BOOK REVIEW – “A” Force: The Origins of British Deception during the Second World War

Whitney T. Bendeck. “A” Force: The Origins of British Deception during the Second World War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013, 272 pp.

Review by Joseph Moretz
British Commission for Military History

The role of deception in Allied military operations has been surveyed in several previous monographs, but the contribution of “A” Force, the primary British organization responsible for this side of military operations in the Mediterranean theatre, has heretofore lacked its own accounting. Enter Whitney Bendeck to fill the void and who ably recounts how “A” Force hoodwinked the Axis during the critical period of 1941-43, when fortunes ebbed to and fro for the British. Anchoring her research in both primary and secondary sources, the story is told with aplomb and is a useful addition to the growing intelligence historiography of the Second World War. As a survey, the monograph will prove most useful to the general reader desiring to know how deception came to assume such a vital part in British military planning, but even the specialist will delight in the characters introduced along the way and no more than Brigadier Dudley Clarke, the “A” Force commanding officer.

Clarke came to the Middle East in late 1940 at the express request of General Sir Archibald Wavell to plant the seeds of misinformation. Standing on the defensive in the wake of a succession of defeats in that critical year, first efforts sought to create the illusion of strength where only difficulties existed. These were not always successful for a variety of reasons including poor Allied security practices as Bendeck allows, but the efforts showed promise and improved with time and experience. By 1942 and at El Alamein, deception was central to British operational planning and the harvest was a victory of the first order. Deception did not ordain that victory, but in the views of Clarke and the author it doubtlessly allowed it to be secured at a lower cost in life. By 1944, the war was moving in other directions and so too deception. “A” Force had come of age and key personnel now transferred to Britain and applied their craft to the greatest challenge of all: Overlord.

Though this reviewer has little hesitation in recommending the work as a history of “A” Force, that Clarke and his sponsor Wavell were the putative fathers of British deception in the Second World War is to claim too much. It is easy to see how the author enters this trap for at no point is British military experience in deception analysed before the fall of France. To the extent that the pre-1940 period is covered, the author relies on standard academic histories to inform her judgments and fails to incorporate primary sources. These works if explaining much of the broader picture do not usefully address deception. Thus, the previous operational context of British wartime deception is overlooked.

For the British Army, deception was anchored in its Field Service Regulations as an enabler for the principles of surprise and security. As both the Naval War Manual and the RAF War Manual were styled and followed the general lines of the FSR, deception was anchored in the doctrine of all three arms before the onset of the Second World War. Recognizing that the breadth of empire could not be defended with the means available, interwar planners looked to deception and propaganda to help fill the void. In this they studied the previous record provided by the World War with subjects diverse as feints, ruses and decoys featuring in the lectures of its staff colleges. With many having experience of the Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign where deception was employed to cover the evacuation, it is not surprising that veterans of the battle such as Captain Wilfrid Egerton, RN, handled the subject.

As for the present war, when the British contemplated intervening in the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-40, it created the Inter-Service Security Board (ISSB) in February 1940 under Lieutenant Colonel Jo Holland to develop its deception plan. To this end, the cover story fashioned suggested the Allies were gathering their forces to reinforce the Near East while stores, shipping and troops concentrated at British and French ports for Scandinavia. Though France was not a member of the ISSB, it accepted the premise of the deception plan and acted accordingly. Many of the tools applied by “A” Force including selected leaks, false rumours and bogus signal traffic were used by the ISSB at this time to say nothing of the tactical deceptions deployed when forces subsequently entered and operated in Norway. Even the creation of 5 Scots Guards can be seen as an order of battle deception; a practice “A” Force raised to an art.

In truth, deception was but one tool employed to protect the security of British operations while facilitating surprise against the enemy working alongside propaganda, censorship and psychological warfare. “A” Force played a major part in the successes achieved, but seeing the trees for the forest masks the greater picture. At no time is the reader allowed to view the corresponding moves by the Mediterranean Fleet and the Royal Air Force which presumably played some part in events of 1941 and 1942. Thus, “A” Force tells the story of one vital unit, but it tells little more.

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)

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