“All warfare is based on deception” — Sun Tzu
The ability to outfox the opposition often provides the winning edge on the battlefield. From basic disinformation to elaborately planned subterfuge, an array of shrewd tactics have been employed by some of the greatest military leaders of all time.
Although sheer luck can be equally advantageous, competent armies usually find a way to win. Moreover, pulling off ingenious traps leads to immortality.
8. Operation Mincemeat
In an effort to bamboozle Germany during WWII, British Intelligence hatched a particularly macabre form of trickery involving a rotting corpse. The ruse, codenamed Operation Mincemeat, was designed to mislead the Germans about the Allied invasion of Sicily.
Prior to achieving acclaim as the author of the popular James Bond spy novels, Lt. Commander Ian Fleming applied his talents to help deceive the Axis. Fleming served as the assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey (the basis for Bond’s MI6 boss “M”) and helped pen the Trout Memo — a report comparing military deception to fly fishing that involved using a cadaver as bait.
On the morning of April 30, 1943, off Spain’s southwest coast, a local fisherman discovered a dead man with a black briefcase chained to his waist. Later identified as Captain William Martin of the Royal Marines, the lifeless body was quickly brought ashore and handed over to the authorities. A cache of documents inside the case revealed secret plans, detailing a large-scale Allied attack on Greece and Sardinia. Unbeknownst to the Germans, however, the discovery was an elaborate hoax.
‘Captain Smith’ was actually a Welsh vagrant named Glyndwr Michael, who had been found dead recently in London from an apparent suicide. The planted information eventually landed on the desk of Adolf Hitler, who reacted decisively with catastrophic results.
The operation would become one of the most bizarre chapters of the war, punctuated with a message to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stating, “Mincemeat swallowed. Rod, line and sinker.” After the war, the morbid affair became a best-selling book, “The Man Who Never Was” that also spawned a popular film.
7. Battle of Lake Trasimene
Hannibal is best known for crossing the Alps with thundering battle elephants during the Second Punic War. However, the Carthaginian general also relied on more subtle methods to crush his enemies. Such was the case at the Battle of Lake Trasimene — a brilliantly conceived strategy that remains the largest ambush ever in terms of the total number of men involved.
In June of 217 BCE, Hannibal led his men south through Italy towards Rome before abruptly turning east into the valley Lake Trasimene. He did this in full sight of the pursuing Roman army of 30,000 soldiers led by Consul Gaius Flaminius, timing the maneuver just as night fell.
The North African invaders then used the cover of darkness to conceal their position on a forested hillside just above the lake’s northern banks. They also lit hundreds of fires in the distance, creating the impression they were camped much farther away. The following morning Flaminius plunged straight into the trap, forgoing any reconnaissance. The blunder proved catastrophic.
On Hannibal’s signal, the hidden troops sprang into action, pinning the unsuspecting legions against the lake. More than half of the Romans were killed in a brutal massacre, including Flaminius. The noted historian Livy later wrote that during the savage fighting, neither army was aware that an earthquake had occurred, which “overthrew large portions of many of the cities of Italy, turned rivers, and leveled mountains with an awful crash.” For the Romans, things would only get worse in the months to come.
6. Battle of Kalka River
Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the Mongolian Empire conquered enormous swaths of territory, eventually becoming the largest contiguous land empire in history. The effective use of mounted archers served as the cornerstone of several key Mongolian victories, but they also had a penchant for tricking their foes with cunning feigned retreats — a tactic executed to perfection at the Battle of Kalka in 1223.
Following the Mongolian conquest of the Khwarezmian Empire in Central Asia, generals Subutai and Jebe were granted permission to further conduct a reconnaissance operation northwest with a small army of 20,000 seasoned troops. They soon encountered a much larger force consisting of an alliance of Russian princes and the Cuman tribal group in southeastern Ukraine. Naturally, the Mongolians went to their tried and tested playbook and pretended to flee in panic.
Commanded by Mstislav III of Kiev and Mstislav the Bold of Galich, the Russians pursued the smaller army for nine days before the Mongols finally turned around to engage the enemy on the banks of the Kalka River. The battle quickly became a shooting gallery as the Mongolian cavalry surrounded the enemy, annihilating the Europeans with a relentless barrage of arrow fire.
Although no additional lands were officially acquired, the Mongols’ first incursion into Europe is regarded as one of the most momentous raids in history and served as a preview for future conquests.
5. Battle of Chancellorsville
When Stephen Crane wrote “The Red Badge of Courage,” a novel widely considered one of the most realistic portrayals of the American Civil War, the author based the events around the Battle of Chancellorsville. And for good reason. The improbable Confederate victory showcased both the horrific nature of war as well as the dramatic actions taken by Robert E. Lee, resulting in a crushing Union defeat and (briefly) the bloodiest battle in American history.
President Abraham Lincoln had initially offered Lee command of the U.S. Army at the onset of the war. After all, it was the career soldier’s birthright. Two of his uncles were signers of the Declaration of Independence, and his father, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, had fought beside George Washington during the Revolutionary War. But in the end, the slave-owning Virginian refused the assignment, famously declaring, “I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children.”
By the Spring of 1863, Lincoln had become increasingly frustrated by his ineffective military leaders. He then installed General “Fighting Joe” Hooker to lead the Army of the Potomac in hopes of turning the tide. It didn’t. Despite being outnumbered by nearly 2-to-1, Lee chose a risky and highly unusual maneuver. He divided his smaller forces—not once, but twice—to engage Hooker’s army of 115,000 men.
The fighting — a mere 60 miles for the Washington DC — included a daring raid by fellow Virginian Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson that caught on the Union general’s right flank entirely off guard. Hooker soon fell back to defensive positions before finally retreating across the Rappahannock River.
The rebels’ victory, however, came at a high cost. While returning to camp on May 2, 1863, Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men. The venerated general later died following complications from an amputated arm, delivering a crushing blow to the Confederate cause.
4. The Sinking of UB-4
The hoisting of false colors to hide a ship’s true identity has been a long-standing practice by rival nations and plundering pirates alike. But disguising an entire boat and its crew presented a radically new form of sneaky deception during the First World War.
Known as Q-ships (“Q” referred to the boats’ main homeport in Queenstown, Ireland), these British decoys concealed heavy weaponry on vessels ranging from merchant ships to fishing smacks. The ruse was designed primarily to lure German submarines into surfacing at close range. The imposters (some of whom even dressed in drag) would then suddenly open fire or drop depth charges.
At the start of WWI, Germany ushered in one of the more deadly modern warfare technologies with an impressive fleet of U-boats (unterseeboots). The dreaded “Submarine Menace” posed a dire threat to civilians and sailors, as well as destroying thousands of tons of vital supplies. In response, the Admiralty initially launched a hodgepodge assembly of so-called “mystery ships,” including the Inverlyon, a converted fishing trawler from the English port town of Lowestoft.
The unpowered sailing ship would be later renamed H.M. Armed Smack Inverlyon, and fitted with a small three-pounder (47 mm) gun. On August 15, 1915, the wooden boat snagged its biggest catch ever by sinking UB-4 near Great Yarmouth. The Inverlyon’s Royal Navy crew shared the bounty offered for German submarines, and its commander, Ernest Martin Jehan, received the Distinguished Service Cross. Eventually, the infamous Q-ship returned to fishing but didn’t survive the war after being sunk by U-55 on February 1, 1917.
3. Battle of Cannae
Following a string of humiliating defeats by Carthaginian forces (see #7), Roman legions attempted to regroup near the village of Cannae in southeast Italy. They should have stayed home and ordered pizza instead. Despite facing a considerably larger army, Hannibal once again proved his mettle as a brilliant tactician — and deservedly lands on this list for the second time.
Led by consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro, the Romans attempted to overwhelm the 50,000 invaders by amassing roughly 80,000 soldiers on August 2, 216 BCE. The battle plan called for a conventional frontal assault, placing heavy infantry in the center formation to muscle through the Carthaginian army.
Hannibal anticipated this line of attack and deployed his brother Hasdrubal and his nephew Hanno on the Roman flanks while allowing his middle position to collapse. The double-envelopment maneuver enabled the swift-moving cavalry, including seasoned Numidian and Celtic horsemen, to corral and trap the enemy.
When the dust settled, the battlefield had become a graveyard of dead legionaries. Only 15,000 men from the losing side would escape with their lives, survivors of the worst single day of bloodshed in Roman history.
2. Battle of Hydaspes River
In the 1988 feature film, Die Hard, arch-villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) haughtily declares, “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” The erudite and well-dressed terrorist is, of course, referring to Alexander the Great, whose victory at the Battle of Hydaspes River in 326 BCE cemented his legacy as an exceptionally shrewd military leader.
During his invasion of present-day Pakistan in 326 B.C., the undefeated Macedonian found his advance blocked by an un-fordable, swollen river. No problem. He merely used the inconvenience to deceive an eager force of 34,000 Indians under King Porus, waiting for him on the other side.
For weeks, Alexander circulated rumors that he didn’t intend to launch an attack until after the monsoon season ended, and even stockpiled large shipments of grain to create the appearance of a prolonged encampment. The trap was set — and Porus would soon prove no match for the great one.
The Macedonians added to the ruse by feigning to load their ships as though preparing to set sail across the river. Meanwhile, Alexander secretly led more than half of his army away from camp and crossed the Hydaspes some 20 miles upstream. Porus the Not So Great was then caught by surprise when the attack finally came, resulting in his capture and slaughter of the Indian army.
On June 6, 1944, Allied forces launched “Operation Overlord,” the largest amphibious invasion in history. The logistics alone were staggering and involved a combined force of over 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops, 6,939 ships and landing vessels, 2,395 powered aircraft, and 867 gliders that delivered airborne troops. Nonetheless, a good measure of chicanery was still needed to ensure victory and provide a critical turning point in World War Two.
The Germans had anticipated such an attack and spent three years constructing the “Atlantic Wall“ — a 2,000-mile-long coastal defense fortified with landmines, concrete bunkers, and gun emplacements. In response to this seemingly impregnable Nazi barricade, the Allies devised an elaborately complex plan to fool the defenders about the exact location and date of the launch.
The ruse depended on hoodwinking Hitler into thinking the incursion would occur at Pas-de-Calais, the closest French coastline to England. The Allies used a deep bag of tricks such as fake radio transmissions, double agents, and even a “phantom army.” A fleet of inflatable trucks and tanks, dummy aircraft, and landing craft were positioned around possible embarkation points, presided over by the ever pugnacious General “Ol’ Blood and Guts” Patton. The plan would exceed all expectations.
Under Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Normandy beachheads were eventually secured along a hard-fought, 80-mile stretch in Northern France. The deception worked so well that the Germans kept a sizeable force in the Pas de Calais for several weeks, convinced the main attack would still occur there. The mistake proved disastrous, allowing the Allies to sweep through France before the final push to Berlin.