Operation Fortitude: A Most Marvelous Effort in Persuasion

Every June 6th since 1944, the Normandy Landings and Operation Overlord are remembered and celebrated as a great feat of arms and human courage. The actual landings on the beaches get the lion’s share of attention, as they should, but for students of persuasion, another part of the D-Day story is worth a lot of time. That part is the deception campaign known as Operation Fortitude, which was essential to the success of the landings on D-Day. Without some cleverly crafted persuasion, the Allied armies would have been thrown back into the Channel in disgrace, and all of Europe would have been doomed to either Nazi or Soviet domination.

Background

There were only two realistic places for the Allied forces to invade Nazi-occupied France – Normandy and Calais. Of the two, Calais was the most obvious route, as it was the closest point to Britain.  Having settled on Normandy, the object of the exercise was to persuade Hitler that the landings would come at Calais. This obvious route presented problems, because in a military setting, it’s expected that your opponents will do the unexpected.

Therefore, it was essential for the Allies to pull off a better-than-good campaign to persuade the Germans that the landings would come at Calais. Few efforts in persuasion have been as historically important. If the Germans met the Allies with their full forces at the landing point, no invasion would have been successful, dooming Western Europe to a grim future.

Knowing the Audience

Any attempt at persuasion begins with knowing your audience, and fortunately for the Allies, they knew that they had an audience of just one. Hitler was the only person that mattered. They knew that the entire German command structure was centered on Hitler. Nothing happened without his knowing or approval. It was also helpful that Hitler vastly overestimated his own ability – and the Allies knew this too. He considered himself a military genius, but his atrocious performance in Russia shattered that myth to everyone except himself.

The attempt to persuade Hitler that the landings would take place at Calais, and that the Normandy landings were a diversion, was called Operation Fortitude. This was the major part of a larger plan called Operation Bodyguard that was meant to divert attention to everywhere in Europe.

Another stroke of good fortune came from Hitler already believing that Calais would be the landing site because that was how he himself would have crossed the English Channel. This made Hitler especially prone to confirmation bias, which is always an excellent starting point.

Psychological Uncertainty

Uncertainty is an uncomfortable feeling. It’s so uncomfortable that people will seek certainty any way they can, falling back to their cognitive biases or manufacturing wholesale illusions to make things more consistent. This is where cognitive dissonance comes from. Uncertainty will also cause indecision, since the uncertain person will be plagued with doubts.

Operation Fortitude was designed for just this purpose. There was so much information out there about Calais, other places all over Europe, and even Normandy, that it made Hitler more and more suspicious and uncertain, sucking all of his energy and ultimately gave him a lot of doubts, preventing him from making a big decision when the landings actually came.

Operation Bodyguard
The full extent of Operation Bodyguard. You can see why it would be easy to get frustrated and doubtful with all of this information.

The Phantom Army

Visual persuasion always beats textual or verbal persuasion. In support of Operation Fortitude, the Allies famously built up a balloon army in the south of England which looked poised to make the crossing to Calais. In command of this fictitious army was George S. Patton, a man whose reputation for toughness was well-respected by Hitler.

Patton being associated with the crossing to Calais made that operation seem more credible in Hitler’s mind. He was just the kind of tough combat commander that Hitler suspected would be chosen to lead such a bloody operation as crossing the Channel. If you’re going to undertake an operation of that magnitude, you have a fierce fighter leading it. It seemed so reasonable and logical – and the visual evidence matched with the chatter that Hitler was getting from his “spies,” which is the next part in the story.

Operation Fortitude

Weaving Truth and Fiction

Hitler thought he had a lot of spies in Britain. In fact, the British intelligence services were so good that every last one of them was found out and forced to become a double agent, feeding him false information. Operation Fortitude was the peak of the use of these double agents.

The most notable of these was Juan Pujol Garcia, codenamed “GARBO.” He had a good reputation among the Germans, even going so far as to construct a completely fictitious network of spies that were being paid a lot of money.

To maintain GARBO’s reliability, and to ensure that Operation Fortitude would last well beyond June 6th, 1944, the British actually had him supply some true information to the Germans about the upcoming landings in Normandy, but that information was swamped in a sea of other information coming from him which indicated that the main attack would be at Calais. Again, it seemed like Normandy was an afterthought.

In contrast with GARBO, there was one double agent that had built up a reputation among the Germans as being unreliable. He actually reported the real time and place of the Normandy landings, but because he was so mistrusted compared to the other agents and evidence that were pointing toward Calais, Hitler took this as an even more reliable indicator that he was right all along and the attack would come there. When D-Day actually came, Operation Fortitude was still in place, as GARBO kept reporting activity near Dover across from Calais, strengthening Hitler’s conviction that much further.

Hitler was ultimately so convinced that for weeks after D-Day, he believed the Normandy landings were a diversion and that the real attack would come at Calais under the command of Patton. Despite the vehement requests of Erwin Rommel and his other generals to send troops to Normandy and throw the Allies back into the Channel. By the time Hitler realized that Normandy was indeed the real site, it was far too late.

Conclusion

These are only the barest of bones regarding Operation Fortitude. In it, we see a perfect storm of persuasion that  tipped the balance of history. The Allies were thoroughly informed of Hitler’s psyche and knew how to take advantage of it. This was the decisive portion of the campaign. From there, they mobilized the fabulous infrastructure they had built up to bake the cake.

Click here to find out much more about Operation Fortitude.

To work on your own persuasion, read Stumped.