Churchill’s Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914-1945 – Nicholas Rankin

During peacetime, the British generally like to think of themselves as being the bastions of fair play – anything else just wouldn’t be cricket! Isn’t it strange therefore how things change when a state of war exists? There is little doubt that warfare has changed over the last century – I would say “evolved” but at the end of the day it’s still the same thing. The techniques of misdirection and the deception of your enemy have developed at a similar pace to that of the technology of blowing your opponent into small pieces. Nicholas Rankin’s book provides us with a fascinating insight into some of the most ingenious – and bizarre – solutions that the British came up with in the first half of the 20th century in order to prevent the other side from knowing what they were up to. With a career spanning both World Wars, Winston Churchill lay behind the drive to deceive, and Rankine separates the techniques and characters involved (some of whom were involved in both conflicts) into two separate parts of the book.

The concept of camouflage really came during World War One about as a result of the increased use of two new inventions – the aeroplane and the camera. Aerial reconnaissance provided the huge gun batteries on either side with accurate targeting information. Indeed, the word “camouflage” (coming from the French verb “camoufler”) only entered the general British vocabulary as a result of the work of artists such as Solomon J Solomon. Solomon had argued that nature provided the answer to aerial reconnaissance in that many animals managed to blend into their surroundings to avoid predators. The British army would develop this idea to conceal on every scale – from a single man sniping or spotting in a fake tree, to manufacturing huge sheets of camouflage material to cover significant areas.

Whilst in some theatres it was practicable to attempt to hide your position, it was virtually impossible to hide a battleship in open water, which was becoming increasingly patrolled by another technical innovation – the U-Boat. Because a suitably efficient method of dealing with U-Boats had yet to be devised, the idea the British came up with was radical. Rather than using camouflage to try and hide the vessel, they would be painted in “dazzle” camouflage. The random patterns of differently coloured shapes were so designed that although a U-Boat captain could easily see the vessel, he would be unable to distinguish the bow from the stern and, not knowing in which direction a vessel might be turning would find it extremely difficult to fire his torpedoes with any degree of accuracy

But deception wasn’t all about camouflage. The evacuation of the Dardanelles and guerrilla warfare in the Middle East (involving a certain T. E. Lawrence), both relied on making the enemy think something else was happening when in fact the opposite was true. And this becomes more and more apparent in the latter half of the book, where commandos, double agents, propaganda and psychological operations, code breaking and fake (so called “notional”) armies play a greater part in misdirecting the Germans than perhaps they did in World War One. The methods used to deceive the enemy during World War Two played on the technology available at the time, and often entire communities would be involved in the deception – very much in the “British spirit”.

Many of the characters involved in this extremely well put together story perhaps don’t receive the level of attention they deserve from popular historians. Rankine certainly concentrates on two such characters – Douglas Clarke and Juan Pujol Garcia. Clarke was without doubt one of the greatest protagonists of deception the British had ever produced. It was Clarke’s genius who was behind the inception of the Commandos, and throughout his career he conjured up more and more spectacular methods of misdirecting the Germans. Juan Pujol Garcia was perhaps the most successful of all double agents in World War Two. Codenamed by the Allies “Garbo”, his duplicity was so convincing that the Germans even awarded him the Iron Cross – for having led a spy ring in England that was in fact entirely fictitious! It was one of the messages “Garbo” sent the Germans that convinced Hitler to hold back 19 divisions at Calais, claiming that the Normandy Invasion was in fact a diversion for the real attack which would take place further up the coast.

Without men like this, there is little doubt that World War Two would have continued for longer. And it just goes to show that the British can be as conniving and as devious as the next man, all the time retaining the air of sportsmanship!

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling is the Editor of The History Herald. He has a keen interest in Second World War and Cold War history, and with a great grandfather who was killed during the Battle of the Somme, he also has a fascination with First World War history.

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