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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Operation Fortitude’

- - Tuesday, March 13, 2012

OPERATION FORTITUDE: THE STORY OF THE SPIES AND THE SPY OPERATION THAT SAVED D-DAY
By Joshua Levine
Lyons Press, $24.95, 268 pages

"Operation Fortitude" is nonfiction, the story of how British intelligence gulled the German high command into believing little ruses with what they called "chickenfood" and a turkey of a lie that crucially helped win the war.

Joshua Levine relates the smoke-and-mirrors of Britain's clandestine operations during World War II in a laugh-out-loud narrative. In part that's because his chosen facet of the war was an illusory one. Magicians and actors, like David Niven, played their parts. The Brits marshaled armored divisions of cardboard tanks and invasion barges made of canvas for the benefit of enemy reconnaissance planes (that no longer flew). The Allies conned the Germans behind their "Atlantic Wall" with paratroop drops that were nothing more than clouds of tinfoil.

Mr. Levine's cast of historical characters includes Ian Fleming whose later invention, the licensed-to-kill heartthrob James Bond, would trump a villain in "Casino Royale" with an actual gambling gambit that a real British spy pulled off in Monte Carlo. This is the theater of war in which perceived reality was king, where many characters were utterly unreal, while others strode across the stage in disguise.

Not that the author is playing it all for laughs (or revealing much that's new). Rather, some of his raw material is type-cast for slapstick with a stiff-upper-lipped personage named Maj. Gosling, and a controller named Masterman, and a mastermind named Strangeways. It's hardly surprising that one spymaster makes an appearance in drag.

Lt. Col. Dudley Wrangel Clarke, who had first sold His Majesty's military on commandos and lightning-raid tactics, became a master of deception, some of it inexplicable. While passing bogus intelligence to a German attache in Madrid, he got collared by Spanish police.

"His arrest alarmed the British authorities - but his state of dress positively bewildered them," Mr. Levine writes. Clarke "was dressed as a woman complete with brassiere," his makeup fresh, his flowered frock accessorized with pearls, clutch purse and heels. "Was this part of a more complicated story? Or was the get-up not work-related at all? To this day nobody quite knows," although an arrest photo backs up the anecdote.

Clarke played a larger role than buffo dragster. A somewhat detached gentleman, with the "uncanny habit of suddenly appearing in a room without anyone having noticed him enter it," he contrived what Mr. Levine calls a "comprehensive system of strategic deception." He boggled the enemy with salvos of information that included facts, falsehoods, realities, decoys, "chickenfood" and whole-cloth hokum in unequal measure.

Whatever his wardrobe, Clarke was a creative genius who realized that simply selling a ruse was not enough; winning a war meant playing with the enemy's head. When Italy was an Axis power in North Africa, he invented a fake airborne brigade whose "presence" scared off Il Duce's commanders. In withdrawing from the fake threat, Italian soldiers found themselves facing real invaders at another location.

This confirmed Clarke's first rule of strategic deception: Feed your adversary information not to make him think but to make him do what you want him to do; define the response you want from him, then poke, bludgeon, tickle and/or seduce him into choosing that course of action. Next rule: feed him information from many sources; let him think he's sorting things out himself.

In the case of the book's title feint, "Operation Fortitude," the strategic goal was to keep dreaded Panzer divisions out of the fight around Normandy at least until our D-Day invaders had secured the beachhead. This meant selling the idea that the landings at Normandy were a diversion and the "real" invasion was coming at Calais, 200 miles away.

Thus was launched an astonishingly complex array of deceptions, many of then proffered by double agents in Britain's years-old Double Cross network. Some ruses were overlooked by the Germans and some were never seen (because the Luftwaffe could no longer fly over England). The aggregate result: Hitler held back his Panzers. In sum Fortitude contributed crucially to the success of the Allied invasion of France and the Nazi's defeat. The rest, as they say, is history.

What might have been but for Operation Fortitude? Mr. Levine argues the Allies would have won eventually but at greater cost or more conditionally. As it was, the Atlantic Wall crumbled before the mightiest invasion in history. Nazi Germany fell sooner than later, in part because a few intelligence professionals joined forces with a motley crew of brave adventurers, delusional egotists, true believers, genuine heroes and certified nuts. As one said, "We were complete amateurs ... not much more than overgrown schoolboys playing games of derring-do."

Philip Kopper is the publisher of Posterity Press.