The roots of the Allies' victory over Hitler's Germany in World War II, Nicholas Rankin argues in this fascinating, were sown decades earlier during the First World War in 1914, when military strategists recognized the need for new tactics. In the trenches, decisive victories in face-to-face battles by armies appeared to be impossible to come by. Maybe, they mused, finding ways to baffle and distract the enemy -- painting warships in bizarre patterns that confused U-boat captains, say, or hiding snipers in fake trees -- was not only possible but could actually give them an edge in this new kind of warfare.
Winston Churchill had been in a unique position to learn these lessons, overseeing the disaster of the Gallipoli landings (and the crucial role played by camouflage in the successful evacuations from under the noses of the Turks in 1916) as well as trench warfare on the Western front. Not surprisingly, he became convinced that propaganda, special forces, camouflage and propaganda would be vital in winning the next war. When that war came in 1939, he enlisted the talents of a vast array of artists, novelists, film-makers, scientists and other oddball experts and fantasists - collectively referred to as "Churchill's Wizards" - in the collective project of deceiving Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. (Japanese intelligence officers, the British eventually concluded, were too dim-witted and ineffective to fool.)
The genesis of these strategies and tactics in the first war and the extraordinary heights to which they rose during the second that serve as the focus of Rankin's excellent book. Some of the wizards, for instance, wondered whether they could use a surplus of oil to literally set fire to the sea and deter a threatened German invasion in 1940. When that didn't work out, other wizards decided to turn their unsuccessful research into successful propaganda by convincing German troops encamped on the French coast that this was a distinct possiblility. German pilots shot down in their (burning) aircraft, were cited as evidence; arch-wizard Sefton Delmer, a journalist, gave mock English lessons revolving around phrases like "The sea is burning", in radio programs beamed to German troops (and presented as if they originated back in Munich or Bremen.) That did work, as Rankin recounts, and panicky German troops wrote letters home in which they told of their fear of being burned alive. The reasons that the Nazi invasion of Britain was never launched had little to do with this campaign, of course, but it's tempting to ponder about the impact on German morale if it and the other defense tactics (machine-gun posts embedded in gentlemens' public toilets) prepared and carefully camouflaged had actually been put to use.
Rankin's book is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes at unfamiliar campaigns like this as well as far better-known ones (notably, the attempt to convince Hitler that the Normandy invasion was actually a diversion). It is based on a vast treasure trove of material, which Rankin has miraculously whipped into a narrative that is not only coherent (no mean feat!) but lively and compelling. The reader is immediately engrossed in the often-oddball stories he tells, such as the evolution of air warfare (at first, enemy pilots engaged in reconaissance would salute each other respectfully; then they started hurling bricks at each other; ultimately, they began trying to shoot each other down with pistols) and the adventures of the great spy, `Garbo', aka Juan Pujol. But Rankin goes well beyond simply assembling an array of great tales and fascinating portraits of such characters as Pujol, Sefton Delmer or T.E. Lawrence (yes, that Lawrence.) He chronicles the way in which warfare and the nature of military intelligence underwent a fundamental transformation and the evolution of a world in which military success would hinge to a large extent on the success of the wizards. Rankin shows convincingly how and why simple camouflage was not enough; deceiving the eyes of the enemy was good, but military strategists had to deceive their minds as well, to move on to outright psychological manipulation. Moreover, successful deception wasn't just "about getting them to think what you want, but to do what you want."
The wizards triumphed, and World War Two finally ended with the defeat of Hitler's Germany and later, of Japan. But Rankin's book ends on a more somber note, with his thoughts on the role that deception and propaganda played in convincing the public in the United States and Britain that the Iraqi war was necessary in 2003. His point that these tactics have their problematic side is valid, but it's an awkward end to the book that should have been reserved for an author's afterward. Still, those few pages aside, this book stands as an impeccably-researched work of history. Over its course, Rankin successfully instills in the reader a sense of deep admiration for the creativity and commitment of the "wizards" during the years of the Second World War, when to many of them it must have seemed as if defeat - and the triumph of fascist regimes - was all too likely. It's a salutary reminder of the real nature of evil, and the many and different roles that individuals played in defeating it. As exciting to read as many of the best spy thrillers, it deserves to becomes a classic.