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During World War II the British Army made extensive use of fictional army formations, as part of strategic or tactical military deceptions. Their use was pioneered by Dudley Clarke during the North African campaign. Clarke eventually formulated an elaborate order of battle deception (Operation Cascade) to mislead the Axis high command as to the strength of Allied forces in the region. Based on these successes the London Controlling Section made extensive use of notional formations during Operation Bodyguard - a deception operation ahead of the June 1944 Normandy Landings.

2nd Airborne Division

The division comprised a small amount of personnel and equipment, especially radio communications, which aimed to mimic the activities of a real, 10,000 strong plus, division. Its imaginary composition included the 11th Parachute Brigade, 12th Parachute Brigade, and the 13th Airlanding Brigade.[1]

The division was first referred to as part of the British II Corps of the British Fourth Army, with units based at Skegness and Grantham in Lincolnshire. For Operation Fortitude South II, the division along with the notional United States 9th and 21st Airborne Divisions were depicted as being under the direct control of the First United States Army Group and tasked with seizing key positions inland of the fictitious Pas de Calais beachheads.[1][2]

In the aftermath of Fortitude South, the notional 2nd Airborne Division, the notional United States 9th and 21st Airborne Divisions and the real United States 17th Airborne Divisions were used to depict an airborne threat to the Kiel-Bremen area in support of Operation Market Garden.[3]

The division was disposed of in December 1944, by announcing that it had been disbanded to provide replacements for the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions.[1]

4th Airborne Division

4th Airborne Division was part of Operation Cascade, a 1943 order of battle deception during the North African campaign, and initially based in Palestine.[4]

The division comprised both fictitious and real units. In 1941 Dudley Clarke had conducted Operation Abeam, to play on Italian fears of airborne assault, in which he created the 1st SAS Brigade. During 1941 and 1942 it formed part of Clarke's non-specific plans to deceive the Axis command as to the true size of Allied forces in the region. By the end of 1942 airborne units were training in the Middle East; one such unit, the 4th Parachute Brigade, was combined with 1st SAS to become the 4th Airborne Division. In addition, the division notionally included the 7th Parachute Brigade (comprising Greek Squadrons, Special Forces, and a French Parachute Battalion).[4]

In June 1943, the 4th Parachute Brigade completed training and was assigned to 1st Airborne Division; it was replaced in the 4th Airborne Division by the fictional 6th (Gurkha) Parachute Brigade (comprising the 6th Battalion, 6th Gurkha Regiment, the 160th Parachute Regiment (Gurkha), and the 161st Parachute Regiment (Gurkha)).[4]

The 4th Airborne Division was utilised as part of the fictional British Twelfth Army during Operation Barclay (where it was supposed to be destined for an assault on Greece and Crete) and Operation Zeppelin (where it was presented as part of a simulated threat to Crete).[4]

Unlike most of the other British airborne divisions, 4th Airborne was given an individual insignia. This took the form of an open white parachute with black wings on a blue background.[4]

5th Airborne Division

The division was created in late 1943 as part of Operation Foynes to cover the departure 1st Airborne Division from Italy. It was notionally built up around the 2nd Parachute Brigade, which had been left in Italy when the 1st Airborne Division travelled to Britain.[5] Its notional composition included the 2nd Parachute Brigade, 8th Parachute Brigade, and 9th Air Landing Brigade.

Initially it was portrayed as part of the British XIV Corps of the British Twelfth Army in Sicily, subsequently it was depicted as being attached successively to the British Twelfth Army's Polish III Corps (Operation Ferdinand) and British III Corps (Operation Second Undercut). Finally in December 1944, it was presented to the Germans as the theatre airborne reserve until the end of the war.[5]

Like the 4th Airborne Division, the 5th Airborne Division was given its own insignia. This took the form of a bright blue bolt of lightning, formed by five zig-zags on a dark red square. In 1945 this was replaced by the standard insignia used by the 1st, 2nd & 6th Airborne Divisions.[5]

40th Infantry Division

In addition to totally fictional formations, there were several formations 'recreated' after actually being disbanded, or being disbanded in actuality while notionally 'continuing' in existence.

Among these formations was the 40th Infantry Division. The 43rd Infantry Brigade was designated on 9 November 1943 as the 40th Infantry Division for deception purposes. The brigade was in Sicily for "internal security duties on lines of communications". The battalions of the brigade (30 Somerset Light Infantry, 30 Royal Norfolk Regiment and 30 Dorset Regiment) "were given brigade designations; and every effort was made to appear to be a division. This included the adoption of a divisional sign featuring the diamond and acorn of the Great War 40th Division; these were made up locally and worn on uniform by the personnel of the 'division'-in reality, three battalions of low medical category men armed with personal weapons only and with a skeleton complement of transport. The deception was played out until June 1944, when the formation was disbanded."[6]

57th Division

A further division 're-created' after having been disbanded after First World War service was the 57th Division. This formation was 'formed' "in North Africa in November 1943, by the redesignation of the 42nd Infantry Brigade." The units were 30th Northumberland Fusiliers, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, Green Howards and Suffolk Regiment. It used the Great War flash of the 57th Division: "The Derby 'D'". The division appeared on the German order of battle "(strangely, it [the flash] was shown as inverted from its Great War configuration) proving that the phantom 57th had done their job".[7]

58th Division

The First World War 58th (2/1st London) Division was also recreated to take part in Operation Fortitude.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Holt. 2005. p.916
  2. Hesketh. 1999. p. 418
  3. Hesketh. 1999. p. 306
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Holt (2004), pg. 225–226
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Thaddeus Holt. The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War. Phoenix. 2005. ISBN 0753819171
  6. Chappell, p.23
  7. Chappell, p. 36


  • Holt Thaddeus. The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War. Phoenix. 2005. ISBN 0-753-81-917-1
  • Hesketh Roger. Fortitude: The D-Day Deception Campaign. St Ermine. 1999. ISBN 0-316-85172-8
  • British Battle Insignia (2): 1939-45 by Mike Chappell

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