THE assault on Nazi-occupied France – Operation Neptune – was the single most colossal military operation that had ever been attempted.
A mammoth 156,000 troops landed on Normandy’s beaches, and many more military and civilian personnel were involved in planning and supporting the invasion.
And despite the huge number of people involved, the attack on June 6, 1944, was a surprise to the German military.
The exact details of the operation were a closely-guarded secret with even quite high-ranking officers not knowing crucial details of the plan.
A special classification – BIGOT – was devised that marked a level of secrecy above Top Secret and it was stamped across dozens of maps and other documentation related to Operation Neptune.
The bizarre code word BIGOT was devised by reversing the letters of two words— To Gib —that had been stamped on the papers of officers being sent to Gibraltar for the invasion of North Africa inNovember 1942.
The secrets were so closely guarded that in one case the King himself was refused admission to a cabin on a ship where BIGOT documents were being held.
King George VI was touring the ship and asked what was being done in a curtained-off area. He was gently ushered away because, in the words of the officer responsible “nobody told me he was a BIGOT”.
But, despite the extreme secrecy, there were a couple of remarkable slips.
“I was obviously not a German spy. Hundreds of kids must have known what I knew”
Three months before the invasion, a US Army sergeant somehow managed to mix up a sheaf of BIGOT papers, some of which mentioned the planned date and location of the invasion, with a letter he was sending to his sister back in Chicago.
By a complete fluke the package burst open in a sorting office and a quick-thinking US Mail employee alerted the FBI. Suspicion grew when it became apparent that the Sergeant’s family were of German descent and lived in a strongly German area of Chicago.
An investigation exonerated the sergeant of espionage, although he was strongly reprimanded and held in isolation until after June 6.
A couple of months later, in May, a senior staff officer got a bit carried away at a party at Claridge’s in London. US Army Air Force major-general Henry Miller told fellow guests that the invasions would definitely happen before mid-June.
He was quoted as saying “on my honour the invasion will take place before June 15.” When word got back to President Eisenhower, a month later, Miller was demoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and sent back to the US in disgrace.
He retired from service that November.
But the weirdest D-Day leak has to be the Daily Telegraph crossword.
At the time, the paper’s crosswords were compiled by Leonard Dawe, the headmaster of a south London boys’ school.
Through May and June 1944, eight key Normandy invasion codewords appeared as the solutions in the Telegraph crossword.
When Gold, Sword and Juno – all codenames for beaches where Allied troops would be landing – popped up they were written off as coincidences.
But when Utah appeared on May 2, followed by Omaha a couple of weeks later, alarm bells began to ring.
Over the three following weeks Overlord (the code-name of the land operation) Mulberry (the name of the floating harbour that did so much to ensure the operation’s success) and Neptune (the code word for the initial stage of the invasion) all appeared as answers in the Telegraph crossword.
Dawe and his colleague Melville Jones were subjected to an intense interrogation by MI5. It later became apparent that Daw used to ask hi pupils to enter random words into the crosswords to inspire him to write clues and that the school was very near a base where US and Canadian troops were preparing for D-Day.
It emerged that at least one of the boys – Ronald French – had overheard and remembered the key codewords.
Dawe remained silent about the affair until 1958. French confessed his part in the scandal in 1984.
He revealed that he had been obsessed with the military camp as a 14-year-old, dressing in his army cadet uniform and hanging around with the troops.
“Everyone knew the outline invasion plan and they knew the various codewords.” he told the Telegraph.
“Omaha and Utah were the beaches they were going to. They knew the names but not the locations. We all knew the operation was called Overlord.”
He said the soldiers didn’t worry about secrets when he was around “because I was obviously not a German spy. Hundreds of kids must have known what I knew.”
Perhaps the strangest part of that whole strange story though was that it had all happened before.
On August 18, 1942, a day before the disastrous Dieppe raid in which some 3,000 Allied servicemen lost their lives, one of the clues in the Telegraph crossword was French port (6).
The answer? Dieppe.
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