May 7, 2019, by Charlotte Anscombe
D-Day: The King Who Fooled Hitler
Dr Rory Cormac from the School of Politics at the University of Nottingham, along with Professor Richard Aldrich from Warwick University, have graced our television screens once again this weekend as their research was the subject of a prime time Channel 4 documentary.
Here, Dr Cormac talks us through his latest television venture…
If historical work sometimes feels like a detective story, then researching the British intelligence services can feel like a detective resurrecting a cold case. From the Middle Ages. Sources, especially in the most sensitive areas of deception and covert operations, are particularly sparse.
Yet if there was an award for the most secretive British institution, the royal family would give the intelligence services a run for their money.
Examining the role of King George VI in the deception operations masking the date of D-Day, the 1944 allied invasion of Normandy, therefore proved a challenge.
This was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary researched and fronted by me, a historian hiding in the University of Nottingham’s politics department and Professor Richard J Aldrich, of Warwick University.
Our challenge began with a couple of tantalising quotes from the diary of the king’s private secretary, Alan “Tommy” Lascelles. In early March, he noted that MI5, overseeing the deception campaign, asked the king to help bamboozle the Germans. Six weeks later, he confided to his diary that the deception was working well.
This was a great starting point. And we had read stories of the king visiting a fake oil depot near Dover, giving credibility to the ruse that the invasion would come from Calais. The story was in so many history books, it had to be true. We were confident that other examples would lead from this.
But each book simply referenced another, taking us in circles. Little material existed in the archival files and, with the king’s diary locked up in the royal archives at Windsor, we soon realised that there was no evidence the king actually made such a visit.
What did his role entail? How did he bamboozle the Germans?
With the clock ticking, we returned to the drawing board.
We turned to newspaper reports. It is well-known that the king toured the country on morale-boosting tours in the run up to D-Day. We wondered whether these visits were carefully choreographed to complement MI5’s deception. Unfortunately, the reporters rarely mentioned where the king was actually visiting; when they did, they kept it vague. Icy waters of the north or a seaside town. British planners did not want to make it too easy for the Germans.
Cross-referencing these visits with troop movements, royal train records, and the highly classified reports of German agents working for MI5, demonstrated that the king’s movements were carefully coordinated with the deception. Even if he never did visit the fake oil terminal.
It was a remarkable turnaround since the reign of Edward VIII, the king’s brother who had abdicated in 1936, about whom we had made an earlier programme for Channel 4. The palace now worked closely with the intelligence services.
Doing justice to the intricate planning and myriad moving parts was difficult. Translating historical research for a television audience is challenging but hugely rewarding, forcing us to think about our findings in different ways.
Producers can see great drama in documents historians might dismiss as tangential. Thanks to our producer’s keen eye, for example, papers we had uncovered about the palace losing a top-secret account of the deception operation ended up in the national press.
It’s very different from engaging with an academic audience. Learning to embrace narrative – and be bold – without sacrificing the nuance in which we are trained can be scary. But it is also very exciting.
Researching intelligence will often involve snippets of sources. Smoking guns rarely exist.
This is why we were so surprised to read an account of Queen Elizabeth II discussing the potential poisoning of a Middle Eastern leader. She almost had her Henry II – “will nobody rid me of this troublesome priest” – moment. To be clear, it was a light-hearted remark. Her majesty was not ordering an assassination!
But it is interesting nonetheless. Her remarks, that she was surprised nobody had slipped something in his coffee, offer rare insight into the informal discussions between the palace and, what we might call, the secret state. Diplomats in the Foreign Office were unsuccessfully engaging in deniable operations to discredit this particular leader. Meanwhile, MI6 were conducting covert actions across the region, from Yemen to Saudi Arabia, Syria to Egypt. Most famously, there was a lot of talk about assassinating President Nasser of Egypt.
The queen’s comment was light-hearted, but it helped to normalise such activity and offers a fascinating clue.
The relationship between the monarch and the secret state continued.