Operation Fabric

This was a British Middle East cover plan, at the strategic, operational and tactical levels, to aid General Sir Claude Auchinleck’s planned June 1942 offensive by persuading the Germans and Italians that the 8th Army was to remain on the defensive until September, and to make it appear that when Auchinleck did attack it would be on the British right flank rather than the planned left flank (May/June 1942).

In overall terms, this large deception plan was designed to support a counter-offensive planned by Auchinleck for a time in the middle of May or early in June once the front in the Western Desert had stabilised along the Gazala line. It was on 21 March that Auchinleck instructed Colonel Dudley W. Clarke’s 'A' Force deception organisation to prepare the 'Fabric' deception plan with the object, at the operation and tactical tactical levels, of persuading Generaloberst Erwin Rommel to keep his reserve forces well forward in the northern sector of the front, so as to open his right and rear to a British armoured thrust from the south; and, at the strategic level, to cause Rommel to relax his guard in the belief that there would be no British offensive before the beginning of August.

It was not to be expected that Rommel would believe that Auchinleck would do nothing for four months, and the best which Clarke could manage was the stratagem, now somewhat hoary, of British fears for their north-eastern flank in Iraq and Iran. Thus the strategic 'story' which was suggested was that the British intended to remain on the defensive until the beginning of September, when reinforcements would have brought their strength back up to the level it had been at the end of 1941, and that in the meantime as many troops as possible would be withdrawn from the Gazala line to guard Cyprus and the northern flank, and that the British armoured strength would be held back as a high command’s mobile reserve.

The 'story' was spread as usual through 'Entwhistle', as the rumour-mongering system of the Security Intelligence Middle East apparatus was called. One of its officers, Commander Vladimir Wolfson, opened the channel to a German-language newspaper in central Europe. Order of battle deception from 'Cascade' then encouraged the notion that British formations were being shifted from Egypt for redeployment onto the north-eastern flank. The movement of units to the east was effected in daylight without any attempt at concealment, while return movements toward the front were undertaken under conditions of strict security. In 'Maiden', it was suggested that Auchinleck was to visit London at the time which was in fact the eve of the planned offensive: 'Maiden' included the use of letters directed to him at suitable addresses marked 'To await arrival'.

Another aspect of the undertaking was the enlistment of a correspondent of the Daily Mail newspaper to write a story about the difficulties which would face the Axis forces (and by implication the British forces) to mount an offensive in the Western Desert during the period of intense summer heat between May and July. Unfortunately for 'Fabric', a competing newspaper, the The Times on a few days later ran a story that the concept of a summer lull 'in no way represents the views of the senior military commanders'.

This episode reconfirmed the existing belief in the futility of trying to use the Allied press for deception purposes.

As the tactical situation in the Western Desert kept shifting, the tactical and operational elements of 'Fabric' cycled through a number of eventually bewildering changes. This was one of the reasons why the plan became ever more unrealistic as April turned into May. There were strong indications of a possible renewal of Axis offensive operations, and the 8th Army had necessarily to become more active, which made it steadily more difficult to maintain the fiction that this formation was being weakened. On 26 May Rommel launched 'Venezia' by the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' in order to break through the Gazala line and push forward to Alexandria and Cairo, and 'Fabric' was at a stroke rendered irrelevant.

Even so, 'Fabric' had resulted in useful lessons about tactical deception, mainly that was pointless to try to make long-range plans at that level as the basic situation changed constantly; and that tactical deception had to be planned and executed at the operational level, with the theatre command exercising only general supervision.