In This Review

A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars
A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars
By Nicholas Rankin
Oxford University Press, 2009, 480 pp

Because the British have never been sure of their military prowess, they have always looked for ways to outsmart their enemies, by hiding the extent of any defensive weaknesses and obscuring the timing and direction of any offensives. Thus, the British integrated deception into the highest levels of strategic planning during the two world wars, and with considerable success. Some of the escapades became famous: phony units with pretend tanks, a double of General Bernard Montgomery arriving in Gibraltar to discuss fake operations, a corpse washing up on the Spanish shore dressed as a top officer with secret plans. These ruses were intended to persuade the Germans that invasions were to take place well away from their planned locations. By and large, they worked. When the Allies landed in Sicily and Normandy, the Germans were looking the wrong way. Rankin's page-turner makes the most of the gifted amateurs, eccentrics, and professional illusionists responsible for these imaginative schemes and details the care and seriousness with which they were implemented. But one of the story's key points actually hinges on Germany's, or, more specifically, Hitler's, gullibility: deception works best when the target is ready to be deceived.