Comment: Phantom force aided in the success of D-Day

In the early hours of June 6, 75 years ago today, soldiers with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division waded ashore at Juno beach in Normandy. By the end of that longest day, they had pushed further inland than any of the other Allied forces.

Though the Americans took heavy casualties at Omaha Beach — the most heavily defended landing area — the D-day invasion was ultimately a success, due largely to the outstanding courage of so many brave young men.

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Over the years, however, military historians have attributed much of the triumph to an intricate deception plan carried out by the Allies.

Many more bombs were dropped on the Pas-de-Calais — the French coastal area closest to England — than on Normandy.

Massive volumes of dummy radio signals were directed at that region, signals the Germans could detect, even if they couldn’t read them.

And a fake army was established in Kent, directly opposite the Pas-de-Calais. Inflatable rubber tanks were lined up in rows, empty barracks were built, and the ground around the “encampment” was chewed up with tire marks.

Most important, U.S. Gen. George Patton was appointed to command the “army."

Patton, then in disgrace for slapping a shell-shocked soldier, was the Allied general most feared by the Wehrmacht.

If Patton was in Kent, that had to be where the invasion was coming from.

In short, the deception plan was created to direct the enemy’s attention away from the real point of attack. And in some respects, it appeared to work.

When the first troops landed, German leaders held back reinforcements for several days, fearing this might be a feint, and that the real assault was coming further east.

But there’s another way of looking at this. While it’s known that several senior German leaders, Hitler among them, did indeed believe the attack would be launched at the Pas-de-Calais, it was impossible to be sure.

Yet certainty was required, for if the high command put all its eggs in one basket and guessed wrong, the war was effectively over.

But suggestive as the deception effort may have been, it could never have created absolute certainty as to where the attack was coming.

It’s worth considering some other occasions where even stronger evidence of the enemy’s intentions were dismissed.

Several times throughout the war, detailed battle plans had fallen into the hands of the other side.

While some of these were fakes, planted deliberately to deceive, in at least two cases they were real. In one instance, a German officer carrying a full set of blueprints in his briefcase was shot down over France. The plans were recovered and given to the Allies.

Now this is, in one sense, as good as it gets. You know exactly what your enemy intends.

Or do you? What if this is one of these fabrications? You’ve done it yourself to the other guy. Why assume he’s not doing it to you? In the end, the recovered plans were set aside. Their provenance could not be established beyond all reasonable doubt.

That was the problem facing the German commanders as the invasion took shape.

They could not afford to gamble everything on one throw of the dice, no matter how convincing the odds appeared.

They had to cover their bets, and that meant dividing their forces.

Had they grasped the nettle and put everything they had in Normandy, there is a pretty good chance the invasion would have failed. But when your country’s future is at stake, that was a risk no sane commander would have taken.

The invasion did not succeed because of deception. It succeeded because the Germans were confronted with a question to which there could be no certain answer.

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