Master of the dark arts

In the first part of a new series on deception in World War II, Taylor Downing tells the story of Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Clarke, Britain's flamboyant pioneer of misinformation.


The Second Battle of El Alamein began on the full-moon night of 23 October 1942 with a thousand-gun barrage, firing more than half a million shells before dawn. For nearly two months, since the Axis failure to break through at the Battle of Alam el Halfa, the two sides had faced each other across a 40-mile front, from the Mediterranean south to the treacherous low-lying area, notorious for its quicksand, known as the Qattara Depression.

Above: An Eighth Army Tommy advances to take the surrender of a German tank crew during the Second Battle of Alamein, October-November 1942. Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Clarke (below) was the charismatic figure behind the elaborate deception operations that paved the way for Allied victory.

Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery had been appointed to command the Eighth Army in August and had a clear plan for what he was confident would be the turning-point battle of the Desert War. He would concentrate his attack on the northern half of the front, where XXX Corps under Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese would press the offensive with four infantry divisions leading the armoured divisions of X Corps through the German lines. In the south, XIII Corps under Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks would threaten the enemy to prevent the Panzerarmee Afrika from concentrating in the north to repel the assault. Monty’s plan relied on keeping the enemy confused as to where and when the principal assault would come. It involved two deception plans: Operation Bertram to disguise where the inevitable Allied attack would come; and Operation Treatment to fool the Axis as to when it would take place.

In the autumn of 1942, the two sides faced each other across a 40-mile front, from El Alamein to the Qattara Depression, a treacherous area of cliffs and quicksand that was impassable to mechanised forces. Map: Ian Bull

Unorthodox tactics

As the commander who first encouraged the art of deception as a key part of his strategy in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell was one of the least typical officers in the British Army. Whereas most British commanders in the 1930s looked inwards, to the traditions and rituals of their regiment, Wavell was a scholar who wrote a biography of his First World War hero General Allenby and lectured on the theories of command and leadership at Cambridge University. He loved poetry and the ancient classics, and spoke several languages including fluent Russian. When he was appointed Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, he was given responsibility for a vast area, not just Egypt and the Western Desert but Palestine, Transjordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and also East Africa. He had about 90,000 Commonwealth troops to protect this huge territory – but when Italy came into the war they had more than half a million soldiers in the region. With a passion for unorthodox warfare, Wavell appointed an officer to come and lead a unit tasked with devising ways to deceive the enemy. The unit would be known as ‘A’ Force, and the man Wavell brought out to run it was Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Clarke. He would become one of the principal pioneers of deception-planning in the British Army.

Montgomery, Wavell, and Auchinleck: Clarke worked with all three senior British commanders on deception projects in North Africa.

Clarke – recently portrayed by Dominic West in the TV series SAS: Rogue Heroes – was a charismatic figure with a puckish sense of humour and a smile that endeared him to many. When he had served Wavell in Palestine during the Arab Revolt in 1936, he was put on a death list by a Palestinian militia group and had consequently developed the habit of always sitting in a restaurant or bar with his back to the wall, so as to be able to see everyone around him. Those who worked closely with him also noted his spooky ability to enter a room without anyone noticing that he had come in. In 1940, Clarke had helped to set up the first Commando unit and had gone on its first raid a few weeks after Dunkirk. His sister was a journalist and his younger brother, Tom, became an Oscar-winning scriptwriter, known (under the professional name T E B Clarke) for his work on the comedies made by Ealing Studios after the war. Clearly Dudley shared with his brother an inventive mind and the ability to create scenarios that seemed more like fiction than fact.

Arriving in Cairo towards the end of 1940, Clarke immediately set to work with ‘A’ Force. The unit’s work was too secret for it to share space with general staff officers at GHQ in Cairo, so Clarke located his office below a brothel in the centre of the city. This was itself a form of deception. Not wanting to attract attention to his unit, he assumed that anyone spying on his officers would not be surprised if they disappeared in the direction of a brothel. And as there were very few officers in his unit to begin with, the ladies were allowed to continue with their work above his headquarters.

Important lessons

In December 1940, the first successful deception was carried out in Egypt. The Italian Tenth Army had advanced cautiously from Italian Libya into Egypt and paused at Sidi Barrani, a coastal town 60 miles east of the Libya–Egypt border. Wavell ordered Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor to throw them back. But, first, rumours were spread, documents were strangely mislaid, and maps were leaked to suggest that the principal attack would come from the south. Picking up on this, the Italians built up their defences there. When O’Connor attacked in the centre he surprised the Italians completely, and over the next couple of months was able to advance some 500 miles, evicting them from Egypt and pushing through the Cyrenaica region well into Libya. Around 130,000 Italian troops, along with 400 tanks and 1,200 artillery pieces, were captured. It was the first victory of the war for Allied ground forces. And deception had played a role in its success.

Clarke’s next deception was not a success, however. Wavell determined after his triumph in Libya to attack the Italians in Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). He planned an assault from Somaliland in the north – so Clarke decided to hint that the attack would come from the east. Once again rumours were spread and faked documents were allowed to fall into the hands of known Italian sympathisers. But when this got back to the Italian command in Abyssinia, they decided that an attack from the east was bound to be successful – so they moved their forces to the north instead. This was, of course, exactly the opposite of what Clarke intended. But it taught him an important lesson in deception warfare. In order to succeed, a deception plan must be based not on what you want the enemy to think – but on what you want him to do.

When Major David Stirling (pictured on the right) suggested the creation of an unorthodox new fighting force, it took the name that Clarke had invented: the Special Air Service. Image: Alamy

Clarke was also quick to learn another important lesson in deception. When your forces are weak and the enemy is strong, it is immensely helpful to make the other side believe that your troops are far more numerous than they are. This involves exaggerating the order of battle of your own forces – so Clarke started to leak details of brigades that did not exist. Then he grew bolder and invented entirely fake divisions. After a while, he created new corps and eventually hoax armies. This was not an easy exercise to carry out. To be convincing, the phantom units had to have arrived from somewhere, so false reports of ships bringing new units from Britain, India or Australia had to be created. The units then had to have some sort of practical existence on the ground. They had to send radio signals mimicking the sort of signals that real units would generate. These had to be sent in such a way that the enemy could pick them up and, even if some were in code, they had to add up to the sort of radio ‘noise’ that such a unit would generate. The invented units also had to have commanders whom the enemy could believe in. Sometimes the units did exist but were still back in Britain. If, however, the unit was a complete invention, Clarke’s team had to devise insignia to identify them. And once a new division had been created, its presence had to be maintained, or some credible explanation for its disappearance had to be invented.

Clarke knew that the Italians in Libya thought the British were going to drop paratroopers behind their lines – so one of his first deceptions was to invent a brigade of parachute forces which he called the 1st Brigade of the Special Air Service. Photographs of troops practising parachute jumps appeared in the press and more faked documents were mislaid. A few months later, Major David Stirling suggested to GHQ in Cairo the creation of an unorthodox force that would drop behind enemy lines to create havoc at enemy airfields. Clarke supported the formation of the unit, as long as it took the name he had invented – the Special Air Service, or SAS. So Clarke was involved in the creation of another unorthodox unit in the war, in addition to the Commandos.

Clarke’s ability to increase the order of battle of Allied forces did not only fool the enemy. Sometimes, Britain’s allies were fooled as well. Later in the war, as the Anglo-American forces slogged their way up the Italian peninsula in 1943, senior American officers complained to their commander, General Eisenhower, that the British still had two armies stationed in the Middle East, the Ninth and Tenth Armies, whose manpower was urgently required in Italy. It is not recorded who was more embarrassed when it was pointed out that the Americans had been deceived. These Armies did not exist. They were simply fake units that Clarke had created to fool the Germans about British strength in the region.

Above left: A Crusader tank disguised as a lorry as part of Operation Bertram. It was just one of the hundreds of dummy vehicles created in the months before the Second Battle of El Alamein to hide where the Allied attack would come from. Above right: A dummy tank under construction near Cairo.

Operation Bertram

When Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army, he demanded a period of time to prepare it for battle in the area around El Alamein. This gave Clarke’s ‘A’ Force time to develop some elaborate deceptions. First, with Monty planning his attack in the north, Operation Bertram had to try to convince the Axis commanders that the attack was in reality coming from the south. And second, in Operation Treatment, the deceivers pretended that no attack was coming until November, in order to take the German and Italian forces by surprise when it was launched.

To deceive the enemy over where the attack was coming, a dummy pipeline was built to the south of the front, using thousands of discarded petrol cans. It eventually stretched out more than 20 miles from a water source in the rear, ostensibly to bring a supply of water to the troops who would lead the assault. Additionally, a series of dummy supply dumps was located at the southern section of the front. These were simple constructions, apparently storing vast quantities of ammunition, fuel, and food, but laid out to look real to reconnaissance aircraft flying overhead. Around all these false depots were encampments where troops supposedly guarded the supplies. These men would need to eat, so dummy field kitchens were laid out. Moreover, several trucks were brought up, and covered with shields that made them look from above like tanks, to exaggerate the amount of armour that seemed to be available on this section.

In a clever double-bluff, a series of dummy guns was then laid out in the southern sector and left for some time without being moved. It was hoped that the enemy would guess that these were fakes. But just before the opening of the battle, they were substituted at night by real guns, which opened fire on the enemy on 23 October, once again suggesting that the principal assault was coming in the south.

In the north of the battlefront, an opposite set of deceptions was carried out. The armoured divisions of X Corps were disguised by placing shields over the tanks that made them look, from the air, like supply trucks. Twenty-five pounder guns and their limber were disguised by being covered with the shape of what looked like a truck. Another trick was to bring up the tanks of the 1st Armoured Division in the daytime to a central area of the battlefield where they were clearly visible to Axis reconnaissance. Then, on the night of the 22 October, just before the battle, they were moved to forward positions in the north – but a series of dummy tanks was left where they had been, so it appeared that they had not moved. In a final deception, the 10th Armoured Division was brought up and assembled in the south, where again it was spotted and identified. Just before the assault it was moved at night into position in the north to assist the breakthrough there.

An enormous effort went into the construction of these dummy vehicles and tanks. About 1,300 dummy 3-ton trucks were created and 300 dummy tanks were used, even though many of these were no more than two-dimensional shields suspended above the vehicle being disguised.

Operation Treatment

The other element in the deception was to conceal the timing of the assault. Rumours were spread about a conference of senior Eighth Army officers that was to be held in Tehran at the end of October. And in Cairo several hotels were booked out for junior officers, who it was rumoured were taking part in a series of sporting competitions around the city at the same time. Hints were dropped that the offensive had been delayed to November after fighting had ceased on the Russian Front. It was assumed that all this would soon be reported to enemy agents. It was.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Axis leader in North Africa, was in Germany at the start of the assault. It took him three days to get back to El Alamein.

Both arms of the deception were successful. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary leader of Axis troops in North Africa, was on sick leave in Germany when the assault began. It took him three days to get back to El Alamein. And the commanders left in his place were convinced that the main attack was coming in the south of the battlefield and that the assault in the north was a feint. Captured maps provided evidence of this, showing the imagined concentration of Allied units in the south. The commander of the Panzerarmee Afrika in Rommel’s absence, Major-General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, was captured and later confirmed that his Intelligence told him that the principal Allied armour had gathered in the south. As a consequence, he kept two armoured divisions in the south – the Italian ‘Ariete’ Division and the German 21st Panzer Division – when they were desperately needed in the north.

The Second Battle of El Alamein was still a tough one and would not be over quickly. When Rommel returned to take command, he took a few hours to assess the situation and correctly guessed that the main assault was taking place in the north and moved the two armoured divisions to the northern sector. The biggest tank engagement of the battle took place, inflicting heavy losses on both sides. But the Allies had more armour in reserve. It took ten days for the breakthrough to be complete and, when Rommel requested permission to withdraw, Hitler told him to ‘stand fast’, that it was ‘victory or death’. He responded by withdrawing the German troops and ordering the Italians to stay and fight. On Wednesday 4 November, General Harold Alexander, by now Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command, was able to report to Winston Churchill in London that ‘the enemy’s front has broken’. Axis forces were in full retreat. The BBC read out the message on that evening’s news. After a torrid year of defeats and humiliations, the British people finally had a victory to celebrate.

Wrecked German tanks after the battle. 

The Second Battle of El Alamein was a genuine turning-point in the war. Dudley Clarke could feel proud. The men of his ‘A’ Force and the camouflage experts in the Eighth Army had carried out two elaborate and immensely successful deception operations, which had without doubt contributed to the victory. Deception had come of age – and, as we shall see over the next three issues, it would go on to play a major role in the outcome of the Second World War.

Taylor Downing is a historian, best-selling author, and award-winning television producer. His most recent book, 1942: Britain at the Brink, is out now in paperback (Abacus, £12.99), and his regular ‘War on Film’ column appears on p.62.

In the next issue of MHM The inside story of Operation Mincemeat, the cunning British plan to disguise the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily.
All images: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated