Churchill’s Wizards – Nicholas Rankin

Subtitled ‘The British Genius for Deception 1914-1945’, this is a history of those men (and they were nearly all men) who began and continued the arts of wartime deception: propaganda, camouflage, ruses, misdirection, rumour-mongering, double-agents, false suggestion, and so on. It’s a comprehensive history, taking more of an interest in the characters rather then their subterfuges, very readable (despite the occasional infelicities in style), and full of information that isn’t normally included in official histories of either war.

It’s interesting to read about John Buchan’s activities during WWI, or Ian Fleming’s during WWII, and the way that Churchill learned from his experiences in the first war to avoid some mistakes in the second. The characters, such as Dudley Clarke, or Juan Pujol, are brought vividly to life, though Rankin is careful not to indulge overly in speculation. The history of the war in North Africa during WW2 is very detailed, perhaps because deception proved to be such an important part of the fighting, but Rankin is also strong on the misdirection and careful planning of the D-Day landings, and also shows where they could have gone catastrophically wrong.

There is acknowledgment of where the Germans got such things right, too; and how the French invented the art of camouflage, but Rankin makes the point that when the British really got to grips with wartime deception in the second half of WW2, and started to include it with their battle tactics, their strategy started to become much more successful.

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