Deception in War: The Art of the Bluff, the Value of Deceipt, and the Most Thrilling Episodesof Cunning in Military History, from the Trojan Horse to the Gulf War

Deception in War: The Art of the Bluff, the Value of Deceipt, and the Most Thrilling Episodesof Cunning in Military History, from the Trojan Horse to the Gulf War

by Jon Latimer

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January 16, 1991. Operation Desert Storm's coalition forces are arrayed along the Saudi border with Kuwait, on the other side of which lurks the bulk of Saddam Hussein’s army.
While the battle for air supremacy is being waged in the skies, the coalition forces pull off a stunning, and ultimately decisive, deception. Later dubbed the “Hail Mary


January 16, 1991. Operation Desert Storm's coalition forces are arrayed along the Saudi border with Kuwait, on the other side of which lurks the bulk of Saddam Hussein’s army.
While the battle for air supremacy is being waged in the skies, the coalition forces pull off a stunning, and ultimately decisive, deception. Later dubbed the “Hail Mary Pass,” it consists of the abrupt relocation of the coalition ground forces hundreds of miles to the West. Meanwhile, as inflatable decoys, deceptive radio transmissions, and psyops leaflets all lead them to believe, the Iraqis are expecting an amphibious assault from the Persian Gulf, hundreds of miles from where it is actually occurring. The world’s fourth largest army is preparing to engage a horde of phantoms. The coalition forces are able to march deep into Iraq with little opposition. Within one hundred days, Kuwait City is liberated and a decisive victory by the coalition forces is won. Deception on the battlefield is surely as old as warfare itself. The examples stretch from the very beginnings of recorded military history—Pharaoh Ramses II's campaign against the Hittites in 1294 B.C.—to modern times, when technology has placed a stunning array of devices into the arsenals of military commanders. Military historians often underestimate the importance of deception in warfare. This book is the first to fully describe its value. Jon Latimer shows how simple some tricks have been, but also how technology has increased the range and subtlety of what is possible—bogus radio traffic, virtual images, even false smells. He draws examples from land, sea, and air to show how great commanders have always had, as Winston Churchill put it, that indispensable “element of legerdemain, an original and sinister touch, which leaves the enemy puzzled as well as beaten.”

Editorial Reviews
As long as there's been warfare, there have been attempts to deceive one's opponents. Jon Latimer -- who has served with various British military units, including the Royal Welch Fusiliers -- sheds some much-needed light on this "fine art," a military practice he feels has been neglected by most war historians. He cites examples ranging from the Pharaoh Ramses II's war with the Hittites in 1294 B.C. all the way to the Gulf War.
Publishers Weekly
From simple low-tech tricks to the digitized crackle of false data, Latimer, a combat-experienced British intelligence officer, offers a wide-ranging history of military deception. He divides the ruses into their respective warfare modes "Naval Deception"; "Deception in Air Operations"; "Deception in Counter-Revolutionary and Irregular Warfare," etc. and analyzes the fundamentals of deception, "always aimed clearly at the mind of the enemy commander." Although the bulk of the book centers on WWII, Latimer also shows how the Hittites lured Ramses II into an ambush, tells the familiar biblical story of the Israelite commander Gideon and how he panicked a much larger Midianite soldiery, then looks at Venetian-Genoese rivalry in the Mediterranean. British decoy aircraft, Operation Bodyguard (one of 36 bluffs covering the allied invasion of Europe in 1944 that is a chapter in itself), and commanders and theorists like Eisenhower, German Generaloberst Franz Halder and China People's Liberation Army commander Liu Po-Ch'eng are all put through their paces, along with the now much talked-about "Hail Mary" maneuver that enabled coalition forces to rout Saddam Hussein's large army in the Gulf War. The end result is a broad study of military bluff and how it has influenced decisive wars, campaigns and battles. Perhaps it should be classified. 10 maps; 35 illus. (Nov. 12) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Seeming to be strong where you are weak and weak where your force lies ready in concealment, making your intentions seem plain enough to be credible when you're really ready to do something else these have been part of the art of combat since ancient armies fought wars. Written by a former officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, this overview of the history of warfare and its various examples of subterfuge describes various tactics, including tying lamps to a herd of livestock to simulate a moving army at night, false bragging at local bars, simulating the sounds of tanks on bivouac, and initiating an entire blizzard of radio communications intended for enemy interception. The examples run right up through the end run used in the Gulf War against Iraqi defenders in Kuwait. Recommended for students of military tactics. Mel Lane, Sacramento Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Former British army officer and military historian Latimer (Operation Compass 1940, not reviewed) provides an introduction to contemporary doctrines involving military deception, enlivened and exemplified by anecdotes ranging from the ancient Egyptians to the recent air war against Serbia. The first half of Latimer's study makes one main point: deception is most successfully employed when commanders use it to prompt specific enemy responses. That central tenet serves as the springboard into discussion of operational and strategic uses of military deception. Numerous dramatically described examples, such as the daring British evacuation at Gallipoli or the Allied conversion of Nazi spies into double agents, effectively illustrate his analysis of the importance of military subterfuge. Latimer offers similar elucidation of these principles in sea and air operations with equally entertaining results. He devotes the remainder of these pages to long case studies showing how both Operation Bodyguard (the Allied deception plan supporting the D-day invasion) and Soviet trickery on the WWII Eastern front forced the German military into weakened positions in reaction to Allied deception. Ultimately, Latimer concludes that deception plays as important a role in modern war as it has throughout history. This is not a particularly earth-shattering revelation, but the author does offer a clear assessment of deception's battlefield utility and places it in an entertaining, if well-trod, historical context. An intriguing and lively summary that will appeal mainly to readers with a very general interest in military issues and history. (35 b&w photographs, 10 maps)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A History of Bluff in Warfare

'But now change your theme and sing to us of the stratagem of the Wooden Horse, which Epeius built with Athene's help, and which the good Odysseus contrived to get taken one day into the citadel of Troy as an ambush, manned by the warriors who then sacked the town.'


Deception on the battlefield is surely as old as warfare itself. One of the most famous early examples dates from c. 1294 BC, when Pharaoh Ramses II of Egypt led his army against the Hittite stronghold of Kadesh. Two Hittite 'deserters' came to him offering to lead him against their former comrades. Instead, they led him into an ambush that very nearly proved disastrous.

    Some 400 years later and not far away, ancient Israel was overrun by the Midianites (nomadic Arab tribesmen who regularly brought their flocks to graze the lowlands where the Israelites had sown their crops). Gideon, son of Joash, resolved to drive them off. In seven previous years the Israelites had hidden in the hills on the approach of the Midianites, and it was with difficulty that Gideon assembled just 300 men for the task. Only guile could achieve what numbers could not. Gideon first took care to ensure that tales of signs and portents marking the rise of a great new Israelite leader filtered down to theMidianite camp. Then each man was issued with a trumpet, a pitcher and a torch. The torches were lit and carefully concealed under the pitchers, and, with their trumpets in their hands and divided into three companies, the 300 took up positions around the enemy camp. At around midnight, when the Midianites were known to change their sentries, Gideon's men gave out an almighty cry — 'The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!' — accompanied by loud blasts of trumpets and the waving of hundreds of torches. The Midianites, convinced that they were being attacked by a great host, were sent tumbling in panic for the fords on the River Jordan, harried all the way by the Israelite population, which rose en masse now its enemies were on the run. Gideon relentlessly pursued them to ensure the full exploitation of his success, and 'the day of Midian' became a proverb in Israel for total victory.

    The name of Sun Tzu is nowadays synonymous with the idea of deception. His Art of War has been a key reference source for Chinese strategists and military leaders for over 2,000 years, although it was properly translated into English only at the beginning of the twentieth century. The exploits of the Ch'i general Sun Pin in 341 BC provide an interesting example of the theories of Sun Tzu in combat. Before his invasion of the territory of Wei, Sun Pin assessed the situation with an advisor, who said: 'The soldiers of Wei are fierce and bold, and despise the men of Ch'i as cowards. A skilful strategist should make use of this and lure them with the promise of advantage ... [L]et us light a hundred thousand fires when our army enters Wei, fifty thousand the next day, and only thirty thousand on the third day ...', thereby indicating to the Wei general P'ang Chuan that the army of Ch'i was experiencing mass desertions and encouraging him to rush to the attack. P'ang Chuan took the bait and led his forces through a narrow gorge preselected by Sun Pin for the ambush. As a final finesse Sun Pin posted a sign. When he arrived at the ambush site, P'ang Chuan called for a torch to read Sun Pin's sign, which said: 'P'ang Chuan dies beneath this tree.' The lighting of the torch was the signal for Sun Pin's archers to shoot.

    By virtue of the serious nature of war, it may sometimes be justifiable and even necessary to deceive one's own side. During the march from Spain to Italy the great Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, probably the greatest exponent of deception in the classical world, found it necessary to deceive his own elephants. His army had to cross the River Rhône, but the elephants accompanying it would on no account enter the water. So Hannibal's pioneers built rafts, two of which were firmly lashed together on the bank, with further rafts then added to form a pontoon projecting some 200 feet into the water and made absolutely fast against the bank. Two more rafts were then added at the end of the pier with towing lines to boats in the river, but with lashings to the pier that could easily be cut. The whole pier was then covered with earth to make it appear like an extension of the bank and two female elephants led the way — to encourage the others. When the elephants were standing on the final rafts the lashings were cut, and once they found themselves in midstream, the elephants had little option but to complete the crossing. The process was repeated, and although a few elephants tipped into the river in panic, they swam the rest of the way and the operation was successful.

    Of course, it is more common for opposition from the enemy to makes deception imperative. During the rebellion of Vercingertorix in Gaul in 52 BC Julius Caesar was marching into the country of the Arverni towards the town of Gergovia, following the course of the Allier, a wide river that flows into the Loire near Nevers. Vercingertorix broke up all the bridges across the Allier and marched his force along the opposite bank, keeping Caesar in view and planning to contest any attempted crossing. He placed patrols wherever the Romans might try to build a bridge, and it seemed that Caesar would be held up all summer since the river was not normally fordable until the autumn. Caesar camped in woods near one of the broken bridges for the night and the following morning instructed two legions to remain concealed there; he then broke the other four legions down into companies to give the appearance that all six legions were marching, and sent them with the entire baggage train to march as far as they could. Having waited for them to get clear, Caesar then emerged from hiding and quickly rebuilt the bridge on the original piles, which were still intact. The legions then formed a bridgehead on the far bank and Caesar recalled the main body. Shocked, Vercingertorix marched away to Gergovia.

    Deception was such a common aspect of ancient warfare that when Julius Sextus Frontinus wrote two volumes on the art of war in the first century AD (the first of which is now lost), the second volume, called Stratagems, was entirely devoted to the subject. In four books Frontinus describes all manner of military tricks and sleights of hand from the ancient world. Yet publicly the Romans showed a haughty contempt for such tactics.

    During the early Middle Ages the Western creed of chivalry frowned upon deception, which, since most battles were fought at close quarters, appeared in any case to have limited application. Further east, however, war and deception were studied as an art for centuries after the fall of Rome. Indeed, the Byzantines suffered not even the tiniest hint of chivalric sentiment, but had rather a burgeoning professional pride in their skill at deception. Among the greatest of all the soldiers of this period was the Byzantine general Belisarius. A superb fighter and trainer of men, he served his ungrateful master, Emperor Justinian, with unswerving loyalty and skill. The parsimonious emperor frequently entrusted Belisarius with difficult missions but never allocated him the resources to achieve them. Deception is often the last resort of commanders in positions of weakness and Belisarius was always considering ways to outwit his opponent by strategem as much as by fighting. Other Byzantine leaders also saw deception as being perfectly natural in warfare. They considered it absurd to spend blood and treasure on achieving their aims if these could be achieved by skill, and thus developed a strong predilection for ruses, stratagems and feigned retreats. In his Tactica Emperor Leo VI demonstrates no shame in some of the over-ingenious stratagems used, and recommends one trick in particular that remained in use into the twentieth century — that of writing treasonable letters to officers in the enemy camp and ensuring they fall into the wrong hands. He also goes on to describe how nothing worked better against the Franks and Lombards than a feigned flight, which they always followed hastily.

    It is likely that the Normans learned from the Byzantines this tactic of the feigned retreat. Norman adventurers first settled in Sicily in 1016 and established a permanent stronghold at Aversa. The Byzantine army that invaded eastern Sicily in 1038 included many Normans, who served as mercenaries in a number of armies and who subsequently spread all over southern Italy. In 1060 Robert Guiscard (whose name meant 'wily' in Norman French) began the Norman conquest of Sicily, which included a prolonged campaign against the Byzantines. Shortly afterwards, Duke William of Normandy invaded England to seek its crown. The English under King Harold occupied a strong position along a hilltop near Hastings, and after the Norman archers failed to make an impression on the English line, the initial assaults by heavily armoured cavalry and foot soldiers were also repulsed. William of Poitiers then states that the Normans, 'realizing that they could not overcome an enemy so numerous without great loss to themselves ... retreated, deliberately feigning flight'. The Breton cavalry on the left of the Norman line were definitely the first to break, and many of the remaining troops followed suit, believing Duke William to be dead, but he quickly rode along the line and rallied it before turning on a party of English that had followed the Bretons and destroyed them. He then renewed the assault on the main English position. All the contemporary sources refer to this ruse repeatedly drawing groups of English in pursuit, whereupon they were destroyed piecemeal. Although this tactic had already been used by the Normans at Arques in 1053 and Messina in 1060, scholars have long continued to debate the veracity of these reports.

    Hans Delbrück insisted that a feigned flight was beyond the capabilities of medieval cavalry. On the other hand, Sir Charles Oman had no doubt that 'a sudden inspiration came to William ... After all, Guy of Amiens, an absolute contemporary; describes it clearly.' More reasonably, Hastings was probably too disjointed a battle for the necessary control of a feigned retreat to be exercised all along the Norman line, and it is perhaps more likely that local withdrawals drew groups of defenders from their positions in a series of retreats and counter-charges. Whatever the truth, the battle has since earned a reputation as an example of masterful tactical deception.

    A feigned withdrawal would undoubtedly be a difficult manœuvre to achieve in battle, since it would put the troops involved at great risk. Nevertheless, the Saracens would often try to feign withdrawal while fighting the Crusaders, sometimes for days on end, in order to draw their more heavily armed opponents onto favourable ground. The feigned withdrawal was also a favourite tactic of the Mongols. A light cavalry corps of 'suicide troops' called the mangudai existed for the purpose (the name was not so much a job description as a tribute to the soldiers' bravery). They would charge the enemy alone, break ranks and run in an attempt to lure the enemy to destruction. The larger the mangudai, the more effective would be the lure: where the ground was open and favourable, it could comprise up to half the army. If the enemy did give chase, they would find themselves showered with arrows; once the quivers were emptied, the heavy cavalry would charge, always the final stage in the Mongol battle plan, delivered at the trot and in silence until the order to gallop was given at the last possible moment. As the Muscovites found to their cost at the Kalka River in 1223, the result was absolutely devastating.

    The Mongols would gladly use any means to gain an advantage, and many of their inspirational expedients were produced by allowing junior commanders to use their initiative. As soon as the plan of campaign had been agreed at the kuriltai (the great council of war), rumours would be deliberately planted exaggerating the numbers of their army. This simple and effective deception was then given credibility by the Mongols' extreme manœuvrability and speed, as demonstrated in their campaigns against the Khwarezms in Central Asia, in which an army of more than 200,000 men, operating in four corps across a 200-mile frontage, introduced a scale and speed of warfare not seen again until Napoleon's day. The Mongols could strike terror into their opponents by appearing in strength in different places at the same time, and since each Mongol went on campaign with a number of horses (the numbers quoted vary, but five per man seems reasonable), the mounting of dummy riders on spare horses enabled them to multiply their apparent numbers further.

    The Mongols liked to operate during the winter, when they would be able to cross frozen marshes and rivers. To find out if the ice would support them, they would encourage the local population to test it. In Hungary in late 1241 the Mongols left cattle unattended on the left bank of the Danube in sight of starving refugees they had driven across the river earlier in the year. When the Hungarians crossed the river to recover the cattle, the Mongols swiftly followed up. Another common Mongol ploy was the use of smokescreens (used by the Greeks as early as the Pelopponesian Wars, c. 431-404 BC), by sending out small detachments to light enormous prairie fires or shooting containers of burning tar from their improvised artillery. At the Battle of Liegnitz in 1241 they set fire to reeds, and on other occasions they would light fires in inhabited regions in order to deceive the enemy as to their real intentions and to cover their movements.

    By the middle of the thirteenth century the Crusader states of the Middle East found themselves squeezed between the Mongol conquerors of Persia and the Mameluke Empire of Egypt. As the Mongol tide receded from Syria, so the Mameluke Sultan Baybars finally captured the great Crusader fortress of Crac des Chevaliers from the Knights Hospitaller in 1271. Before the use of gunpowder became widespread, a castle of such power could be taken only by starvation or trickery. Baybars commenced his siege between 18 and 21 February and managed to storm the forward defences and the barbicans. But the main keep or donjon was practically impregnable, and Baybars realized it could be taken only with heavy losses or a prolonged siege. Instead, he passed a forged letter into the keep in which the Knights' commander ordered the garrison to surrender. Whether they fell for the trick or were merely aware of the helplessness of their position, the Knights complied, despite having successfully resisted all previous sieges.

    The garrison withdrew to Tripoli, where Prince Edward of England arrived soon afterwards. Edward was virtually the last great Crusader, but accomplished little before returning to England, where he soon became one of the country's greatest warrior kings, Edward I. As such, he conquered Wales and built a series of magnificent castles to enforce his control. During the rebellion of Owain Glyn Dwr in 1401, King Henry IV appointed Henry Percy, the famous 'Hotspur', to bring the country to order. In March Hotspur issued an amnesty which applied to all rebels with the exception of Owain and his cousins Rhys and Gwilym, sons of Tudur ap Gronw of Penmynydd (forefather of King Henry VII). Most of the country was mightily relieved and agreed to pay all the usual taxes. But the Tudurs knew that they needed a bargaining chip if they were to lift the dire threat hanging over them. They coolly decided to capture Edward's great castle at Conwy.

    Although the garrison amounted to just fifteen men-at-arms and sixty archers, John de Massy 'of Podyngton' (Puddington in Cheshire) had put the castle in a reasonable state of defence and it was well stocked and easily reinforced from the sea; and in any case, the Tudurs had only forty men. They needed a ruse. On Good Friday, which also happened to be 1 April — All Fools' Day — Massy and all but five of the garrison were attending tenebrae in the little church in the town when a carpenter appeared at the castle gate who, according to Adam of Usk's Chronicon, 'feigned to come for his accustomed work'. Once inside, the carpenter attacked the two guards and threw open the gate to allow Gwilym and most of the gang to rush in. The rest waited outside, ready to ambush any attempt to retake the castle. Although Hotspur arrived from Denbigh with 120 men-at-arms and 300 archers, he knew it would take a great deal more to get inside so formidable a fortress. Forced to negotiate, he duly gave the Tudur boys their pardon.

    Medieval armies were ad hoc affairs, formed for the duration of hostilities and commanded by captains whose obligations were usually feudal, and who generally regarded each other as equals whether they led fifty men or five thousand. Discipline was lacking and unit training practically non-existent This state of affairs came to an end during the late fifteenth century, when the Swiss fought for independence and, having won it, hired themselves out as mercenaries. The result was the demise of the medieval pattern of warfare based on feudal obligation as mercenaries came subsequently to dominate European armies. Warfare had never achieved the ideals that chivalry claimed for it, but a new awareness of the possibilities of strategem, and a willingness to use it, were to mark warfare as it grew into a profession. In 1513 the Flemish defenders of Tournai painted lengths of canvas to resemble fortifications and deceive the English attackers as to the true extent of the defences — but then, the Flemish always were accomplished landscape artists.


The only work published during his lifetime by Niccolò Machiavelli — one of the greatest thinkers of the Renaissance — was The Art of War. Like that of most of his contemporaries, Machiavelli's military work was inspired by the ancients, particularly Polybius and Vegetius. It rejected the values that underpinned medieval warfare and took an entirely practical view of the subject, with victory as the sole criterion for success and an acceptance of every type of trickery as legitimate. Machiavelli described the ideal commander as one capable of constantly devising new tactics and stratagems to deceive and overpower the enemy. But although this was a time when firearms were starting to appear in quantity on battlefields all over Europe, it was not gunpowder that underpinned this change in approach so much as the need to introduce discipline and training of a sort unknown in medieval armies.

    Machiavelli's writing inspired Justus Lipsius, who in turn inspired Maurice of Nassau. Lipsius said that whoever could combine the troops of the day with the discipline of the Roman art of war would be able to dominate the earth, and it was the development of drill and the formation of the modern infantry company requiring professional officers and soldiers by Maurice and, later, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, that formed the true basis of the military revolution that accompanied the Renaissance. At the same time each introduced a higher proportion of musketeers to pikemen in their regiments, and with the invention of the bayonet at the end of the seventeenth century the role of firepower increased, so that the cavalry (and its associated chivalric ideal) was no longer master of the battlefield. Along with this transformation in the nature of warfare came a transformation in the political patterns that produced it, with the development of nation states. By the beginning of the eighteenth century most states possessed standing armies officered by professional soldiers for whom deception was a natural part of war.

    Such modern concepts as coalition warfare began to appear, along with the division of warfare into the tactical, operational and strategic levels (which we might simplify as the direction of armies on the battlefield, between battlefields or between theatres of war). During the War of the Spanish Succession John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, provided a magnificent example of strategic deception. In the spring of 1704 the French and their Bavarian allies seemed poised to capture Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and strike a strategic blow that would end the Grand Alliance, of which Great Britain was part. With a revolt taking place in Hungary, there were only 36,000 Imperial troops under Prince Lewis of Baden in a position to defend the city, menaced by the same number of Bavarians in the vicinity of Ulm and as many French again under the command of Maréchal Tallard, waiting to march through the Black Forest and join the Bavarians for an advance along the Danube. On returning from England to resume his command of the Anglo-Dutch forces in the Netherlands, Marlborough devised an audacious plan to save Vienna. He would march across Europe to the Danube across the face of two French armies and remove the threat to the Austrian capital — a plan that could only succeed through deception.

    Facing Marlborough in Flanders were 90,000 French troops under Maréchal Villeroi. It was obvious that the Dutch government, the States-General, would never agree to Marlborough abandoning the north. He therefore had to persuade them that he was planning to advance down the Moselle, a logical extension of the previous year's campaigns. At the same time he put in train a complex scheme to ensure his administrative requirements would be catered for along his real route. After setting out from Bedburg on 19 May with 21,000 men, he collected a reinforcement of 5,000 Hanoverian and Prussian troops at Koblenz and crossed over to the right bank of the Rhine on the 26th. The march continued, now seeming to threaten the great city of Strasbourg (about which King Louis XIV of France was especially sensitive, since it had only passed into French possession in 1681). Marlborough threatened it by ordering the governor of Philippsburg to build a large bridge of boats and amass supplies as if for a crossing. Tallard was partially deceived by this and delayed marching on Ulm while awaiting new instructions from Versailles. Instead, Marlborough was able to cross two major obstacles, the rivers Main and Neckar, and then swing away from the Rhine towards the Danube. He only informed the Dutch of his true intentions on 6 June. As Villeroi had been shadowing Marlborough, the Dutch remained safe from an offensive and Marlborough promised to return immediately in barges along the Rhine at eighty miles a day should it prove necessary. As a result, the States-General voted him their full support on 10 June and agreed to release the Danish contingent of 10,000 men as a reinforcement. It was a truly brilliant feat, covering 250 miles in five weeks with only a tiny loss by the wayside, the result of foresight, superb planning and, in an age when security was practically unheard of, secrecy. The campaign culminated in the decisive defeat of Tallard at the Battle of Blenheim and the removal of the threat to Vienna.


Excerpted from DECEPTION IN WAR by Jon Latimer. Copyright © 2001 by Jon Latimer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

John Latimer served for sixteen years as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, as Platoon Commander, Assault Troop Leader, and Battalion Intelligence Officer. He has published widely in military journals, and is also the author of Operation Compass 1940 and, with Jim Laurier, of CAM080 Tobruk 1941. His Deception in War was a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the History Book Club, and the Military History Book Club.

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