Military deception is an age old tactic. Since we harnessed fire and sharpened sticks, one group has always tried to find a method of deceiving the other to turn the tide of warfare in their favor. Types of deception can come under different categories. The “fog of war” (from the German Nebel des Krieges- the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. The term seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability, adversary capability, and adversary intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign. Military forces try to reduce the fog of war through military intelligence. The term is also used to define uncertainty mechanics in wargames. is defined as the uncertainty in situational awareness. In short:
“The state of ignorance in which commanders frequently find themselves as regards the real strength and position, not only of their foes, but also of their friends.”
There is also information warfare, which can include spreading propaganda, disinformation, and undermining the enemy in an attempt to demoralize them.
One of the most famous works on warfare is, of course, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which no doubt rests on every general’s nightstand. The military general/philosopher also would have been a great fan of the Greeks, who used a Trojan Horse to sneak into the city of Troy. Several other types of tactics include: the “feigned retreat,” leading the enemy into an ambush; “fictional units,” which is basically making up forces; “smoke screen,” literally harnessing fog or smoke; and “strategic envelopment,” favored by Napoleon, where one small unit would distract enemy forces so the larger force could approach from the rear.
Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1773), inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid
World War I
World War I was the first real test of deception on such a large scale. War was not simply a one country affair, but giant, region-spanning endeavors that required a lot of planning. The fact that units had different commanders as well as the diversity of troops, meant that deception was hit and miss. While deception somewhat declined, it soon became the jobs of higher-ups to plan and execute.
However, one notable example did arise on September 1918, before the Battle of Megiddo. The Egyptian Expeditionary Force, commanded by General Edmund Allenby, successfully hid the three cavalry divisions’ movements from the eastern end of the front line to the western end on the Mediterranean Sea. They had moved under the cover of night, through olive and orange grove while the rest of their garrison stood watch so that it appeared the area was still staffed.
The way they were able to deceive enemy troops so successfully was also because they built a bridge in the Jordan Valley. Troops could be marched in during the day, then taken out at night. Their tents were left standing, staffed by 142 fires and 15,000 dummy horses. Their “fog of war” was created by having a mule drag branches up and down the valley, creating a thick cloud of dust. Moreover, Allenby’s troops gave out huge amounts of false information.
Thanks to their efforts, German and Ottoman aircraft could not conduct reliable reconnaissance, which remained the domain of British and Australian forces.
World War II—Maskirovka
– Early usage: Red Army soldiers in winter camouflage near Moscow, December 1941.
One of the most famous terms for military deception is the Soviet military doctrine of Maskirovka (masking), which was developed in the 1920s. This doctrine includes numerous forms of military deception, from camouflage to denial and deception. The 1944 Soviet Military Encyclopedia offers the definition of:
“A means of securing combat operations and the daily activities of forces; a complexity of measures, directed to mislead the enemy regarding the presence and disposition of forces…”
Some of the examples of these tactics took place in the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and Operation Bagration (in Belarus). The element of surprise was achieved despite a very large concentration of forces, both for attack and defense.
Russian armor concealed in the Battle of Kursk, 1943
In the Battle of Kursk, Maskirovka enabled Soviet troopers to convince German opposition in attacking a force four times larger than they anticipated. The Soviets were able to mask defensive positions and troop dispositions, which helped moving men and materials. They camouflaged gun emplacements, constructed dummy airfields and depots, generated false radio-traffic, and spread rumors among Soviet troops on the frontline as well as the civilian populace in German-held areas.
Soviet troops only moved supplies at night, and ammunition caches were well concealed to blend in with the landscape. They forbid radio transmissions and fires, and hid command posts. This caused German forces to attack dummy airfields, and Soviets managed to destroy over 500 Luftwaffe aircraft on the ground.
World War II—“A” Force
– Photo: Colonel Dudley Clarke, Cross-Dressing British War Hero in a mission, he dressed like a woman.
Western Allies also employed their own style of deception. Dudley Clarke’s ‘A’ Force played a large part in forming Britain’s deception tactics. In Cairo, Clarke was tasked with creating a regional department for MI9, which was established to help Allied servicemen in escape and evasion tactics.
In January 1941, Clarke started ‘Operation Abeam.’ He was to fabricate the existence of a British paratrooper regiment in the region, playing into Italian forces’ fears of an airborne assault. By using faked documents, photographs and reports—leaked to the Italians—he created the fictional 1st Special Air Service Brigade. Clarke also sent two offices dressed in “1st SAS Brigade” uniforms around Cairo, to hint at missions in Crete or Lybia.
– Photo: The Special Air Service in North Africa DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR : A close-up of a heavily armed patrol of ‘L’ Detachment SAS in their Jeeps, just back from a three month patrol. The crews of the jeeps are all wearing ‘Arab-style’ headdress, as copied from the Long Range Desert Group. Date 18 January 1943 (Keating (Capt) No 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit)
To further supplement the unit, Clarke had come up with a new plan in order to hide “Operation Cordite,” the 6th Infantry Invasion of Rhodes. Using the name ‘A’ Force for the operation, the unit soon became a real thing, in charge of deception tactics in the area.
However, Clarke’s SAS unit ended up creating another legacy. In 1941, David Stirling, an injured 8 Commando (a unit compromised of elite British commandos), wished to create a Special forces group. This would be a small team of soldiers that would operate behind enemy lines. The unit would later involve to become the modern-day Special Air Service. Therefore, Clarke helped to create three famous military units. Not bad.