Military disinformation: a bodyguard of lies

Kevin Foster

Disinformation and propaganda

On 30 April 1943, Spanish fishermen off the coast of Huelva plucked a uniformed corpse from the waters of the Atlantic. Identity discs and miscellaneous papers identified the body as Major William Martin of the Royal Marines, who had apparently perished in an air crash. Chained to Martin’s waist was a black attache case which contained a sealed military envelope. Over the following days, British authorities urgently sought the return of the briefcase. When the Spaniards copied and passed on the contents of the envelope to German intelligence, they caused a sensation. Martin had been carrying a personal letter from the vice chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Archibald Nye, to General Harold Alexander, commander of the 15th Army Group in Tunisia, detailing plans for the allies’ forthcoming landings in Southern Europe. The letter confirmed that the allies would come ashore in the Balkans, German-held Greece, and Sardinia. In response, significant Axis personnel and materiel were redeployed from Western and Southern Europe to the Balkan flank:

In March 1943, there were eight German divisions in the Balkans; by July there were eighteen, with the number in Greece having increased from a single division to eight; two divisions were sent to reinforce Sardinia and Corsica. That left just two for Sicily.

(Fennell 2019, 340)

When the allies landed 160,000 troops in Sicily in early July, they overran the islands depleted defences in less than six weeks.

The allies had had no intention of invading the Balkans. The letter carried by Major Martin was a hoax — as was the major himself. The body was that of a mentally ill itinerant, Glyndwr Michael, who had been found dead in London. Military intelligence claimed the body, provided it with a new identity, and armed it with disinformation specifically targeted to mislead the Germans as to allied invasion plans for Southern Europe. Operation Mincemeat, described here, offers an exemplar of military disinformation: that is to say, the ‘dissemination of deliberately false information, esp. when supplied by a government or its agent to a foreign power or the media with the intention of influencing the policies or opinions of those who receive it’ (Simpson and Weiner 1991, 448). Ironically, it would not have been possible to have described it as a disinformation operation at the time as the first use of the term in English was not recorded until 1955. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology' of ‘disinformation’ to the Russian dezinforniatsiya, first used in 1949.2 By contrast, misinformation, the ‘action of misinforming or condition of being misinformed’, without any hint of calculation or purpose, has a far more venerable pedigree, with its first use recorded in 1547 (Simpson and Weiner 1991, 1092).

Misinformation and disinformation are entirely different in their purposes, if not their effects.5 What distinguishes disinformation is its emphasis on deliberation and intent — it is purposefully misleading towards specific ends. This lays bare its close relationship with propaganda, which Philip Taylor defines as

the deliberate attempt to persuade people to think and behave in a desired way . . . the conscious, methodical and planned decision to employ techniques of persuasion designed to achieve specific goals that are intended to benefit those organising the process.

(Taylor 2003, 6, emphasis in original)4

The changed nature of conflict during the twentieth century, the introduction of conscription, the development of the long-range bomber, the targeting of civilian populations, and the total wars these brought meant that ‘men, women and children formed the new armies and their morale, their will to fight and resist on a mass scale, accordingly became a significant military asset’ (Taylor 2003, 173). In this context, propaganda and the disinformation it entailed became key weapons of war as nations set out to undermine their enemy’s morale while shoring up their own. During the Tehran conference in late 1943, Churchill is reputed to have told Stalin that in wartime, truth is so precious that it should always be attended by ‘a bodyguard of lies’ (Gilbert 1988, 586).’ In what follows I will detail why this bodyguard has grown into a mass, organised force and how (dis)information has become both an increasingly important weapon in and the dominant domain of modern conflict.6

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