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he Allied invasion of Europe was the largest assault by sea in the history of warfare. It came at a dreadful cost in men and machines, with over 10,000 Allied soldiers killed or wounded just on the first day of the invasion of Normandy, June 6th, 1944. It would have been a much worse toll, however, without a massive plan of deception and the efforts of the greatest fake army ever assembled. The First United States Army Group (FUSAG) existed only on paper but played one of the most crucial roles in the entire D-Day campaign.

Almost immediately after the United States entered World War 2 against Germany, Josef Stalin began demanding that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill commit Allied troops to invade Europe. Stalin was gravely concerned that his Soviet Union could not defeat Germany without the Allies opening up a second front to split Germany’s attention. He was also worried that the United States and England would reach a separate peace with Germany, leaving Hitler’s forces to commit all their forces to demolish the Soviet war machine.

The Allies had initially promised Stalin that the invasion would come in 1942, then in the spring of 1943. By the time the three world leaders met in Tehran in 1943, the Allied leaders were finally ready to commit to launching the invasion of Western Europe by June 1944. Thus planning began in earnest for D-Day and what would come to be known as Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe and the push to defeat the Nazi regime once and for all.

The Allies knew that Hitler had been busy fortifying the French coast to protect against invasion, turning it into the so-called “Fortress Europe”. They also knew that for the D-Day invasion to have any chance of success, they would need to keep the Germans guessing as to where the actual landings would take place. Allied forces, under the command of American General Dwight Eisenhower, had several potential sites to consider, with the most obvious being the Pas de Calais, the site of a major port and the closest point between France and England. Hitler apparently believed it was the most logical place for the landings as well, and focused much energy and resources to stiffen the defenses at that point.

The Allies had their eye on another landing site, however, on the beaches of the Normandy region of France. They knew that the success of Overlord hinged upon sowing confusion and indecision among the Wehrmacht (the German Army), keeping their forces divided both during and after the initial invasion. If Hitler’s armor and troop reinforcements were allowed to congregate in Normandy, they could stop the invasion before it even got off the beaches and launch devastating counter-attacks on whatever forces did manage to get inland.

Operation Quicksilver

The answer to this problem was Operation Quicksilver, the operational portion of the multi-faceted Operation Bodyguard deception plan aimed at keeping as much German might as possible away from Normandy. The main part of Quicksilver was FUSAG, the nonexistent Army group that was designed to get the attention of Germany’s high command and keep them busy waiting for an invasion at Calais that was never to come.

Patches created for the fictitious units of FUSAG. Source: U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry — Col. Raymond J. Bluhm Jr. (editor) — Public Domain

FUSAG began its life as a fake army with real units intermingled among the fictitious ones. The real units were to be commanded by British General Bernard Montgomery upon the beginning of the operation, but they were first listed as part of FUSAG to increase the credibility and size of the group. Until that time, however, the entire force was commanded by American General George Patton. It may seem strange that such a prolific commander was in charge of a non-existent army, but the reason was two-fold. First, the Germans knew Patton was an immensely talented and dangerous foe, so having him command the group gave even more credibility and weight to the venture. Second, Patton had made himself a PR liability by slapping a soldier with battle fatigue during the Italian campaign[2], so this assignment doubled as a cooling-off punishment for the bombastic general.

The key to making FUSAG believable was fooling the German reconnaissance flights that droned overhead on a daily basis. If the army didn’t look real from the air, none of the other efforts to fool the Germans would matter. The army group was supposed to have more than a million men assigned to it, all massed and preparing for the invasion, and the more real it looked the easier it would be on the real assault. So the Allies created entire fake bases with tents, ammo dumps, and fuel depots, barracks, and the like, just as a real Army would have[1]. They dreamed up inflatable tanks, essentially giant balloons designed to look like real tanks once inflated, and built other vehicles out of wood and patterned fabric. They moved the inflatable tanks around on a regular basis, to simulate training and the types of movements that would be common to such a massive force. They even went so far as to stamp the ground with fake tank tracks, as the dummy vehicles they had were definitely not going to be leaving them around as the real kind would[1].

This was of course before satellites could zoom in to the size of a postage stamp, and before infrared cameras would have proven that there wasn’t anywhere near the # of men that should have been there. The only thing which mattered was that everything looked real from 30,000 feet when those German planes cruised overhead with their cameras pointed down.

Fake tank as part of Operation Quicksilver. Source: Elinor Florence

The Allies crucially employed spies as well during Quicksilver and got some of the best results from two double agents, Garbo and Brutus[1]. These agents spent months filing reports with their German handlers about the strength, movements, and orders being given to FUSAG. These intelligence reports were of course faked to produce maximum belief in the presence and power of the paper army, but they came to be heavily relied upon by everyone up and down the German chain of command.

As the day drew nearer, and it was apparent that Hitler was keeping much of his force and attention on Calais, the focus of the operation shifted to convincing the Germans that Normandy was going to be a trap, a diversion from the real target at Calais. The Allies hoped to keep the Germans off balance, anticipating the “real” attack in Calais and thus retaining their forces there instead of sending them down the coast to Normandy in a counter-attack.

D-Day — Operation Overlord

Operation Overlord was launched on June 6, 1944, an absolutely massive movement of ships, machinery, and men across the English Channel. They fell upon the German defenses at beaches up and down the Normandy coast. The cost was tremendous, with giant German guns raining iron and death down upon the beach. Massive concrete bunkers on the bluffs overhead concealed machine guns that tore into the troops wading ashore, some even before they could leave the ships that brought them to the edge of the sand.

As bad as it was, Operations Bodyguard and Quicksilver, along with all the other efforts to confuse the Germans had worked splendidly. At the time of the attack in Normandy, Wehrmacht forces were scattered around Europe, as far north as Norway and down to Greece in the south. The Allies and their obfuscation had completely befuddled the Germans, helping keep their Panzer tank divisions away from the beaches where they could have torn into the light trucks and jeeps which came ashore with the soldiers. It paralyzed the German commanders in the theater, not knowing if this was the real attack or just a diversion as Garbo and Brutus had reported.

Quicksilver worked so well, in fact, that the Allies had to pivot their efforts one more time, to protect Garbo and Brutus in the eyes of the Germans. They reported back to their handlers that the supposed diversionary attack at Normandy had worked so well that the original attack at Calais had been called off due to a lack of need[2].

By this time, it was weeks after the landing and the Allied troops had already worked their way well inland, taking bridges and strategic towns needed to secure the beachhead they had fought for at Normandy. They pivoted north toward Calais, threatening the German troops there who still thought that FUSAG would eventually come roaring across the channel into the teeth of their defenses. Those forces pulled out of Calais and retreated back across France, having been fooled into missing the battle completely[1].

With the fake army’s mission complete, General Patton was given control of the Third Army Group in France. Under his command, the force drove rapidly through German resistance in France, becoming one of the first units to reach the encircled Allied troops at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. He would go on to push deep into Nazi Germany as the days of the war waned, pressuring the heart of the country and helping bring about the end of the conflict.

Operation Quicksilver and FUSAG had served their purpose better than the Allies dared to hope. The combined efforts of all those involved saved countless lives and brought the war to a much quicker end than would have been possible with stiffer German resistance to the Normandy landings. It still remains the greatest wartime deception operation in the history of the world.

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