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A Genius for Deception

Review by: Stephen Badsey, University of Wolverhampton

Nicholas Rankin, A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Despite its title, A Genius for Deception deals only occasionally with the big issues of British deception and intelligence during the First and Second World Wars (or WW1 and WW2, as its author annoyingly writes, as if there were an ink shortage), and hardly at all with the complex administration and often obscure figures that made the system work. Indeed, the book’s title is itself something of a deception. By taking the broadest definition of deception imaginable, to include propaganda, camouflage, intelligence and what were later called special forces, the author has instead produced a collection of sometimes delightful anecdotes and war stories in celebration of one disparate group that has stood out among the many who contributed to the British effort in both world wars. His heroes are the often talented British amateurs, individualists and eccentrics, some of them ‘rogues’ or ‘rascals’, who held secret or unusual wartime jobs, and who afterwards enjoyed fame – often through their own memoirs or adulatory biographies – as the men (and a few women) who had really won the war. With a few exceptions, the characters celebrated in this book are ex-public schoolboys, financiers, journalists and artistic or theatrical types with a sprinkling of smart career officers. Their associations continued over both wars, linked by patriotism, energy, ability, a sense of their own superiority, and a web of social friendships (and quite often kinships – C.E. Montagu of Mincemeat fame was the son-in-law of the First World War camouflage expert S.J. Solomon) that by-passed or augmented conventional chains of authority. Within two or three decades men like these would be unfashionable, their amateur flair dismissed as amateurism, their social ease as snobbery, and their old boy network a major source of British post-war malaise; they are now perhaps due for some re-evaluation. The book’s chief hero is Winston Churchill (the title for British publication was Churchill’s Wizards), while T.E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’ gets a chapter to himself, as does Dudley Clarke; other stars include John Buchan (as much for his novels as for his misunderstood role in propaganda) and Denis Sefton Delmer. Indeed, in its celebratory tone this book could have been written for the British public school of fifty years ago.

One of the great problems in assessing British wartime propaganda or deception, or intelligence work in general, is that far fewer primary sources survive from the First World War than from the Second World War. Another is that the host of Second World War memoirs or biographies often make claims that are hard to substantiate, so that a false or mythologised version of events has passed from book to book. Whether any of the activities described in A Genius for Deception were a particularly British invention or talent, and what contribution they actually made to victory in either war, is barely discussed by the author, who is himself very much in the mould of his heroes, even working his father’s and grandfather’s war stories into his book. He is much more comfortable with the events of 1939-1945 than of 1914-1918, taking the claims of Campbell Stuart and Arthur Ponsonby, and sometimes of David Lloyd George, at face value, and he has evidently read more widely than deeply about both world wars. A British former radio producer and occasional biographer, he moves from anecdote to anecdote in an expansive and leisurely manner, taking the time to inform the reader ignorant of camouflage techniques that a chameleon is a type of lizard. Tales about G.B. Shaw’s visit to the Western Front as a journalist, or even Tommy Handley’s ITMA broadcasts, appear simply because they are too good not to tell, while significant men in British wartime intelligence and propaganda who do not fit his stories, such as J.C. Masterman and R.V. Jones, are hardly mentioned, and the claims of a few controversial figures are roundly dismissed as fraud, including Richard Meinertzhagen and Jasper Maskelyne.

The author tells his tales confidently and vividly in bright primary colours, with his heroes in the foreground, and the background only loosely sketched in behind them, and with many quotations and statements unreferenced in his inadequate page notes. One consequence is that A Genius for Deception is peppered with telling factual errors: Clausewitz was alive in 1833, the British Army wore red coats on campaign in the Boer War, the Germans used the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, the bombing of Rotterdam led to the Dutch surrender in 1940, Churchill was Prime Minister in August 1945, and so on. A much greater consequence is that the author far too often gives as confident fact an interpretation of complex or controversial events, such as British policy and grand strategy in the Levant in 1916-1917 or in 1940-1942, that have long ago been replaced by more complex and nuanced versions. This sweeping approach enables him to claim war-winning triumphs of deception for his heroes, including claims that the men themselves would have modestly rejected. This is particularly true of his partial re-telling of the well-known story of deception and the Battle of Normandy in 1944 which forms the climax to A Genius for Deception.

In sum, this is one of those books on British wartime deception that appear from time to time, based chiefly on anecdote, that have not sufficiently documented their evidence to be useful as serious history, and that attribute to a few talented individuals the invention or practice of techniques which have either existed for centuries, or which were developed in the First and Second World Wars through the efforts of many people and nationalities. The general or casual reader at which it is clearly aimed might enjoy reading its stories, but they will learn much from this book that is perhaps not so.

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