Deception Games

The world has recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the breakout of World War I. Brig. Gen. (res.) Dr. Dani Asher returns to General Allenby and the manner in which he fought the Turks in this region and conquered Palestine

Deception Games

August 2014 marked the centennial commemoration of the outbreak of the Great War – which came to be known as World War One. Although the main theater of operations was the static battlefields of Europe, my paper describes the campaign conducted by the commander of the British Empire’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), General (later Field Marshal) Edmund Allenby, First Viscount Allenby, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, against Turkish-German defending forces, from the gates of Gaza to the final conquest of Palestine, and Allenby’s brilliant use of deception tactics.

Although a century has passed, the principles of warfare have changed little though terrain changes and the introduction of new weapon systems make the comparison difficult. Nevertheless, the maneuvering element’s main role in the primary effort, supported by deception tactics, significantly contributed to the EEF’s decisive victory.

Liddell Hart wrote that Allenby’s “victory [in the Palestine Campaign] was achieved mainly by strategic means [while] the part played by the actual fighting was negligible.” During these operations, Allenby emerged as a cunning strategist who exploited every element in the art of war to ensure victory.

At every opportunity Allenby exploited the advantages of a carefully planned and structured attack to maximum effect. He concentrated on the objective, integrated all available service branches (infantry, cavalry, artillery, and air and naval power), applied the main force at the right time and place, secured his flanks, and swiftly exploited his initial success. Above all, he sought to take the enemy by surprise.

After British forces failed to capture Gaza twice and the War Cabinet decided to reinforce the EEF and conquer Palestine, Allenby assumed command of the EEF on June 28. Previously he had commanded the Third Army in France where he won a decisive victory in the Battle of Arras. Prime Minister Lloyd-George’s order was terse: “Capture Jerusalem and present it as a gift to the British people for Christmas.”

Allenby’s strategic goal was to defeat the Turkish army in Palestine, lure its reserves away from Aleppo, and thus eliminate the threat of a large Turkish force being sent to the Mesopotamian front. His operative goal was to open a line of advance into the heart of Palestine through Gaza, which his predecessor, General Murray, had failed to capture, and advance north to Jaffa and Jerusalem accompanied by coastal and railway support.

Allenby planned to take Gaza through a flanking maneuver by first capturing Beersheba in a surprise attack that would secure his water sources and block the reinforcement of local forces. The key to the plan lay in a comprehensive deception effort: tricking the enemy into believing that Gaza was the first and primary objective for the breakthrough into Palestine.

Most of the Allied forces remained deployed opposite Gaza until the moment of the attack, and only then were quickly and clandestinely transferred to the Beersheba sector, with a handful of troops remaining in the evacuated camps feigning daily activity. In preparation for the attack, the plan called for routine cavalry patrols up to the fortified localities of Beersheba to scout out the area, lull the enemy into a sense of security, and mislead him even when the attack was underway. Falsely encrypted telegrams were transmitted regarding the time and place of the attack and the importance of the reconnaissance patrols.

Rumors were circulated about an imminent landing operation by the British Navy (that had uncontested maritime superiority in the Mediterranean) to the rear of the Gaza front. British auxiliary vessels revealed themselves while taking depth soundings in littoral waters (as though in preparation for a landing). One week before the scheduled attack on Beersheba, operations commenced with a systematic and gradually intensifying naval bombardment of Gaza’s fortifications.

In Stage B – after the capture of Beersheba and during the reorganization for the attack against the Turks’ eastern flank - XXI Corps carried out a deception maneuver by staging an effort against Gaza’s fortifications on the western flank of the sector.

EEF field intelligence, headed by Colonel Richard H. Meinerzhagen, executed a daring ruse based on the transmission of bogus messages that Turkish intelligence was allowed to pick up and so-called official documents that were allowed to fall into Turkish hands.

The EEF troops participating in the attack on the eastern flank stayed in the Gaza sector for as long as possible until ordered to “march laterally” southeast toward Beersheba.

The enemy’s intelligence estimates, which were based on false British messages, influenced Turkish troop deployment. Only three divisions from the Turkish Corps remained in the Seventh Army’s area of responsibility that included the Beersheba sector, whereas five divisions from the Eighth Army’s XX and XXII Corps were deployed in the Gaza sector.

A written order that was later captured indicated that on October 29 Turkish intelligence still estimated that six British divisions were facing them in Gaza, and that Beersheba had nothing to worry about except for the movements of one infantry division and one mounted division. Based on this information, Turkish fortification activity in the Beersheba area slackened. Units were dispatched to the coastal area, and the 7th and 19th Divisions of the XV Corps were transferred there as reserves. A string of artillery batteries, machine guns and motorized units reinforced Gaza’s fortified localities.

Allenby persisted in his deception campaign even during the attack. He ordered British and French battleships to lay down a massive diversionary barrage on Gaza.

A small contingent of British troops remained in the Gaza sector to simulate routine activity. Turkish aerial reconnaissance photos revealed horses in the camps. But these were fakes. The bulk of Allenby’s army (about a quarter of a million men) had been transferred to the right flank without the Turks spotting them.

The Battle of Beersheba commenced at 05:55 on October 31 as part of the Third Battle of Gaza. The assaulting infantry forces, having marched all night from Halutza and Bir Asluj, caught the Turks by surprise. Cavalry forces completed the encirclement of the town before enemy reinforcements could reach it. The town was taken on the same day and the water sources, so vital to the subsequent stages of the campaign, were secured before the Turks could sabotage them. The few explosive charges that did go off caused negligible damage. The conquest of Beersheba was a fait accompli. On the morning of November 7 the Turks evacuated Gaza and the line of advance into Palestine lay open.

On November 6 the Allies began the pursuit of the Turkish forces in the southern coastal plain. After capturing this area, the British headed east into the Judean Hills with the aim of taking Jerusalem [and presenting it as a Christmas gift to the British people]. Exploiting the initial success of the Turkish collapse, the northbound advance quickly turned into a rout. The EEF operated so fast that there was no time to employ a preliminary deception plan.

The Conquest of Jerusalem and Further Operations

The first attempt to capture Jerusalem proved a failure. On November 24 Allenby ordered a brief remission in the fighting. The ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Division made a diversionary effort in the Turkish Eighth Army sector in the coastal area that involved securing a bridgehead across the Yarkon River [today’s northern Tel-Aviv] in order to prevent the Turkish Eighth Army from transferring troops to the Seventh Army in the Jerusalem area. Finally, on December 11, after three days of fighting at the entryways to Jerusalem, the Turks withdrew and Allenby marched into the Holy City.

The fording of the Yarkon River on December 20 was the last operation of 1917. It caught the Turkish troops off guard because of its timing - they had estimated that the river was untraversable in winter. The operation was not supported by a deception campaign at HQ level.

To completely knock Turkey out of the war the British had to continue their advance, but, according to Allenby, further pursuit was out of the question until his troops have recovered, replenished, and reorganized. In January 1918, Allenby’s staff devised a master plan for the conquest of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.

During February and March, the EEF captured the southern and central parts of the western Jordan Valley. These conquests, together with the seizure of the bridges across the Jordan River, enabled the EEF to raid the Turkish lines in Transjordan and Amman area.

On March 26, during a period of relative respite between the conquest of Jerusalem and the final offensive, Allenby launched the first of two major operations in Transjordan. The question is: were these operations merely raids, as Allenby described them, or were they the failed opening moves of a more comprehensive offensive that was intended to swiftly reach the railroad junction and crossroads in Dara’a?

If they were merely raids, then they succeeded as a deception effort in supporting the meticulous plans for the final conquest of the region because they succeeded in riveting the Turks’ attention to the eastern flank while the EEF’s main effort was to be staged in the coastal sector.

In the planning of the Amman “raid,” the greatest obstacle the deception effort had to overcome was concealing the crossing area of the Jordan. Many points were forded along the river to prevent the enemy from identifying the real size of the force. Motor boats were also used to transport troops across the northern part of the Dead Sea. Only one effort (by the 180th Brigade) succeeded in surprising the Turks defending the Jordan line. The brigade crossed the river on a bridge near Deir Hajla (close to the present-day Allenby Bridge) at a spot that escaped Turkish notice.

World events in 1918 had a direct impact on the Palestine Theater of Operations. Allenby’s expeditionary force was expected to continue the Allies’ chain of victories which was moving inexorably toward the conclusion of the war.

The basic principle in Allenby’s “final offensive” was to maintain contact with the enemy and pin him down on the right flank while concentrating the main breakthrough effort on the left flank in the coastal area. The deception strategy called for preventing the enemy from identifying the effort on the left flank by simulating an offensive operation on the right flank in the Jordan Valley where a mock layout of horse dummies had been deployed.

Despite the EEF’s incontestable superiority in quality and quantity of infantry, mounted troops, arms, equipment and morale, Allenby still devoted prodigious effort to deception. These tactics were designed to compensate for the weaknesses in the planning and execution of the operational missions, to dupe the enemy into transferring his units to a secondary sector, and to render the primary sector vulnerable to a surprise attack.

An enemy intelligence map found in Nazareth showed that on the eve of the offensive, the EEF’s force concentration on the coast had not been identified. Allenby assembled a force of two army corps with five infantry and three cavalry divisions – a total of 35,000 troops, 900 cavalrymen and 383 artillery pieces, as opposed to the Turkish Seventh Army’s 8,000 troops and 1,300 artillery pieces.

A fifteen minute artillery barrage fired on the coastal plain as of 04:30 hours signaled the start of the offensive. Infantry units advanced across the entire coastal plain, breached the barbed wire barriers and captured the Turkish fortifications between Jaljulia and Sidna-Ali (Arsuf). Cavalry divisions exploited the coastal terrain to embark on a swift conquest. This was followed by the capture of Nazareth on September 21 where the Turkish-German command center in Palestine was located; the fall of Damascus on October 1 and the seizure of Aleppo on October 26. Allenby’s forces accomplished all of their assigned goals. Fighting in this theater ended on October 31, 1918 with the signing of the armistice agreement between the Allies and Turkey.

“A Commander’s Battle”

One British officer wrote after the war that “the British attack against the Turks was like a tiger attacking a kitten.” There is no shame in winning with superior forces. A commander’s ultimate objective is to achieve maximum victory through minimum investment. While a plan less sophisticated than Allenby’s may have also succeeded in steamrolling through the Turkish layout, it probably would have exacted much heavier losses.

Allenby made extensive use of deception, diversion and camouflage to achieve a decisive victory. Operational deception was a key element in almost every stage of his planning and implementation.

Allenby’s operational planning was characterized by foresight, assessment, control of firepower intensity, and close supervision. Deception and diversionary tactics played an integral – and sometimes dominant – role in his primary military moves. This enabled him to manipulate the enemy’s intelligence estimates of his forces and deny them an accurate situation appraisal of the whereabouts of his force concentrations prior to primary offensive efforts. Thus, he made optimal use of his combat strength while neutralizing the enemy’s ability to do likewise.

By employing the deception tools in preparation for the campaigns, Allenby utilized nearly every deception method and measure available. He applied these tools at the operational level, and – subject to appropriate supervision – at the tactical level too. Passive deception measures were used to enable the enemy to collect misleading information, especially by allowing Turkish and German surveillance aircraft to fly through areas where deceptive measures had been taken, such as camouflage to conceal or disguise forces, installations, and equipment. Active deception included disingenuous information leaks through various channels and visual deception by setting up massive bogus concentrations that incorporated a minimal number of real forces.

In his work "Allenby: A Study in Greatness, General Sir Archibald Wavell summed up Allenby’s campaign in Palestine": “It was not a soldier’s battle, but a commander’s.” It was the battle of a commander who brilliantly exploited deception tactics in operational planning and battlefield execution.

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