During World War II, the Allies, especially Britain, worked hard to convince Germany that every attack it saw was a feint and that every shadow in its vision was another Allied army coming to crush it. These deception operations led to the creation of an entire, fake invasion of Norway that was supposed to keep German defenders away from Normandy on D-Day.
Norwegian soldiers on the Narvik front in World War II.
The overall deception operation was known as Operation Bodyguard, a reference to a speech by Prime Minister Winston Churchill that said Truth was too precious and fragile to go anywhere without a Bodyguard of Lies. And when it came to D-Day, Bodyguard was on steroids.
To understand how deception operations worked for D-Day, it’s important to understand that the actual landings at Normandy weren’t necessarily logical. The Normandy landings took no deepwater port, and the terrain in the area forced the Allied invaders to fight through thousands of hedgerows to break out into the rest of France. Even after that, it was over 600 miles from there to Berlin, and the bulk of that was through German homeland.
So, while the D-Day landings of Operation Neptune were successful and Germany lost the war, it wasn’t the easiest or, arguably, even the most logical course of action. After all, there were two succulent nuts that would be easier to crack than Normandy.
German troops in the Balkans in 1941.
(Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The first and likely the easiest 1944 target for the Allies would’ve been an invasion into the Balkans, the soft underbelly of Europe. Allied troops were already holding the lowest third of Italy, all of North Africa, and Turkey, so they had plenty of places to invade from. And taking the Balkans from Hitler would’ve robbed him of much of his oil, copper, and bauxite, among other materials.
But another juicy target was Norway. Norway had been captured by Germany early in the war because Hitler knew that he needed a large Atlantic coastline to prevent his navy being bottled up in the Baltic and North seas like it had in World War I. And, the German presence in Norway helped keep Sweden neutral and amenable. If Norway fell, Sweden might allow Allied forces in its borders or, worse, join the alliance itself.
From Sweden or Norway, the Allies could easily bomb northern German factories and take back Denmark. And an invasion through Denmark would put the Allied forces less than 450 miles from Berlin, and only half of that path would be through German home territory.
And so Allied strategists played up the possibility of a Norway invasion, seeking to keep as many German units as possible deployed there to make the actual landings in France much easier.
Danish troops during Germany’s invasion in 1940.
This led to Operation Mespot, a coordinated plan to move troops, create false planning documents, and pass fake intelligence that would indicate an invasion into Norway, through friendly Sweden, and into Denmark in the summer of 1944, right as the actual D-Day invasions were taking place. According to the Mespot deception, the D-Day landings were the feint to draw German defenders from real invasions in the Baltics.
The part that related directly to an invasion of Norway was Operation Fortitude North, and it called for a British and American landing in the North. There, the forces would link up with Russian soldiers and press south. In order to sell this subterfuge, Britain ordered dozens of double agents from Germany to report on the movements of the “4th Army,” a fake organization that would be a major force in the invasion.
The 4th Army was supposedly training in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the frequent reports to German intelligence hooked the military leadership. Germany created an entire order of battle that they thought was headed against them. They suspected the British 4th Army, the 52nd Lowland Division from Scotland, and the American XV Corps.
Those second two units were real, and the 52nd had actually been training for a potential invasion of Norway. So Germany wasn’t completely crazy.
The British 4th Army was a field army in World War I, and military deception planners revived the unit in World War II on paper in order to create fake units to deceive German defenders.
(Imperial War Museum)
The American troops were supposedly talkative, and German agents were told stories of another infantry division and three Ranger battalions training in Iceland. German double agents there were told to verify this false intelligence, and they did. In the end, Germany thought 79 divisions were training in England for invasions when there were only 52, and they believed that the main target might be Norway.
Since Hitler was already obsessed with a Baltic invasion, all of this intel fed into his fears and demanded a response. And so one was given. 464,000 German troops were held in Norway to fight off an Allied invasion. While many would have been there regardless, 150,000 were otherwise “surplus” troops who likely would’ve been sent to France to combat the landings if Germany had known Norway was relatively safe.
There was also a Panzer division and 1,500 coastal defense guns, many of which could have been moved if Germany had better intelligence.
British forces land on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
(Sgt. Mapham J, No. 5 Army Film Photographic Unit)
All of this had a real effect for Allied troops on the French beaches. Combined with the success of the famous Ghost Army, deception operations towards the Balkans, and German missteps, the D-Day landings faced much less resistance than they otherwise would have.
While Germany was defending Normandy, Denmark, and Greece, it was getting pummeled in France.