1. Capture of Tabor Bridge
In 1805, during the wars of the 3rd Coalition, Napoleon was pretty much wiping the floor with the Russian/Austrian armies. After the battle of Ulm, where an Austrian army commanded by General Mack was surrounded and destroyed by Napoleon, the allies tried to retreat and regroup behind the Danube.
Napoleon had to cross the Danube, but the allies managed to destroy all bridges and crossings. They left Tabor Bridge, mined and well-defended by artillery and infantry under the command of Count Auesberg.
Napoleon’s Marshals, Murat and Lannes, who were leading the vanguard of the army, were tasked with taking the bridge. It was critical that the bridge be taken, as it would be extremely costly to force a crossing (which actually happened a few years later, at the cost of 30,000 lives). There’s a very good reason that Napoleon’s marshals are still considered to be some of the greatest generals in history. They were simply unbelievably badass.
Murat and Lannes, approached the bridge alone, with just their aide-de-camples. After being shot at by the sentries, Murat managed to shout that there was an armistice in place, and the Marshals crossed the bridge alone, under the flag of truce. An artillery commander was on the other side, ready to light the bridge, but Murat physically grabbed his hand and convinced him to send a rider to fetch the commander of the Austrian forces, Count Auesberg. Murat continued to charm the defenders, at one point actually climbing up on one of the cannons, and sitting on it waiting for Count Auesberg to arrive.
At the same time, a column of French Grenadiers started to approach the bridge. Count Auesberg arrived and was starstruck and charmed by the two famous French Marshals that treated him with great courtesy. He bought the story of the Armistice completely.
When the French Grenadiers started entering the bridge, the Austrian artillery sergeant, finally seeing through the ruse, ran to Count Auesberg and told him that the French are here and taking the bridge. Murat, in his suave manner, said to Count Auesberg, “is this the famous Austrian discipline? Do you allow subordinates to speak to you and give you orders?” Count Auesberg, embarrassed and thoroughly charmed, ordered the impudent sergeant arrested.
By that time the column of French Grenadiers were tossing the mines and fireworks off the bridge into the river, crossing over and taking the Austrian artillery. It was a brilliant ruse that allowed the French to take Tabor Bridge with no casualties and no effort, all on the personalities of the Marshals.
2. The Legend of Zhuge Liang
There’s a very famous story about a Chinese General who lived during the Three Kingdoms Period. He was called Zhuge Liang. He was a bit of a badass.
Zhuge Liang was having a bad day, however – he had ridden forward on a scouting mission to the city of Xicheng, and while he was there a very large and powerful enemy force being led by his rival, Sima Yi had appeared. Now Liang was stuck defending the city against hopeless odds.
Both Sima Yi and Zhuge Liang were god-tier level tacticians, and had been pretty much making each other’s lives misery for some time. Zhuge Liang was just a little bit more god-tier though, and Sima Yi was terrified of him. So terrified that he went into every encounter with Zhuge Liang expecting to stumble into traps.
He was so terrified of Zhuge Liang that, when Zhuge Liang actually died in the middle of a battle, causing his forces to withdraw, Sima Yi called off a pursuit (that would have been a massacre) because he was worried that Zhuge Liang wasn’t really dead, and he was being drawn into yet another trap.
Anyway, back to this fortress…
Zhuge Liang did have one thing on his side though – he was famous. He was a wily, clever, and cunning guy – someone to be watched.
The enemy army marched towards the city, and in response Zhuge Liang ordered his men to open the gates of the city. The enemy could have marched straight in. He had his men hide out of sight so there was no accurate intelligence, then he wandered up to the walls himself and began to compose music.
The approaching army and its general saw this move, and became dreadfully confused. Was it an ambush? Had he just gone crazy? What was the deal here?
Eventually the enemy decided that the risk of whatever it was Liang was doing was far too great, and they bypassed the city without taking it.
3. Operation Mincemeat
Operation Mincemeat was the most successful wartime deception ever attempted, and certainly the strangest. It hoodwinked the Nazi espionage chiefs, sent German troops hurtling in the wrong direction, and saved thousands of lives by deploying a secret agent who was different, in one crucial respect, from any spy before or since: he was dead. The plan involved the dead body of a tramp and a plethora of faked documents. His mission: to convince the Germans that instead of attacking Sicily, the Allied armies planned to invade Greece.
The brainchild of an eccentric RAF officer and a brilliant Jewish barrister, the great hoax involved an extraordinary cast of characters including a famous forensic pathologist, a gold-prospector, an inventor, a beautiful secret service secretary, a submarine captain, three novelists, a transvestite English spymaster, an irascible admiral who loved fly-fishing, and a dead Welsh tramp. Using fraud, imagination and seduction, Churchill’s team of spies spun a web of deceit so elaborate and so convincing that they began to believe it themselves. The deception started in a windowless basement beneath Whitehall. It travelled from London to Scotland to Spain to Germany. And it ended up on Hitler’s desk.
So convinced were the Nazis that, when the allies actually invaded Sicily, it was quickly overcome and served as a launching pad for the liberation of Greece!
4. Tube Alloys
Tube Alloys was a codename of the clandestine research and development programmer, authorized by the Government of the United Kingdom with participation from Canada, aiming to develop nuclear weapons for the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons programmer during the Second World War. In Britain, unlike in the US, the Manhattan project had almost no security. It was deemed that sounded so boring that nobody would investigate it and nobody did. Starting before the Manhattan Project (the Western Allies’ nuclear bomb project) in 1942, the British efforts were kept highly classified such that they had to be referred to by code even within the highest circles of government. At the end of the Second World War, Tube Alloys came to refer specifically to the element plutonium, whose very existence was secret until its use in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
5. Ghost Army
During World War II, the Ghost Army was a special unit created by the United States military. This band of artists used costumes, sound recordings, and inflatable tanks to keep the Nazis on their toes. By the end of the war, the Ghost Army had saved between 15,000 and 30,000 American lives.
The members of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops weren’t your typical G.I. Joes. Instead of M1s and Thompsons, they were armed with props, state-of-the-art recording equipment, and big rubber inflatables. Strangest of all, they were a major military secret. Almost no one knew they existed, and the few who did referred to them as the Ghost Army. While the men of the 23rd were very much alive, they were incredibly sneaky, and most importantly, they were all highly skilled artists.
The Ghost Army was made up of 1,100 painters, actors, and sound technicians, all of them recruited from northeastern art schools. They were an unlikely bunch to go against Hitler, but their goal wasn’t to kill the enemy. The Ghost Army was all about deception. Their job was to create illusions. For example, when the Army wanted to give the impression that a huge infantry unit was on the move, the Ghost Army would drive canvas-covered trucks in endless circles. Any onlookers would think hundreds of troops were being transported when it was really just a handful of guys in a couple of trucks. If the top brass wanted to spread a little disinformation, the Ghost Army’s actors would lounge around in cafes and spread rumors about where certain units might be headed or when a certain attack might take place, fooling Nazi spies into reporting nonsense to their superiors. Sometimes the actors even dressed up as generals and visited completely random towns, tricking the Germans and their cronies into thinking something important was going down.
However, the Ghost Army’s most important illusions took place on the battlefield. Their primary mission was to make the Allied forces look bigger and stronger than they actually were, and to do that, the Ghost Army used sound recordings and rubber tanks. During Operation Bettembourg (September 1944), General Patton was planning to attack the city of Metz, but there was a huge problem: a 20-meter-long (70 ft) hole in his front line. There weren’t any actual troops to fill in the gap so the Ghost Army was sent in to put on a show. The Ghosters set up life-size inflatable tanks and mixed in a few real ones for good measure. Then they played recordings of Shermans rumbling and machines moving and irate sergeants shouting, “Put out that cigarette, private!” Their 225-kilogram (500 lb) speakers were so powerful that the Germans could hear every sound up to 24 kilometers (15 mi) away. Even though there were only 1,100 of them, their routine was so convincing that they tricked the Germans into thinking 20,000 men were getting ready to attack. Terrified, the Nazis retreated.
The Ghost Army’s greatest moment came near the end of the war when they helped the American Ninth Army cross the Rhine. With their rubber tanks and mega-speakers, they conned the Nazis into thinking they were 30,000 strong, and while the Germans amassed on the bank opposite the 23rd, the Ninth crossed the river with almost no resistance. Wherever the Ghost Army went, be it Normandy or the Ardennes, they proved invaluable with their artsy skills, saving between 15,000 and 30,000 American troops. However, they really were invisible men. Not only did they wear fake badges and disguise their trucks to dupe spies into thinking they belonged to other divisions, but after the war they weren’t even allowed to tell their families about what they’d done. The mission was still top secret. In 1996, the Ghost Army was officially declassified, and these photographers, painters, and fashion designers were finally revealed as true American heroes.
6. Bill Gates’ Biggest Bluff
In 1980 IBM needed an operating system, and Bill Gates in a desperate bid for survival told IBM he had what they needed. Actually, Gates and his team had nothing.
Microsoft purchased a non-exclusive license for 86-DOS from two-bit company in Seattle called Seattle Computer Products in December 1980 for $25,000. In May 1981, it hired Tim Paterson to tinker with the system to make it ready for the IBM PC, call is MS-DOS and the rest is history.
7. 1504 Eclipse
On his fourth voyage Columbus found himself stranded in Jamaica. Initially, the Jamaican natives welcomed the castaways, providing them with food and shelter, but as the days dragged into weeks, tensions mounted. Finally, after being stranded for more than six months, half of Columbus’ crew mutinied, robbing and murdering some of the natives, who, themselves grew weary of supplying cassava, corn and fish in exchange for little tin whistles, trinkets, hawk’s bells and other rubbishy goods.
With famine now threatening, Columbus formulated a desperate, albeit ingenious plan.
Columbus had a copy of the Regiomontanus’ Almanac with him when he was stranded on Jamaica. The almanac had astronomical tables covering the years 1475-1506. He soon discovered from studying its tables that on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 29, 1504, a total eclipse of the moon would take place soon after the time of moonrise.
Armed with this knowledge, three days before the eclipse, Columbus asked for a meeting with the natives Cacique (“chief”) and announced to him that his Christian god was angry with his people for no longer supplying Columbus and his men with food. Therefore, he was about to provide a clear sign of his displeasure: Three nights hence, he would all but obliterate the rising full moon, making it appear “inflamed with wrath,” which would signify the evils that would soon be inflicted upon all of them.
On the appointed evening, by the time the moon appeared in full view, its lower edge was missing and, just over an hour later, as full darkness descended, the moon indeed exhibited an eerily inflamed and “bloody” appearance: In place of the normally brilliant late winter full moon there now hung a dim red ball in the eastern sky.
The natives were terrified at this sight and “. . . with great howling and lamentation came running from every direction to the ships laden with provisions, praying to the Admiral to intercede with his god on their behalf.” They promised that they would gladly cooperate with Columbus and his men if only he would restore the moon back to its normal self. The great explorer told the natives that he would have to retire to confer privately with his god. Just moments before the end of the total phase Columbus reappeared, announcing to the natives that his god had pardoned them and would now allow the moon to gradually return. And at that moment, true to Columbus’ word, the moon slowly began to reappear and as it emerged from the Earth’s shadow, the grateful natives hurried away.
8. Siege of Detroit
The Siege of Detroit or the Battle of Fort Detroit, was an early engagement in the Anglo-American War of 1812. A British force under Major General Isaac Brock with Native American allies under the Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, used bluff and deception to intimidate the American Brigadier General William Hull into surrendering the fort and town of Detroit, Michigan.
British general Brock took the fort (582 Regulars and 1600 militiamen) with a minimal force (50 regulars, 250 volunteers, and 200 natives) by shelling the walls, screaming, and continuously marched their men around to make it appear as though they had a force of several thousand regulars and natives. The British continued to support this by sending a letter they knew would be intercepted by the Americans that asked for no more natives to be allowed into the area as there were already 5000 there. All of these mind games made American General Hull believe he was facing a superior force and he surrendered the fort to them without a fight.
It’s not really just one lie. It’s a campaign of lies, probably more widespread and deep-routed than any in history, all leading to one collossal lie: Hiding the fact that the Allies broke the Enigma cipher and And, later, the Japanese “Purple” cipher, and the German Lorenz cipher, and the Italian C-38 cypher.
Basically, the Allies had blown every code the Axis used out of the water, thanks to the work of the Polish Cipher Bureau, and the Bletchley Park mathematicians including Alan Turing, and the American Signal Intelligence Service.
The collective intelligence from all these broken codes was called Ultra.
But what do you do when your code gets broken? You make a new, harder one. The allies couldn’t let that happen, they couldn’t let the axis know that their codes were broken. So how do you use data from a broken code without revealing that the code is broken? You lie.
If they wanted to take out an Axis supply ship after finding it through Ultra, they didn’t just do that. They had a spy plane fly over where they knew the ship would be and they sunk it. So the crews were all like “we got spotted.” They also had to hide the broken codes from their own soldiers, lest they be revealed under careless talk. So they sent out other spy planes knowing nothing would be found, so crews wouldn’t wonder how mission found an enemy every time.
They would never attack until they had a “cover story.” Men undoubtedly died, by attacks the government knew were coming, because they would not compromise Ultra.
One of the few times they were forced to sink ships immediately, they covered it by sending a message in a code they knew the Germans had broken, to a spy in Naples, congratulating him of his success. The spy didn’t exist, but the Germans intercepted the message and assumed everything was still good with Enigma.
The best part is, they didn’t even reveal Ultra after the war. They saw to it that the Enigma machines were sold to potential enemies in the Third World, who continued to use the broken codes for years. Ultra wasn’t revealed in its full extent until 1974, 29 years after the war. Never has a secret of such massive importance been so well kept for so long.
10. Capitulation of Stettin
Perhaps an even greater bluff from Napoleon’s cavalry was the capitulation of Stettin. On 29 October 1806, French light cavalry brigade led by General of Brigade Antoine Lasalle demanded that the fortress of Stettin be surrendered to him. Lasalle had 800 hussars and 2 guns against over 5000 soldiers and nearly 300 cannon garrisoning a fortress. Lasalle threatened the fortress commander (Romberg) that he had Lannes’ 30,000 strong V Corps in support. To convince Romberg of this, he had his men ride around and drag wagon trains to raise up dust and create the illusion of a full Corps behind him.
Surrender was refused at first, but Lasalle sent this message: “Tell that old fogey of a Governor that if tomorrow at 8 am he hasn’t surrendered, the town will be bombarded and attacked, the garrison put to the sword and the town given over to looting for 24 hours.”
Romberg quickly surrendered the fort, and the Prussians surrendered in full military parade. By the time they had realized the deception, the French hussars had secured the weapons and infantry support was already nearby. Lasalle famously received a pipe from Romberg which he was known to ride into battle with.