In his seminal tome The Art of War, Chinese author Sun Tzu laid out the basic tenets of winning at any conflict. Right at the top of Sun Tzu's list is 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 military strategies and tactics involve some degree of deception. Most of us learn that pretty early on. If you've ever heard one of those old axioms like "Surprise is your best weapon," or "Keep your cards close to your chest," then you've already got some education on the importance of deception in battle.
On this list, we've run through some of the greatest deceptions in military history. Not the everyday kind of things that all tacticians do, but those truly groundbreaking, history-making moments where clever deception turned probable loss into crushing victory. Without a doubt, almost every conflict ever fought contains at least a few great deceptions along these lines - but this particular set of well-crafted lies really changed the world.
Vote up the greatest deceptions in military history below, and be sure to let us know what you think in the comment section.
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 just 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. To the Romans, though, the line looked perfectly straight.
They hit Hannibal's center hard, and the bowed line got pushed back, The edges, however, stayed put. Believing themselves to be winning, Rome pushed forward until Hannibal's bow bent the other way, and his flanks began wrapping around Romes. 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's forces spent the next four hours, brutally hacking 70,000 Romans down, thus crushing Rome's greatest army in one battle.He had reduced Rome's military to nothing, or ad nihil as they said in Latin. The French later adapted ad nihil into a new word: "annihilate." Meet Hannibal Barka - the guy who literally invented the concept of annihilation.
Lake Trasimene, 217 B.C. - Hannibal
Hannibal was probably history's greatest military commander. He practically wrote the book on military tactics. Lake Trasimene was history's first use of the strategic turning movement, and remains to date the largest and deadliest ambush of all time. Hannibal began the ambush by getting the hot-headed Roman general Flaminius to chase his force through the countryside. His 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, in 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 far away. But Hannibal tricked them. Using the early morning fog of the lake for cover, his entire force ambushed Flaminius' force, taking them in the flank and trapping them in a kill box. Hannibal wiped out half of Flaminius' 30,000-man army, while losing only 2,500 soldiers of his own.
Battle of the Hydaspes, 326 B.C. - Alexander the Great
The Hydaspes river is the largest and Westermost river of the Punjab, and, 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 one Alexander the Great. Alexander had already proven his military might by conquering the entire known world from his home in the tiny Greek backwater 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.
But Porus saw Alexander's massive army coming, and lay in wait on the other side of the river. Porus watched Alexander's army like a hawk; if Alexander moved up the river, Porus moved on the opposite shore. If Alexander moved down, Porus moved with him. It seemed impossible for Alexander's army to cross the river without being spotted and slaughtered emerging on the other side. Especially since there was only one passable crossing, well upstream of his location.
But Alexander watched Porus as well. Seeing how Porus followed him, Alexander had his small groups of troops march up and down the river banks every day, making as much noise as possible. Eventually, Porus' troops got used to it, 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 infantry was stealthily sneaking toward the crossing upstream. Porus finally caught wind of what was up, but was too late to act on it. Alexander had crossed the river, and whipped around behind Porus' army. As Porus turned to face him, Alexander's mounted cavalry charged across the river and attacked Porus from behind.Porus lost 23,000 men either dead or captured, compared to less than 1,000 for Alexander. And that's why they call him "The Great."
D-Day Landing at Normandy, 1944 - Allies
The many deceptions involved in pulling off the Normandy landings are the stuff of legends, and could easily fill a book in and of themselves. If you don't already know about them, then believe that nothing here will even scratch the surface. But, at an attempt:
Hitler knew the Allied invasion of Europe was coming - that much was certain. But he didn't know exactly where his enemy would land, which was the one critical thing he had to know to properly position his troops. Prior to the invasion, British intelligence pulled out all the stops on every double-agent they had, feeding the Germans disinformation about where the invasion would land. Probably the most important double agent of the war, Garbo, had Hitler utterly convinced that the invasion would land a hundred miles from Normandy. The allied generals, including Dwight Eisenhower, fed that delusion with false radio traffic, misleading messages, and armies of decoy tanks and trucks that looked utterly real from more than 50 feet away. Many of them were incredibly realistic, full-sized inflatable vehicles, which the Allies positioned well away from the real (camouflaged) landing force.The D-Day campaign stands as perhaps the greatest and most successful use of deliberate deception in 20th century warfare. And you can bet that a lot of those inflatable tanks (like the one pictured) sold for good money to collectors after the war.