Hold The Line! The Most Cunning Military Deceptions In History

Sun Tzu, one of the most respected and skilled military strategists in history, once wrote, “All warfare is based on deception.” When it comes to military strategy, the number of your force and the size of your weapons is only half of the battle. Having the ability to outthink and out-maneuver your enemy is what truly wins battles and wars, even in the direst of situations. Soldiers and commanders have been trying to do this to one another since man first took up arms against another, and these are some of the most impressive of those military deceptions in history.

Hannibal’s Ambush At Lake Trasimene Has Been Repeated Throughout History

Painting of ambush
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Although the Carthaginian commander is best known for invading Italy by way of the Alps during the Second Punic War, this wasn’t his only act of military genius. In 217 BC, Hannibal set a trap for Roman consul Flaminius at Lake Trasimene.

Knowing that the Roman army was on his heels, Hannibal hid his infantry and cavalry in the forest and lit hundreds of fires to trick the Romans into thinking that was where they were camped. When the legions made an attack on Hannibal’s “camp,” they were met by an ambush on three sides, killing 15,000 Romans, including Flavius.

Alexander The Great’s Crossing Of The Hydaspes Proves That Patience Is Key

Painting of the crossing
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

While invading present-day Turkey in 326 BC, Alexander The Great found himself blocked by the Hydaspes River. Not only that, but the army of King Porus which consisted of 34,000 soldiers and 200 war elephants waited for him on the other side, ready to attack at any sign of movement.

Alexander then spread rumors that he didn’t intend to cross until after the monsoon season and repeatedly sent his armies marching up and down the river as well as loading and unloading ships to confuse King Porus. When Porus finally no longer felt threatened, Alexander crossed with half of his army 20 miles upstream and decimated Porus’ army, taking the king prisoner.

The Capturing Of The Tabor Bridge Was A Lesson To Never Trust Your Enemies

Picture of the Tabor Bridge
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, Marshal Jean Lannes and Joachim Murat’s French forces were in pursuit of the retreating Austrian army. They were then stopped by the Tabor Bridge, which was fit with explosives.

Rather than ruining the bridge, Lannes and Murat put on their uniforms, crossed the bridge, and lied to the Austrians, claiming that an armistice had finally been signed and that the war was over and the French had won. Incredibly, the Austrian forces believed them and the French took the bridge without firing a single shot.

A Lie Resulted In The Seige Of Fort Detroit

Picture of the fort
Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images

During the War of 1812, British General Isaac Brock and Shawnee Chief Tecumseh succeeded in capturing Fort Detroit, held by American General William Hull without any resistance. The capture began in August 1812 when Brock was ordered to besiege the fort with an inferior force of 300 regular, 400 Canadian militiamen, and 600 Indians.

Knowing that Hull feared the Indian warriors, Brock wrote a fake letter to Hull claiming that he had more than 5,000 at his disposal and that he would not be able to stop their killing once they started. Brock then had the Indians, under his command, repeatedly march by the fort to exaggerate their number, eventually leading Hull to surrender the fort.

British Q-Ships Tricked German U-Boats

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although most people associate World War I with trench warfare, there was a fair amount of naval activity. To rid the waters of the German U-boats, the British Admiralty created the “Q-Ship” fleet. These were decoy merchant vessels crewed by navy men and equipped with concealed weaponry.

When a German U-Boat would take the bait and surface from the depths, the Q-Ships would open fire on them. Around 200 of these ships were made by the British, which managed to sink more than 15 U-Boats during the war.

Magruder’s Defenses At Yorktown Used Fake Cannons

Map of Yorktown
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

During the American Civil War, the Confederacy was desperately outnumbered by the Union and used unusual tactics to make up for it. One such instance was when Union General George McClellan launched an amphibious assault of Virginia near Yorktown in 1862. Stalling the Union advance was charged to Confederate General John Magruder.

Outnumbered by almost 40,000 men, Magruder spread out his men on the defenses to make it appear they had far more and built fake cannons out of logs to scare the Union. The plan worked, and the Union attack was delayed by weeks.

The D-Day Landing At Normandy Is Considered One Of The Greatest Deceptions In History

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Three Lions/Getty Images
Three Lions/Getty Images

Before the invasion of Europe by Allie forces, Adolf Hitler knew that the invasion was coming, although he didn’t know where. Before the attack, the British fed the Germans false information about where they would land through several double agents.

One of the messengers even convinced Hitler that the Allies would land 100 miles away from Normandy, with the Allies setting up decoy tanks and trucks in the area. So, when the Allies did arrive in Normandy, it took the Germans by surprise and resulted in one of the most successful military deceptions of the 20th century.

The Battle Of Kalja River Was Nothing More Than A Trap By Ghengis Khan

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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In the 13th century, Genghis Khan’s mounted raiders had been terrorizing the Russians for years. In 1223 AD, a Mongrol raid led to the death of one of the Russian kings. In response, the Russians assembled an army of 80,000 and took pursuit of the 1,0000 raiders. However, little did they know they were falling into a trap set by Genghis Khan.

Khan had kept his army of 20,000 hidden near a narrow pass, and when the Russians felt that victory was at hand, the Mongols swarmed them. It’s estimated that almost the entire Russian army was slaughtered.

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign Was Incredibly Bold

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Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

During the American Civil War, Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson commanded a force of 16,000 troops compared to the Union’s 52,000 that was nearing his position. Caught between both halves of the Union Army, Jackson knew that he would be crushed if he didn’t do something, so he deceived the Union.

He spread rumors that he had more than 100,000 men and fought the army on one side of the valley before moving across to the other and back again, leading the Union to think they were fighting a massive force instead of one small one. This resulted in Lincoln ordering a full-scale retreat from the area.

The Crossing Of The Red Sea May Have Been An Act Of Brilliance

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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

According to the Old Testament, Moses “stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” Although this is perceived by many to be the work of God, this may not be the case.

The sea described in the Bible may have been a tidal swamp that flooded during the day and dried at night. So, if the Hebrews waited until night to cross, it would leave the Egyptians stranded on the other side, as their chariots could not cross.

Iwo Jima Was No Ordinary Island

Picture of Iwo Jima
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During World War II, to reach the Japanese mainland, Allied forces captured every island they could along the way. Typically, these were bloody battles with the islands swarming with Japanese soldiers, booby traps, and tunnels.

However, when it came to attacking the small island of Iwo Jima, the United States greatly underestimated the assault. Assuming the island wouldn’t be difficult to capture, it turned out to more heavily armed and guarded than they could have ever imagined, resulting in a horrendous battle. Although the island was captured, Iwo Jima is one of the major reasons Truman launched the nuclear attacks.

The Cunning Of The Viet-Cong Gave The U.S. A Very Hard Time

Picture of the Vietnam War
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese were known for being incredibly secretive and deceptive. To learn information and pass false information, the Viet-Cong were known to set up “American friendly” bars, restaurants, and more to get as close to the enemy as possible, with the Americans unable to distinguish friend from foe.

Here, the Viet-Cong would listen to what the Americans were talking about, as well as spread false rumors about Viet-Cong movements and strategies. This resulted in countless ambushes and U.S. forces chasing fake armies.

Maskirovka Was Used Successfully In The Battle Of Stalingrad

Picture of Stalingrad
Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

For centuries, the Russians have been known for their military deception skills, even having a system for it called “maskirovka,” which are a set of techniques to fool the enemy, which was heavily used in the Battle of Stalingrad. Stalin would send out fake radio messages, have fake trenches dug, and have men sent out on suicide missions to trick the Germans.

Once Hitler was convinced Stalingrad was basically his, he sent in his main force to take the city. However, the Russians were waiting and ambushed the Germans, starting the single most decisive battle of World War II and ending Hitler’s ambitions to control the Eastern Front.

A Modern Version Of The Trojan Horse

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Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On July 4, 1976, pro-Palestinian hijackers held 106 civilian hostages from the Jewish state at an airport in their friendly country of Uganda. However, IDF commandos managed to infiltrate the airport by arriving in vehicles that were painted to look like the motorcade of the African dictator Idi Amin.

As the cars approached the terminal, Israeli paratroopers revealed themselves and attacked the building freeing the captives and taking out the terrorists. Within moments, both the captives and rescuers were placed on C-130s and flown to safety. This is known as the Entebbe Raid.

Harald Hardrada Faked His Death To Get Access To A Castle

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The famous Viking warrior Harald Hardrada was a leader of the Byzantine Emperor’s guard known as the Varangian Guard. Ordered to subdue a Balkan lord, Harald did as he was told but couldn’t manage to break into the castle.

He then ordered his troops to inform the lord that he had fallen ill and died, wishing to be buried within the walls in return for riches. Harald was then placed in a casket and taken inside of the city walls. Once inside, he rose from the casket, and he and his men opened the gates for the rest of their forces.

P.G.T. Beauregard Misled The Union With Trains

Picture of P.G.T. Beauregard
Matthew Brady/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Matthew Brady/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

During the American Civil War, Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard was outnumbered two to one by the Union and was anticipating a major assault the next morning. To strike fear into the enemy, Beauregard ordered for one train to be rolled in and out of the town of Corinth, Mississippi to make it appear as if they were receiving a steady supply of soldiers throughout the night.

To add to the act, each time the train arrived, he had his soldiers cheer to make it seem like they were ready for a fight. Meanwhile, Beauregard and his troops slowly evacuated the town, their noises masked by the sound of the train.

Fake Tanks Dotted The Battlefield In World War II

Picture of rubber tank
Roger Viollet via Getty Images
Roger Viollet via Getty Images

During World War II, both the Allies and Germans ordered the construction of fake tanks made of aircraft wood and canvas. In the North African campaign, the British build three whole non-existent armored regiments that could be moved around the battlefield quickly to trick the enemy into thinking they knew the right position.

In particular, the United States specialized in rubber tanks that looked extremely convincing from a distance to help deter the enemy from coming any closer.

The “Last Invasion Of Britain” Wasn’t An Invasion At All

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David Goddard/Getty Images
David Goddard/Getty Images

In 1797, there was an instance known as the “Last Invasion of Britain,” The French Revolutionary forces successfully crossed the North Sea to attack Britain, a few miles west of Fishguard. Although the French were prepared, they sent out a single French ship flying British colors into the bay.

When the ship was spotted, the British fired a blank cannon. This scared the French into thinking the British were heavily armed, unaware that it was a blank round and they were severely low on ammunition. This was enough for the French to pack their gear and sail back.

Sultan Baybar Took A Castle Using One Sheet Of Paper

Picture of Krak des Chevaliers
Soltan Frédéric/Sygma via Getty Images
Soltan Frédéric/Sygma via Getty Images

During the Crusades, Sultan Baybar and his army were camped outside of the castle of Krak des Chevaliers, a strong and fortified castle held by the hospitallers. To avoid the certain blood that would be shed during a siege, Sultan Baybars came up with a plan using just one sheet of paper.

The Sultan had a fake letter drafted that had the hospitaller’s leader’s signature forged at the bottom, ordering the castle to surrender. When the hospitallers sent out a party to discuss the terms of surrender, the castle was swiftly taken by Baybar’s army.

William The Conqueror’s “Retreat” Changed England Forever

Picture of the Battle of Hastings
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

At the Battle of Hastings during the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the British shield wall was holding the line against a relentless attack by William the Conqueror’s cavalry. But then, out of nowhere, the cavalry retreated, and foolishly, the English infantry chased after them.

With the English lines broken, the cavalry was able to regain its footing and ride back into the scattered footsoldiers, riding right through them, destroying the British force. This decisive battle tactic and its success signaled the end of the Anglo-Saxon rule in England.