Operation Advocate

This was a British deception plan, based on 'Xmas Plan II', implemented in North Africa to persuade the Axis forces that General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the commander-in-chief Middle East, had ordered the British forces in the Western Desert to attempt no further advance but instead to construct a potent defensive front in Libya in order that forces could be diverted to Iraq and Iran for further deployment into the southern part of the Caucasus to bolster the Soviets and at the same time persuade Turkey to side with the Allies (December 1941/January 1942).

'Advocate', which was known for its first few days as 'Xmas Plan II', was the de­ception scheme for Auchinleck’s 'Acrobat' plan to follow the expected success of 'Crusader' (i) by expelling the Axis from the rest of Libya. The 'story' promulgated by 'Advocate' was that after driving the Axis forces out of western Egypt and the Cyrenaica eastern part of Libya, the British forces were not to advance any farther to the west but instead build a strong defensive line hinged on El Agheila on the south-east coast of the Gulf of Sirte and thereby be in the position to redeploy a major part of their strength to Syria, Iraq and Iran in order that they could back Turkey against the threat of Axis aggression and bolster the Soviet forces in the Caucasus.

Implementation of 'Advocate', schemed by Colonel Dudley W. Clarke’s 'A' Force, was to involve the usual combination of 'leaks', battlefield deceptions to simulate the transfer of formations to other parts of the theatre, and encouragement of the press to belittle the advantages of advancing farther across North Africa and to suggest that the British wished to avoid giving the Axis powers any opportunity to intervene in Tunisia and transfer the key base area from Tripoli in Libya to that Vichy French province.

The history of 'Advocate' is not a happy one, and reflected the British lack of any central­ control of their various deception organisations. The Japanese struck Pearl Harbor in 'Ai' just as the deception effort was starting and, unknown in Cairo, the whole of the 'Acrobat' offensive was thereby thrown into doubt as it became clear in London that men and equipment might have to be rushed from the Middle East Command to reinforce the Far East Command. Again unknown to Cairo, an invasion of Algeria and Tunisia was now being actively discussed between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill and their staffs in Washington, so London was highly concerned to avoid any element of a press campaign drawing attention to Vichy French North Africa.

London therefore attempted to stop 'Advocate', but this was already under way and the Middle East was pervaded by tales of the strength of British defences in Libya, bogus telegrams had been passed between Egypt and India indi­cating notional movements of troops from Libya to Iraq, and the press had been 'steered' in the desired direction. Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie’s British 8th Army had started a radio deception operation suggesting that an armoured brigade was being withdrawn to the Nile river delta region. New disinformation channels to the Italians had just been readied and were now put to use. Special press conferences in Cairo and Delhi on 14 and 15 January 1942 resulted in several stories in Egyptian and Indian newspapers emphasising the strength of British defences in Libya, while reports from Syria and Turkey confirmed that the 'story' was also being accepted there.

The, on 21 January 1942, in the 'Theseus' operation at El Agheila, Rommel struck back in a counter-offensive which swiftly took the Axis forces back to Egypt. At this stage 'Acrobat' was finally cancelled, together with its stories about the strength of British defences in Libya. There was retrospective consternation in London, Colonel Oliver Stanley, the controlling officer, ordering that from this time on approval from London would be mandatory for any theatre-level deception undertaking which related to a neutral country, might have repercussions outside the theatre, or involved exploitation of the press or other overt propaganda on any major scale.

On 11 February, the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff committee further ordained that all future major deception plans must be referred to it for approval, and that directives to military public relations directors were to be prepared by the Joint Planning Staff in consultation with Stanley and the Foreign Office.

Clarke’s problems were made more complex by organisational factors. Dur­ing Clarke’s absence on a trip to Portugal, Spain and the UK, long absence, and with the departure of Major A. D. Wintle, who had been deputising for Clarke, Lieutenant Colonel R. Bagnold, who had made his name in the organisation and early operations of the Long Range Desert Group and was currently the Inspector of Desert Troops in Cairo, had been promoted to colonel and appointed chief deception officer in the op­erations division of general headquarters, assuming control of tactical deception and leaving 'A' Force to manage strategic deception.

Clarke arrived back in Cairo during November to find this completely changed organisation arrangement, and was appalled, seeing this as Bagnold’s attempt to take overall control. Bagnold knew noth­ing about his new role, and moreover the publicity given to his role contrasted adversely with, in Clarke’s own words, 'the closely guarded secrecy with which "A" Force had tried to cloak its very existence, let alone its methods for which complete secrecy was the sole safeguard.' It soon transpired that Bagnold expected 'A' Force to train his officers and run all radio deception, and in the middle of January he gained control of all camouflage and dummies, together with the units operating them. At the end of January he procured general headquarters' approval that henceforward his operation would plan and co-ordinate all deception work at headquarters of formations down to brigade level, and announced a three-week course for senior deception officers to start in February, to be followed by a five-week course for junior deception officers. Yet there was no one to teach these courses.

Rommel’s advance ended this, for on 1 February Auchinleck, on his return to Cairo after a flying visit to the 8th Army’s desert headquarters, summoned Clarke and instructed his to undertake the rapid creation of a deception operation to slow, if not to halt, Rommel’s advance. The result was 'Bastion'.