Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Beersheba, Jerusalem, and the Haversack Ruse

General Allenby at the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem, 11 December 1917

Given Prime Minister Lloyd George’s insistence that Jerusalem be taken by Christmas [1917], Egypt Expeditionary Force (EEF) Commander, General Edmund Allenby had less than six months to overcome two failed efforts by his predecessor to breach the Gaza-Beersheba line and open the way to Jerusalem. The third major British offensive against these fortifications could not be totally hidden, but could its specific objectives be disguised? Could the German-led Turkish forces defending the line be made to believe an attack was intended at one place and not the other, true, target?

The answer was that it was worth trying, and thus entered into the annals of military history one of the greatest exemplars of a deception operation ever conducted. Known as the “Haversack Ruse.” The operation involved—just before the October 1917 offensive was to begin—the intentional loss in enemy territory by a British staff officer of an apparent dispatch case containing the British attack plan. 

Through this ruse, Allenby hoped to fool the commanders facing him regarding both the timing and direction of the attack, with the goal of convincing the enemy that the British would conduct a third direct assault on Gaza while the actual focal point of the attack would be Beersheba, miles to the east.

At the operational level of warfare, Allenby also wanted the Turks to worry that a more northerly attack, emanating from Cyprus against Syria, was imminent. Once again, his intelligence staff devised a complex deception strategy. The EEF mustered enough movement of men, horses, and materials on the island to make a looming operation seem plausible. There was increased signal traffic, and he even simulated troop movements by putting Egyptian workers on troop ships. The main goal was to pin down enemy troops along the Syrian coast, thus preventing them from reinforcing the Gaza to Beersheba frontline. Although the Germans and Turks were not fooled by all elements of the plans, their decision not to militarily reinforce Beersheba indicates the deception may have tilted the odds in this linchpin battle in favor of the British.

Intelligence officer Richard Meinertzhagen laid claim to both the idea and its execution—a claim that has been credibly disputed. As Meinertzhagen has told the story, pretending to be on a courier mission, he intentionally rode close to the front lines near Gaza and been taken under fire by an enemy cavalry patrol. He slumped forward in his saddle, feigning injury, and let the haversack (previously coated in blood) drop to the ground, reckoning it would be recovered by the cavalrymen. Among common items that any soldier might possess, the haversack contained official papers and rough notes on a cipher which would enable the enemy to decode any encrypted messages Britain might send later. Once the haversack was successfully “lost,” British headquarters immediately began broadcasting encrypted messages in that code that ordered urgent efforts to recover it. The sack and its contents soon were in the possession of the German commander of the Turkish force. The papers indicated that the British would yet again directly attack Gaza while moving a force to Beersheba to act as a feint. The papers also also indicated that a French force would attempt a simultaneous amphibious landing well north of Gaza on the Syrian coast.

British Intelligence Agent Richard Meinertzhagen

Most historians accept that the Turks and Germans both fell for the deception, thus enabling the Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) light horse brigade to capture the strategic water wells at Beersheba and begin to roll up the Gaza-Beersheba line from the east and move on to Jerusalem in December. Brian Garfield put forth a compelling argument in his book, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, that although the deception took place, almost every claim Meinertzhagen made for himself was false. According to Garfield, Meinertzhagen was neither the author of the plan nor the British rider who dropped the haversack. Moreover, the enemy clearly dismissed several elements of a larger Allied deception plan. Perhaps some elements of this plan helped the British at Beersheba, but the biggest deception may have been Meinertzhagen’s elaborate postwar scheme to use the incident to enhance his reputation.

Source: "The Role of Military Intelligence in the Battle for Beersheba in October 1917," by James Noone, CIA Studies in Intelligence Vol. 62, No. 1

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