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.
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.
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.
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.
The Battle of Stalingrad, 1942 - Russia
Russia has long been one of the great masters of military deception; they even developed a comprehensive system for it called "maskirovka" in the early 20th century. Maskirovka is a full suite of techniques including camouflage, disinformation, deceptive movements, decoys, feigned retreats, deliberate losses, and everything else Sun Tzu or their Mongol neighbors might ever have thought of. Russia put all that to work in Operation Uranus, the setup for Hitler's crushing defeat at Stalingrad.
Stalin used many of the same tactics that the Allies did at Normandy, but doubled down with a few more. Playing on Hitler's ego and self delusion, Stalin sent out fake radio messages in a code he knew the Germans had broken, saying that Russia's forces were weak and failing in the area. He had fake trenches dug around the city to make it appear as though the infantry were mounting a desperate last stand, and sent scores of his own troops on suicide missions to deliberately lose small skirmishes with the Germans outside of town. Once Hitler's confidence was at an all-time high, he committed almost his entire Russian-area force to storm Stalingrad in an overwhelming show of force. He walked right into Stalin's trap.After Hitler's million-man force was comfortable within the quiet, empty city of Stalingrad, Russian tanks, artillery and troops sprung out of hiding all around them. Taking a page straight from Hannibal, Stalin trapped the Germans in a classic double envelopment, and accordingly annihilated the Germans. They suffered 850,000 casualties out of the million troops committed, along with 900 aircraft, 500 tanks and 6,000 artillery pieces. Stalingrad is said to have been the single most decisive battle of WWII, having permanently ended Hitler's ambitions on the Eastern front.