By 1944 the Germans knew an Allied invasion of Northern Europe was coming. They had just two questions: when would it come, and where? The role of Operation Fortitude was to prevent the Nazis from discovering the answers to those questions.
The most likely places for the assault were Norway, France’s Pas de Calais, and the wide expanse of the French Normandy coast. To the Germans, the Pas de Calais was the obvious choice. Just twenty-one miles across the Straits of Dover, it was the closest French shore to Britain. It was also close to the Belgium port of Antwerp, which the Allies would need to provide the invasion force with weapons, ammunition, and food.
The Allies, however, chose Normandy. It was the job of the Fortitude hoaxers to keep the Germans thinking the Allied target was Norway or the Pas de Calais. Two Fortitude operations – Fortitude North and Fortitude South – used an elaborate system of spies, double agents, and information leaks to keep the Abwehr, the German spy organization, thinking the invasion would come to the north.
One of the problems facing Fortitude’s planners was how to keep the Nazis believing the target was the Pas de Calais when the assault forces began congregating in England’s southern ports across from the Normandy coast. The answer was the First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG), the largest army that never existed.
Patton’s Phony Army
FUSAG was the centerpiece of Fortitude South, also known as Operation Quicksilver. On paper, FUSAG consisted of the British 2nd Airborne Division and Fourth Army, and the U.S. 9th and 21st Airborne Divisions, and the U.S. 9th Army. In reality, FUSAG consisted of largely empty encampments, plywood planes and vehicles, and harbors crammed with phony landing craft. American and British movie set designers were brought in to make FUSAG look real to enemy air reconnaissance flights. Allied radio operators filled the airwaves with scripted radio traffic mimicking the day-to-day communications of an army group.
The crux of Quicksilver, however, was Gen. George Patton, who, after being relieved of his command in Sicily, was publicly named FUSAG commander. Since the Germans considered Patton the Allies’ best combat commander, his appointment to FUSAG cemented their belief that the invasion would come at Pas de Calais.
Fortitude South was so successful that the German command continued to believe well into July that the Normandy invasion was feint and that the real assault would come at Pas de Calais. It wouldn’t be the last time the Nazis were fooled by a ghost army.