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January 16, 2012

A Bodyguard of Lies: Secrets, sleights of hand and deceptions in wartime

by quaesitor
Bletchley Park views-2

Churchill famously declared during the Second World War that the “Truth is so precious that she must often be attended by a bodyguard of lies” – and the British military effort entailed the largest and most complex exploitation of deception  in warfare to date. This involved the twin arms of message interception and code breaking (through the extraordinary work of Bletchley Park in particular), and the use of all kinds of deception tactics (including the use of double agents and entirely fictitious battalions preparing to invade the Pas de Calais around the time of D Day’s Normandy landings).

It raises all kinds of questions about the morality of truth – and yet it seems a pragmatic necessity in wartime, if it can be pulled off.

This has been much in mind this weekend, as I’ve been exploring this element of conspiracies. I’ve particularly enjoyed Joshua Levine’s Operation Fortitude and Sinclair McKay’s The Secret Life of Bletchley Park. What’s more, Joshua and I had a few free hours while the girls were doing other things on Saturday – and we got the train up to Bletchley to have a look around the Code-breaking museum. A fantastic day out. The highlight (apart from the chance to soak up a bit of the atmosphere of the place on what was a perfectly clear, crisp winter’s day despite the place looking rather the worse for ware and in need of further finance) was to be able to wander in Hut 8 – and to see Alan Turing and then Hugh Alexander’s office as they oversaw some of the most important code breaking efforts of the war.

Here are a few snaps (more in the Flickr set here)

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This was all in mind as I came to an hilarious moment early on in the war, which provided an important lesson for the Operation Fortitude Planners.

Physical deception was the element of the deception on which least emphasis was placed. In older versions of the plan [of Operation Fortitude] this had not been so. The movement of real troops and the building of fake camps had been envisaged on a sizeable scale, along with widespread displays of dummy tanks and aeroplanes. [Major David] Strangeways had stripped his plan of most of thee elements. Partly this reflected a lack of resources, for if the work had to be compromised, or if the preparation necessary was too elaborate, the deception risked being revealed. An example of this had occurred earlier in the war in Holland when the Germans built a full-scale replica of an airfield out of wood. It proved so painstaking to put together that Allied intelligence was able to observe its construction and note its completion. The next day a British aircraft flew overhead and dropped a single wooden bomb onto it. (Operation Fortitude, p232)

Whether the recipients of this wooden ‘bomb’ saw the funny side of this history doesn’t relate. But I hope so.

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