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Military deception refers to attempts to mislead enemy forces during warfare. This is usually achieved by creating or amplifying an artificial fog of war via psychological operations, information warfare, visual deception and other methods. As a form of strategic use of information (disinformation), it overlaps with psychological warfare. To the degree that any enemy that falls for the deception will lose confidence when it is revealed, he may hesitate when confronted with the truth.

Deception in warfare dates back to early history. The Art of War, an ancient Chinese military treatise, puts great emphasis on the tactic. In modern times military deception has developed as a fully fledged doctrine. Misinformation and visual deception were employed during World War I and came into even greater prominence during World War II. In the buildup to the 1944 invasion of Normandy the Allies executed one of the largest deceptions in military history, Operation Bodyguard, helping them achieve full tactical surprise.

Types of deception

Dummy airbase and aircraft

Broadly, military deception can take both strategic and tactical forms. Deception across a strategic battlefield was uncommon until the modern age (particularly in the world wars of the 20th century), but tactical deception (on individual battlefields) dates back to early history.[1] In a practical sense military deception employs visual misdirection, misinformation (for example, via double agents) and psychology to make the enemy believe something that is untrue. The use of military camouflage, especially on a large scale, is a form of deception.[2] The Russian loanword maskirovka (literally: disguise, camouflage, concealment) is used to describe the Soviet Union and Russia's military doctrine of surprise through deception, in which camouflage plays a significant role.[3][4][5]

There are numerous examples of deception activities employed throughout the history of warfare, such as:

Feigned retreat
Leading the enemy, through a false sense of security, into a pre-positioned ambush.[6]
Fictional units
Creating entirely fictional forces or exaggerating the size of an army.[7]
Smoke screen
A tactical deception involving smoke, fog, or other forms of cover to hide battlefield movements.[8]
Trojan horse
Gaining admittance to a fortified area under false pretences, to later admit a larger attacking force.
Strategic envelopment
A small force distracts the enemy while a much larger force moves to attack from the rear. A favoured tactic of Napoleon.[9]


Deception has been a part of warfare from the dawn of history. At first it fell to individual commanders to develop tactical deception on the battlefield. It was not until the modern era that deception was organised at a high strategic level, as part of entire campaigns or wars.[10]

Early examples of military deception exist in the ancient dynasties of Egypt and China; Sun Tzu's famous work The Art of War discusses many deceptive tactics. Hannibal, widely recognised as one of the finest military commanders in history, made extensive use of deception in his campaigns. The Ancient Greeks were noted for several forms of tactical deception. They certainly invented smoke screens during the Peloponnesian War and later stories refer to the famous Trojan horse which allowed them to defeat Troy.[1]

In his 52 BC conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar successfully used tactical deception to achieve a crossing of the Allier river. His opponent, Vercingetorix, shadowed Caesar's force from the opposite bank, contesting any attempted crossing. Caesar camped overnight in a wood; when departing the following day he left a third of his force behind, splitting down the remainder to appear as his full strength. Once the coast was clear, the hidden forces rebuilt a smashed crossing and established a bridgehead. One volume of Roman aristocrat Frontinus's Stratagems, written in the first century AD, deals entirely with deception. Nevertheless, ancient Rome professed to generally despise the tactic.[1]

Opinion on military deception was divided following the fall of the Roman empire. The chivalrous countries in western Europe considered the tactic to be underhanded, whilst Eastern armies considered it a key skill: the Byzantine general Belisarius was particularly noted for using deception against overwhelming odds.[1]

Middle Ages

The Normans set aside the chivalrous nature of western states and embraced the concept of a feigned retreat (a favourite Byzantine tactic brought back by Norman mercenaries). William the Conqueror appears to have used this tactic successfully during the Battle of Hastings, although the actual events are disputed by scholars. Whatever the truth, the battle has at least been used as a famous example of the tactic.[1]

Mongol armies also used the feigned withdrawal; the mangudai were a suicide vanguard unit that would charge the enemy, break and retreat to try and draw them into more favourable ground. Mongol warlords also made use of disinformation tactics, spreading (or encouraging) rumours about the size and effectiveness of their forces. They even made use of visual deception; cavalry often kept numerous reserve horses, and these were mounted with straw dummies. On the battlefield the Mongols used many tactical deceptions, from lighting fires as a smokescreen to luring opponents into traps.[1]

Other examples of deception exist during the Crusades. In 1271 Sultan Baybars successfully captured the formidable Krak des Chevaliers by handing the besieged knights a letter, supposedly from their commander, ordering them to surrender. It was, of course, faked, but the knights duly capitulated. At around the same time, in England, the Welsh Tudors were seeking a revocation of the price Henry Percy had placed on their heads. They decided to capture Percy's Conwy castle; by posing as a carpenter one of their small band was able to gain access to the castle, a variant on the Trojan horse tactic, and let in his compatriots.[1]

Despite these early examples, warfare in the Middle Ages was disorganised and lacked any formal tactics or strategy. Armies were unlike the previous Roman legions, untrained and unprepared. Military strategy was similarly ad hoc, and deception strategies varied in effectiveness across the civilised world.[1]


The dawn of the Renaissance period led to a change; military scholars rejected Medieval tactics, instead referring back to earlier Roman and Greek writers for their strategems.[11]

Niccolò Machiavelli was a prominent scholar of this era, and a fan of deception tactics. In Discourses on Livy, a history of early Rome, he says:

Although to use deception in any action is detestable, nevertheless in waging war it is praiseworthy and brings fame: he who conquers the enemy by deception is praised as much as he who conquers them by force

—Machievelli, Discourses on Livy[12]

Revolutionary wars

In the late 1700s the newly formed French First Republic clashed with many of the other European powers. Deception began to be used formally on the battlefield as well as in broader strategy.[9]

In 1797, during the battle of Fishguard, British commander John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor, bluffed French invaders into surrendering to his much smaller force. In response to a French request for terms of surrender, including safe passage home, Cawdor replied; "The Superiority of the Force under my command, which is hourly increasing, must prevent my treating upon any Terms short of your surrendering your whole Force Prisoners of War."[9] Cawdor's response was an outrageous bluff, but inexplicably the enemy commander (American William Tate) believed the British to be substantially reinforced, and surrendered.[9]

In a notable use of a similar strategem at the Siege of Detroit during the Anglo-American War of 1812, British Major General Isaac Brock and Native American chief Tecumseh used a variety of tricks, including letters which exaggerated the size of their own forces, and repeatedly marching the same body of natives past American observers to fool the American Brigadier General William Hull into thinking that he faced overwhelming numbers of British regular troops and hordes of uncontrollable Indians. Fearing a massacre by the Indians, the elderly Hull capitulated, surrendering the town and the attached fort and an army which outnumbered Brock's and Tecumseh's forces.

However, the master deceiver of this period was Napoleon Bonaparte, the French military commander and politician whose strategies influenced much of modern warfare. Napoleon made significant use of tactical deception during his campaigns and, later, of strategic deception. In 1796, at the Battle of Lodi, he successfully achieved a crossing of the River Po. In a reversal of Caesar's tactic centuries earlier, Napoleon mounted a token crossing attempt against a strong Austrian force under Johann Beaulieu. Meanwhile, the bulk of his force moved up river and obtained an uncontested bridgehead at Piacenzam before attacking their enemies rear guard. He referred to this tactic as manoeuvre sur led derrières (strategic envelopment).[9]

American Civil War

Stonewall Jackson made good use of deception during the American Civil War. In 1862, following a series of harrying attacks along the Shenandoah valley, his army marched in secret to attack McClellan at Richmond, Virginia. Jackson spread rumours that he was heading in a different direction, and even sent engineers to survey the fictional route. His army was kept under strict orders not to talk about, or even know, where they actually were, or were headed.[13]

Second Boer War

Dummy Long Tom artillery position deployed during the Second Boer War

Probably one of the best-known deceptions of the modern era was Robert Baden-Powell's defence of Mafeking during the Second Boer War. Baden-Powell had been dispatched to the North West province of South Africa shortly before the outbreak of war with orders to raise a small force and conduct a harrying war against the Boer flanks (to draw their forces away from key British positions on the coast).[14]

Baden-Powell realised his small force was not capable of offensive operations. So he bluffed entry to Mafeking by obtaining permission for an "armed guard in Mafeking to protect the stores". As authorities had not specified the size of the guard, Baden-Powell moved his whole force into the town, his first of many deceptions over the next year.[14]

The Boers sent 8,000 men to besiege Mafeking. Baden-Powell's force amounted to less than 1,500 men and officers; he realised that deceit would be key to holding the town. The scale and audacity of his subsequent deceptions made Baden-Powell a war hero in England.[14]

As the Boers advanced, Baden-Powell sent a letter to a friend inside Transvaal warning of the imminent approach of more British troops. He knew the friend was dead and hoped the letter would fall into Boer hands, which it did, and 1,200 troops sat uselessly watching the southern approaches for this fictional force. At Mafeking Baden-Powell set up fake forts at some distance from the town; one marked as his own headquarters soon drew enemy attention. These fortifications held up the Boers, allowing Baden-Powell to improve Mafeking's defences. He set locals to carrying boxes of "mines" around the town (in fact, they were full of sand), information which soon leaked back to the enemy. When "minefield" signs sprang up around the town a short while later the Boers took it for granted they were real.[14]

World War I

By the modern era, wars had become large and complex endeavors. Battlefields might contain troops under several different commanders, and tactical deceptions could have unexpected effects. Because of this, opportunities for an individual to undertake military deception declined. Throughout the First World War deception began to shift to the strategic planners higher up the chain of command, and during the Second World War deception planning departments sprung up in all of the major theaters .[10]


World War 1 Australian troops carrying a dummy Mark IV tank, intended to deceive German forces during the following day's assault on part of the Hindenburg Line (September 1918)

Deception carried out on part of the Hindenburg Line in September 1918


Also in September 1918, before the Battle of Megiddo (1918) the Egyptian Expeditionary Force commanded by General E. Allenby masked the movement of three cavalry division from the eastern end of the front line to the western end on the Mediterranean Sea, where the successful infantry breakthrough was exploited by the mounted divisions. These divisions moved under cover of darkness to naturally camouflaged areas in olive and orange groves behind the front line. Meanwhile, the remaining mounted division, reinforced with infantry, maintained the illusion that the valley was fully garrisoned.[15][16]

They achieved this deception by building a bridge in the valley; infantry were repeatedly marched into the Jordan Valley during the day, driven out by motor lorry at night, and marched back in the next day. In the vacated regimental lines the tents were left standing, 142 fires were lit each night, and 15,000 dummy horses, made from canvas and stuffed with straw, wore real horse rugs and nose bags. Every day mules dragged branches up and down the valley (or the same horses were ridden back and forth all day, as if taking the animals to water) to generate thick clouds of dust.[16][17][18]

Further, Allenby's staff disseminated a mass of false information and clues, including a grand race meeting to be held on the day the battle began. And Fast’s Hotel in Jerusalem was suddenly evacuated, sentry boxes placed at its entrances and rumours spread that it was to become Allenby’s advanced headquarters in preparation for a renewal of the Transjordan campaign eastwards towards Amman and Es Salt.[19][20]

During the concentration of Allenby's force on the western end of the front line, German and Ottoman aircraft were unable to carry out reliable aerial reconnaissances as the British and Australian aircraft had almost complete dominance of the skies. Only four of their aircraft succeeded in crossing the lines during the period of concentration prior to Megiddo, as against over 100 during one week in June.[21][22]

Though these deceptions did not induce Liman von Sanders, commander of the Ottoman Army in Palestine, to concentrate his forces on the eastern flank, nor did he concentrate his forces on the western flank. Allenby was thereby able to concentrate a force, superior by five to one in infantry and even more in artillery, on the Mediterranean flank opposing the Ottoman XXII Corps, where the main attack was successfully made.[23][24]

World War II

The Soviet military doctrine of maskirovka was developed in the 1920s, and used by Zhukov in the 1939 Battles of Khalkhin Gol against Japan. For example the Field Regulations of the Red Army (1929) stated that "Surprise has a stunning effect on the enemy. For this reason all troop operations must be accomplished with the greatest concealment and speed." Concealment was to be attained by confusing the enemy with movements, camouflage and use of terrain, speed, use of night and fog, and secrecy.[25] Maskirovka was put into practice on a large scale in the Battle of Kursk, especially on the Steppe Front commanded by Ivan Konev. The result was that the Germans attacked Russian forces four times stronger than they were expecting. The German general Friedrich von Mellenthin wrote "The horrible counter-attacks, in which huge masses of manpower and equipment took part, were an unpleasant surprise for us... The most clever camouflage of the Russians should be emphasized again. We did not .. detect even one minefield or anti-tank area until .. the first tank was blown up by a mine or the first Russian anti-tank guns opened fire".[26]

Before Operation Barbarossa, the German High Command masked the creation of the massive force arrayed to invade the USSR and heightened their diplomatic efforts to convince Joseph Stalin that they were about to launch a major attack on Britain.[citation needed]

Amongst the Western Allies, several individuals pioneered deception at both the strategic and operational level. Dudley Clarke and his 'A' Force, based in Cairo, developed much of the Allied deception strategy from early 1941. The London Controlling Section was formed in September 1941 in response to Clarke's success; after a slow start the department was taken over by John Bevan in 1942, who worked on successful strategies such as Operation Bodyguard.[27]

Deception played an important part in the war in North Africa. Steven Sykes built a dummy railhead to protect the real railhead at Misheifa for Operation Crusader.[28] Geoffrey Barkas led Operation Sentinel and Operation Bertram which succeeded in deceiving Rommel about allied strength and intentions before the decisive Second Battle of El Alamein.[29]

Before D-Day, Operation Quicksilver portrayed "First United States Army Group" (FUSAG), a skeleton headquarters commanded by Omar Bradley, as an army group commanded by George Patton. In Operation Fortitude South, the Germans were persuaded that FUSAG would invade France at the Pas-de-Calais. British and American troops used false signals and double agents to deceive German intelligence as to the location of the invasion. Dummy equipment played a negligible role as the Germans were unable to carry out aerial reconnaissance over England. The Germans awaited the Pas-de-Calais landing for many weeks after the real landings in Normandy, diverting several divisions from the battle for Normandy.[citation needed]

Cuban Missile Crisis

The months preceding the Cuban Missile Crisis involved a complex deception and denial campaign. The Soviet attempt to position nuclear weapons on the island nation of Cuba in Operation Anadyr in 1962 occurred under a shroud of great secrecy, both to deny the United States information on the deployment of these missiles to the island and to deceive the United States' political leadership, military, and intelligence services about Moscow's intentions in Cuba. The parameters of Anadyr demanded that both medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles be deployed to Cuba and operable before their existence was discovered by the United States, and the Soviet General Staff and Soviet Communist Party leaders turned to radical measures to achieve surprise in this manner.

Perhaps the most fundamental deception in Operation Anadyr was the deployment's codename itself, which is associated with the Russian northern wastes and certainly did not suggest an operation in the Caribbean. Only five senior officers on the general staff, moreover, were privy to the details of the deployment or its actual location during the planning. The plans that were made were even handwritten to deny knowledge of the operation to even a single secretary.[30][31]

Prior to the voyage to Cuba, troops awaiting the journey were restricted to barracks prior to departure and were denied contact with the outside world. Soviet soldiers constructed false superstructures with plywood to hide the ships' defenses and even on-deck field kitchens. Metal sheets were placed over missiles and missile launchers to prevent detection by infrared surveillance. Agricultural equipment and other non-military machinery was placed on deck to add to the subterfuge. Once underway, the Soviet troops were not allowed on deck, except at night and only in small groups. Instructions to the troops and ships' crews were carried by special couriers to deny Western intelligence services the opportunity to intercept electronic communications regarding the operation. The ships' captains received instructions which revealed their final destination only after they had put out to sea.[32]

Soviet denial and deception measures were equally rigid upon the ships' arrival in Cuba. The Soviet vessels unloaded at eleven different ports to complicate American surveillance. Military equipment was offloaded only under cover of darkness. The same applied to major troop movements, and all Soviet military positions were generally in sparsely populated areas of the island. The Soviet troops were even forbidden to wear their uniforms. Simultaneously, the Soviet media trumped the massive agricultural assistance that the Soviets ostensibly were providing to their Cuban comrades as a false explanation for the men and equipment.[33][34]

The Soviet denial and deception campaign in Operation Anadyr, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, proved highly effective, and the eventual discovery of the missile emplacements only occurred after they were operational. Thus, the operation was a success.

Opinions on the value of military deception

There are different opinions among military pundits as to the value of military deception. For example, the two books that are usually considered the most famous classics on warfare Sun Tzu's The Art of War and Clausewitz' On War seem to have diametrically opposed views on the matter. Sun Tzu greatly emphasizes military deception and considers it the key to victory.[nb 1] Clausewitz on the other hand argues that a commander has a foggy idea of what is going on anyway[35] and that creating some sort of false appearance, particularly on a large scale, is costly and can only be acceptable from a cost-benefit-analysis point of view under special circumstances.[36][37]

As a more modern example, British military writer John Keegan seems to come close to Clausewitz' opinion in this particular matter, despite normally being highly critical of Clausewitz. In his book Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda he gives several historical examples of situations where one side held a great information advantage over its opponent and argues that in none of these cases was this decisive in and of itself for the outcome.

See also


  1. Such as in the chapter on estimates, verse 17: "All warfare is based on deception"


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Latimer (2001), pg. 6–14
  2. Newark, Tim (2007). Camouflage. London: Thames and Hudson. pp8, 17.
  3. Smith (1988)
  4. Glantz, 1989. Page 6 and throughout.
  5. Clark, Lloyd (2011). Kursk: the greatest battle, eastern front 1943.. Headline. p. 278. 
  6. Latimer (2001), pg. 10–11
  7. Howard (1990), pg. 31–35
  8. Latimer (2001), pg. 12
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Latimer (2001), pg. 20–26
  10. 10.0 10.1 Handel (2000), pp. 215–216
  11. Latimer (2001), pg. 14–20
  12. Handel (2000), p. 421
  13. Holt (2004), pg. 1
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Latimer (2001), pg. 31–36
  15. Bruce 2002 p. 205
  16. 16.0 16.1 Powles 1922 pp. 234–5
  17. Hamilton 1996 p. 135–6
  18. Mitchell 1978 pp. 160–1
  19. Paget pp. 255–7
  20. Woodward 2006 p. 192
  21. Powles 1922 p. 235
  22. Falls Vol. 2 Part II p.463
  23. LiddellHart 1972 p. 437
  24. Ericson (2007), pp.134–135
  25. Glantz, 1989. Page 6.
  26. Glantz, 1989. Pages 153-155.
  27. Rankin (2008), pg. 298–302
  28. Stroud, 2012. Pages 123-133.
  29. Stroud, 2012. Pages 183-208.
  30. Hansen (2002), pg. 50.
  31. Gribkov and Smith (1994), pg. 24.
  32. Hansen (2002), pg. 52-53.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Gribkov and Smith (1994), pg. 38-40.
  35. Bruce (2002), Ch. 6
  36. Erickson (2007), Ch. 10
  37. Liddell Hart (1972), Ch. 20


  • Bruce, Anthony (2002). The Last Crusade: The Palestine Campaign in the First World War. London: John Murray Ltd. ISBN 978-0-7195-5432-2. 
  • Delmer, Sefton (1973). The Counterfeit Spy: The Untold Story of the Phantom Army That Deceived Hitler. Hutchinson & Co.. ISBN 0-09-109700-2. 
  • Erickson, Edward J. (2007). John Gooch and Brian Holden Reid. ed. Ottoman Army Effectiveness in World War I: A Comparative Study. No. 26 of Cass series: military history and policy. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-203-96456-9. 
  • Falls, Cyril; A. F. Becke (maps) (1930). Military Operations Egypt & Palestine from June 1917 to the End of the War. Official History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. 2 Part II. London: HM Stationary Office. OCLC 256950972. 
  • Glantz, David (1989). Military Deception in the Second World War. Cass Series on Soviet Military Theory & Practice. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-714-63347-3. 
  • Gribkov, General Anatoli I. and General William Y. Smith (1994). Operation Anadyr. Chicago: Edition Q. 
  • Hamilton, Patrick M. (1996). Riders of Destiny The 4th Australian Light Horse Field Ambulance 1917–18: An Autobiography and History. Gardenvale, Melbourne: Mostly Unsung Military History. ISBN 978-1-876179-01-4. 
  • Handel, Michael (29 September 2000). Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought. Psychology Press. ISBN 0714650919. 
  • Hansen, James H. (2002). "Soviet Deception in the Cuban Missile Crisis". 
  • Hesketh, Roger Fleetwood (2002). Fortitude: The D-Day Deception Campaign. The Overlook Press. ISBN 1-58567-075-8. 
  • Holt, Thaddeus (2004). The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War. New York: Scribner. pp. 1168. ISBN 0-7432-5042-7. 
--- (2004). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-84804-6
  • Howard, Michael (1995). Strategic Deception in the Second World War: British Intelligence Operations Against the German High Command. W. W. Norton & Co.. ISBN 0-393-31293-3. 
  • Latimer, Jon (2001). Deception in War. New York: Overlook Press. ISBN 978-1-58567-381-0. 
  • Liddell Hart, Basil Henry (1972). History of the First World War. London: Pan Books. ISBN 978-0-330-23354-5. 
  • Mitchell, Elyne (1978). Light Horse The Story of Australia's Mounted Troops. Melbourne: Macmillan. OCLC 5288180. 
  • Paget, G.C.H.V Marquess of Anglesey (1994). Egypt, Palestine and Syria 1914 to 1919. A History of the British Cavalry 1816–1919 Volume 5. London: Leo Cooper. ISBN 978-0-85052-395-9. 
  • Powles, C. Guy; A. Wilkie (1922). The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine. Official History New Zealand's Effort in the Great War, Volume III. Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd. OCLC 2959465. 
  • Rankin, Nicholas (1 October 2008). Churchill's Wizards: The British Genius for Deception, 1914–1945. Faber and Faber. p. 466. ISBN 0-571-22195-5. 
  • Smith, Charles L. (Spring 1988). "Soviet Maskirovka". 
  • Stroud, Rick (2012). The Phantom Army of Alamein: How the Camouflage Unit and Operation Bertram Hoodwinked Rommel. Bloomsbury. 
  • Wheatley, Dennis (1980). The Deception Planners. Hutchinson & Co.. ISBN 0-09-141830-5. 
  • Woodward, David R. (2006). Hell in the Holy Land World War I in the Middle East. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-2383-7. 

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