Last time out we discussed an Allied deception operation called Starkey.
Designed to simulate a landing in the Pas de Calais in 1943, and thus to draw off German strength from Italy (where the Allies actually were landing at the moment), it failed miserably. The Germans saw through the ploy (which was, to be sure, clumsily planned), refused to bite, and stayed strong on the beaches of Salerno. To make things worse, Starkey wound up fooling the Allies themselves, with U.S. Eighth Air Force commander General Ira C. Eaker interpreting the lack of German reaction as a sign that the Luftwaffe must be on the ropes. In other words, what started as a deception became something else entirely: self-deception.
I don’t want to pick on Eaker any more than necessary, or beat Starkey into the ground. I have a very fine graduate student currently writing a dissertation on the whole mess and you can all read the book when it comes out. But it strikes me that what happened to the Allies in 1943 is not an isolated incident, a humorous anecdote that shows how silly our generals can be.
In fact, I would like to propose that the Starkey deception/self-deception loop is so common in war as to be systemic, by which I mean that it is part of the very fabric of military forces in conflict. And I’d like to offer you all Exhibit A.
Imagine being a German staff officer in late May 1944. Your current mission is, to be frank, a yawner. You’ve planned operations at division, corps, and army level. Poland. Norway, France, the Balkans. You’re proud of your career, of your achievements. But this barely qualifies, and you could do it in your sleep. You have received orders to draw up the situation maps for yet another visitor to the Führer in Mauerwald, near Angerburg, East Prussia.
Yes, we are talking about the famous Wolfsschanze, the “Wolf’s Lair” in East Prussia. The headquarters of the OKH, the Oberkommando des Heeres (the High Command of the Army). It is a place where a number of world-historical decisions have been taken by Hitler and his generals over the past few years, but you suspect that this will not be one of them. The visitor this time is Monsignor Jozef Tiso, the Vodca (or “Leader”) of independent Slovakia. Like all the other minor Axis players, he has taken the local-language equivalent of Führer as his title—just like Antonescu did in Romania and Pavelic in Croatia.
You’re a military man, and you pride yourself on remaining outside of politics, but you know who Tiso is. Slovakia is one of Germany’s minor allies, and it has contributed a few small formations to the fight in the East. They’ve given a pretty good accounting of themselves, unlike some of the others, but they barely register in the overall scheme of thing. The situation in the East went critical a long, long time ago, and Germany’s own casualties in any given week probably outnumber Slovakia’s entire manpower contribution in the entire campaign.
Still, Hitler seems to think that Tiso’s visit is an important one. He wants to shore up the Axis. After all, Italy is already gone, and the others—Finland, Romania, Hungary—seem to be wavering. Given the dire strategic situation, maybe Hitler is right. Every ally, even the smallest, counts.
And you know what that means. You weren’t surprised when the order came down this morning. It’s distasteful to you as a General Staff officer, a professional who takes his job seriously. But it wasn’t a surprise. You let out a long sigh. It’s happened before.
You’ve been ordered to alter the maps.
More next time.