The British are the masters of deceit

No weapon is more effective in war than the lie. No one has deployed military deception, over the years, more effectively than the British. And there are few better examples of the successful British War Lie than Operation Kajaki, the transportation of a giant turbine through 100 miles of hostile Afghan territory carried out by British troops this week.

That operation relied in part on a very simple, very old and very effective ruse: we pointed one way, and then went the other.

For weeks, military engineers have been seen working on Highway 611, the most obvious route from Kandahar to Kijaki, preparing the road and clearing explosive devices. In the end, the convoy took a completely different path across the desert, mapped out by a secret reconnaissance team and codenamed Harriet. While the Taleban waited on Route 611, the main convoy trundled safely along Harriet while a decoy column of Danish troops took the main road.

That deception is only the latest chapter in a long and noble history of military con artistry. As Nicholas Rankin writes in his forthcoming book Churchill's Wizards: The British Genius for Deception: “The British enjoy deceiving their enemies [and] acting is a long-established area of British talent.”

We like to pride ourselves on playing with a straight bat and a stiff upper lip, yet concealment is also part of the British character, allied to a natural love of theatre. When the British put their minds to lying for King, Queen and Country, nobody does it better.

The First World War brought numerous stratagems for fooling the enemy - camouflage, snipers hidden in fake trees, booby-trapped corpses and so on - but military deception truly came of age in the Second World War, when bamboozling the Nazis was elevated to an art form by a vast secret army of deceivers.

Victory was won by force of arms, but it was also a triumph for eavesdropping, forgery, fraud and mendacity of the highest order. British agents spread false rumours and propaganda, technicians created bogus wireless traffic from non-existent armies, engineers assembled dummy tanks and airfields for invasions that never took place.

The Nazis sent over waves of spies, all of whom were intercepted (the one known exception being the delightfully named Engelbertus Fukken, a Dutch agent who shot himself in an air raid shelter when he ran out of cash). Offered a choice between execution and co-operation, many understandably agreed to act as double agents, sending false information back to Germany.

This golden age of military deception owed much to one man's appetite for subterfuge. Winston Churchill looked back with pride on the web of deceit that had helped to win the war. “Tangle within tangle, plot and counter-plot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dagger and the firing party, were interwoven in many a texture so intricate as to be incredible and yet true.”

Military men are not always natural lateral thinkers; Britain's secret war was fought with a remarkable array of academics, artists, scientists, lawyers and, in significant numbers, novelists and would-be novelists. The unit within MI5 responsible for running double agents included an industrialist, an historian, an artist, a poet and a circus owner.

A few major British deceptions were revealed after the war, such as Operation Mincemeat, the brilliant tactical coup that convinced Hitler the Allies would invade Greece in 1943, rather than Sicily, by planting a corpse with false papers on a Spanish beach. Echoing this week's successful operation in Afghanistan was Operation Fortitude, the astonishingly elaborate ruse to persuade the Nazis that the D-Day landing would target the Pas-de-Calais rather than Normandy.

Many of the practitioners of British deception remain largely unknown and unsung, such as Sefton Delmer, the journalist who masterminded black propaganda, and the gadget-maker Charles Fraser-Smith, the “Q” of wartime Britain. Fraser-Smith's greatest contribution to the war, in my view, was garlic-flavoured chocolate, which secret agents could chew while parachuting into occupied France to ensure their breath smelt convincingly French on arrival.

The most remarkable wartime conjuror was, in fact, a conjuror, Jasper Maskelyne, a magician and inventor who founded the “Magic Gang” with the aim of baffling the enemy by artifice. Maskelyne's gang built fake submarines, trucks and planes, concealed part of the Suez Canal from the air with giant mirrors and, most famously, deployed 2,000 dummy tanks in the North African desert before the Battle of El Alamein.

The sheer scale of British wartime deception is still emerging. Just last week MI5 released documents in which spy chiefs discussed using pigeons to spread false rumours before D-Day: the War Office intelligence section had noted that only 10 per cent of pigeons dropped into occupied France ever came back, most having presumably fallen into enemy hands. If enough pigeons could be dropped in the Pas-de-Calais, this might reinforce the mistaken impression that the landings would take place there.

Britain's success in the darker arts of war was kept secret for many years, in part because the information might be of use to future enemies, but also because skilled dishonesty is not a trait we like to see in ourselves, however vital in time of war.

Force wins wars, but so do subtle lies, an area of warfare at which we have long excelled, but seldom celebrated. Anyone can deceive, but it takes a peculiarly British cast of mind to realise the tactical advantage to be won by garlic chocolate, a lost homing pigeon or filling in the potholes on the road to Kajaki.