Fake news isn’t new: The lookalikes who went to war

I posted a shorter version of this article some time ago; however, I’m re-posting now with extra information to highlight the fact that you can now view it as a video on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, please hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!


We live in an age of fake news when we’re constantly warned not to trust everything we see or read. But fake news and deception have been with us a lot longer than the internet. You only have to look at how the Allies used it in two world wars to see that. And when it comes to faking it, using lookalikes to fool the enemy seems to have brought dividends, here’s how…


1: Monty’s Double

Growing up, I always had a great fondness for war movies, particularly those surrounding the Second World War. Of the many that I saw, one sticks in my mind a little longer than others. I Was Monty’s Double told the true story of the actor M.E. Clifton James who entertained troops during the war by pretending to be British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. It was Monty who helped crush Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert. He was then tasked with helping to plan Operation Overlord, the D:Day landings.

While Monty’s military career was going from strength to strength, James, who had been an actor before the war, was engaged in somewhat less stimulating work as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Pay Corps.  About seven weeks before D:Day, a newspaper article reported on how James had performed as Monty during a patriotic show.


General Bernard Montgomery (left) and lookalike M.E. Clifton James

An Intelligence officer spotted the uncanny resemblance and soon Operation Copperhead, a scheme to misdirect Nazi spies, was hatched. James learned Montgomery’s mannerisms and speech and was even fitted with a prosthetic finger to replace the one he’d lost while fighting in World War One. Monty was a non-smoker and teetotal, so James had to give up the booze and the fags to be truly convincing.

And so the deception began. While the real Monty got busy planning the invasion of France, James was flown to Gibraltar where, at a reception at the Governor-General’s house, he dropped hints of’Plan 303′ – a bogus invasion of southern France – which were overheard by German agents.

With those little seeds sown, he was then whisked off to Algiers in North Africa, where he made several public appearances with General Maitland Wilson, the Allied commander in the Mediterranean, just to give Nazi spies the impression that something fresh was afoot in that military theatre.

Five weeks later, D:Day took place with Monty as one of the main commanders. James found himself back in his old job with the Pay Corps, trying to explain where he had been for the previous five weeks.

It’s not known for sure how successful James’s ruse was, but the German’s were certainly taken by surprise on D:Day, so maybe it was indeed useful.

2: The Four Stalins

Meanwhile, over in Russia, Joseph Stalin was having something of an identity crisis. The supreme leader of the Soviet Union is said to have had no less than four lookalikes to act as his decoys to thwart spies and would-be assassins.

One, ‘Rashid’ was said to be so like the Soviet leader, right down to pockmarks on his skin from a bout of childhood smallpox, that he was dismissed from the army because of his uncanny resemblance to Stalin. He was later recruited by the NKVD to act as a decoy and would sit in at meetings and formal dinners.

Rashid’s fascinating job came to an abrupt end in 1953 when Stalin died. The lookalike moved out of Moscow, shaved his hair and moustache and tried to blend back into society. Despite all his precautions, though, he would still find himself being stared at in the street due to his similarity to the late leader. Rashid died in 1991, aged 93.



Felix Dadaev (left) and Joseph Stalin

Another body double was Felix Dadaev, a one-time dancer and juggler, who was injured in the fight to re-take Grozny from the Germans in 1942. Impressed by his resemblance to Stalin, intelligence chiefs faked Dadaev’s death and spirited him away to transform him into the Soviet leader.

Dadaev was almost 40 years younger than Stalin, but the rigours of war had aged him. That, combined with some well-applied make-up, did the trick. The Soviet leader’s voice was not so familiar to  Russian citizens, so all Dadaev had to do then was to practice Stalin’s mannerisms and gait in order to dupe onlookers.

His role, too, was to appear at ceremonies and rallies all across the USSR in place of the real leader. Once, he said, he stood at the mausoleum in Red Square to review a parade of athletes that filed past. No one suspected a thing. In an age when there was no television and people rarely saw their leaders up close, the deception always succeeded.

His most important appearance as Stalin was when the Soviet leader travelled to the Yalta conference in 1945. Stalin’s flight was shrouded in secrecy but Dadaev’s was in the full glare of publicity, making him a ripe target for would-be assassins.

In 2008, Dadaev (88) wrote about his wartime secret in an autobiography, Variety Land (I’ve searched for it, but can’t find the book). Military intelligence wartime archives and Russian state security backup his extraordinary story.

I can’t help imagining the conversation at a lookalikes’ reunion, if only one had taken place – Stalin 1 and Stalin 2 comparing moustaches, while Nos.3 and 4 discussed tips on backcombing to achieve the desired bouffant style.

3: The Ghost Army

It’s one thing to impersonate a well-known leader, but how do you go about fabricating an entire invasion force? The lookalike army was one decoy that really did hit the mark during World War II in the run-up to the D-Day landings. Operation Fortitude was split into two parts – Fortitude North was a plan to fool the Germans into believing that the Allies were planning to attack Norway. Fortitude South was aimed to fool Hitler and his generals into thinking that an invasion would occur in the Pas de Calais area of France, north-east of Normandy, where the actual D-Day landings occurred.

Generals George Patton (left), Omar Bradley and Field Marshal Montgomery (right)

Generals George Patton (left), Omar Bradley and Field Marshal Montgomery (right)

But how do you conjure up an army? The Allies used a combination of techniques. German military intelligence intercepted fake radio traffic that referred to movements of the fictitious First US Army Group as it gathered resources and mobilised for an attack. Dummy landing craft and inflatable tanks were created, as were fake aircraft and dummy airfields, all to give the Germans the impression of a large force being gathered to attack the Pas de Calais.

Heading this imaginary army was none other than US Lieutenant General George S Patton, a flamboyant officer who wore a pearl-handled revolver strapped to his hip. Patton was held in high regard by German military, who could imagine that such a distinguished officer would merely be used as a decoy rather than out in the field campaigning.

Juan Pujol Garcia (codename 'Garbo')

Juan Pujol Garcia (codename ‘Garbo’)

Diplomatic channels were also used to ‘leak’ information in neutral countries that could then be passed on to the Germans. The allies also operated a network of double agents, who fed the Nazi leaders all manner of fabricated information about troop movements. Juan Pujol Garcia (codenamed Garbo) created his own fake network of agents who provided him with information that he passed on to his German handlers about Allied preparations.

The plan worked. Hitler was convinced that the Pas de Calais would be where the main thrust of the Allied attack would come. As a result, when D-Day occurred, Hitler ordered that vital reinforcements be kept in reserve to counter the attack across the Straits of Dover at Pas de Calais that never emerged. This paralysis of Germany’s military machine gave the Allies the chance they needed to create a foothold on mainland Europe. Without Fortitude’s decoy army, the real one would have suffered even worse casualties on D-Day and may have failed in their objective.


Gare Du Nord station in Paris

4: The City That Wasn’t There

Creating a ‘lookalike’ army is impressive, but what about finding a city’s double?

No, I haven’t been at the magic mushrooms again. I refer to the ruse during World War I when the French built a fake Paris to fool German bombers.

An area about 15 miles outside the French capital was picked on a stretch of the River Seine, which was similar to Paris itself.

There, areas of the city around the Arc de Triomphe and suburbs like Saint-Denis were recreated. Wooden replicas of the Champs Elysees and Gare Du Nord were erected, and lighting effects, using white, yellow and red lamps, were employed to give the impression of machinery in operation at night and of trains and tracks which appeared real.

Special paint was even used to give the impression of dirty glass on factory roofs.

It was all in vain, though. The replica was still being built when the Germans made their final air raid on Paris in September 1918. Less than two months later the war ended.

Still, you can’t fault the French for effort…


You can check out the video version of this blog on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube  — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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4 Responses to Fake news isn’t new: The lookalikes who went to war

  1. So…if we built a fake White House, do you suppose….? Nah, no such luck…

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