The Greatest Deceptions in Military History

List Rules
Vote up the most incredible cases of the military pulling a fast one

In his seminal tome The Art of War, Chinese author Sun Tzu laid out the basic tenets of winning any conflict. At the top of Sun Tzu's list was the delicate but powerful art of deception. Misleading the enemy through camouflage, troop maneuvers, disinformation, or any other means can lead your opponents to believe that you're not where you say you are, or even who you say you are.

Almost all successful defense tactics and strategies involve some degree of deception, a concept which most people learn early in life. If you've ever heard the old axioms, "surprise is your best weapon" or "keep your cards close to your chest," then you've already got some rudimentary education on the importance of deception in battle. 

This list contains some of the greatest deceptions in military history. These truly groundbreaking, history-making moments managed to turn probable loss into crushing victory. Without a doubt, almost every grand-scale conflict in the history of human civilization contains at least a few great deceptions, but this particular set of well-crafted lies really changed the world.  

Vote up the greatest deceptions in military history below. 



  • 1
    461 VOTES

    Cannae, 216 B.C. – Hannibal

    This legendary battle is the one that both put Hannibal into the history books, and reportedly resulted in a word most of us have used at least once. 

    After Rome's crushing defeat at Lake Trasimine, and after growing impatient with the brilliant Fabian strategy of simply waiting out Hannibal's next strike, the empire made what might be the worst mistake in the history of war: they sent an 80,000-strong army out to meet Hannibal's force of 50,000 in all-out battle. After selecting the battlefield himself, Hannibal deployed his outnumbered troops in a long, thin line that bowed out in the center. He placed his huge cavalry forces in blocks at either end, though to the Romans, the line looked perfectly straight. 

    They hit Hannibal's center hard, and the bowed line was pushed back; the edges, however, held their ground. Thinking they were inching towards victory, Rome pushed forward until Hannibal's bow inverted and his flanks began wrapping around Rome's. Eventually, the Romans were boxed in on three sides, and Hannibal sent his cavalry around behind them to close the box and attack from the rear. This was history's very first use of the classic "double envelopment."

    Hannibal had reduced Rome's military to nothing, or ad nihil in Latin. The French later adapted ad nihil into the word "annihilate."

    461 votes
  • 2
    364 VOTES

    Lake Trasimene, 217 B.C. – Hannibal

    Hannibal is undoubtedly a top contender for the title of history's greatest commander. The Battle of Trasimene was history's first use of the strategic turning movement, and remains to date the largest and most lethal ambush of all time. Hannibal began the ambush by baiting Roman general Flaminius to chase his force through the countryside. Hannibal's first tactic was to move between Flaminius and his supply lines to Rome, getting behind his defensive line and forcing his army to move.

    They chased Hannibal to the North shore of Lake Trasimene and into a narrow pass between the lake and surrounding hills. Earlier in the night, Hannibal had sent men miles ahead to light campfires, causing Flaminius to believe Hannibal's forces were still distant. Using the early morning fog of the lake for cover, his entire force took advantage of Flaminius' ignorance to surround his ranks, taking them in the flank and trapping them on all sides. Hannibal wiped out half of Flaminius' 30,000-man army while losing only 2,500 soldiers of his own. 

    364 votes
  • 3
    362 VOTES

    D-Day Landing at Normandy, 1944 – Allies

    The many deceptions involved in the Normandy landings are legendary in both American and global history.

    Hitler knew the Allied invasion of Europe was coming, but he didn't know exactly where his enemy would land, rendering the proper positioning of his troops practically impossible. Prior to the invasion, British intelligence fed the Germans misinformation about where the invasion would land through a number of double agents. Probably the most influential of these, Garbo, managed to convince Hitler that the invasion would land a hundred miles from Normandy. The allied generals, including future president Dwight Eisenhower, fed that delusion with false radio traffic, misleading messages, and armies of decoy tanks and trucks that looked legitimate from more than 50 feet away.

    This pattern of deception enabled the allied troops to attack German forces with enormous success.

    The D-Day campaign stands as perhaps the greatest and most successful use of deliberate deception in 20th-century warfare.

    362 votes
  • 4
    247 VOTES

    Battle of the Hydaspes, 326 B.C. – Alexander the Great

    Battle of the Hydaspes, 326 B.C. – Alexander the Great
    Photo: Frank Martini / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Hydaspes river is the largest and westernmost river of the Punjab, and was, in ancient times, effectively the western border of India. On the Indian side was an area called Paurava, ruled over by King Porus. On the European side lay the expanded domain of Persia, now ruled over by Alexander the Great. Alexander had already proven his might by conquering the entire known world from his home in the small Greek town of Macedonia. Having accomplished his goal and proven his genius, Alexander decided to push East past the mighty Hydaspes to conquer whatever lay on the other side.

    Porus saw Alexander's massive army coming, however, and lay in wait on the other side of the river, watching the opposing army like a hawk; if Alexander moved up the river, Porus moved on the opposite shore. If Alexander moved down, Porus moved with him.

    But Alexander watched Porus as well. Seeing how Porus followed him, Alexander instructed small groups of his army to march up and down the river banks every day, making as much noise as possible. Eventually, Porus's troops became accustomed to the practice, and stopped paying close attention to the clanking coming from the other side. Quietly, Alexander began withdrawing his main force back and away from the river, leaving the noisy cavalry on its shore to march back and forth every day.

    Porus assumed he was looking at the front of Alexander's entire force; he didn't know that the main body of his enemy's infantry was stealthily sneaking toward the only crossing upstream. Porus finally deduced the situation but was too late to act. Alexander had crossed the river, and whipped around behind Porus's army. As Porus turned to face him, Alexander's mounted cavalry charged across the river and attacked Porus from behind. 

    Porus lost 23,000, compared to less than 1,000 of Alexander's troops.

    247 votes
  • 5
    188 VOTES

    Battle of the Kalka River, 1223 A.D. – Ghengis Khan

    This battle took place along the Kalka River in Ukraine between 80,000 Russians (or Kievan Rus, as they were known at the time) and 20,000 of Genghis Khan's mounted raiders. After years of terrorizing the Russians, one of Khan's raiding parties resulted in the death of the king of the former Byzantine vassal state of Georgia. The Russians assembled an army and took off in pursuit of Ghenghis' raiders. They easily knocked back the raiders, who broke off into a panicked retreat. The Mongols' 1,000-strong rear guard bought them some time, but eventually, they too ran away, keeping just ahead of the Russians' advance.

    Russia chased after them, right into Khan's trap. Khan had reassembled his main force and hidden it near a narrow pass by the river. This was almost exactly the same strategy Hannibal had employed at Lake Trasimene a thousand years before, but in this instance, the feigned retreat was what drew the Russians into their own killbox. One group of Russians panicked, and turned back to run away. This left a gaping hole in the Russian lines, and Khan's mounted warriors poured through.

    The Russian casualties from the battle amounted to at least 75,000; likely the only people to escape Khan's clutches were those who had fled. 

    188 votes
  • 6
    244 VOTES

    The Valley Campaign, 1862 – Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson

    The Valley Campaign, 1862 – Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Robert E. Lee gets his fair share of rightly deserved press for being an aggressive, intelligent commander, but objectively, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was most likely the more tactically gifted of the two Confederate generals. Jackson's 16,000 man force wasn't exactly small, but it paled in comparison to the 52,000 Union soldiers drawing down on the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia during the first major offensive Union movement. To compensate for this disparity, Jackson bluffed.

    Seeking to meet up with Lee in defense of Richmond, Jackson suddenly found the epicenter of convergence of both halves of the Union army. Had the Union known of Jackson's mere 16,000 men, they would have crushed Jackson forces; however, Jackson had sending infiltrators out among enemy lines, spreading rumors that his force numbered in the six digits. As the Union forces closed in on both sides, Jackson force-marched his army from one side of the Valley to the other, engaging the two halves in turn with his full force. After driving one army back, he'd force-march to the other side of the valley and fight the other.

    Eventually, the Union came to believe the whole area was swarming with hundreds of thousands of Confederate troops, never knowing it was just Jackson bouncing his smaller force back and forth. The Union withdrew, and began to flee until the side led by General Nathaniel Banks found Jackson waiting in front of them at their own Garrison at Front Royal. While Banks was running away from Jackson to resupply, Jackson had snuck around them on a train, joined up with another force, and captured Banks's own garrison.

    Lincoln eventually ordered a full-scale retreat from the area, believing that Stonewall Jackson's massive army was simply inescapable. 

    244 votes