‘He Who Prepares Everywhere Will Be Weak Everywhere’
As soldiers burst out of their troop ship and thundered down makeshift gangplanks, an avalanche of machine-gun and rifle fire zipped through the air, flicking up sand and seawater, and tearing into them.
Many dropped on the spot, clogging up the lighters that were their ramps to the beach. These sloped down from the giant collier that had run them aground behind, and the smaller hoppers and row boats that helped bridge the remaining distance to the shore.
To avoid the murderous fire, others flung themselves over the sides and into the water. But, according to military historian Tim Travers, this frequently made things worse:
“(Those) who jumped into the sea and attempted to swim ashore were weighted down with a full pack, 250 rounds of ammunition, and (three days’ rations), and many drowned.”
For men who made it through, up the beaches and beyond, in at least one sector they were confronted with what must have been an even worse shock: the impression they’d gleaned from pre-operation intelligence gathering was completely wrong. There wasn’t a gentle rise before them, leading up to the enemy defences but, essentially, a gaping crevice. As Philip Haythornthwaite explains:
“Instead of the expected wide beach of easy access, impossible terrain was encountered, cliffs and gullies covered with scrub, exceptionally difficult to climb… so difficult was the terrain that a co-ordinated advance was impossible… (and there was) very confused and most bitter fighting among the gullies and broken ground, an unrelenting struggle which lasted throughout the day…”
In fact, they weren’t even at the right beaches. Some of these troops had been deposited in the wrong place, and all of them in the wrong time. Gold, Juno, Sword, Utah and Omaha Beaches would be attacked by British, Canadian and American troops 29 years in the future.
This time, Winston Churchill and Lord Kitchener’s brainchild of an audacious amphibious assault would flounder on S, V, W, X, Y and Z Beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula. French* and British (including Indian, Gurkha, Newfoundland and, of course, ANZAC) forces were first blocked and then repelled by Ottoman Turks, not Third-Reich Germans.
(*Technically the French, although involved in the campaign, started out by landing at Kum Kale on the Asiatic coast, not the Gallipoli peninsula).
Attitudes soon soured as the campaign wore on. At least, that’s the impression one gleans from Cyril Lawrence, an Australian soldier quoted in BBC/PBS series ‘The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century’:
“Soon these English idiots will have ruined one of the finest bodies of men that ever fought. Once, I used to worship the British soldier as a hero, and was proud to be a Briton. But jigger me if I am now. For we see nothing but British blundering, boasting, bullying, bluff and blasting failure and doing nothing. God but it’s disheartening.”
And one commentary on the utter impossibility of the terrain, in this case at Y Beach, appeared in a local paper produced by the troops, ‘The Dardenelles Driveller’:
“’Y’ Beach, the Scottish Borderer cried
“While panting up the steep hillside,
“To call this thing a beach is stiff,
“It’s nothing but a bloody cliff.
The failure of the Gallipoli campaign created a political scandal back home, and one for which Churchill got some of the blame.
Just like the mass carnage on the Western Front, the basic lesson was obvious: that a colossal failure like this simply couldn’t happen again.
But then a madman came to power in Germany, started an even greater Great War and swept through much of Western Europe - winning the Battle of France, then launching the Battle of Britain.
When ‘Fortress Britain’ held out, the prospect of another grand amphibious assault – this time on Fortress Europe – loomed. The fate of the democratic world depended on it, and depended on it going right… this time.
But then this time, it surely could go right.
Pearl Harbor and Barbarossa (Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union) had united America and the USSR with Britain – the sheer weight of men and material must inevitably tip the scales against Hitler. Now was the time, to strike a blow against the ‘hard snout of the crocodile’ that was Hitler’s Atlantic Wall - to ‘smash and grab’, as Mark Zuehlke describes the opening of the battle:
“Aboard HMS Prince Albert, No. 4 Commando’s 252 men had by 0300 hours finished eating and making final preparations… Thirty-four-year-old Major Derek Mills-Roberts… noted his men’s ‘quiet concentration’ as they readied ammunition, cleaned weapons, applied greasepaint to hands and faces, and donned the woollen caps this command wore instead of helmets. The battle was expected to be short, so ‘it was all weapons and ammunition with trimmings’.”
4 Commando were just one of several crack units striking the French coastline that morning, part of a multinational force of British and (Free) French Commandos, men of 2 Canadian Division and members of 1 Battalion, US Army Rangers.
Mills-Roberts’ unit approached by boat, under cover of darkness. As they did so, he was jolted awake by tracer that flashed across the sky and gunfire that pierced the night. The battle had begun.
Elsewhere, men under another commander, Lieutenant Veasey, were already ashore:
“…(they) raced across the beach and towards two concrete pillboxes overlooking the beach from a low cliff. They were to knock these out and then advance through woods in a direct line to close on the battery from the western flank.”
This they’d been trained for:
"…every day at Weymouth, (commandos) had donned all their equipment and gone running before breakfast. Length and speed increased daily until they were ‘covering one mile at top speed’.”
With this level of fitness, the troops were as ready as they could possibly be for what was coming:
“Veasey’s commandos belted up to the cliff, and those in the lead slammed a couple of tubular scaling ladders in place. Surprise was complete. One pillbox proved unoccupied. The Germans in the other died without firing a shot.”
Heroics were ubiquitous that day:
“Veasey sent Trooper William Finney to cut a nearby telegraph… As Finney began climbing a pole, a German machine gun opened up. Clinging to the pole, ignoring the splinters being ripped from it by bullets, Finney calmly snipped the line with cutters….
More men soon hit the shoreline behind Veasey, and “(m)aching-gun fire laced the beach. Most of the commandos hit the dirt in front of a great tangle of barbed wire that blocked passage up the river’s eastern bank…”
Meanwhile, further in:
“Snipers were at work. The most deadly… was Corporal Richard Mann. Face and hands painted green to blend with foliage. Mann lay in low bush 150 yards from the battery and picked off several Germans with precise fire.”
Bren gunners also joined the fray, hammering German machine gun crews who otherwise would have murdered their comrades.
And so too did the RAF:
“Precisely at 0628, a dozen Spitfires of 129 Squadron careened in with guns (blazing.)”
There was, as always, also a certain amount of luck on the Allied side:
"‘A’ Company’s Sergeant Basil Smith got over the seawall by slithering through an unmanned pillbox firing slit, whose back door exited onto the promenade. Private L.R. Thrussell was close behind. Both men realized they would have died on the beach if the Germans had manned that pillbox.”
And there was great leadership from the officers:
“Lieutenant John Edmondson (noticed that)… cohesion was dissolving. (There was no) option but (to) get over the damned wall (in front of them), organize people, and find a river crossing. The wall varied in height from eight to ten feet. Edmondson’s complaints during Isle of Wight training had eventually been heard, so there were scaling ladders. He yelled for one to be brought up. It duly appeared. ‘Wire cutters’, he shouted. ‘Someone get up there and cut the wires’. A wire cutter slapped into his hand. ‘Officers lead’, Edmondson thought and climbed the ladder. Machine-gun slugs pinged the wire as he cut. Three rolls of concertina wire had to be cut away.
“Edmondson noted that the machine-gun fire traced an unwavering line, a constant eighteen inches high. ‘Just slide over the wall’, he told the men below, ‘and then dash for the cover of the buildings’. Edmondson slithered through the wire and ran to the buildings. In the semi-darkness, the situation in the village proved confused. Canadians, civilians, and Germans ran every which way. Frenchmen screamed at soldiers not to shoot, while the Canadians and Germans sought to engage each other. Coming face-to-face with a German, Edmondson squeezed his Sten (gun’s) trigger and heard the dull thud of a misfire. Stunned, the German failed to raise his gun. Edmondson dodged behind a corner and tried again to fire. The Sten thudded uselessly. He chucked it away, picked up a dropped Lee-Enfield (rifle.) After firing it to make sure the gun worked, Edmondson turned the corner to face the German. He was gone. The main street, which ran east to west through the village and included a bridge that crossed the river, was raked by machine-gun fire."
Yet, for all the Allied heroics, the operation soon faltered, and the tide turned - as it were.
German defenders also fought doggedly, sending Allied survivors scrambling back to the boats and out to sea, their battle detritus – wrecked Churchill tanks, equipment, the dead and wounded – left scattered all over the beach.
In fact, as the 1973 series ‘The World at War’ sums it up:
“Many troops never (even) got beyond the beaches. Hundreds of others (simply) walked straight into captivity.”
The operation was a disaster.
The Germans had won.
This too wasn’t D-Day, but Dieppe - the large-scale, audacious but ultimately ill-fated raid on Yellow, Orange, Red, Blue, Green, and White Beaches in 1942; not the grand invasion of Juno, Gold, Sword, Utah or Omaha Beaches in 1944.
So just what was it that stood between D-Day and the disaster at Dieppe? Or Gallipoli, for that matter?
Conversely, what prevented Dieppe and Gallipoli from becoming the glittering success that was D-Day?
The answer lies in the question: creating the possibility of multiple D-Days. But whereas Gallipoli and Dieppe might be thought of as past iterations that had gone wrong, what the Allies needed were present alternatives that might plausibly succeed. They needed to bluff, and bluff well.
To be sure, some level of deception, even if generated solely by the confusion of battle, is almost always present in warfare – as indeed it should be, if the principles of the ancient Chinese general-cum-philosopher Sun Tzu are anything to go by:
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
It isn’t always possible to abide by all of these maxims, of course, but the second to last one had particular relevance for D-Day. This is expanded upon in another Sun Tzu quote:
“The enemy must not know where I intend to give battle. For if he does not know where I intend to give battle he must prepare in a great many places. And when he prepares in a great many places, those I have to fight in any one place will be few. And when he prepares everywhere he will be weak everywhere.”
By 1944, Allied espionage and disinformation campaigns had become remarkably sophisticated. And in the run-up to D-Day, the Allies used every tool of deception available to them to ‘make the enemy believe they were far away’.
The title of Joshua Levine’s book on the operation sums up the result of these efforts, which culminated in nothing less than ‘Operation Fortitude: The Greatest Hoax of the Second World War’.
The roots of this “comprehensive system of strategic deception” go back to the early days of the conflict and were “developed –more or less single-handedly –by… Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Wrangel Clarke”.
Clarke had already been a pilot in the First World War, a role that allowed for and encouraged his already unconventional nature. By the time the Second World War came around, he was:
“…a dynamic little man with carefully slicked blond hair and haunting blue eyes who had already made a valuable contribution to the war effort before he turned his unorthodox mind to deception. In the days following the evacuation of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk in mid-1940, he had been chatting with General Sir John Dill, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. ‘We must find some way’, said Dill, ‘of helping the Army to exercise its offensive spirit once again’. Clarke had grown up in the Transvaal and he thought back to the Boer Commandos, loose-knit bands of horsemen used as guerrillas to strike against the British during the Boer War. He suggested the formation of a modern equivalent which could ‘hit sharp and quick, then run to fight another day’."
He soon had a starring role in the action - and, given the latter fame of one of his men, ‘starring role’ seems an apt metaphor:
"One of Clarke’s first Commandos was actor David Niven, who recalled being summoned to the War Office, where Clarke explained to him the concept of cut-and-thrust raids on the enemy coastline.”
Dieppe was a large-scale commando-led raid, one that went wrong.
“A little while later Niven met Winston Churchill and cheerfully described to him the Commandos’ prospects. ‘Your security is very lax’, said the Prime Minister. ‘You shouldn’t be telling me this’. Niven had no idea whether Churchill was serious or not.”
Clarke was certainly serious. He led the very “first Commando raid on 24 June 1940”, coming back with an ear injury he barely noticed, but that was nonetheless so bad that one petty officer in the sick bay exclaimed, “Gawd almighty, sir! It’s almost coming off!”
In his next posting, his CO, General Sir Archibald Wavell - Commander-in-Chief Middle East – quickly came to appreciate Clarke’s “puckish sense of humour” because it “made (him) ideal for a very particular task: heading a section with the sole purpose of misleading the enemy”.
And mislead them he did. One of Clarke’s main tricks was ‘the Order of Battle deception’ – namely, conjuring up fictitious units:
“Clarke learned –through deciphered wireless traffic –that the Italians expected the deployment of British paratroops in Libya. It was a groundless fear, but Clarke took advantage of it. He invented a unit which he named the Special Air Service Brigade.”
“This brigade of 500 paratroops –so Clarke’s story went –was being trained to take the Italians by surprise. Rumours were spread about its existence. Pictures of men with parachutes were published in a Cairo magazine. Dummy gliders were built and ostentatiously concealed on airfields. Soldiers wearing ‘SAS’ armbands and badges were planted in Middle Eastern cities, where they spoke, apparently reticently, about their future activities."
…at least, not yet…
"The SAS, of course, did not remain a notional unit for long. Major David Stirling sought Clarke’s assistance in forming a streamlined version of the Commandos, to be made up of teams of four men trained in the use of parachutes. Clarke agreed to help –so long as Stirling named the new unit after his own made-up brigade. Aside from his deception work, Clarke had therefore been instrumental in the creation of both the Commandos and the SAS. And once the enemy had evidence of the genuine SAS in action, they simply assumed it to be Clarke’s imaginary unit, and so his Order of Battle deception gained added credibility."
In contrast to the macho, daring-do mentality of the pioneers who formed and developed the early SAS, Levine notes that Clarke “had what have sometimes been described as feminine sensibilities: empathy, imagination and subtlety. These –coupled with a superior intellect –were the real qualities needed to get inside the mind of an enemy”.
But well before he managed to infiltrate the mind of the Fuhrer, Clarke’s ‘feminine sensibilities’ raised eyebrows when he was arrested in Madrid while trying to pass the German military attaché information:
“(This very much) alarmed the British authorities – but his state of dress positively bewildered them. ‘At the time’, records the diary of Guy Liddell, the chief of MI5’ s ‘B’ Division, ‘he was dressed as a woman complete with brassière. Why he wore this disguise nobody quite knows’.”
One pictures Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes fighting bad guys aboard a speeding train while dressed in drag. “I agree, it’s not my best disguise”, he tells Watson when discovered.
“Spanish police took a photograph of Clarke in his flowery dress with a kerchief covering his military short back and sides. His lips are full and red, while three small strings of pearls, gloves and very high heels complete the outfit. A small clutch purse nestles in his lap. His face may look masculine, but his posture is really rather convincingly feminine. So what on earth was he doing? Was he indeed making contact with German agents? If so, were they supposed to fall for his drag act? Was this part of a more complicated story? Or was the get-up not work-related at all? To this day nobody quite knows."
What is known, at least, is that Clarke’s own brand of flamboyant creative brilliance evolved, rather than coming about fully formed. While building his impressive military resume, he made mistakes – crucial stumbling blocks on his road to great success:
"Clarke’s first deception plan (in Africa) was Operation Camilla, an attempt to make the Italians think that an attack was to be mounted on occupied British Somaliland by troops based in Egypt, when in fact the real attack was to be made on Eritrea by troops in the Sudan. Clarke spared no effort in thinking up ways of misleading Italian intelligence. Raids were launched on Somaliland by air and sea to make it seem as though an assault must follow. Campaign maps and pamphlets relating to Somaliland were issued to British troops. The airwaves were bombarded with fake wireless traffic and the Japanese consul in Port Said was tipped off that an attack on Somaliland was imminent. In the event, the plan managed to succeed –and simultaneously to fail utterly.”
It wasn’t that he’d failed to convince the enemy to believe in the deception. On the contrary, the “Italian commander certainly (thought the British were) intending to attack Somaliland”.
Rather, the problem was basically what might as well be called ‘the oops factor’:
“But, deciding that the attack could not be resisted, he removed his troops from Somaliland and sent them to Eritrea (where the British were actually planning to attack, and) where their presence made the actual assault far more difficult than it would have been without the deception plan.
"…His response was to formulate his first rule of strategic deception: to make your opponent act as you want him to. It doesn’t matter what he thinks. In this case the Italian commander was led to expect an attack on Somaliland, but Clarke hadn’t considered what he would do as a result. The deceiver, he realized, had to get inside the mind of the enemy commander. (His mantra became) ‘What do you want the enemy to do?’ …(This) golden rule would sit above all others as the one to be obeyed."
To avoid the kind of miscalculation that foiled Operation Camilla, it was essential that ‘Operation Overlord’, the invasion of Normandy, and ‘Operation Neptune’, the seaborne portion of the landings, be covered by what Churchill dubbed ‘a bodyguard of lies’.
‘Operation Bodyguard’ would thus instil general confusion through disinformation. It was designed to make the Germans think multiple attacks would occur in places as far away and varied as southwestern France, Italy and the Balkans. ‘Operation Fortitude’ was the most important and northerly portion of Bodyguard, promoting the idea of invasions targeted at Calais, and at Narvik and Stavanger, in Norway.
To do this, an entire network of double agents was systematically and patiently recruited throughout the course of the war, handled by Thomas Argyll ‘TAR’ Robertson.
In the run-up to D-Day, with TAR Robertson’s careful supervision, these men and women would apply Clarke’s ideas by disseminating disinformation on a massive scale. In fact, at this point, the story becomes so fantastical that it invites comparisons to fiction.
One fitting example is the classic World War 2 adventure film ‘Where Eagles Dare’, starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. They play MI-6 and OSS-affiliated commandos sent to rescue an American general from a citadel in the Bavarian Alps - the general crash landed over enemy territory and has knowledge of the upcoming D-Day operation. Burton and Eastwood’s elite team must get to him before the Germans discover the critical importance of what he knows… at least, that’s the official story.
But the plot soon thickens and it turns out that there may be a traitor, or traitors, hiding amongst the rescuers and that the ‘general’ is a fake. By the end, it’s become clear (well, clear to anyone able to keep up with the ever-shifting storyline) that the entire thing is a giant stunt by British intelligence to expose Germany’s network of spies in Britain. With the list of German agents duly tucked into his pocket, Burton leads Eastwood and two female companions (Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt) in a daring and action-packed escape.
Cue spectacular gun battles, a fight on top of a cable car, lots of explosions and a bus chase to the airport where they all jump aboard a plane back to England. But there’s one last plot twist: Burton’s boss, who’s waited aboard the plane for them, is the top German double agent in Britain, Burton reveals. He jumps to his death to avoid execution right before the fantastic score by Ron Goodwin plays over the closing credits.
Naturally, the film’s plot stretches credibility. Staging a crash in hostile territory and sending a rescue team to be there at the exact moment the Judases in their midst meet up with a key enemy leader and are obediently double-crossed into revealing an entire spy network? Isn’t that a bit of a ridiculously dangerous, elaborate and convoluted way to have gone about it?!
Having said that, both Levine’s account and that of Ben Macintyre in the BBC documentary and book of the same name, ‘Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies’, show that the espionage backstory to D-Day isn’t actually that dissimilar to Where Eagles Dare. Double agents, spy networks, treachery and the prospect of any number of key players falling into enemy hands and revealing all in a nail-biting finale – the same elements are all there.
The major difference is that the real-life version didn’t involve elite commandos but an eclectic mix of eccentric personalities drawn from all manner of places.
And not all of them, Levine shows, would seem to have been good spy material:
"The first British double agent of the war, Arthur George Owens, didn’t fit the debonair archetype of a storybook spy. He was a short and scrawny electrical engineer from Wales, with oddly shaped ears, small bony hands and a shifty, uncertain manner. Yet all of these shortcomings masked –and probably contributed to –an uncompromising urge to turn himself into the central character in his own spy drama. Like many of the most interesting double agents, Owens was neither forced into the role nor motivated by conviction, but rather chose to enter the game for his own more obscure reasons. An MI5 report on the activities of Snow –as Owens was codenamed by the British –describes his principal traits as vanity, untruthfulness and self-deception. ‘At times in his complicated career,’ says the report, ‘he has, most likely, genuinely seen himself as a patriot doing dangerous and valuable work for his country; at other times, not less genuinely, as a daring spy, clever enough to outwit the British Intelligence’."
This sounds like the bumbling attempts at spying and counter-espionage made by Lee Harvey Oswald in the years before he shot JFK. Owens, like Oswald, appears to have been driven by a desire for attention, and to have wanted to be important in some way.
The obvious question then is why any intelligence organisation would want such a liability-of-a-man working for them? Here too, Levine’s account proves enlightening:
"Even the best case officers –British as well as German –wanted to believe in their agents, and as a result they might have overlooked the odd warning sign. The scrupulous ‘Tar’ Robertson, after all, was sometimes willing to overlook Arthur Owens’s erratic behaviour."
In other words, this was a two-way problem, one the Germans struggled with as well, and which in the end worked to Allied advantage.
Like Owens, one of those turned to the Allied side was a mentally unstable woman named Lily Sergueiev, a Franco-Russian, who had no great loyalty to either the Germans or the British. Her real love was her pet dog ‘Babs’, which had to be quarantined in Gibraltar before ‘Treasure’, as Lily was codenamed, could come to England.
Once in Britain, her role in Fortitude involved bicycling around the south east, picking up whatever signs of military activity she could from observation and conversations she overheard.
There of course was no invasion force assembling in the south east. The vast numbers of vehicles the Germans thought they’d detected massing near Dover through (limited) aerial reconnaissance were nothing but wooden and canvas planes, and inflatable tanks. But Treasure’s ‘chicken-feed’ (bogus intelligence) was dutifully passed onto her German handler and added credibility to the idea that this was, in fact, the force Hitler expected would strike Calais.
This ‘army’ was lent additional credibility by the man the Allies chose to lead it. Someone who, as well as being admired by Hitler, was about the most conspicuous commander they had (with the possible exception Douglas MacArthur.) As Jonathan Mayo explains in ‘D-Day: Minute by Minute’:
“(On June 5) Lieutenant General George S Patton, the flamboyant and outspoken commander of the 3rd United States Army, is in the middle of addressing his men at a base in the south of England. Patton, wearing his trademark outfit of polished helmet, full dress uniform, riding boots and riding crop, intends to motivate them…
“’I don’t want to get any messages saying, ‘I am holding my position’. We are not holding a goddamned thing. Let the Germans do that. We are advancing constantly and we are not interested in holding onto anything, except the enemy’s balls. We are going to twist his balls and kick the living shit out of him all of the time… We are going to go through him like crap through a goose…’”
“…Once asked about his colourful language, Patton said… ‘it helps my soldiers to remember’ (and that) ‘You can’t run an army without profanity’.” Then, as if to prove the point, he said “’…an army without profanity couldn’t fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag’.”
But it was more likely that TAR Robertson and his colleagues at MI-5 were piss soaking paper bags in the tense days before D-Day. Just one of many close calls they had came when Babs was supposedly hit by a truck in Gibraltar and killed.
Bizarrely, to this day, nobody knows for certain what Babs’ true fate was, given that all files relating to the canine appear to have been systematically removed from the records.
Whatever the case, the already mentally unstable Treasure was positively livid and threatened to take revenge on the British. Unbeknownst to them, she had a secret code she could have typed out when sending her coded messages to her German handler - this would have indicated she’d been compromised. He’d have then known any subsequent messages from her were bogus, something that could have raised suspicions about the expected attack on Pas de Calais.
Fortunately, Treasure decided not to use the code, and the deception continued to be convincing to the Germans, for now.
This was helped along no end by another member of the XX (Double Cross) scheme: Juan Pujol Garcia – aka ‘Garbo’.
He was a Spaniard who’d come to Britain to assist with the war effort because he saw it as a vital bastion holding out against the political extremes of communism and fascism.
He’d managed to convince the Germans that he had an entire sub-network of agents feeding him information about the British. There was ‘Rags’, an Indian poet, a Portuguese commercial traveller, a collection of zealous Welsh fascists known as ‘The Brothers of the Aryan World Order’ and multiple others.
All 27 of these people (or rather, ‘people’) existed entirely in his head; it was this ability to spin lies so convincingly that earnt him his name – that of the Swedish film star of the era, Greta Garbo (because he was such a good actor.)
Garbo’s job, Macintyre explains, was to help “(reinforce) the fiction of a vast American army assembling in Kent. His imaginary network (of agents) spanned the country, the lies from each agent reinforcing the lies from the others. An illusion made all the more convincing after one agent who knew too much was suddenly eliminated from the spy ring.
“It was a massive undertaking, and the stakes could not have been higher. One slip, and the entire network would be revealed for the sham that it was.”
There very nearly was a slip – not from Garbo, but from his wife, who was sick of being cooped up at home, disallowed as she was to go out in case it endangered his activities. She threatened to jeopardise his work unless she could go back to Spain to see her mother.
MI-5 shut her down by threatening to lock her up.
Meanwhile, ‘Brutus’ – a turned and then re-turned Polish double agent whose real name was Roman Czerniawski - was doing much the same on the east coast of Scotland**. The targets for this fictitious invasion were Narvik and Stevanger, both in Norway, as Levine explains:
"Operation Fortitude North proposed a combination of physical measures, radio signals and Double Cross activity to achieve its aim. Its most fundamental element was an inflated Order of Battle designed to make the Germans believe that an imminent invasion was credible. A fictional British Fourth Army, based in Scotland, was to be responsible for the attack. It was to be commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Andrew ‘Bulgy’ Thorne. Thorne had been a pre-war military attaché in Berlin, in whom Hitler had taken a particular interest upon discovering that they had shared a sector of the Western Front in 1914. Hitler came to rate Thorne highly, and his appointment was calculated to attract the Führer’s attention to the threat. It almost certainly succeeded. An article written by Thorne was found in Hitler’s bunker after his death in 1945.”
In other words, Thorne was chosen for Fortitude North’s army for the same reason Patton was made the commander of Fortitude South’s – because he would be noticed by Hitler.
(**This narrative is naturally a compressed version of events. In reality, multiple agents might be doing multiple things regarding Fortitudes North and South. Garbo told the Germans he had a “Venezuelan sub-agent… based in Glasgow… (as well as) a Greek seaman who had served on a British merchant ship…” The Greek seaman was an ardent communist but, Garbo said, he’d been duped into serving the Nazi cause).
As well as Thorne, the ‘army’ in Scotland contained a few genuine units to make the ruse believable – though they’d have to work hard at it:
“In total, twenty-eight officers and 334 other ranks… would have to simulate the activity of over 100,000 men."
The problem was, given just how ships they needed for the genuine invasion (close to 7,000), the Allies weren’t able to create a credible naval threat off the east coast of Scotland. Levine is careful to point out that Fortitude North therefore only succeeded partially. 100,000 troops were required to hold Norway and the fact that Hitler kept 250,000 there attests to the fact that he feared an invasion on some level.
And yet, the lack of any significant armada near Scotland (i.e. unlike the southern coast of England) also seemed to be a sign the ‘invasion force’ wasn’t quite ready or wasn’t a very serious or imminent threat. In this way, Fortitude North failed to draw any additional German units away from France.
The impact of ‘Operation Ironside’ also seems to have been relatively slight. This was a scheme to convince the Germans of an attack on the west coast of France.
It was disseminated by Elvira Chaudoir, aka ‘Bronx’. She was, according to Macintyre, a “bisexual Peruvian party girl” who was seemingly meant to be like a World-War-2 version of Mata Hari. She moved in high society circles in London’s bars and clubs, picking up information about the upcoming ‘invasion’ from important people, and she then relayed all this to her German handler.
“But to drive home the D-Day lie, Robertson needed an agent brave enough to make direct, personal contact with the enemy… (and) Lisbon, in neutral Portugal, was a hotbed of wartime espionage and a regular haunt of Dusko Popov, a flamboyant international dealmaker from Dubrovnik (in Serbia.) But his business was simply a cover. He was a British double agent codenamed ‘Tricycle’ working directly for Tar Robertson. Tricycle was just the name to inject the great deception into the heart of German intelligence.”
While Bronx might be thought of Mata Hari-esque, Popov may have been one inspiration for Ian Fleming in creating James Bond. Levine writes:
“…whether or not Popov inspired Bond, he certainly shared some crucial traits with 007. They were both courageous and charming connoisseurs of the good life who enjoyed the ‘company’ of women… and it has often been said –wrongly, unfortunately –that (his codename) Tricycle derived from Popov’s fondness for sexual threesomes.”
In fact, the moniker was arrived at because, unlike Garbo, Popov initially had a spy network of three real people, though, as it turns out, one of them certainly was a lady he found very attractive.
It was on account of her, in fact, that he got into a fight with a man tailing her one night. Likewise, according to Levine, a lady was the cause of another fight he had with a journalist. A ‘Daily Mail’ correspondent apparently took offence when Popov implied a woman performing on stage couldn’t sing when he had a waiter deliver a cork to her (as in, ‘put a cork in it’.) The two got into a fist fight over the lady’s honour before Popov made a run for it.
Levine shows that he could also be utterly ruthless. One chauffeur who knew too much and might have told all to the Nazis was apparently ‘eliminated’ by two thugs Popov hired.
But unlike Bond, Popov never found his wartime Felix Leiter – a friend high up in the American intelligence community. Instead, he tried, unsuccessfully, to warn the FBI about Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had reputedly been paying very close attention to the British attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto in 1940. A German contact of Popov’s thought they were planning a similar attack on the US. Unfortunately, the FBI weren’t particularly receptive to Popov:
“J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were indistinguishable, and the self-appointed role of both was to preserve the moral health of the United States of America. Ethical cancers included un-American political beliefs, foreign influences, civil liberties, sexual freedoms and unearned wealth. And so it is hard to visualize a figure more perfectly designed to earn Hoover’s loathing than an independently wealthy foreign spy with a passion for women, gambling and expensive living.”
Not only that, but the FBI were spying on him:
“On arriving in New York Popov took a taxi to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, before strolling out to… Park Avenue and 42nd Street. He returned within the hour… to find that the suitcases he had put in the wardrobe in his hotel room had been tampered with. Before going out he had faintly outlined their position in pencil and placed a hair across the fastener of one.”
James Bond performs a similar trick in the film version of ‘Dr No’, placing a hair across his door to see if it has been opened whilst he’s been gone.
Popov had ostensibly been dispatched to the US to recruit a network of spies for the Germans. Coming clean about this and the fact that his true intention was for them all to be double agents secretly working for the Allies left him exposed. In the end, Hoover and the FBI gave him no information to help make his year-long venture look fruitful, and British intelligence was forced to help him invent good chickenfeed to take to the Germans.
He was forced to return to Lisbon where he naturally feared he’d be captured at some point and tortured to death by the Gestapo.
His main contact there, and the person who’d passed along the tip on Pearl Harbor, was a man named Johnny Jebsen. The two of them had a fast friendship that pre-dated the war and, in fact, Jebsen had indirectly played a role in turning Popov into the double-crossing spy he became:
“Dusko Popov’s path to MI5’ s door can be traced back to his time studying at Freiburg University before the war. While there, he struck up a close friendship with a fellow student, Johnny Jebsen. A wealthy young German of Danish parentage, Jebsen had an ability to enthral others. One man touched by his charisma was Popov, who described him as ‘a complete person, fun loving, woman loving, open to all conversations, and intensely curious about human reactions’. The two young men shared similar attitudes, most notably a dislike of Nazism. They enjoyed provoking the profoundly Nazi student body and Popov began openly criticizing the Nazi Party at public meetings. For this he paid the price: in 1937, shortly after completing his doctorate, he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in Freiburg, accused of being a communist and a defender of Jews. Fortunately Jebsen managed to contact Popov’s father in Yugoslavia, who pleaded with the Yugoslav Prime Minister, who in turn approached Hermann Goering, Commander-in -Chief of the Luftwaffe, with the result that Popov was released on condition that he leave Germany immediately. He returned to Belgrade, his mind irreversibly set against Nazism.
“Once the war was several months old, Jebsen came to Yugoslavia with news that shocked his friend. He had joined the Abwehr (German military intelligence.) Jebsen might have been anti-Nazi, but he was a pragmatist. He wanted to both avoid the armed services and be able to pursue his own increasingly dubious financial dealings. Life in the Abwehr offered him the connections and freedom necessary to do so. He attempted to justify his actions to Popov, saying, ‘We may have to become part of Hitler’s new world –or be crushed.’ He also asked a favour of his friend. Would Popov, who was well connected in Yugoslav diplomatic circles, draft a paper for the Abwehr on the French politicians most likely to collaborate with the Nazis? Popov agreed, partly out of loyalty to Jebsen, but mainly because an idea was occurring to him. Once he had delivered the finished paper to Jebsen, he would also deliver it to the British embassy in Belgrade. He agreed to carry out the favour and duly took his report to the British First Secretary, who received it gladly, telling Popov to stay in touch with Jebsen. Popov had eased himself into the Double Cross world.”
Eventually, Jebsen too would enter the Double Cross world, which wasn’t entirely surprising. He had told Popov at one point that, “If you want to destroy a team (referring to the Abwehr), the best way is to become a part of it”.
And yet, while he proved another useful asset to the British, his debut caused a serious dilemma for them.
Once brought on board, ‘Artist’, as he was codenamed, gave an early ‘gift’ to the British: the identity of every German spy in Britain. But when the British not only didn’t arrest any of them but allowed their messages back to Germany to continue, Jebson soon surmised that every single one of them was a British double agent. The cracking of the enigma code early in the war had already helped greatly to track them through their messages to their German handlers and to then intercept them when they’d come to Britain.
As noted, this approach had serious drawbacks. The trouble with double agents is that they might become triple agents, switching back over to German allegiance, either because of innate temperament or through pressure after having been caught. That was a particularly worrying prospect when it came to Artist:
“The information provided by Jebsen turned out to be good. Far too good... if Jebsen were to compromise Popov and (Garbo) in the midst of Fortitude, the Germans would know that the information they were receiving was the opposite of the truth. And as it was apparent that the Allies would be landing in either Normandy or the Pas de Calais, the enemy would receive an immediate answer to its most pressing question.”
In other words, once the Germans learnt that their spies were actually British spies, it would become obvious that, in fact, it was Normandy that was the target while Calais was the diversion, not the other way around.
This danger pressed British intelligence away from the use of explicit scenarios fed through double agents, and back towards Clarke’s original vision:
"The more varied the deception tools available to him, and the more complex his Order of Battle deception became, the better Clarke was able to put each cover story across through small, unconnected details from which the enemy could piece the story together for himself. This was commonsense: a cover story deduced from many apparently unconnected sources must be more trustworthy than one from a single uncorroborated source. It was also psychologically shrewd, for the enemy was much keener to believe something that he had ‘cleverly’ worked out for himself. And if one element of the deception failed, the whole cover story was not necessarily blown, whereas, conversely, if the deception succeeded, the enemy might well blame himself for reaching a false conclusion from perfectly accurate bits of information."
Of course, the solution was far from full proof. Part of the reason double agents were needed was precisely because the Germans hadn’t achieved air superiority over Britain and therefore had limited capacity to observe bogus troop build ups near Dover and Edinburgh.
The other dilemma was that Tar Robertson knew from Bletchley Park intercepts of German messages (which had been going on since Enigma was cracked) that they were beginning to suspect Jebsen. If captured, he could reveal all under Gestapo torture. But if he was suddenly pulled out and stopped having regular personal contact with his boss in Lisbon, the Germans might realise their messages were being read and change their codes, blinding the Allies.
Then, as Macintyre explains, an invitation came that ‘Artist’ couldn’t turn down:
“(A little over a month before D-Day,) Jebson was summoned to the offices of German counter-intelligence in Lisbon to receive a medal, for his services to the Third Reich. But there, his luck ran out. He was ambushed, drugged and smuggled out of Portugual.”
Tar Robertson was soon notified:
“Johnny has disappeared.”
British intelligence pulled out Popov and shut down his network, then got Garbo and co to inundate the Germans with messages about Allied troop movements in the south east.
This was happening, mind, just as the drama around Treasure and Babs was playing out. As the clock started counting down to D-Day, the tension at MI-5 was reputedly palpable. Would the Germans continue to believe the cover story? Would they torture Jebsen and get enough information out of him to figure out they were being duped by their own agents?
For whatever reason, it appears they didn’t. It’s suggested on the BBC documentary that this could have been because Jebsen couldn’t confess to the whole thing because, if he did, he’d have been in even more trouble. It was bad enough that he was working for the British; far worse that the entire network he’d been running in Britain had been turned.
And then it may simply have been the case that, not realising Jebsen might have information about the upcoming attack, he wasn’t interrogated until July – well after the D-Day landings.
In any case, additional measures helped keep the plan on track. According to Mayo:
“Three days (before D-Day, Rommel) had a visit from an old friend in the Afrika Korps, Major General Hans Kramer. Kramer had been captured in Tunisia and taken to a POW camp in Britain. In May the Swedish Red Cross arranged a prisoner exchange because Kramer was sick. As he was driven under armed escort through south-east England, Kramer noticed a large build-up of troops and equipment. This he eagerly reported to Rommel, and the two old friends agreed that the invasion of Europe was most likely to be launched at the Channel’s narrowest point – the Pas-de-Calais.
“What Major General Kramer didn’t know was that although he’d been told that the military build-up he’d seen was in the south-east, he was in fact driving through Dorset and Hampshire in the south-west of England. The simple deception had worked beautifully.”
And in the early morning hours before the beach landings, aircraft dropped chaff – tin foil debris – at intervals off the coast of Calais. This was ‘Operation Glimmer’, the plan to have the few German radar installations deliberately left untouched by bombers pick up on this signal and interpret it as an approaching fleet.
500 men named ‘Rupert’ were also used – dummy men, that is – as fake paratroopers packed with explosives to simulate gun fire. These too were dropped over Calais.
The ruse evidently worked because the Germans were shocked to see thousands of ships off Normandy later that morning.
And at least one German soldier further inland seemed to think the whole thing was some kind of raid - like Dieppe, or perhaps some of the other raids that had taken place on the French coast:
“Private Lionel Roebuck of (the East Yorkshire Regiment) ran into an empty Daimler pillbox (strongpoints on Sword Beach having been named after cars or fish) and was confronted by a large picture of Hitler. Angry at ‘all the trouble that chap had caused us’, he smashed its glass with his rifle, then grabbed a couple of fountain pens from a desk and left.
“Seventy of Daimler’s defenders are being led away. One of them is trying to ingratiate himself with his captors by showing off his collection of pornography. Another shouts in perfect English, ‘This is only a raid, ay?’”
“The men of the East Yorkshires shout back in unison:
“’This is the invasion!’
“As on Juno and Gold, the men manning the bunkers are very happy to surrender. A captain from the Royal Artillery comes across four Germans with their suitcases already packed.”
The danger hadn’t passed quite yet though. According to Levine’s account, General Eisenhower had specifically asked British intelligence to give him two days (Macintyre says one) to get his men and all their reinforcements ashore at Normandy without major interference. (Mulberry harbours, constructed in secret, were towed in and assembled behind the invasion force to facilitate the movement ashore of additional men and material).
The Allies had evidently managed to convince German commanders – and, most importantly, Hitler - to keep most of their forces around Calais, but there had been fierce dispute over the placement of panzer divisions. These were their elite tank units, and, for his part, while Rommel too believed Calais would be the main target, he understood the importance of placing them strategically, and of not being over reliant on their mobility. He anticipated, correctly, that this would be severely limited by Allied aircraft once the invasion was in full swing.
According to Levine, the great danger came when OKW (the high command of the Wehrmacht - German armed forces) overruled Rommel’s objections about Calais and approved the move of 1 SS Panzer Division and another Panzer regiment to Normandy.
Again, it’s not clear that they could have got through Allied air attacks, nor all the obstacles caused by Allied bombers and the French resistance. But if they had done, the effect on Allied troops at Normandy could potentially have been catastrophic.
Garbo went to work, dispensing with the ordinarily precautionary approach advocated by Clarke and simply spoon-feeding the Germans instead:
“From the reports mentioned it is perfectly clear that the present attack (in Normandy) is a large-scale operation but diversionary in character for the purpose of establishing a strong bridgehead in order to draw the maximum of our reserves to the area of operation to retain them there so as to be able to strike a blow somewhere else with ensured success. I never like to give my opinion unless I have strong reasons to justify my assurances. Thus the fact that these concentrations (i.e. of troops in the fictitious army in and around Dover) which are in the east and south east of the island are now inactive means that they must be held in reserve to be employed in the other large-scale operations. The constant aerial bombardment which the area of the Pas de Calais has suffered and the strategic disposition of these forces give reason to suspect an attack in that region of France which at the same time offers the shortest route for the final objective… which is to say, Berlin.”
Garbo’s message wasn’t the only factor at play, but it was highly influential and the Germans chose not to send the panzers, or additional infantry, to Normandy.
In fact, the Germans were so invested in the cover story that they were still expecting an assault on Calais in July, the month after D-Day.
According to Levine, “General Wavell once asked Clarke, ‘What is your deception work worth to me?’ ‘On the evidence of captured documents,’ replied Clarke, ‘three divisions, one armoured brigade and two squadrons of aircraft’.”
By D-Day, it was worth a hell of a lot more than that.
As Jacob F Field notes in ‘D-Day in Numbers’, approximately 156,000 Allied soldiers made it ashore by the end of June 6, sustaining a relatively modest 10,000 casualties in the process (though Joshua Levine points out this is probably an underestimate.)
28,845 men stormed Sword Beach, sustaining 630 casualties; 21,400 went up Juno, for 1,200 casualties sustained; 24,970 charged Gold, with only 400 casualties; 20,000 men, and 1,700 motorised vehicles made it ashore at Utah with a mere 187 casualties taken. And at Omaha, there were 2,400 casualties, but 34,000 men made it ashore.
In addition to this total of 129,215, the remainder were mostly made up by the 13,348 men of the American 82 and 101 Divisions, 4,000 more in support flown in by glider and, according to the MoD, 8,500 British paratroopers. This may or may not have included Pathfinder teams – small paratroop units sent ahead to help establish drop zones. And elsewhere, 2,240 men of the SAS were dropped across the French coastline to disrupt the German response by launching raids and working with the French resistance. A fitting use for the brainchild Clarke co-parented.
In addition, 10,521 combat aircraft were flown over France on D-Day, with 113 of them being shot down. Allied air superiority was clearly achieved – these aircraft participated in 15,000 sorties (missions out from and back to base, with some aircraft obviously performing more than one sortie that day); the Germans only managed a measly 319 sorties.
The Allies dropped over 7 million pounds of bombs. Although that sounds less impressive when one considers that cloud cover prevented the vast majority of these from hitting their targets. One American B-17 Flying Fortress could carry 8,000 lb of bombs, and so 900 of them could have carried the day’s bomb load.
Though, of course, there were British bombers, so there wouldn’t have been that many B-17s, but this does demonstrate why so much air traffic that day was, in fact, bombers.
On June 5, there was actually a total of 15,766 aircraft ready to go in Britain – 5,049 fighters, 3,467 heavy and 1,645 light and medium bombers. This makes a total of 10,161 combat aircraft. The Forces Network contacted Field, who confirmed that the remaining 360 that performed combat duties on June 6 may simply have been non-combat aircraft seconded into combat roles.
6,939 ships were used to transport most of the invasion force to Normandy. Fully 4,126 of these were landing craft.
The BBC has said that over 12,000 vehicles and 1,500 tanks were brought ashore, though when fact checking, the D-Day Museum told the Forces Network this figure can only be a very rough estimate. Such was the chaos and confusion of D-Day.
Although annoying for journalists and historians, chaos and confusion was advantageous for spies, as Levine makes clear:
“Towards the end of August, (Garbo) wrote a letter to his handlers explaining why the invasion in the Pas de Calais had not happened… apparently… it had been delayed by the reorganization of (the fictitious south-east coast army) and ultimately prevented by the desire of both the British and the Americans to steal the inevitable glory. Montgomery was determined that his assault on Normandy should come to be remembered as the principal operation, while the Americans were desperate to restrict the scope of this assault so that their attack on the Pas de Calais would provide a spectacular end to the war. This manoeuvring had finally been won by Montgomery (and lost by his great rival Patton)… (and now) the two operations would combine into one large (one…)
“To anybody familiar with Montgomery’s reputation for intrigue and ambition, as the Germans undoubtedly were, this story was eminently believable. And on 30 August 1944, three days after he wrote his letter, (Garbo) finally brought Operation Fortitude to an end. In a wireless message to Madrid he passed on news from his American sub-agent: the plan to attack the Pas de Calais… had been finally and definitely cancelled.”
In fact, the Germans continued to believe in the deception after the war had ended – and with good reason:
“Fortitude and the Double Cross system remained tightly guarded secrets long after the end of the war. As late as 1970, J.C. Masterman was refused permission in the United Kingdom to publish his account (of the effort, and) ten years later, Margaret Thatcher refused to sanction publication of the official history of wartime strategic deception, written by Professor Sir Michael Howard.”
It is only since the 1990s that much of the relevant government material has been made public. That was too late for the Fortitude spies to gain wide public recognition.
Garbo moved to Venezuela after the war where he became a Spanish teacher and ran a bookshop, dying in 1988, though he at least was invited to meet the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace in 1984.
Dudley Clarke retired from the Army as a Brigadier and started a literary career, as well as working for the Conservative Party. He died in 1974. Tar Robertson, meanwhile, became a sheep farmer – he died in 1994.
Bronx moved to the South of France after the war and ran a gift shop. In 1995, the Director General of MI-5 got word that she’d run out of money and Bronx was given a cheque of £5,000 as, according to Macintyre, “a way of making the point that her wartime service (was) still remembered and appreciated”. She died shortly thereafter, aged 85. Brutus, meanwhile, remained in Britain after the war, becoming a printer and acquiring several cats (32, at one point.) He died in 1985 at the age of 75. Treasure moved to Detroit and lived, presumably happily ever after, surrounded by dogs.
Popov moved to France and married twice. His second wife and their sons were unaware of his past life as a spy until he published his memoirs in 1974. He died in 1981, aged 69, always wondering what had happened to his good friend Johnny Jebsen, who was last seen being taken away from Sachsenhausen concentration camp by the Gestapo in 1945.
Tar Robertson, Macintyre says, presumed he’d been caught up “in the last murderous spasms of the Nazi regime… and tossed into some unmarked mass grave”.
But then again, “perhaps he made good his escape (in) the chaos and confusion of those final days”, eager to avoid awkward questions from German authorities after the war about his questionable business activities during it.
Thus, although it’s reasonable to presume he was killed, his ultimate fate remains unknown.
For more on the other ‘unsung heroes’ of D-Day, click here; and visit the Forces Network's D-Day 75 page for more D-Day content.
For more about Bodyguard and Fortitude, read ‘Operation Fortitude’ by Joshua Levine and Ben Macintyre’s book (and the BBC documentary of the same name) ‘Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies’. And see ‘D-Day in Numbers’ by Jacob F Field and ‘D-Day: Minute by Minute’ by Jonathan Mayo for more on the Normandy landings.
Read ‘Tragedy at Dieppe’ by Mark Zuehlke and ‘Gallipoli 1915’ by Tim Travers for more on those operations.
For illustrated histories of events covered here, read Osprey Publishing's four-volume account, 'D-Day 1944 (1) Omaha Beach' and 'D-Day 1944 (2) Utah Beach & the US Airborne Landings’, both by Steven J Zaloga, 'D-Day 1944 (3) Sword Beach & The British Airborne Landings' and 'D-Day 1944 (4) Gold & Juno Beaches’, both by Ken Ford, as well as ‘Dieppe 1942’ by Ken Ford, ‘Gallipoli 1915’ by Philip Haythornthwaite and 'Pegasus Bridge' by Will Fowler. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history titles.
Thanks to the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth and Jacob F Field for help with fact checking.