Explosive-Filled Dummies And Other Ruses Helped Clear The Way For Real Paratroopers On D-Day

75 years after the Allied invasion of France, it remains one of the largest single military operations ever, which required massive deception to hide.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Europe photo


Commemorations to mark the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France during World War II, better known as D-Day, have already been underway for days and will continue for some time. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron both attended a ceremony in Normandy this morning to mark the official beginning of the operation on June 5-6, 1944. This included a massive flyover of French and American military aircraft, consisting in part of a large number of Douglas C-47 transport aircraft, some of which actually took part in the airborne assault three-quarters of a century ago. 

But what may get overlooked in the events to remember this tide-turning event is just how risky it was and how Allied military and intelligence elements had been conducting massive deception and disinformation campaigns for months ahead of time to ensure Operation Overlord had the best chance of succeeding. These side activities to confuse and disorient the Germans continued right alongside the beginning of the invasion itself, including British forces dumping radar confusing chaff, dummy paratroopers rigged with explosives, as well as Special Air Service (SAS) commandos with loudspeakers to broadcast disorienting recordings, to try to pull German forces away from the real drop zones.

The full commemorative flyover in Normandy on June 6, 2019, , which you can watch in the video below, also included more modern U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III and C-130 Hercules transports, the latter of which carried black-and-white "invasion stripes" that Allied aircraft wore to help distinguish them from German planes during the invasion. A U.S. Coast HC-130 rescue aircraft flew over the beach, too, along with four F-15E Strike Eagles, which performed the missing man maneuver to honor the Allied troops who died during the operation. French Mirage 2000 fighter jets, an A400M transport aircraft, and the Alpha Jets of French Air Force's Patrouille Acrobatique de France demonstration team all took part, as well. 

Video thumbnail

There have been other flyovers, in Europe and elsewhere, to mark the D-Day anniversary, as well. On June 5, 2019, six CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors and six MC-130J Commando II special operations transports from the U.S. Air Force's 352nd Special Operations Wing flew past Duxford in the United Kingdom to commemorate the event. This particular fly-by was in part to mark the contributions of early special operations units that took part in the lead up to D-Day and the invasion itself.

These included the Royal Air Force's No. 3 Group, which oversaw all of the RAF's "special duties" squadrons tasked with various specialized missions, and the SAS, a legendary organization that served as a basis for modern special operations forces around the world and continues to be a central part of the U.K. military's special operations community.

On the night of June 5, 1944, four squadrons from No. 3 Group – No. 90, No. 138, No. 149, and No. 161 – left their bases in the United Kingdom and began wending their way toward northern France. They were flying a mixture of Handley Page Halifaxes and Short Stirlings, as well as Lockheed Hudsons. The Halifax and Stirling designs had both started life as heavy bombers, but both companies also built variants to carry cargo and drop paratroopers. Variants of the smaller Lockheed Hudson also served in a variety of roles, including as light bombers and light transports.

A Handley Page Halifax B.III bomber, similar to the aircraft that squadrons of No. 3 Group flew during Operation Titanic., Crown Copyright

At the same time, thousands of Allied paratroopers were also riding in dozens of C-47s, as well as other transport planes and towed gliders, heading for drop zones in Normandy. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would land north of Carentan to the west of the beaches, while the British 6th Airborne Division would drop north of Caen, situated to the east. The mission of the airborne forces was to take control of various strategic points beyond the invasion beaches to stymie German forces and otherwise help pave the way for a breakout into Northern France. 

No. 3 Group's planes were following the same general routes, but were not heading to the exact same places and they weren't carrying any significant numbers of actual troops. They were executing Operation Titanic, a set of ruses to try and draw German forces out of position and away from the actual airborne forces. 

A map showing the routes that aircraft took during Operation Titanic. Operations Mandrel, Taxable, and Glimmer were other aerial and combined aerial and maritime deception efforts., Bonhams

Titanic was among the last thrusts of a larger allied deception effort known as Operation Bodyguard. Early in 1944, amid planning for D-Day, Allied military and intelligence arms had begun a multi-pronged effort to conceal the preparations from the Nazis. To this day, the landings at Normandy remains the largest seaborne invasion in history and the airborne component of Operation Overlord also represents one of the largest such operations ever. 

This involved assembling massive amounts of ships, aircraft, troops, tanks, and other equipment in position ahead of the operation, something the Germans would be hard pressed to miss. Operation Bodyguard used a host of different tactics, including double agents feeding disinformation invasion plans outside of France and an entire "Ghost Army" equipped with things such as inflatable tanks, to throw off the Nazis. 

Video thumbnail

The main component of Operation Titanic were drops of approximately 400 dummy paratroopers, nicknamed "Ruperts," in four drop zones across Normandy. These manikins had pyrotechnic noisemakers called pintails that made popping sounds akin to gunfire. Each one also had a small explosive charge, ostensibly to try to conceal evidence of the ruse by destroying the dummy. The timed detonation could also potentially have killed or wounded German forces who went to investigate the purported landings.

Video thumbnail

In addition, No. 3 Group's aircraft dropped two small SAS teams near the city of Saint-Lô, a major allied objective, ahead of the actual airborne assault there. The commandos used their loudspeakers to broadcast sounds of men shouting and various types of weapon fire to convince the Germans that paratroopers were coming from a different direction. They also engaged in very limited combat against German forces to try to reinforce the ruse.

Some of the planes also dropped loads of metalized paper or aluminum strips, known as chaff, which can blind and confuse radar. This component of the operation helped conceal the size of the Operation Titanic force, as well as that of the main airborne armada, and where they were heading. Other units dropped chaff as part of separate deception aerial operations, which also included various maritime ruses, such as mock amphibious landings.

Examples of World War II-era British chaff, a technology that U.K. authorities had codenamed "Window.", Imperial War Museums

The exact results of Operation Titanic are hard to deduce, but there is significant evidence that it contributed to German confusion about what was happening and where, all of which would have benefitted the actual airborne operation. Despite having received reports of significant aircraft and ship noise off the coast, Nazi General Hans Speidel, Chief of Staff to Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, head of Army Group B in Northern France, did decrease the alert level for forces in the region after some troops in the field found the dummy paratroopers. 

At the same time, the SS ordered the entire 12th SS Panzer Division was ordered to respond to another one of the mock landings west of the city of Caen, another major Allied objective. Another regular Wehrmacht infantry regiment, the 915th Grenadier Regiment, found itself hunting ghosts in the woods further rather than heading to the beach to reinforce troops there.

A Panzer IV tank, belonging to the 12th SS Panzer Division, in Rouen, France in the weeks following the Allied invasion., Bundesarchiv

Unfortunately, despite its success and even though it only involved a limited number of real forces, Operation Titanic was not without its own losses. Two Stirlings from No. 149 squadron got shot down and eight members of the SAS died either in fighting with German forces on the ground or after getting captured and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. In 1942, the German High Command had decreed in secret that any Allied commandos that its forces captured were to be summarily executed. 

Fast forward 75 years and deception and psychological warfare remain important, if often obscure components of modern U.S. military operations, as well as those of other countries around the world. Confusing and disorienting the enemy to draw their attention away from actual objectives is just as viable a tactic as it was during the invasion of France. Intelligence agents and other outlets seeding disinformation off the battlefield and troops on the ground using loudspeakers to pump out confusing and disturbing messages continue to be components of modern information and psychological operations.

When it comes to D-Day, side efforts such as Operation Titanic only underscore just how massive an undertaking the invasion really was and all the work that occurred on the sidelines to make sure it came off as smoothly as possible. It's hard to contemplate what would have happened if the invasion had failed. 

June 6, 1944, is certainly a day worth commemorating, as are the immense sacrifices that Allied forces made on and off the beaches and inside and out of the drop zones in Normandy to help turn the tide of World War II and ultimately bring about the downfall of Nazi Germany. Hopefully, it's an event that the world will never have to experience again.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com