Churchill’s Wizards Nicholas Rankin

Faber, pp.466, 25

Churchill’s Wizards, by Nicholas Rankin

Deception plays a large part in war, just as feinting plays a large part in sport. The British excel at it, and used it with much success in both the 20th century’s world wars, particularly in the second. That war’s conspiracy theorists are fond of suggesting even more deceptions than did in fact take place; luckily, there are now two sound history books by which they can be confuted. If a wartime deception is not mentioned either in Michael Howard’s Strategic Deception of 1990 or in Thaddeus Holt’s The Deceivers of 2004, it is hardly likely that it happened: useful sticks with which to beat scaremongers.

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Churchill’s Wizards forms an anecdotal appendage to these two books, with the storyline carried back to cover the first world war, in which several other large deceptive schemes succeeded. Nicholas Rankin takes the outlines of military history for granted, and fills in many  personal details, as well as bringing forward into public view several men who deserved well of their country, but have hitherto been given little or no credit. He singles out Solomon J. Solomon, RA, as the main originator of British battlefield camouflage, and shows both how sound Solomon’s ideas were and how wholly unsuited he was for work within the blinkers worn by the army’s administrative staffs.

Rankin has a long excursus about Hesketh Prichard, the great sniper, who because he was a first-class amateur bowler was a ‘Somebody’, and therefore could get the staff to listen to him and needed camouflage to protect his colleagues. Whenever Rankin passes a good story, he is inclined to insert it, whether it has much bearing on his subject or not; Warneford, VC, had a memorable encounter with a Zeppelin airship which he destroyed, but the tale really has nothing to do with the main theme. The successful evacuation of all the Gallipoli beaches without the loss of a single life is, on the other hand, well worth recounting.

Churchill himself seems to have originated the concept of the dummy battleship, used to muddle the enemy about where British capital ships actually were; a scheme applied with skill and success in both wars. Second time round, it was deployed in the Near East by Jasper Maskelyne, the professional conjurer, who was sent for by Wavell; Wavell knew that Maskelyne and Devant’s conjuring show was a feature of the West End stage in the Twenties and Thirties, and reckoned, correctly, that someone who could entrance well-brought-up children might well bamboozle Mussolini and Hitler.

Propaganda was a useful tool for weakening Germany during the Great War, and was used again in the second world war to discomfit the Nazis, this time through the black broadcasting stations run by Sefton Delmer, a star reporter for the Daily Express, and Donald McLachlan, who went on to found the Sunday Telegraph. Care had to be taken, second time round, to make sure the Germans had no excuse for pretending they had been stabbed in the back by propaganda, instead of fairly beaten in the field.

A chapter covers operation ‘Mincemeat’, in which Ewen Montagu — S. J. Solomon’s son-in-law — secured the floating ashore in Spain of a corpse attached to a briefcase, the contents of which convinced Hitler that the Allies were going to invade Sardinia and Greece, not Sicily, after they cleared north Africa. This worked like the charm that it was.    Against the Axis there was a whole small secret service devoted to deception.  Luckily for posterity, Dennis Wheatley, the thriller-writer, was employed in it, and has left an account of how it worked which Rankin has been able to pillage. He shows how Dudley Clarke, under Wavell’s guidance, worked out a scheme for inflating the Germans’ idea of the actual strength of their opponents’ forces, which London took up also; and he  expounds the plan called ‘Fortitude’ which convinced the German high command that General Eisenhower’s Normandy landings were only a feint, to cover a main attack that was to be delivered on the beaches south of Boulogne by a non-existent American army group under General Patton.

Deception undoubtedly saved many lives, on both sides; it is useful to have the outlines coloured in. If the book is reprinted, a few slips such as putting Basra east of Bombay need to be ironed out.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated