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Operation Fortitude

General George S Patton
General George S Patton (United States Public Domain)

D-Day arrived at 6:30 AM on June 6, 1944. Finally. What the Western world had been waiting anxiously for, the liberation of Nazi-held Europe after 5 years of occupation. The Allied Expeditionary Force commanded by General Dwight D Eisenhower hit the Normandy beaches of France at 5 key areas…codenames of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. All told, 160,000 men, 5000 ships, 2300 individual landing craft and 13,000 support aircraft were involved in the largest amphibious invasion force in the history of mankind. By day’s end, they had secured the beaches, although Omaha had been in doubt for a number of hours.

The Germans were caught off-guard. Well…sort of.  This Normandy attack was only a diversion, so their High Command thought. As a result, they left Normandy weakly-defended. And why did they do that? Because the Allies had put together an  elaborate scheme many months before that had completely fooled Adolf Hitler and his advisors  into thinking that the real attack was still coming farther north at Calais, France. In particular, it was done to hold the deadly panzer divisions of the 15th Army away from Normandy as long as possible. Without this well-executed plan--codenamed Operation Fortitude--and US General George Patton’s enthusiastic participation in it, the Allies may well have been driven back at Normandy that historical morning of  June 6, 1944. Perhaps even annihilated.

The Germans had a ton of respect for Lieutenant-General  George S Patton Jr,  the man Adolf Hitler called the “Cowboy General.”  They believed  the unpredictable and daring Patton would lead the Allied forces  in the coming invasion of Northern Europe. Sporting 2 custom-made, ivory-handled revolvers on his hips like an OK Corral gunfighter, Patton  was a ham, to say the least. To the American Press, he was “Ol Blood and Guts.”  To his friends, he was George or Georgie. He was arrogant. He was a dashing.  But  he was a winner. And an efficient tank commander.

Born in 1885 to a well-to-do family of military significance (his grandfather was a Civil War Confederate general), Patton entered World War II combat by leading his US troops into the Mediterranean Theatre by attacking Casablanca during the North African Campaign. Shortly after leading his 7th Army in the invasion of Sicily, he put himself in Eisenhower’s doghouse by slapping out 2 American soldiers, supposedly for cowardice. Relieved of  command in early 1944 for his actions, he was whisked away to England under great secrecy for his next assignment…commanding officer of the United States First Army Group. In short, FUSAG. This army was reported to be as large as 50 divisions. In actual fact, only a few thousand were simulating the work of a million men.  FUSAG was one big fraud, the Allied version of the Trojan Horse of ancient Troy fame.

Patton’s fictitious army was part of a much greater scheme that fell under the umbrella of Operation Fortitude, which was divided into 2 parts. North and South sections. Fortitude North was called “Syke,” a paper army stationed in Scotland—the British 4th Army—that sent phony messages across the British Isles from fake divisions, ordering specific items necessary for an invasion of Norway, such as snow equipment and ski boots. When German monitors intercepted these messages and word got back to Berlin, Hitler kept 27 divisions entrenched in Norway for a possible North Sea crossing. Fortitude South, or “Quicksilver,” involved Patton and FUSAG.

Patton was the key to making Quicksilver work. Disappointed at first of his phantom army assignment, especially when told that he would not be involved at all in the D-Day landings, he quickly realized how important his new mission as a decoy was. He took the job on with everything he had. On several occasions, he toured the East Anglia section of England where his troops were reported to be stationed. The press loved him and wrote often of his movements around the country. One time, in a crowded London hotel lobby that spring of 1944, Patton joked with his army people and the press. Upon leaving through the front door, he bellowed, “See you in Calais.”

Meanwhile, across the country, things were happening with earnest to make the Germans believe that the Allies were coming across the English Channel at the shortest route...Dover to Calais. Only 22 miles. Besides being the shortest route, Calais seemed the most logical of Allied targets. It was an excellent seaport and it marked the path to the heartland of industrial Germany, the Ruhr Valley. Also, it was in easy range of Allied air cover.  The destructive German V-1 Flying Bombs were coming out of Calais, an Allied target for sure. In addition, Calais made sense to the Germans because FUSAG was supposed to be stationed near Dover. To the north, in East Anglia, a huge concentration of fighters, bombers, and gliders were being assembled in several open fields, closely-guarded and away from prying eyes. Overhead, at 30,000 feet, German Luftwaffe reconnaissance planes were snapping pictures of these 9th Air Force aircraft, the reported air support for the Calais invasion. But up close, these same  fighters, bombers, and gliders were only wood and canvas mock-ups. If the Germans had flown lower, they would have picked up on the charade. The fact was, any plane that did fly lower was shot down. The pilots who flew higher were left free to snap away with their belly cameras because the anti-aircraft gunners in East Anglia were given a strange order: “Don’t hit them. Just get close enough.” Not far away, American Army engineers, with the aid of compressed air and long hoses, were inflating huge piles of rubber that, within minutes, took the form of M-4 Sherman Tanks. More targets for Luftwaffe recon aircraft to photograph as real. 

Other Allied ruses were a giant oil depot  and docking area at Dover, complete with pipelines, storage tanks, truck bays, troop barracks and anti-aircraft guns. The Allies made certain that the  British press reported visits to the site by British General Bernard Montgomery and King George VI. Wireless traffic between points in East Anglia and Dover would come to life, then after several days…complete radio silence to simulate a dress rehearsal of an amphibious operation. One signal was: “The Fifth Queen’s  Royal Regiment report a number of civilian women, presumably unauthorized, in the baggage train. What are we going to do—take them to Calais?” Allied agents in the neutral countries of Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, and Sweden were buying up every Michelin map of the Pas-de-Calais region, something that German agents in those countries took note of and reported to the top dogs in Berlin. By late-May, the Allies continued the hoax by bombing the German defenses at Calais day after day to fake a prelude to invasion. They also bombed Normandy, but the ratio was two bombs at Calais for every one bomb at Normandy.

Also, British intelligence that spring went to work, in particular MI-5, and its special branch called the XX Committee. The Germans failed to realize that every spy they had sent to England since the war had started had been captured by the English within hours of landing. The XX Committee, the double-cross organization, gave the captured spies one of 2 options, either work for the British and send back British-controlled wireless information or get hung. Most gave in and helped the English. By the end of May, about 100 German spies were under MI-5 control. The coded messages sent back to Germany spoke of huge armies mobilizing in Scotland and East Anglia, the latter which the Germans were now calling Armeegruppe Patton.

The greatest hoax of all was the weather. The wind and rain was so bad over the English Channel in early June that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander in chief of Army Group B, left France for his home in Germany to be with his wife to celebrate her birthday. He was convinced that the Allies wouldn’t dare cross in such horrific conditions. Other high-ranking Germans were also away from their coastal posts.

Then, in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, the real invasion was in its first phase when over 20,000 British and American paratroopers were dropped behind the Normandy lines to secure bridges and roads. To disguise this, the Allies sent wave after wave of bombers to Calais to soften the defenses. Also, 2  small groups of balloon-carrying motor boats were launched in the direction of Calais, each carrying two 30-foot reflectors that together produced a radar image resembling a 10,000-ton troop transport. In addition, RAF bombers dropped aluminum strips to confuse German radar, creating the illusion of a large invasion force forming off Dover. While the Allies hit Normandy at 6:30 AM on a 60-mile front, the Germans twiddled their thumbs and waited for the much heavier blow at Calais.

In 2005, I met a Burlington resident who was involved in the D-Day landings. With the  Royal Canadian Navy, he was in a small gunboat, just offshore from Juno, the Canadian beach on that June 6. He never set foot on France that day or anytime during the war.  I asked him what he remembered about D-Day. “A whole lot of noise!” he replied. “The big shells came over top of us from the battleships behind us and the concussion would just shake our little craft. My head was buzzing for the next 2 days!”

The crack German 15th Army, under direct control of Adolf Hitler, remained at Calais for those crucial days following June 6 as the Allies gained a foothold on the continent. German intelligence confirmed that Patton had not taken part in the Normandy landings, leaving Hitler to believe that Patton was still coming at Calais, exactly what the Allies wanted Hitler to believe. It took weeks for his generals to finally convince their stubborn leader that Normandy was the real thing. By the time the mighty 3 panzer divisions of the 15Th Army were unleashed at Calais to head south, the Allies had already landed more than a million tons of supplies, a million men, and over 300,000 vehicles.

It was a good thing that one or 2 high-ranking generals did not have the fortitude (now there’s a pun) to stand up to Hitler. If possible, I could just imagine the conversation at Hitler’s headquarters between Hitler and a subordinate general  a week or so after D-Day…

“Ah…mein Fuehrer? “Yes, what is it!” “Please don’t take this the wrong way. ” “Don’t take WHAT the wrong way? Speak up, you fool!” “When are you going to get it through your thick skull that Patton is not coming to Calais!” Alas, no German officer had the stones to tell Hitler in such a manner that they had all been duped.

By August, Patton finally did set foot on French soil. But not with his phony FUSAG. It was with his brand, spanking new 3rd Army, a force to be reckoned with. A real army. The race was on for Berlin, with the Russians closing in from the east. In less than a year, the war in Europe was over. Without Operation Fortitude, it would have lasted much longer, and would have cost a lot more lives...on both sides.

FYI (1): During the 1970s, some World War II secrets were released to the public. It was then that we started to hear about the D-Day deception tactics used by the Allies, including Operation Fortitude. Welsh writer Ken Follett picked up on this and wrote Eye of the Needle, a brilliantly-conceived story about a German spy in England who uncovered the truth behind Patton’s phony army. While on the run from MI-5, the spy then attempted to get word back to Berlin. First published in 1978, Eye of the Needle  sold 3 million copies by the time a movie version of it came out in 1981, starring Canadian actors Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. A good read and a good watch.

FYI (2): Another good watch--NO, a great watch!—is the movie, Patton, starring George C Scott as General Patton. Too bad his movie involvement in Operation Fortitude is skimmed over quickly. However, the opening scene is outstanding, where he delivers a speech with a huge American flag behind him as a backdrop. By the way, the real Patton’s voice was not as gruff as Scott’s. It was higher pitched. Also, one of Patton’s actual speeches can be found on Youtube.


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