The year 2019 marked the 75th anniversary of the Allies’ D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe in World War II. I remember the 50th anniversary in 1994, which was a major celebration. Several Western leaders attended events at the Normandy beaches. (The German Chancellor wanted to attend too, but wasn’t invited.) Ten years earlier, as a young soldier, I participated in an Army ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day. (Ouch. Where does the time go?)
If you learn most of your history from Hollywood, a film that is almost a docu-drama about D-Day is The Longest Day. Filmed in black-and-white, this 1962 movie is not as gory as the reality but still relatively informative. (Incidentally, it was a young Sean Connery’s last film before he was cast as James Bond.) For a more realistic feel of battle, albeit still Hollywood, the first few minutes of Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan portrays the D-Day landings with plenty of blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
Operation Overlord, as the D-Day landings were codenamed, remains the largest amphibious operation in history. It also involved the largest military deception in history, Operation Bodyguard. The common story is that northern France has two regions where large-scale amphibious landings are most feasible: Pas-de-Calais, at the narrowest part of the English Channel, and Normandy, farther to the west. To deceive the Germans, the Anglo-American forces (British, Canadian, and American) created a phony invasion force opposite Pas-de-Calais — complete with phony tanks and fake artillery guns, many of them actually balloons but cleverly shaped; ordinary vehicles with wooden facades, making jeeps look like tanks; phony airplanes and runways; and entire camps housing almost nobody for real. This “buildup” was photographed by German reconnaissance planes. Since armies use radios, an enormous amount of phony radio chatter was also created, as if an actual army were preparing for battle across the Channel. When, on June 6, 1944, the Allies invaded not Pas-de-Calais but Normandy, the Germans deemed it all a distraction and held back some forces, expecting a later assault at Pas-de-Calais. It never came, while at Normandy the Allied forces managed to establish themselves and started advancing.
Or so the common story goes. In fact, Operation Bodyguard involved not one but several deceptions. The Pas-de-Calais deception was codenamed Fortitude-South. Meanwhile, Fortitude-North presented a phony invasion threat to Nazi-occupied Norway, involving yet more phony equipment and radio traffic. Operation Zeppelin threatened phony invasions of Nazi-occupied southern Europe, especially towards Greece and Romania. Additional deceptions included falsehoods fed to the Germans from Allied-controlled double agents. And a British actor disguised as British General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery publicly inspected troops in the Mediterranean, to encourage German worries about an invasion there.
Another piece of trivia: the Pas-de-Calais deception almost failed. Fake amphibious landing craft were moored in the harbor — but unlike real ships, they bobbed and bounced around like the flimsy decoys they really were. The Germans might have realized this had they photographed the “craft” more carefully. But they didn’t. And got suckered.
— John G. Heidenrich