
Post D-Day Uncertainty
Fortitude played a helpful though not a decisive role in slowing the German response to the D-Day invasion. Also it helped keep the panzer reserves away from Normandy. Again, uncertainty weighed more heavily on German thinking than false assumptions. It took Rommel and von Rundstedt only two days to perceive that the Normandy landings were a main effort rather than a feint. However, they could not rule out a possible second landing near Calais. Because of that, they could not commit their panzer reserves and leave Flanders uncovered. Either Hitler had to back-fill with reserves from the Russian front or contain the western Allies with the forces in France. He chose to hedge his bets in the west. The Germans bottled up the Allied invasion in hedgerow country for two months. By the time the Germans could disregard an invasion at Calais, their defense in Normandy had collapsed.
In conclusion, readers should be cautious about the claims of intelligence operatives who take credit for “deceiving the enemy.” Military strategists understand that enemy options have to be considered and resources allocated to cover each one. It’s uncertainty that forces planners to split forces, not a misreading of the situation. A good intelligence operation only needs to reinforce that uncertainty to achieve its purpose.