“You play upon what you imagine the enemy will think.” – Taylor Downing on D-Day deception

Taylor Downing talks bizarre tales of intrigue, trickery and deception masterminded by Colonel David Strangeways during Operation Fortitude.

Featured image by Roger Viollet via Getty Images.

A portrait of Taylor Downing against a grey background, standing side on, wearing a dark suite and a light lilac shirt.
Author and historian Taylor Downing.

Taylor Downing is an historian, author and documentarian. Since establishing his production company, Flashback Television, in 1982, Downing has produced over 300 historical documentaries for global audiences. More recently, Downing has shifted his concentration to writing and has worked on several noteworthy books, including Spies in the Sky and 1983 – The World at the Brink.

Downing’s latest book, The Army That Never Was: D-Day and the Great Deception, covers the audacious schemes under Operation Fortitude, the misdirection and misinformation mission to confuse German defences during preparations for D-Day, the landings themselves and the broader Normandy campaign. In telling this fascinating story, Downing’s new research uncovers a previously hidden link between Operation Fortitude and the British film industry, as well as the eccentric individuals that played their role in the deception.

What was the First United States Army Group (FUSAG) and how did the Allies convince the Germans it was real?

David Strangeways created a new plan with two elements: Operations Fortitude South and Fortitude North. Fortitude South was the main element with several aspects to it. What I find the most extraordinary and entertaining is that they invented a complete army group: FUSAG. Strangeways devised a plan to pretend it was in the southeast of England and was planning a huge invasion across to the Pas de Calais. They needed to have a few real troops from the American Third Army and the Canadian Second Army reallocated to FUSAG to make it believable. Then they started inventing units, divisions and corps in different parts of the country. Finally, evidence was produced that thousands of men were training for the invasion via mass radio signals that would create the impression that a considerable army was gathering. 

Allied leadership decided they didn’t have enough landing craft or tanks to have two armies mobilising for an invasion. The real army, American, British and Canadians, were in the southwest of England in Devon and Dorset and needed the real equipment. So, they built dummy tanks, landing craft and aircraft for FUSAG. These were made by film industry professionals who were used to producing props, scenery and backdrops that looked good on camera. The whole purpose was when German reconnaissance aircraft came over to take photographs, the photo interpreters would think they were real. The tanks were made of rubber with a steel structure and were blown up by men with pumps and laid down in huge numbers. The landing crafts were made of canvas on a steel base and 30 feet wide (9 metres). 

A colour image of an inflatable tank in a field against a blue sky. A soldier and a jeep are behind.
An inflatable dummy tank modelled after the M4 Sherman used during Operation Fortitude.
(Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

When the dummies were completed, the deceivers asked RAF reconnaissance aircraft to fly over and photograph them. The photo interpreters at RAF Medmenham were asked how realistic they looked, but they came back and said they didn’t think it looked right. The photo interpreters said there wasn’t enough human presence around them. As a result, men were employed to go in every morning to boil kettles to produce steam and to hang up laundry on clothing lines. 

The actual Army gathering in the southwest for the real invasion of Normandy was surrounded by complete secrecy. Meanwhile, FUSAG in Kent, Essex and Suffolk was given a policy of discrete display, which I think is a lovely phrase to describe the fact that the Allied commanders would occasionally allow German reconnaissance aircraft to fly over. The whole point of the operation was that the deceivers wanted to be spotted. 

Why was the notorious and fiery General George S Patton chosen to command FUSAG?

First of all, Strangeways had to create an army and give it an appropriate number of men. Then, the deceivers created an exaggerated order of battle, backed up by dummy equipment. However, the master stroke in the deception planning was that FUSAG was given a commander who the Germans would think was the sort of man to lead the invasion. Allied command came up with General Patton. 

The infamous commander was in disgrace because he had hit some men in the Sicily campaign who were suffering from war trauma, telling them they were cowards and should get back to the front. After that, this dominant and lively figure was without a job and Dwight D Eisenhower appointed Patton as the commander of FUSAG. Patton was a tremendous showman, followed everywhere by a Jeep and photographers recording everything he did. He was constantly in the papers and very photogenic, always in immaculate uniform and standing ramrod straight. The Germans thought he was one of the best generals the Allies had, so they completely believed whatever army he commanded would lead an invasion. 

Patton stands and gestures during a speech. Behind him is a Union Flag.
Patton speaks at the Welcome Club for US Forces in Knutsford. His remarks were among the controversies he was embroiled in around when he became commander of FUSAG.
(Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

How did the Allies deceive the Germans that a FUSAG landing was planned at Pas de Calais?

Partly, it was about where FUSAG was assembling in the southeast of England with a direct crossing towards Calais and Boulogne. Second, the deceivers used double agents. From 1940 onwards, German intelligence sent agents into Britain to spy on what was happening. Each of them had been rounded up by MI5 and given a choice. Either they would be prosecuted as a traitor and executed or they could join British intelligence. Most agreed to work as double agents and were assigned MI5 handlers who would write reports to be sent to the Germans. 

The double agents were given some genuine information to have enough credibility to be believed by German intelligence: the Abwehr. Alongside these little snippets of genuine information, called chicken feed in the trade, there had to be lashings of trickery. This deception reported a buildup of forces in the southeast of England. The double agents were sending evidence like cuttings from newspapers of King George VI and Patton inspecting troops to prove that a large army would be attacking the Pas de Calais. 

Related: Secret Papers Reveal the Spy Who Tricked Nazi Sympathisers

What posed the greatest risks to discovery for FUSAG?

The whole thing was a high-risk activity. Deception only works when you play upon what you imagine the enemy will think. Had the Allies come up with a bizarre and unexpected sort of notion, the Germans would have thought that can’t be right. However, the Germans had the 15th Army and the strongly defended Atlantic Wall. Stretches of these massive structures remain on the northeast French Coast. The Germans thought this would likely be a place for the invasion, and the deception plan had to convince them they were right.

All sorts of things could have gone wrong. The Germans could have seen through some of the double agents’ reports if they had been more analytical in their approach and not so willing to believe what they were being told. It also would have been disastrous had the Luftwaffe managed to fly over and identify that the FUSAG tanks, planes and landing dummies were dummies. The main problem with the landing craft was if the wind blew while they were on water they tended to blow over. 

Had a German aircraft come over at that moment and seen men desperately trying to right these dummy landing craft, it would have given the whole game away. So the deceivers brought in a whole battalion and trained them to quickly right the dummies. There is even a story of one incident where a bull charged at one of the dummy tanks in the field and its horns pierced and deflated it within seconds. Had the Germans caught the deceivers at any point, had one photograph revealed the fabrication, the whole phoney campaign would have collapsed. 

Three men pour over papers in a Bletchley Park office.
Messages intercepted at Bletchley Park meant the Allies could immediately gauge if their deceptions had been successful.
(Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Related: Stella Rutter, the woman who hosted a party on the eve of D-Day

Visit Taylor’s website to learn more about his work. To read our full interview, pick up issue 133 of History of War.