Diversion | HistoryNet


By Robert M. Citino
5/6/2013 • Fire for Effect

It’s a familiar figure of speech: “What if they gave a war, and no one came?”

I am old enough to recognize this slogan. I was born in 1958, the youngest of five, with my older siblings in college. I grew up during the 60s. Vietnam. Campus radicalism. Jefferson Airplane. Etc, etc.

By and large, World War II doesn’t usually fit this model. After all, there wasn’t much wriggle room here. What if Adolf Hitler gave a war, and no one came? Any reasonable person can be certain about it: it wouldn’t have ended well for anyone.

But actually, there was an interesting moment in World War II when one side did give a war and no one came. In September 1943, the Allies launched a sizable diversionary operation codenamed Starkey. It was part of a series of operational plans put together by Lieutenant General F. E. Morgan, Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC). The first was a contested invasion of Normandy (codenamed Overlord). The second was a quick uncontested landing on the French coast, in the event of a German surrender (Rankin). Finally, Morgan had orders to plan a large deception operation to coincide with these potential invasions, codenamed Cockade. Cockade itself had three parts: a feint against Axis forces based in Norway (Operation Tindall), a phony invasion against German forces based in Brittany (Operation Wadham), and a mock invasion of Pas de Calais (Starkey).

Of the three diversions, the Allies decided on Starkey, timing it coincide with the Allied landings on the Italian mainland at Salerno (Operation Avalanche). The plan was to threaten a landing in northern France, which would hopefully draw the attention of the Germans, prevent them from reinforcing Italy, and thus assist the Allies in getting ashore. A secondary purpose was to test the strength of German air defenses in France, part of the longer range planning for Overlord. To that end, major units of the U.S. Eighth Air Force would fly against targets in northern France, simulating the preparatory stages of an Allied landing.

It all sounds sensible enough. Unfortunately, Starkey misfired from the start. The Allied navies didn’t want to commit major units to a diversion, and so withheld the battleships. Likewise, landing craft were in short supply for real operations, and no one wanted to risk too many of them for Starkey. As a result, German coastal defenses, spotting only light Allied forces, remained silent and refused to reveal themselves. The Luftwaffe, too, failed to rise to the bait. To be honest, its attention was focused on Italy, and there wasn’t much it could have done anyway. As to major German ground formations, they could only be in one place at a time, and in September 1943 that place happened to be Salerno, where they gave the Anglo-American landing force just about all it could handle. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill probably put it best upon first seeing the plans for Starkey: “I cannot feel that there is enough substance to this.”

There you have it. A failed diversion. An enemy who fails to bite. Typical fog of war stuff. End of story, right?

Unfortunately, not in this case. General Ira C. Eaker was the commander of the U.S. 8th Air Force. He had just been through a tough few months. As commander of the American half of the “Combined Air Offensive” (CBO) against Germany, he had known nothing but frustration. Rather than the quick victory over the Luftwaffe that U.S. air force planners had expected, it had been a time of heavy German resistance, high friendly losses in bombers and crews, and minimal results. Voices were already being raised back home about Eaker. Perhaps he wasn’t ready, wasn’t up to the job. Perhaps someone more aggressive would get the results that had eluded him.

Eaker was an experienced officer, and he could hear the whispers. Maybe that’s why he looked at the results of Starkey and saw something different than what other people were seeing. Perhaps, he surmised, the Germans hadn’t reacted because they couldn’t react. Perhaps their air units had already been crippled by heavy losses and didn’t feel like tangling with the Americans. Perhaps the bombing raids up to now had been more destructive than his intelligence officers were reporting. After all, he knew, bomb damage assessment and claims of enemy kills were notoriously difficult to pin down.

As a result, in the words of one scholar of the air war, Eaker looked at Starkey and “immediately claimed victory.” The day after Starkey had concluded, Eaker was in an exultant mood. “They refused to attack our bombardment whenever it was supported by our fighters,” he wrote. Clearly the Germans were weaker than expected: “The enemy could have concentrated his fighters and overwhelmed and overpowered one of these air task forces of ours. This they did not do. This indicates a breakdown in German air command or communication, or both,” he concluded.

Eaker wasn’t the first commander in history to misjudge an operation under his purview. What sets this narrative apart is the conclusion he drew. With the German Luftwaffe clearly off balance (as he saw it), the time had come for the forces under his command to land a knock-out blow. He began planning a series of bold airstrikes on various German targets. Leipzig (Operation Suction). Berlin (Operation Halleck). And finally, the massive German ball-bearing complex at Schweinfurt, hit but not taken out in August 1943.

Eaker wasn’t the only one getting giddy. His boss, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), was beginning to feed off of the same optimism. On 26 September, he told Eaker that “we obviously must send the maximum number of airplanes against targets within Germany, now that the German Air power appears to be at the critical stage.”

They did just that in a single horrible week from October 8th through the 14th, launching one raid after the other, culminating in a massive strike at Schweinfurt. And they got their unescorted bombers shot out of the sky in prodigious numbers, no fewer than 148 aircraft, along with their highly trained crews. By any accounting, it was a “Black Week,” a week of disaster. It seems the Luftwaffe wasn’t on its last legs after all.

War is never simple, but the failed diversion of Operation Starkey leaves us to ponder one of the most complex questions of World War II: what if we gave a war, and no one came—but we thought they had?


6 Responses to Diversion

  1. Luke Truxal says:

    Operation Starkey is a topic that needs to be discussed more. It impacts Operation Overlord and the Combined Bomber Offensive. Hopefully this blog will inspire future scholars to expand upon this topic. Great blog entry!

  2. JonS says:

    Huh. Interesting connection. This post reminds me of an old James Burke show :)

    Funnily enough, I’m in the midst of doing some research relating to deception, particularly in connection with OVERLORD. Jon Latimer in “Deception in War” is quite scathing about STARKEY and the steps that led to it being mounted. He suggests that STARKEY was so inept – including the reasons Prof Cinio cited above, primarily insufficient integration with other ongoing activities, and resources to be a convincing in itself – that it ran a real risk of compromising the forthcoming OVERLORD.


  3. Luke Truxal says:


    John Campbell wrote a great article on Operation Starkey as well. I think Garbo came pretty close to being compromised for his participation.

    • JonS says:

      “I think Garbo came pretty close to being compromised for his participation.”

      Yeah, that’s the point (one of the points?) Latimer made, and what I was clumsily referring to. Despite what I wrote, the secret of OVERLORD per se wasn’t close to being compromised. But the resources that would later be needed for OVERLORD – including GARBO, and the German’s belief that when they came the Allies would come via the Pas de Calais – was put at risk due to the clumsy way STARKEY was mounted.

      Do you have a link or reference to Campbell’s article, or even just the title? I’d be interested in looking it up.


  4. Luke Truxal says:

    My apologies for not giving you a citation. “Operation Starkey 1943: ‘A Piece of Harmless Playacting'” found in [Strategic and Operational Deception in the Second World War. Michael I. Handel ed.]

    I think we should be allowed to italicize or underline in our comments :)

    Campbell’s article is fairly short.

  5. Ross Mahoney says:

    I did some work on STARKEY for my MPhil thesis on the RAF and Operation JUBILEE. Its conceptual origins can be found in the aftermath of JUBILEE. One of the lessons that the RAF drew from this was that small-scale raiding operations could be used as an improvised form of the intruder strategy that had be part of Fighter Command’s strategic fighter offensive in 41 and 42. In late 42, several combined operations were planned between Mountbatten and Leigh-Mallory, who by this time was AOC-in-C Fighter Command. As well as forming part of Fighter Command’s offensive operations Mountbatten argued that they should form part of the deception operation for TORCH. The hope was to get the Luftwaffe to come up and play. Weather and other operational factors mean the planned operational never occurred. However, the belief in the tactic remained. When STARKEY, as originally conceived failed to materialize, it was transformed into the diversionary form that emerged as part of the deception plans for OVERLORD. It was, as pointed out, enthusiastically supported by USAAF as well as RAF Fighter Command. That it failed should not be read as, ‘what if we gave a war, and no one came’ but actually a case of the Luftwaffe learning its lessons from 1942. It realized that it could not combat RAF operations over northern France and, in conjunction with the increasing scales of operation against Germany itself, it choose to effectively give up the airspace over Northern France. This was based on their perception of the effect of air support at JUBILEE. As late as 1944, the Luftwaffe’s air staff were writing that the key lesson from JUBILEE was the importance of air supremacy as a vital aspect of success for amphibious operation. Unfortunately, combined with stretched resources and ineffective leadership at all levels of the Luftwaffe it was not able to combat this factor and the allies were able to gain air superiority for all subsequent amphibious operation that ensured their success. So it was more a case, we gave, they came, learned their lesson, and never came back.

    what if we gave a war, and no one came

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