A Genius for Deception by Nicholas Rankin

Deception has a long history in warfare, but only truly came to prominence in the first half of the twentieth century. From experimenting with camouflage and designing Observation Posts disguised as trees on the western front, deception progressed to new levels in the Second World War. At Alamein deception convinced Rommel that the attack would come from the south and not the north. Prior to the invasion of Sicily ‘the man who never way’ deceived the Germans about where the invasion would take place. And prior to D-Day the presence of the fictional First US Army Group convinced Hitler that the ‘real’ invasion would come in the Pas-de-Calais.

Sadly I found this book difficult to read. Whilst it tells some fascinating stories, at times it veers off on tangents to describe careers or peripheral incidents, leaving sparse room for actually writing about deception itself. Colonel Turner’s bombing decoys receive two pages worth of analysis. There is also relatively little about Operation Fortitude, which was surely the biggest and most succesful deception operation during the Second World War.

Perhaps the title is slightly misleading, as Rankin writes about a lot more than deception itself – at times he strays into writing about intelligence and security. Although clearly the lines between deception and intelligence do become blurred, a stronger focus on deception would have been preferable. Writing history is just as much about what you leave out as what you leave in.

What Rankin does do well is illustrate the development of deception from 1914 to 1945, by chronologically describing the evolution from amateurish projects to full-scale strategic operations. He also leaves a distinct impression that deception is something that the British have a real flair for – there is indeed something very British about the amateurish but innovative attempts to disguise tanks, and also in the countless tales of intrigue. Another salient point that Rankin make is that while in 1914 deception was an activity far down the food chain, by 1945 it had become integral to all military planning.

It does feel like this book is intended for a more general interest readership than readers with a more serious interest. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact I can imagine a less critical eye might find it a fascinating read. But when you know that many leads are not taken up, you cannot help but feel frustrated. There is little original research here, although admittedly many of the operations described by Rankin have not previously been considered alongside each other in one book.

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Filed under Book of the Week, World War Two

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