I recently picked up a copy of Decisive Battles of World War II: The German View, a 1965 publication edited by H. A. Jacobsen and J. Rohwer.1 As a red teamer, I’m eager to read the entire volume, but I started with the chapter “The Invasion of Normandy” by Friedrich Ruge because I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying and analyzing the Allies’ Normandy deception.
When the tale is told in the Allied countries, the deception often receives top billing. It is, after all, a fascinating episode, featuring a coordinated deception plan on a scale arguably not seen before or since. And the deception clearly achieved its intended effect, particularly post-landing, when the German high command (OKW) stubbornly refused to release forces from the Calais area.
In Ruge’s telling from the German perspective, however, the deception receives no more than a couple of oblique mentions. Again, the deception was effective, but the Germans weren’t foolish. Rommel in particular was well aware that uncertainty existed and that the Allies weren’t predestined to land at either Calais or Normandy. The author even presents evidence suggesting that Rommel suspected the landing at Normandy, and it’s an interesting historical “what if?” to consider what Rommel could have accomplished if given overall command and the flexibility to pursue his recommendations fully.
Ruge emphasizes failures in German command structure and decision making without referencing the deception. At one point, he notes that “German reaction higher up was far too slow, as a result of the faulty command structure.”2 Later, he summarizes a whole system of flaws, again emphasizing several aspects of decision failure (including Hitler’s influence):
On the German side, Hitler’s wishful thinking, his interference in the operations, an unsound command structure, lack of co-operation at the highest military levels, materiel deterioration of the Luftwaffe and the Navy, and a general overtaxing of military strength, were the factors that primarily contributed to the defeat.3
It’s interesting that Ruge underscores aspects of poor decision making without directly referencing the deception. Why is this? Is Ruge, a retired Vice Admiral and naval advisor to Rommel during the invasion period, simply unwilling to acknowledge that the Germans fell for the trick, or is it something more?
I believe it’s mostly the latter. Ruge makes a strong case that the Germans, limited by resources, sought to defend not just Calais or Normandy, but the entire coast. (This despite the high command’s insistence on Calais as the landing site.) Ideally for the Germans, Rommel’s plans to mine and fortify the coast while integrating the available land, sea, and air forces into a single, responsive command structure would have at least slowed down the Allies and perhaps facilitated a political settlement to the war short of unconditional surrender. (Ruge spends some time on Rommel’s role in the putsch against Hitler.)
There’s an important lesson here. Deception happens. When you’re on the receiving end, it can hurt, and when you’re the deceiver, it can sometimes secure dramatic gains. Still, deception tends to be temporary. Once the deceiver acts on the deception, the deceived party usually becomes aware of the ruse. In this case, a flexible, adaptive response on the Germans’ part could conceivably have negated much of the deception’s effects. It was not to be, however, and, as a result, Normandy tends to lead us to overemphasize the irresistible decisiveness of a well-planned deception. This is most clear when considering the German perspective.
In fact, Ruge’s account of the Normandy landings from the German perspective reminds us that we don’t have to see through every deception and crack every code if our command structure facilitates responsiveness and sound decision-making. Sometimes it’s less important to ensure that we get everything right than it is to ensure that we know how to do things right. After all, we’ll never get everything right, and knowing how to do things right works when we do and when we don’t.
We can distill the lesson for the modern commander or CISO to this dictum: Consider deception but don’t fixate on it. Be ready for anything whether you’re the deceiver, the deceived, or simply an onlooker (or all three at the same time). Once again, sound decision making should be your goal. Red teaming and deception analysis are useful to the degree that they support this goal. When they overtake it, they risk becoming counterproductive.
As an aside, it’s interesting to note that at least one German commander (von Sodenstern) considered employing a bit of deception himself, although his proposal was dismissed. According to Ruge, van Sodenstern proposed in 1943 to “lure the Allies into the area between the Seine and the Loire, west-northwest of Paris. Here the German armoured forces were to be ready to spring the trap.”4 Just another interesting historical “what if?” …