Outfoxing Beats Outgunning
What we can learn from one of the most brilliant deceptions of World War II.
On Sunday, the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II battle for Sicily, the Sons of Italy’s Garibaldi-Meucci Museum on Staten Island screened the terrific 1956 film, The Man Who Never Was. Clifton Webb starred in this true story, a retelling of one of the war’s most famous deceptions. A briefcase seeded with sensitive papers was chained to the wrist of a dead man carefully selected from a British morgue, dressed as a Royal Marine, and taken by submarine and floated ashore on the coast of Spain where Nazi spies were known to have links to local officials. The papers included indications that the next Allied invasion — after Operation Torch had helped liberate North Africa — would be in the Balkans. A jovial reference to sardines in a letter from one senior leader to another led the Germans to believe that a landing on Sardinia was also possible.
What was the effect of Operation Mincemeat? The Nazis did gain access to the body and papers — which included classified documents, but also fabricated personal correspondence and such — and carefully studied the whole matter. The bottom-line result was that, during the two months after "Major Martin" washed ashore at Huelva, the Germans doubled their forces in the Balkans to 18 divisions — eight of them in Greece, where there had been only one before. Sicily, the Allies’s true target, a stepping-stone between Allied forces in Tunisia and the Italian mainland, was much less well defended, with only parts of two German divisions in place. There were a lot of Italian soldiers deployed to the island, but at this point in the war, after defeat in Africa had undermined morale, there was a real risk that many would embrace the invaders rather than shoot at them.
Thus the Allies opened Operation Husky on the night of July 9-10, 1943, landing on Sicily against only light opposition. The two field armies that conducted the invasion — nearly 450,000 troops overall — were led by top American (George Patton) and British (Bernard Montgomery) commanders. The Germans were caught flat-footed, and even after sending in a division of parachutists, they never had more than 70,000 or so troops on the island. Of the 200,000 Italian soldiers there, the majority soon surrendered. Yet the Germans fought hard — as did the Italians who chose to stand with them — and a campaign intended to last just two weeks was strung out for nearly six, despite overwhelming superiority in numbers and air and naval mastery.
And when it came time to retreat from the island after offering such staunch resistance, some 60,000 Germans and the 75,000 Italians still fighting on their side were ferried across the Strait of Messina with almost all their heavy equipment. The hard fighting in Sicily was truly a harbinger of difficulties to come over the next two years as Allied forces slowly slugged their way up the Italian peninsula. In the face of these results, military historian Martin Blumenson asked the most pertinent question about the campaign in his trenchant analysis, Sicily: Whose Victory? Hanson Baldwin, the long-time military correspondent for the New York Times, summed it up as "an Allied physical victory, a German moral victory." That is, the island was taken, but its defenders fought long and well, then retreated intact and ready for the next round.
Baldwin went on to charge that the Allies’s whole conception of the operation was characterized by what he called "strategic aimlessness." This harsh judgment is well supported by an analysis of the movements of the forces in the field. The British 8th Army under Montgomery persisted in pushing slowly up the east coast of the island, often delayed for long periods by slender German forces holding excellent defensive positions. Patton’s 7th Army was more mobile, chasing out to Palermo on the northwestern end of the island, then driving back east toward Messina. But all that accomplished was to push the small Axis forces hither and yon, finally to their embarkation point.
The only real strategic gain of the Sicilian campaign was that it knocked Italy out of the war, but this dividend was soon squandered by the invasion of the mainland that followed, the merits of which many strategists and historians have correctly questioned. Since Italy quit the war after Sicily was lost, why keep fighting in Italy? The mere threat of an Allied landing would have forced the Germans to keep a large occupying force there anyway, fatally weakening the Nazi defense of occupied France against invasion. As matters stood, there were still hard-fighting German troops in Italy while Germany was being overrun in 1945. The end for Hitler would have come sooner if the Allies had used some of the resources allocated to the Italian campaign to strike more directly at Germany.
So, in the end it seems that one of the most brilliant deceptions of World War II supported one of the least effective campaigns. How did this come to pass? For Martin Blumenson, the answer was simple: The Allies "made a power drive — a frontal assault that was inexcusable in the rugged ground of Sicily." He went on to note "the supremacy of Allied air and naval forces could have been better used for massive outflanking operations to trap the Axis troops." That the Allies pursued a blunt-edged campaign instead foreshadowed not only the difficulties of the next two years of fighting, but also the general lack of imagination that has, from time to time ever since, plagued military leaders habituated to wielding "overwhelming force," the keywords of the doctrine that has come to be associated with Colin Powell. The truth is that the affinity for massive force was well established before he became a senior military leader — and it persists even after he has exited the strategic stage. Indeed, there seems to be an odd but durable bond between the attractions of material strength and the tendency to take strategy for granted.
Perhaps remembering the Sicilian campaign as much for "the strategy that never was" as for The Man Who Never Was can help kick start a renewal of interest in thinking more deeply about outfoxing rather than simply overwhelming our opponents. As we look ahead to years of what will no doubt be declining defense budgets, it is high time to de-emphasize sheer material superiority in favor of truly innovative strategies.