The Art of Deception
By Penny Hampson
I’ve written before about espionage and its importance during the Napoleonic Wars. A vital component of espionage was the ability to fool one’s enemies. It has been said that, up to the late 19th century, many military commanders failed to realise the importance of intelligence gathering because its very collection was limited by the primitive communications technology available — in other words, by the time commanders received information on enemy movements, it was usually too late to do anything.
The Duke of Wellington of course was the exception to this rule — he understood that intelligence gathering was paramount.
He made full use of the civilian network of agents originally set up in Portugal by the British Ambassador Charles Stuart, and in addition established a military network of intelligence officers.
Wellington knew that he needed to understand the enemy as thoroughly as possible so that he could predict their actions, something that he had learned earlier in his career in India, where he had set up three separate departments for intelligence work.
There were good reasons for setting up the three departments — information brought in by a spy in one unit could be corroborated or denied by agents in the other units, making it difficult for a commander to be misled by false information. Native military spies in each unit were kept apart and did not know the identities of the agents in other units. They were well rewarded for their skills, but severely punished if the information they provided proved false.
One important aspect of intelligence that Wellington took to heart was the need for secrecy. Very little was committed to paper and Wellington insisted on overseeing everything. A climate of secrecy prevailed at his headquarters, with officers often not knowing of plans until the actual day they were to be implemented. In this way Wellington ensured that very little information on his campaign movements reached the enemy.
Wellington also knew that deceiving the enemy was as important as intelligence gathering. The construction of the Lines of Torres Vedras in Portugal was kept a secret from the French, and according to one historian, scarcely any one in the British army knew of their existence. Wily Wellington had a plan.
After his victory at the Battle of Buçaco (Bussaco) on 27th September 1810, when he had successfully repelled the attempts of Marshal Masséna, to take that ridge, Wellington did something surprising. On the night of the 28th, he instructed his army to depart from the ridge and head south. Even Wellington’s own troops could not fathom his purpose and the reason for this retreat.
The local populace were also instructed to depart for the safety of Lisbon, and the land was laid waste in their wake. But, as I mentioned earlier, Wellington had a plan.
Tempted by this seeming retreat, and convinced that Wellington could be defeated, Marshall Masséna, the French commander, and his troops followed, eager for victory. Instead they discovered what had been kept secret for so long — the Lines of Torres Vedras.
Between November 1809 and September 1810 military engineers and local labour had worked hard to transform the landscape. Earthworks were constructed on every ridge and now held forts and guns. Forests, orchards, olive groves, and buildings, had been levelled to the ground, denying any cover to attackers. In places, streams and rivers had been dammed to flood the ground, making it impassable, and sections of hillside were blasted away to leave sheer precipices.
‘Every pass had been barred, every roadway transformed into a deathtrap… a broken range of hills had been transformed into an impregnable barrier.’
All Wellington had to do was wait.
Masséna, in his eagerness to defeat the British, had fatally allowed his own lines of support and communication to become over-stretched. Moreover, his army was unable to live off the land for an extended siege of the Lines, because of Wellington’s previous policy of scorching the earth. The French army was defeated not by military action but by disease and starvation. One month after making a single and futile attack, Masséna withdrew his forces. Wellington and his army were safe for the winter.
Now Wellington wasn’t the only commander to employ deception in order to fool the enemy. There were commanders at sea who were just as wily. One such was Captain, later Admiral, Lord Thomas Cochrane (1775-1860), who, when he was only a frigate commander was given the nickname ‘Le Loup des mers’ (the Sea Wolf), by Napoleon himself.
|Admiral, Lord Thomas Cochrane.|
Attacking French coastal batteries, trading vessels, and signal stations, he would ensure that French signal books were also taken. To convince the enemy that the signal books had been destroyed in attacks he would leave half-burnt papers scattered about. Believing their codes to be safe as the signal books seemed to have been destroyed, the French did not go to the trouble of changing their codes, and so any subsequent messages they sent were no longer secret.
Another tactic employed by Cochrane was to disguise his ship. He knew the French had circulated a description of his vessel Speedy, so he had it painted to imitate another ship, Clomer, a Danish brig, known for trading up and down the Spanish Mediterranean cost. He also employed a Danish speaking quartermaster and equipped him with a Danish officer’s uniform to complete the deception.
Of course it wasn’t just the British who employed these tactics, American naval ships during the War of 1812, would lure British vessels close by disguising themselves as merchantmen.
Cochrane himself was fooled into chasing what he thought was a well-laden merchantman, only to find, when he drew close that it was a Spanish frigate ready to fire its hitherto concealed guns once he was within range.
Another favoured ploy was to hoist flags as if signalling to another allied ship when in sight of an enemy force. The enemy would not know whether there were additional ships just out of sight. Exceptionally brave (or foolhardy) commanders would then turn to face and fight the enemy, giving all the appearance that a supporting fleet was just over the horizon. Many a prudent enemy commander would back down and retreat in these circumstances, not wanting to risk losing their ships.
I cannot omit including two further examples of Cochrane’s ingenuity. Having boarded a much bigger and superior ship, El Gamo, with only fifty men, and confronted by more than two hundred Spanish opponents, Cochrane shouted back down to his own nearly empty ship for reinforcements. The Spanish crew, convinced that more men were going to board their vessel, and unwilling to be killed, promptly surrendered.
In 1805, Cochrane came across three French ships of the line which, because of their advanced design were far faster than Cochrane’s own ship Pallas. Managing to evade them until nightfall, helped by foul weather and a very efficient crew, when darkness came, Cochrane ordered a ballasted cask containing a lamp to be set overboard. The French were most upset to discover next morning that they had been following a cask all night while the Pallas had made good its escape. This was a trick Cochrane employed more than once.
In my novel, An Officer’s Vow, deceptions abound. I’d like to tell you more, but like Wellington I believe secrets should only be disclosed to a trusted circle… so you will need to read my book to discover them!