When an eccentric genius called Geoffrey Pyke proposed constructing unsinkable aircraft carriers or freighters from enormous icebergs, Churchill ordered him to proceed – no idea that could conceivably help the Allies to win the war was too outlandish for this Prime Minister. Pyke’s team of scientists invented a kind of super-ice, made by mixing in 4 per cent cotton wool or wood pulp to a slurry of freezing water, making an incredibly tough substance that melted very slowly which was called in Pyke’s honour ‘pykrete’.
Pykrete became an exhibit at the Quebec conference of August 1943 at which the Allied leadership discussed the plan for the final liberation of Europe, operation OVERLORD. Churchill had crossed the Atlantic on his way to the conference on one of the world’s largest liners, the Queen Mary, which weighed 86,000 tons; but Pyke was proposing something even bigger, a 600-metre long, self-refrigerating aircraft carrier made from Pykrete, to be called Habbakuk, which would weigh more than two million tons and could carry and launch 200 aeroplanes. You could use it to invade Japan! Pyke was already building a prototype on a lake in Ontario.
Admiral Louis Mountbatten, the head of Combined Operations, used showmanship to demonstrate the power of Pykrete to the Americans. Two cold blocks were produced, one of ice, one of Pykrete, and burly General ‘Hap’ Arnold of the US Army Air Corps was invited to demolish each with an axe. Arnold shattered the brittle ice with a mighty blow. Then it was the Pykrete’s turn: but the American general howled with pain as the axe-head jarred off the Pykrete, leaving the block intact. Mountbatten then drew a pistol and finished off the ice, but once again the Pykrete stood firm and a spent bullet ricocheted uselessly off it, narrowly missing a senior RAF officer. Churchill roared with laughter. The demonstration was a propaganda triumph, though in the event Pykrete was never used.
Churchill had come to Quebec to put on a brave show, and he was flanked by two fire-eating British warriors who he hoped would impress the Americans as much as the Pykrete had: the handsome and much-decorated air ace Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, DSO and bar, DFC and bar, famous for the ‘Dambusters’ raid, and Brigadier Orde Wingate, ferocious leader of Patriot guerrillas in Abyssinia and now of bearded Chindits in the Burmese jungle.
The main item on the agenda was the forthcoming attack on what the Germans called Festung Europa, Fortress Europe. Where was the best place to enter the Continent if you were setting off from the UK? There were several options, but the American and British team led by Lieutenant General Frederick Morgan, called Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander or COSSAC, charged with planning OVERLORD, had actually decided on Normandy. Yet Normandy’s fifty miles of beaches did not seem suitable for a massive invasion. The swirling currents and the daunting difference between low and high tides (up to 21 feet or 6.4 metres) made unloading heavy gear on sandy beaches implausible. Conventional wisdom said you required a proper deep-water harbour with wharves and cranes to disembark the 50-ton tanks, huge guns, and great pallets of stores necessary for an invasion. Hence the raid on Dieppe on 19 August 1942 – a trial run at seizing a port.
But the bold and imaginative answer that so appealed to Churchill was huge floating harbours. He had been thinking about this idea since July 1917, when he imagined a way of seizing two Frisian islands from a moveable atoll of concrete. In May 1942, he had written a note to Mountbatten: ‘Piers for use on beaches. They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution worked out. Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.’ On board the Queen Mary, on6 August 1943, there was a scientific demonstration in a bathroom by Professor J. D. Bernal, one of Mountbatten’s physicist boffins, who put a fleet of twenty paper boats at one end of a half-filled bath. At the other end, a naval lieutenant made waves with a loofah. The paper boats were swamped and sank. Then Bernal put more folded newspaper boats into the bath, but surrounded them with an inflated Mae West lifejacket. The lieutenant made vigorous waves, and this time the boats did not sink. ‘That, gentlemen,’ said Bernal, ‘is what would happen if we had an artificial harbour.’
A fortnight later, the Quebec Conference approved the concept of two artificial harbours – one British and one American, code-named ‘Mulberries’, and said they should be constructed and fully operational two weeks after D-Day. The Quebec Conference also approved the outline OVERLORD plan. The team were told to plan in more detail for an assault by three divisions and three airborne brigades. A section called Ops (B) was set up to prepare ‘an elaborate camouflage and deception scheme’, but there was only one officer working on it.
At the next Allied Conference, held in Teheran from 28 November to 1 December 1943, Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill concerted their ‘plans for the destruction of the German forces’. The American and British Allies promised to leave the Balkans alone but agreed to help relieve the pressure on Russia by opening ‘the Second Front’ in May 1944, invading northern France in operation OVERLORD and southern France in operation anvil (which in the event got delayed). Stalin agreed to coordinate his big push on the Eastern Front with the Allied attack in the west, and all agreed on the need for a deception plan.
By now, the Wavell/Clarke thesis that major operations should have a cover plan, if practical and useful, was taken for granted. The Soviets believed in military deception, which they called maskirovna. An American deceiver later sent to Moscow to coordinate OVERLORD deception plans with the Russians was talking to a Russian deceiver when the subject of the media came up. When the American said that in a democracy you could not use the press to fool your own people, the Russian shrugged, ‘Oh well, we do it all the time.’ It was at Teheran that Churchill said to Stalin, ‘In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies,’ and Stalin replied, ‘This is what we call military cunning.’
On 6 December John Bevan of LCS was brought in to work up the strategic deception plan for OVERLORD, and gave it a new name, BODYGUARD, in a nod to the Prime Minister’s observation. Strategically, it aimed to make the Germans dispose their forces in the wrong places – in the Balkans, in northern Italy, in Norway and Denmark, anywhere but northern France. Later, the operational challenge would be to deceive the Germans about exactly when, where and in what strength the invasion was coming. This part of the deception plan would evolve down an endless series of forking paths as executive control shifted.
Dwight Eisenhower was given command of OVERLORD (‘Over Lord and Under Ike’ was the joke) and he took up his responsibility in January 1944, when what had been COSSAC became SHAEF, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. Eisenhower brought his own chief of staff, Walter Bedell Smith, with him, so Frederick Morgan became his deputy. The Ops (B) or deception side of COSSAC expanded as bigger fish started to arrive at SHAEF. Dudley Clarke’s deputy in ‘A’ Force, Colonel Noel Wild, arrived from Tunis to take over, and also became the SHAEF member on the Double Cross Committee. Major Roger Hesketh of SHAEF intelligence worked closely with Tar Robertson and the other officers in MI5’s Section B1A which controlled the double agents. Hesketh and Wild were also in close touch with John Bevan and others at LCS. Deception was a small club in an old boys’ network; the official historian Michael Howard described them as ‘a handful of men who knew each other intimately and cut corners’.
The British made sure that they retained executive control over the crucial Channel-crossing and landing part of OVERLORD, the actual D-Day invasion, code-named NEPTUNE. Allied air forces and navies were both under British control. The temporary commander of all the Allied ground forces for NEPTUNE was Montgomery. He and his chief of staff Freddie de Guingand set up their own deception staff, called G (R), modelled on Clarke’s ‘A’ force which had helped Eighth Army so much in the desert. The man in charge of this was David Strangeways, the ‘A’ Force Tactical HQ commander who had led the successful surprise raid into Tunis to seize German intelligence materials, and who was probably Clarke’s best pupil for ingenuity and sharpness.
The first thing Monty did was tear up the NEPTUNE plan that COSSAC had prepared. He thought the Normandy front should be doubled to fifty miles, and preceded by an assault from the sky by three airborne divisions, not three brigades. In the first wave of sea landings, he wanted not three but five divisions on five separate beaches, supported by two more divisions behind. If he did not get this, he said they could find another commander. Eisenhower concurred, but getting what Monty wanted meant a massive increase in ships and equipment, including another thousand landing craft to add to the three thousand-odd already prepared for.
Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel, charged by Hitler with defending the coast of France at the end of 1943, knew that his best chance was to smash the Allied attacks on the beaches, and that the first day would be ‘the longest day’. From desert warfare experience, he was a great believer in anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines. As well as making a ‘Devil’s Garden’ of obstacles at different tidelines along the beaches, he wanted to mine, wire and fortify the entire coastal strip into a ‘zone of death’ five or six miles deep. To defend the Atlantic Wall, he dreamed of sowing 200 million landmines along the entire coast of France, although he never achieved it. ‘Up to the 20th May 1944,’ says the War Diary of German Army Group B, ‘4,193,167 mines were laid on the Channel coast, 2,672,000 of them on Rommel’s initiative, and most of them after the end of March.’ He also planned to fill all potential landing fields with patterns of ten-foot-high wooden stakes that would rip flimsy gliders apart. Many of the stakes were to be wired to artillery shells whose detonation would cause further carnage.
The Allied intelligence reconnaissance for the D-Day landings was high, wide and deep. Thousands of mapping photos were taken from different angles in the air. Low-level missions along the beaches to photograph the arrays of obstacles the Germans were building were known as ‘dicing’ missions, as in ‘dicing with death’. They were taken so close that you can see individual engineers running for cover, and count their footsteps in the sand. Things seen from the air were sometimes investigated by divers from the sea, and commando raids brought back prisoners and samples of barbed wire and metal defences. Geologists and oceanographers were consulted and recruited. Following an appeal on the BBC wireless in 1942, the great British public had sent in over ten million of their pre-war French beach ‘holiday snaps’. These Brownie Box-photos and picture post-cards were sorted, graded, assembled and scrutinised for tiny details of Normandy.
Through General de Gaulle’s Free French Intelligence service, le Deuxième Bureau, run by ‘Colonel Passy’ or André Dewavrin, the French resistance was mobilised to report on every detail of the German construction of their defences. The Centurie network, radiating out of Caen, eventually had 1,500 agents noting every gun emplacement and mine field, every concrete caisson and fifteen-foot-deep anti-tank trench. One house painter in the resistance managed to purloin a blueprint of the defences from the office of the Organisation Todt that were building them.
The Allies agreed to cross the Channel as two armies, one British, one American, fighting side by side, but not mixed together. The British (including the Canadians) would go in on the left, to SWORD, JUNO, and GOLD beaches, preceded by the paratroopers of the 6th British Airborne Division. The US First Army would go in on the right, to OMAHA and UTAH beaches, preceded by the paratroopers of the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions.
‘Mulberry’ floating harbours
Co-ordinating the effort required awesome organisation and logistics. The Allies had to marshal and maintain over 2 million men, 11,000 aircraft, and 7,000 ships in England. The prodigious industrial output to meet their requirements had to be matched by efficient distribution. The engineering work behind the landings was staggering, and thousands of construction workers were recruited to work night and day. The Petroleum Warfare Department pioneered PLUTO (Pipeline Under The Ocean), ready to pump millions of gallons of petrol across to the invaders. To get the astonishing volume of men, equipment and supplies ashore in north-western France, Churchill’s pet project, the technologically ingenious ‘Mulberry’ floating harbours, were essential. Two were to be constructed off Normandy. Over a hundred enormous 6,000-ton reinforced concrete caissons called ‘Phoenixes’ (each 60 feet high, 60 feet wide and 200 feet long) would be towed across the Channel from Selsey Bill and Dungeness by some of the fleet of 132 tugs and then filled with sand from ‘Leviathans’ so they sank to form a breakwater in the Bay of the Seine. Outside this artificial reef was a floating line of ‘Bombardons’ towed from Poole and Southampton to calm the waves, and inside, in shallower water, a line of ‘Gooseberries’, formed from two dozen redundant merchant navy vessels, Liberty ships and one old dreadnought that were scuttled and sunk where needed. In the calmer waters within the two-square-mile Mulberry harbour, strong Lobnitz or ‘Spud’ pier heads were sunk deep into the sand which allowed long bridges or floating roadways to the shore, known as ‘Whales’, to float up and down with the tides. The menagerie of code-names was augmented by power-driven pontoons called ‘Rhinos’ and amphibious vehicles known as ‘Ducks’.
Further amazing engines onshore also sprang from Churchill’s ‘inflammable fancy’: armoured tank bulldozers and ploughs, special fat-cannoned Churchill tanks for blasting blockhouses, other ‘Crocodile’ Churchill tanks that could squirt petrol and latex flames over a hundred yards, great machines for laying fascines across mud or barbed wire, or for thrashing their way with flailing chains clear through exploding mine fields. These devices came from Churchill’s direct encouragement and protection of a brilliant maverick, Major General Sir Percy Hobart of 79th Armoured Brigade, and were collectively known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’.
The deception plan for NEPTUNE, the cross-Channel attack, was called Plan FORTITUDE, and its object was ‘to induce the enemy to make faulty dispositions in North-West Europe’. FORTITUDE NORTH aimed to keep Hitler worrying about Scandinavia, and the danger to Germany posed by an Allied attack on Norway and Denmark. Dummy wireless traffic and bogus information from double agents indicated that the (notional) British Fourth Army in Scotland, supported by American Rangers from Iceland, was going to attack Stavanger and Narvik and advance on Oslo. British deceivers also worked hard on the neutral Swedes. The commander-in-chief of the Swedish Air Force was asked for ‘humanitarian’ assistance in the event of an Allied invasion of Norway. As his office was being bugged by the pro-Nazi chief of Swedish police, this information went straight to Berlin. When Hitler read the transcript he ordered two more divisions to reinforce the ten already in Norway. Thus 30,000 more soldiers were diverted away from France.