Battlefield Deception

Battlefield Deception

Deception on the battlefield is integral for success in combat. The very basic form of deception can be seen in US Army battle drills. From the lowest tactical level, deception insures casualties are avoided for victory. Battle Drill 1/1A is taught at the platoon and squad level. One platoon/squad distracts an enemy force with suppression fire while another platoon/squad flanks the enemy force. On the strategic level, deception has been used throughout history for success on the battlefield.

One of the first military strategists to emphasize deception on the battlefield was the Chinese general Sun Tzu. In the west, Julius Caesar successfully used deception tactics against barbarian forces in Gaul. When facing Vercingetorix on the Allier River, Caesar tricked the barbarian forces into believing his forces remained at one end of the river. Camping overnight, Caesar left one-third of his force facing the barbarians, while the rest of his army moved downstream in the dark to cross the river catching the Gaul’s off guard, Caesar triumphed over Vercingetorix. Another common deception tactic on the battlefield was the feigned retreat. During the Battle of Hastings, a feigned retreat by Norman forces caused Anglo-Saxon lines to break, with the amateur fyrd forces taking after the Normans. With the shield wall broken, the Norman forces were able to overwhelm the Anglo-Saxons and achieve victory.

During the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington used deception tactics to defeat the Hessian forces in the Battle of Trenton. Using spies, Washington was able to convince the Hessian troops in Trenton that the colonial army was in tatters and posed no real threat to the garrison. Washington used this tactic to his advantage, as the Hessians were unprepared for the American assault. The British used similar tactics during the Second Boer War. Boer forces had laid siege to the town of Mafeking. The British were outnumbered eight-to-one, and would not be able to withstand an assault by the Boers. Col. Robert Baden-Powell devised a plan that involved sending a letter to a friend in Transvaal that stated a sizeable British force was marching to Mafeking to relieve the troops (no such force was imminent). Baden-Powell hoped the letter would fall into Boer hands (it did) and convince the Boers to divert forces to face the “ghost” relief force. The plan worked, and allowed the British to strengthen defenses in Mafeking to withstand the prolonged siege.

Some of the most famous deception campaigns occurred during World War II. The Allies devised deception landings throughout the Mediterranean and Norway (known as operations Fortitude, Zeppelin, Vendetta, and Ferdinand). These deceptions caused the Axis to divert men and resources to these regions that would be needed elsewhere in real landing operations. Prior to D-Day, the Allies convinced Germany that a landing was poised for Calais, and not the Normandy beaches. While the Germans still had considerable strength defending Normandy, important armor forces were kept near Calais to defend against the ghost invasion.

Look for more information regarding deception campaigns in World War II in the upcoming Strategy & Tactics issue #298 article “Balkan Gambit: The Invasions that Weren’t, 1943-1945”and join the conversation on Facebook!

About The Author

Kyle is a Military Historian and Senior Editor at Strategy & Tactics Press. A fourth-generation combat Veteran, Kyle retired from the United States Army in 2010. He specializes in military operations from 1945-Present and has written extensively regarding the future of asymmetrical warfare.

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