British deception formations in World War II

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During World War II the British Army made extensive use of fictional army formations, as part of strategic or tactical military deceptions. Their use was pioneered by Dudley Clarke during the North African campaign. Clarke eventually formulated an elaborate order of battle deception (Operation Cascade) to mislead the Axis high command as to the strength of Allied forces in the region. Based on these successes the London Controlling Section made extensive use of notional formations during Operation Bodyguard - a deception operation ahead of the June 1944 Normandy Landings.

Higher Formations[edit]

Fourth Army[edit]

As part of Fortitude North, a notional 250,000 strong Fourth Army was created. Based in Scotland, the army was used to threaten an assault on Norway to keep German units, nearly half a million men, stationed there to resist such an endeavor.[1][2] Following the invasion of Normandy, the Fourth Army was notionally transferred south to reinforce the First United States Army Group (FUSAG), another fictitious formation.[3]

II Corps[edit]

III Corps[edit]

VII Corps[edit]

XIV Corps[edit]


2nd Airborne Division[edit]

The division comprised a small amount of personnel and equipment, especially radio communications, which aimed to mimic the activities of a real, 10,000 strong plus, division. Its imaginary composition included the 11th Parachute Brigade, 12th Parachute Brigade, and the 13th Airlanding Brigade.[4]

The division was first referred to as part of the British II Corps of the British Fourth Army, with units based at Skegness and Grantham in Lincolnshire. For Operation Fortitude South II, the division along with the notional United States 9th and 21st Airborne Divisions were depicted as being under the direct control of the First United States Army Group and tasked with seizing key positions inland of the fictitious Pas de Calais beachheads.[4][5]

In the aftermath of Fortitude South, the notional 2nd Airborne Division, the notional United States 9th and 21st Airborne Divisions and the real United States 17th Airborne Divisions were used to depict an airborne threat to the Kiel-Bremen area in support of Operation Market Garden.[6]

The division was disposed of in December 1944, by announcing that it had been disbanded to provide replacements for the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions.[4]

4th Airborne Division[edit]

4th Airborne Division was part of Operation Cascade, a 1943 order of battle deception during the North African campaign, and initially based in Palestine.[7]

The division comprised both fictitious and real units. In 1941 Dudley Clarke had conducted Operation Abeam, to play on Italian fears of airborne assault, in which he created the 1st SAS Brigade. During 1941 and 1942 it formed part of Clarke's non-specific plans to deceive the Axis command as to the true size of Allied forces in the region. By the end of 1942 airborne units were training in the Middle East; one such unit, the 4th Parachute Brigade, was combined with 1st SAS to become the 4th Airborne Division. In addition, the division notionally included the 7th Parachute Brigade (comprising Greek Squadrons, Special Forces, and a French Parachute Battalion).[7]

In June 1943, the 4th Parachute Brigade completed training and was assigned to 1st Airborne Division; it was replaced in the 4th Airborne Division by the fictional 6th (Gurkha) Parachute Brigade (comprising the 6th Battalion, 6th Gurkha Regiment, the 160th Parachute Regiment (Gurkha), and the 161st Parachute Regiment (Gurkha)).[7]

The 4th Airborne Division was utilised as part of the fictional British Twelfth Army during Operation Barclay (where it was supposed to be destined for an assault on Greece and Crete) and Operation Zeppelin (where it was presented as part of a simulated threat to Crete).[7]

Unlike most of the other British airborne divisions, 4th Airborne was given an individual insignia. This took the form of an open white parachute with black wings on a blue background.[7]

5th Airborne Division[edit]

The division was created in late 1943 as part of Operation Foynes to cover the departure 1st Airborne Division from Italy. It was notionally built up around the 2nd Parachute Brigade, which had been left in Italy when the 1st Airborne Division travelled to Britain.[8] Its notional composition included the 2nd Parachute Brigade, 8th Parachute Brigade, and 9th Air Landing Brigade.

Initially it was portrayed as part of the British XIV Corps of the British Twelfth Army in Sicily, subsequently it was depicted as being attached successively to the British Twelfth Army's Polish III Corps (Operation Ferdinand) and British III Corps (Operation Second Undercut). Finally in December 1944, it was presented to the Germans as the theatre airborne reserve until the end of the war.[8]

Like the 4th Airborne Division, the 5th Airborne Division was given its own insignia. This took the form of a bright blue bolt of lightning, formed by five zig-zags on a dark red square. In 1945 this was replaced by the standard insignia used by the 1st, 2nd & 6th Airborne Divisions.[8]

5th Armoured Division[edit]

Part of Fortitude South II, it belonged to the British VII Corps, its HQ was located in Newmarket. It was composed of the 37th Armoured Brigade (AB) and the 43rd Infantry Brigade (IB) in addition to divisional support elements. It went to Yorkshire in November 1944 before being disbanded in January 1945.

7th Division (Cyprus)[edit]

The division was formed on 14 June 1941. Notionally based in Cyprus, the deception continued until June 1943.

40th Infantry Division[edit]

The 40th Infantry Division was notionally created on 9 November 1943 as part of Operation Foynes.[9][10] Operation Foynes was a deception plan to "conceal from the Germans the weakening of the allied position in the Mediterranean". To aid in the build-up for Operation Overlord, eight veteran Anglo-American divisions were withdrawn to the United Kingdom. They were replaced by three genuine divisions. To cover the shortfall, four phantom divisions were created in the theater and a further two were "held in readiness to be "sent" but were never used".[11]

The 40th Division was created by renaming the 43rd Infantry Brigade. The 30th battalions of the Somerset Light Infantry, Royal Norfolk Regiment and Dorset Regiment played the role of the 119th, 120th, and 121st Infantry Brigades.[12][13] To keep up appearances, the battalion commanding officers flew brigadier pennants, and the divisional insignia of the First World War's 40th Division was adopted (which were manufactured locally): a white diamond with a superimposed acorn.[14][15] In actuality, the brigade consisted of "low medical category men armed with personal weapons only and with a skeleton complement of transport" who were undertaking internal and lines of communication duties on Sicily. The deception was played out until June 1944, when the formation was disbanded."[16]

57th Division[edit]

The division was formed in North Africa during November 1943, by renaming the 42nd Infantry Brigade.[17] Notionally, it was the revived First World War 57th (2nd West Lancashire) Division, and used that division's "Derby 'D'", a red and white letter 'D' on its side on a black background, insignia.[18][19] Mike Chappell comments proof that "the phantom 57th had done their job" was found on German "enemy order of battle charts", which depicted the division's insignia inverted.[20] The 30th battalions Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, Green Howards and Suffolk Regiment played the role of the 170th, 171st, and 172nd Infantry Brigades.[21][22] The division was initially formed as part of Operation Foynes. Afterwards, the division was notionally part of the notional XIV Corps. It was notionally based in the Terni area, and was later transferred to the notional III Corps that was being used to threaten an invasion of Greece as part of Operation Second Undercut.[23]

58th Division[edit]

Created in 1944, taking the identity of a genuine division from World War I, the division's insignia was a stag in an attempt to "suggest a connection with the Scottish Highlands". The division's number was chosen as Ultra intercepts had shown the Germans "believed there was a 58th Division" located in the Windsor area. The purpose of the division was to replace the genuine 3rd Infantry Division, which had hitherto been part of Operation Fortitude North's notional planned attack on Stavanger. The 58th took over this role, allowing the real troops to participate in Overlord related training: Exercise Fabius. Following this, the division notionally undertook mountain training near Inverness and Glasgow. During the summer, the division was notionally transferred south to England as part of Fortitude South II. It was initially, fictionally, based in Gravesend before moving to East Anglia, Yorkshire, and finally to Hertfordshire where it was "disbanded" in April 1945.[24][25][26]

80th Infantry Division[edit]

Part of VII Corps. The fake division was created by signallers of the 61st Infantry Division. The fake division, as part of Fortitude South, threatened to invade the Pas de Calais as part of FUSAG. Was 'disbanded' near the end of the war.


  1. ^ Crowdy 2008, pp. 323 and 232.
  2. ^ Levine 2014, p. 732.
  3. ^ Crowdy 2008, p. 293.
  4. ^ a b c Holt. 2005. p.916
  5. ^ Hesketh. 1999. p. 418
  6. ^ Hesketh. 1999. p. 306
  7. ^ a b c d e Holt (2004), pg. 225–226
  8. ^ a b c Thaddeus Holt. The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War. Phoenix. 2005. ISBN 0753819171
  9. ^ Chappell, p.23
  10. ^ Holt, p. 921
  11. ^ Holt, pp. 498-499
  12. ^ Chappell, p.23
  13. ^ Holt, p. 921
  14. ^ Chappell, p.23
  15. ^ Holt, p. 921
  16. ^ Chappell, p.23
  17. ^ Chappell, p. 36
  18. ^ Chappell, p. 36
  19. ^ Holt, p. 922
  20. ^ Chappell, p. 36
  21. ^ Chappell, p. 36
  22. ^ Holt, p. 922
  23. ^ Holt, p. 922
  24. ^ Holt, p. 922
  25. ^ Martin, pp. 185–8.
  26. ^ Levine, pp. 212, 217, 233.


  • Holt Thaddeus. The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War. Phoenix. 2005. ISBN 0-753-81-917-1
  • Hesketh Roger. Fortitude: The D-Day Deception Campaign. St Ermine. 1999. ISBN 0-316-85172-8
  • British Battle Insignia (2): 1939-45 by Mike Chappell
  • Joshua Levine, Operation Fortitude: The Greatest Hoax of the Second World War, London: Collins, 2011, ISBN 978-0-00-739587-3.
  • David Martin, Londoners on the Western Front: The 58th (2/1st London) Division in the Great War, Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2014, ISBN 978-1-78159-180-2.