Weird History

The Greatest Deceptions in Military History 

Richard Rowe
Updated December 3, 2018 4.6k votes 1.4k voters 90.7k views 13 items

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. 


Cannae, 216 B.C. – Hannibal
Cannae, 216 B.C. – Hanni... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Greatest Deceptions in Military History
Photo:  The Department of History, United States Military Academy/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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."

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Lake Trasimene, 217 B.C. – Hannibal
Lake Trasimene, 217 B.C.... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Greatest Deceptions in Military History
Photo:  MagentaGreen/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

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. 

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D-Day Landing at Normandy, 1944 – Allies
D-Day Landing at Normand... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Greatest Deceptions in Military History
Photo:  John W. Schulze/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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.

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Battle of the Hydaspes, 326 B.C. – Alexander the Great
Battle of the Hydaspes, ... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Greatest Deceptions in Military History
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.

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