13 Of The Sneakiest Ploys Ever Pulled In Combat

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One of the key points of Sun Tzu's timeless classic The Art of War is that "all warfare is based on deception." The annals of military history are full of audacious bluffs, lies, and misinformation designed to get an edge on the enemy.

From the fake letters that saved the Continental Army from certain doom to the cadaver that tricked the Axis powers, this collection features some of history's most cunning ruses in combat. 

Photo: George N. Barnard / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

  • Q-Ships Lure German U-Boats In WWI
    Photo: UK Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    278 VOTES

    Q-Ships Lure German U-Boats In WWI

    One of the reasons for the British fixation upon seapower was the island nation's dependence on seaborne trade. For much of its history, Great Britain had a policy of having more battleships than the next two powers combined. During both World Wars, the Germans concentrated efforts on attacking vulnerable shipping lanes to disrupt the British war effort. 

    German submarines were a menace to the merchant navy. As the losses mounted, the British came up with a ploy to counter the U-boat threat: disguising armed vessels as harmless trawlers to lure the submarines in and then wipe them out. The answer to the U-boat was the Q-ship.

    Few inventions of warfare fit the Sun Tzu tenet of "hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder and crush him" quite like these mystery ships. The guns and additional crew were concealed by hinges that could be dropped at a moment's notice. The U-boats of WWI had limited range and carrying capacity, which made the captains wary of squandering torpedoes. They also couldn't submerge for very long, so would prefer to use the submarine's main gun to subdue ships where possible.

    At the sight of the approaching U-boat, part of the Q-ship's crew would pretend to panic and abandon the ship to draw the submarine in close. Once lured in, the disguise would be dropped and depth charges were released when the submarine tried to escape.

    It was a dangerous game to play and required a brave crew to pull off the ruse. Some Q-ships were lost, but their efforts helped to counter the threat of submarines in WWI. The idea was considered again for WWII, but ships were in desperately short supply. The Germans and Americans also made some limited use of decoy ships.

    278 votes
  • Operation Mincemeat Uses A Dead Body To Hide An Invasion 
    Photo: Ewen Montagu Team / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    397 VOTES

    Operation Mincemeat Uses A Dead Body To Hide An Invasion 

    In World War II, people from all walks of life served their country in a variety of ways. The most unusual was Glyndwr Michael, a Welshman living on the streets of London. He passed some time in 1942 after falling ill from eating bread laced with rat poison. The condition of his body was ideal for a far-fetched deception operation conducted by the British.

    The Allies were seeking to open up another front in Europe to ease some of the pressure on the Soviet Union and stretch Axis resources. The initial target was Italy, but the gathering of an invasion force would be impossible to conceal from the Axis. This is where Operation Mincemeat and Michael's body came in.

    Papers for a fictitious Royal Marines officer named Major William Martin were drawn up along with fake documents outlining a planned invasion of Greece. According to the papers, the Sicilian expedition was only a sideshow for the real operation. The body was to be delivered to the Spanish coast by a submarine. Spain's fascist dictator Francisco Franco was aligned toward the Axis, although the Spanish stayed out of the war. The hope was that the Spanish would pass on the faux information to the Italians and Germans.

    British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the go-ahead in April 1943; the body was uncovered by a fisherman on April 30. Knowing the Axis had cracked the encryption of diplomatic cables, the British sent a series of seemingly frantic messages about the crucial documents inside Martin's briefcase. German intelligence officers succeeded in obtaining the files and the British knew they'd taken the bait because an eyelash planted on the letters was missing when they received the body and papers from the Spanish.

    Operation Husky, the allied invasion of Sicily, launched in July 1943 and the island was taken within five weeks, much sooner and with far fewer casualties than anticipated. Quite how much this success was down to Mincemeat is impossible to say, but there's little doubt the episode was WWII's most ambitious and imaginative deception operation. 

    397 votes
  • David Dixon Porter Foils The Confederacy On The Cheap
    Photo: Harper's Weekly / After a sketch by Theodore R. Davis / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    213 VOTES

    David Dixon Porter Foils The Confederacy On The Cheap

    The USS Indianola, an armored Union gunship, was captured by the Confederates in February 1862, but the South didn’t get much use out of the prize. An audacious scheme by Union Admiral David Dixon Porter caused the Confederate engineers to blow up the ship.

    Porter devised a fake “ironclad” to be sent off in the direction of where the southern salvage crews were working on the Indianola. A wooden hull resembling the armor of an ironclad was grafted onto an old flatboat, complete with “cannons.” Lit smudge pots gave the impression of a working steam engine.

    With the taunting words “Deluded People Cave In” adorning its side, the improvised vessel apparently cost just $8.63 to put together. At the approach of Dixon’s dummy ironclad, the salvage crew panicked and set charges to the real ironclad to prevent it from being recaptured by the Union.

    213 votes
  • Quaker Cannons Hold Munson's Hill For Two Months
    Photo: George N. Barnard / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    247 VOTES

    Quaker Cannons Hold Munson's Hill For Two Months

    The Confederacy was short of pretty much everything in the American Civil War, but especially artillery. The Union had a gigantic advantage over the South when it came to industrial output; the South's largely agricultural economy meant a heavy reliance on foreign imports that was impeded by the Union's naval blockade.

    The Confederates had to get creative to even the odds. One example was the use of so-called Quaker cannons to forestall Union attacks on fortified positions. The "weapon" was a log painted black and placed inside fortified postions to appear like a real cannon from a distance. The name came from Quakers' famous aversion to war and violence.

    Shortly after the victory at the first battle of Manassas, the Confederates occupied a key position in northern Virginia called Munson's Hill. The Union army balked at attacking the seemingly well-defended position for almost two months. On the night of September 28, 1861, the Confederate forces quietly withdrew to take up a new fortified position. The Northern generals were deeply embarrassed by the ruse.

    Quaker cannons were also useful during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign in which the Union's slow progress squandered the chance to seize Richmond, VA. Part of the delay was the hesitancy to attack positions that appeared to be much better defended than they truly were.

    247 votes
  • George Washington Invents Regiments To Stop The British From Attacking
    Photo: John Ward Dunsmore / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    216 VOTES

    George Washington Invents Regiments To Stop The British From Attacking

    Despite the silly story about the cherry tree (a complete fabrication), George Washington was in fact very good at telling lies. Much of his military successes in the American Revolutionary War relied upon his affinity for deception. Given the disparity between the British and American forces, at least until the interventions of the French and Spanish, espionage was a wise move. He personally funded a spy ring and made clever use of invisible ink, fake documents, and other dastardly schemes to keep one step ahead of the British. 

    In the winter of 1777/78, the Continental Army was on the brink of collapse, and a determined attack by British General William Howe could well have spelled the end. Howe refrained from attacking the Americans because he was wary of the size of the army. The source of his anxiety was a series of letters written by Washington referring to fictitious infantry and cavalry regiments that he allowed to fall into British hands. The Continental Army survived the winter in part because of the stream of misinformation from Washington's pen.

    216 votes
  • Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who founded the Tokugawa dynasty that ruled Japan with an iron grip for more than 250 years, came perilously close to being undone long before he could seize power. In 1563 his army was utterly routed by the rampaging forces of Takeda Shingen, the appropriately named Tiger of Kai at the Battle of Mikatagahara. With just a handful of survivors - perhaps as few as five men according to some accounts - the young Ieyasu fled to a nearby castle.

    Rather than attempt the impossible and hold the castle with his tiny band of followers, Ieyasu had something else in mind. He ordered fires lit and opened the gates to the victorious army. Takeda Shingen was a highly experienced commander who'd risen to power at a time of great upheaval, replete with underhanded scheming that saw many established clans disappear from history.

    Suspecting a trick, the warlord hesitated and refrained from ordering the attack that would have put an end to Ieyasu's forces before they'd even truly began. The army settled down for the night and was attacked by a small band of samurai to sew further confusion in the Takeda ranks. Shingen withdrew from the castle and Ieyasu lived to fight another day. 

    242 votes