Scotland’s Fourth Army and one of the greatest deceptions of Second World War

As a strategy it was staggeringly imaginative

D-Day newsreels made cinema stars of Eisenhower and Montogomery, but another commander of a great army never hit the screens. General Sir Andrew Thorne. From his headquarters in Edinburgh Castle, he and his second-in-command Colonel Roderick MacLeod oversaw the creation of the massive Fourth Army. At its height, it numbered some 250,000 men, with tactical air cover and armoured divisions.

It made sense for this fighting force to train in Scotland. The Fourth Army would begin the liberation of Europe by invading Norway. It was part of a bold and daring plan to land in Norvick and Stavanger, link up with Stalin’s Red Army and punch through to liberate the Norwegians, then Denmark. As a strategy it was staggeringly imaginative. Fitting, since it was all a figment of the imagination.

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MacLeod’s Fourth Army never existed. It was part of one of the most successful misdirection exercises in military history, known as Operation Fortitude. Together with Fortitude South, based in England, they persuaded Hitler to look away from Normandy and expect invasion forces in Pas de Calais, Stavanger and Narvik.

From Edinburgh Castle, Thorne and MacLeod oversaw the creation of the massive (imaginary) Fourth Army (Photo by Martin/Fox Photos/Getty Images)From Edinburgh Castle, Thorne and MacLeod oversaw the creation of the massive (imaginary) Fourth Army (Photo by Martin/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
From Edinburgh Castle, Thorne and MacLeod oversaw the creation of the massive (imaginary) Fourth Army (Photo by Martin/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
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Today we know where to find the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. In 1943, however, only a handful of people knew the real location of those landing zones. Adolf Hitler and Erwin Rommel didn’t feature on that list. The allies wanted to keep it that way.

Fortitude North was a ghost army, based around Stirling and Dundee. MacLeod’s team left gliders on Scottish airfields to be spotted by German spy planes. Ships were massed in East Coast harbours. A few were photographed, but Scotland’s advantage as a possible jumping-off point for a Norwegian adventure was also its disadvantage. Scotland was remote, rugged, and the weather frequently too bad for aerial shots. Also, we tended to shoot the Germans down before messages could get back. What they needed was sound.

Soldiers like to talk. Units scattered all over Scotland should be making a lot of radio chatter. Operation Skye set up fake communications between fake units. If the Nazi were listening, the men of Number 5 Wireless Group made sure they had something to listen to. And they made sure it sounded just right.

Enemy snoopers were savvy enough to be suspicious of radio communications sounding crisp and clear, so the Wireless Groups recorded the sounds of a real army on cutting edge American technology, then handed it over to the ‘Playback’ truck. They trundled around to likely locations, and started broadcasting ‘communications’ to anyone who was listening, with, crucially, that soundtrack in the background. They even chucked in real football scores, fake wedding announcements and complaints about the food, which might also have been genuine.

No-one knows for certain if the Nazi’s did listen to Operation Skye’s radio show, but according to William B. Breuer in ‘Hoodwinking Hitler’, shortly after the broadcasts really got going a Messerschmitt fighter strafed Edinburgh Castle. It might have been a coincidence, but it could have been audience feedback. Luckily no-one was hurt during the Fourth Army’s only serious moment under enemy fire.

Operations Skye’s broadcasts were bolstered by German spies talking directly to the Abwehr. One, code numbered ND-98, warned his handlers about Fortitude North. The Nazi spymasters were pleased. It was good intel from a highly regarded source. They didn’t realise he probably hadn’t even seen Scotland. They also didn’t give him his code number. That was the work of his real employers, the American FBI.

He wasn’t the only double agent telling porkies to the Nazis. In 1941, a crofter in Crovie Bay opened his door one morning to find two young Norwegians standing there. A Luftwaffe seaplane had dropped spies Helge Moe and Tor Glad off that morning. They clambered into a rubber dinghy and rowed to shore to begin their careers as Nazi spies, but they really didn’t fancy that and promptly handed themselves in.

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British Intelligence code-named them Mutt and Jeff. Mutt, Helge Moe, was the son of a Norwegian father and British mother. He had deliberately joined the German spy forces with the aim of being sent to Britain. He knew he would. He spoke flawless English.

MI5 welcomed Mutt with open arms. They even did a little light sabotage to back up their cover story as German operatives. They weren’t so sure about Jeff.. He got drunk one night and behaved “very stupidly’ in an Aberdeen pub, according to MI5 files. He sat out the rest of the war on the Isle of Wight.

Mutt continued feeding false tales and misinformation to the Abwehr. He began sending detailed information about the Fourth Army in Scotland. They believed and trusted him. In 1943, he even got the Luftwaffe to fly a low level drop near Loch Strathberg for a new radio and some money, codenamed Operation Porridge. Tragically, the bombers flew on and opportunistically bombed Fraserburgh, killing 11-year-old Laurence Kerr. It weighed heavily on Helge Moe for the rest of his life that he was partly responsible for this boy's death.

From Scotland, Mutt sent detailed reports of things such as the arrival of military VIPs, outcomes of military exercises. He even wrote about the morale of the people

All of this convinced the Germans that a Norway invasion was on the cards. Divisions were deployed away from Normandy, to protect supposed landing zones of Pas-de-Calais, Stavanger and Norvick. On June 6, 1944 the Allies came ashore on Normandy’s beaches.

Operations Fortitude North and South were code-named ‘Bodyguard’. Churchill had once remarked that “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”. D-Day was carnage, but it could have been even worse had Nazi High Command not bought the Fortitude fibs.

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