Operation Overlord

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By Erik Kleinsmith
Associate Vice President for Business Development in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University.

Note: This article first appeared at In Military.

On June 6, 1944, over 150,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy commencing one of the most daring operations in military history, the invasion of Nazi-occupied France. Despite German defense preparations, the complexity of the mission, and the vicious fighting in several landing zones, the Allies were able to establish all five beachheads by the end of the day at the loss of roughly 6,000 casualties. It was truly what Field Marshall Erwin Rommel predicted would be the longest day of World War II.

To ensure the success of Operation Overlord, the Allies ran several supporting operations. Among these were Operations Bodyguard and Fortitude, which were conducted to deceive the Germans into thinking the landings would occur at a different time and place while simultaneously keeping the actual Normandy landings a secret. The Germans knew that an invasion was imminent, but the almost complete success of these deception efforts allowed enough Allied forces to get ashore before the German forces could effectively react.

As a lifelong student of military history, looking back 75 years to D-Day, I wonder whether we could we pull off the invasion today? Given today’s news media, social media, and information technology, would we be able to achieve the same success of secrecy, deception, and surprise as before?

How would Operations Overlord Bodyguard have unfolded in the world of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and today’s 24-hour news cycle? Would the success of the entire operation be put at risk by someone looking to get the most “likes” or followers?  Such a hypothetical question can never be definitively answered, but it does pose many significant problems and considerations for today’s military planners and supporting intelligence assets.

Similarities and Differences, Then and Now

Perhaps the best way to frame the Normandy invasion in the context of today is to identify what has changed and what has not changed between then and now. Assuming a similar military and geographic situation, the dispositions of both Allied and German forces, along with principles of fighting wars, would remain unchanged. The objectives, along with the associated requirements of deceiving an enemy, achieving strategic surprise, securing operations, and psychologically targeting an opponent have been constant over more than just seven and a half decades.

The real differences between 1944 and today can be narrowed down to the information and social environments. During World War II, information flow in the form of radio messages, written correspondence, and even face-to-face discussions were tightly controlled. Deception operations involved draconian censorship of all letters and other communications. Extensive counterintelligence and the near-perfect use of double agents contributed to this success. Even the creation of an entirely fake 1st Army Group under the command of General George S. Patton reinforced the German belief in the lie that the landings would take place at Calais instead of Normandy.

Bodyguard, Then and Now

Whereas photos from that era were primarily taken by a controlled pool of photographers, cameras today are as ubiquitous as wristwatches. With digital photography providing virtually every person with a means to take and transmit digital media, the amount of imagery grows at an almost exponential rate. In 2017 alone, there was an estimated 1.2 trillion photos taken and 1.2 billion were shared over social media.

How information is disseminated today would also be cause for concern. Keeping a secret as critical as Operation Overlord would appear to be nearly, if not completely impossible, given the amount of information trafficking around the globe today. From the critical to the trivial, major news organizations and Internet bloggers would be constantly putting out information of varying reliability about the pending operation.

Instead of merely capturing the handful of German agents sent to England, the Allies would have to deal with a myriad of unscrupulous trolls and social media companies willing to sell any and all kinds of information. Many of these purveyors would do so without regard to the national interest or the lives they would put at risk as a result. With the thirst for information reaching a fever pitch, German intelligence would not have a problem with the lack of information coming in, but with the sheer volume of it.

Ensuring deceptive information in 1944 went to the right set of eyes or ears while protecting the truth was daunting yet achievable. Even so, there were several mistakes and episodes that could have jeopardized the entire mission.

In his book, “The Longest Day,” Cornelius Ryan writes about an Associated Press teletype operator who, while practicing his typing, accidentally put out a message announcing that the Allied landings had started, only two days before the actual landings. Even more bizarre, according to Ryan, was how a crossword puzzle creator for the London Daily Telegraph had several D-Day code words such as Overlord, Utah, and Omaha inexplicably included in his puzzles in the weeks leading up to the operation.  Multiply these instances by ten, a hundred, or a thousand and you’ve more accurately identified the challenge facing today’s military planners.

Deception Is Always in Play

Could such a massive deception and protection operation like Bodyguard and Fortitude be successful in protecting Overlord today? Yes, but it would take a complex set of personnel, skills, planning, and discipline far beyond the capabilities of 1944.

For those who would be skeptical, remember how easy it was for deceptions such as WMDs in Iraq and Russian collusion in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to take hold in political and media circles even with today’s information environment? Deceiving the enemy lies not in placing tight controls over all information, but in remembering the famous quote from Winston Churchill: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

About the Author

Erik Kleinsmith is the Associate Vice President for Business Development in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. Erik is one of the subjects of a book entitled The Watchers by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger tracking Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife of 26 years.