Book Review: A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars


by Nicholas Rankin

Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 466. Illus., source notes, index. $19.95 paper. ISBN: 0199769176

Organizing British Trickery in the World Wars

British journalist Rankin, a author of Ian Fleming’s Commandos, Churchill's Wizards, and other works, including a history of Gibraltar during the Second World War, takes a wide ranging look at the British development and use of deception operations during the world wars. Rankin demonstrates that the path to the effective use of deception in the two wars evolved rather differently.

During the Great War, Rankin sees deception as a tactic that some forward thinkers began to promote to bureaucratic institutions that were slow to see their value. And in fact, some early deception efforts were poorly designed; Rankin notes how early in the war artillery units sometimes emplaced their guns before erecting camouflage. Nevertheless, until by war’s end the British come to use deception as a routine tool in war making, which yielded some brilliant successes, notably at Messines Ridge and the Battle of Megiddo.

In contrast to the experience of World War I, deception operations were embraced virtually from the outbreak of the Second World War. This, of course, had its ultimate expression in the “Bodyguard of Lies” that so effectively surrounded the D-Day operation.

Rankin tells a good yarn, offering many examples of effective, and ineffective deceptions and their influence on the war. Rankin gives us profiles of the role of key individuals, some famous – Churchill, T.E. Lawrence, “Blinker” Hall, Wavell, Allenby – but most not. Alas, Rankin only lightly touches on deceptions conducted against the British by the Germans, nor does he discuss British thinking on deception during the interwar years – when they fell for some excellent scams by the Italians and Germans. He does, however, leave us with a reminder that some things are likely still very secret.

Although marred by some careless editing, A Genius For Deception is a lively, readable, and informative account that anyone interested in the world wars or the practice of deception will find valuable.


Note: A Genius For Deception is also available in hard cover, $38.95, 978-0-1953-8704-9, and several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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