History Stories


6 Ingenious Acts of Battlefield Deception

From a famous War of 1812 charade to Alexander the Great’s masterful ambush at the Battle of the Hydaspes, take a look back at six occasions when military commanders used unconventional methods to outfox their opponents.

1. Isaac Brock and the Siege of Ft. Detroit

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Hull surrendering Ft. Detroit to Brock. (Credit: Kean Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

During the War of 1812, British General Isaac Brock and the Shawnee chief Tecumseh bluffed their way into capturing Detroit without a fight. The ruse began in August 1812, when Brock besieged American General William Hull’s 2,000-strong army at Fort Detroit. Brock’s inferior force included just 300 regulars, 400 Canadian militiamen and 600 Indians, but he had cleverness on his side. Knowing that Hull believed the Indians to be ruthless barbarians, Brock allowed him to intercept a false letter indicating the British had 5,000 natives at their disposal. He then wrote another letter to Hull in which he cautioned that the Indian war party was so large that he feared he would be unable to control its bloodlust once the battle began. While Hull was mulling this over, Tecumseh marched the same group of whooping Indians past the fort multiple times to give the appearance of larger numbers. Brock also clothed his Canadian militiamen in discarded British uniforms to make the Americans think they were up against veterans. Faced with this well-acted bit of battlefield theater, Hull lost his nerve and surrendered.

2. Hannibal’s ambush at Lake Trasimene

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Battle of Lake Trasimene (Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The Carthaginian general Hannibal is best known for invading Italy via the Alps during the Second Punic War, but his gutsy mountain crossing was only the prelude to a series of brilliant military victories. One of his signature maneuvers came in 217 B.C., when he set a trap for the Roman consul Flaminius at Lake Trasimene. After scouting out a section of narrow road along the lake’s northern banks, Hannibal concealed his cavalry and light infantrymen in commanding positions on a forested hillside. He then had his men light hundreds of fires in the distance to deceive the Romans into thinking they were camped elsewhere. When Flaminius and his unsuspecting legions appeared the following morning, Carthaginian skirmishers drew them toward the prearranged ambush point at the lakeside. Then, at Hannibal’s signal, the hidden troops surged from the forest and pounced. The Romans found themselves under attack from three sides and pinned against the lakefront. A few managed to break out of the vise and flee, but the rest were butchered or driven straight into the water. By the time the killing finally stopped, some 15,000 Romans lay dead, including Flaminius.

3. The capture of the Tabor Bridge

battlefield deceptions

Drawing of Lannes and Murat pulling off their ruse. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One of the shrewdest schemes of the Napoleonic Wars unfolded in November 1805, when French forces under Marshals Jean Lannes and Joachim Murat were pursuing the retreating Austrian army near the town of Spitz. The French were set to move on the Austrian capital at Vienna, but their advance hit a snag at the river Danube, where they discovered that the vital Tabor Bridge was mined with explosives. Rather than attack and risk seeing the bridge destroyed, Lannes and Murat opted to take it by sheer cunning. Clad in their full dress uniforms, the pair cheerfully strode right up to the bridge’s guards under flag of truce. A small party of grenadiers followed close behind. Upon encountering an officer, the Marshals lied and claimed that an armistice had been signed and that the crossing now belonged to the French. Most of the Austrians were bewildered. One engineer was ready to light the bridge’s explosives, but Lannes grabbed his hand and reprimanded him for nearly breaking the terms of the imaginary ceasefire. After a tense few minutes, an Austrian general arrived and allowed the French to claim the bridge without so much as firing a shot. Lannes and Murat’s forces were already on the other side before he realized he’d been had.

4. British Q-Ships during World War I

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A British Q-ship. (Credit: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland/Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes appearing defenseless can be a crucial asset. That was the philosophy the British Admiralty adopted during World War I, when they sought a strategy to combat the scourge of German U-boats preying on Allied shipping in the Atlantic. The result was the “Q-ship” fleet, a group of decoy merchant vessels that were crewed by disguised navy men and outfitted with concealed weaponry. These wolves in sheep’s clothing would trawl the Atlantic in the hope of attracting attention from German U-boats. If a submarine took the bait and surfaced, the crew would put on a show of panic by running around the decks in costume or bailing out into lifeboats. As soon as the unsuspecting U-boat drew near, the sailors would hoist the British flag and open fire with high-powered artillery hidden behind bulwarks or false decks. Some Q-ships even towed their own submerged submarines and used them to torpedo the enemy. Q-ship duty was notoriously hazardous—of the roughly 200 decoys, around 50 were lost—but the ghost fleet succeeded in sinking at least 15 U-boats during the early stages of the war.

5. General John Magruder at Yorktown

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Map showing Magruder’s fortifications around Yorktown. (Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The Confederacy was perpetually outnumbered during the Civil War, but what they lacked in men and supplies they often made up for in guile. A famous example came in April 1862, when Union General George McClellan launched an amphibious invasion of Virginia near Yorktown. The task of stalling the Federal advance fell to John Magruder, a 54-year-old general with a flair for the dramatic. Magruder only had a scant 13,500 troops to the Union’s 55,000, but he did have fortifications set up across the Virginia Peninsula—and lots of them. With this in mind, he had his troops move between the bastions to convince McClellan that they were well-manned and armed. In truth, many were empty, and some of their cannons were actually “Quaker guns”—logs that had been fashioned into decoy artillery pieces. Magruder also marched his soldiers in circles past a gap in a tree line to create the illusion of larger numbers, and had men pose as deserters to feed the Union false intelligence. The trickery worked. Despite being substantially outnumbered, Magruder caused McClellan to delay his attack for several weeks, giving the Confederacy crucial time to reinforce along the road to its capital at Richmond.

6. Alexander the Great’s crossing of the Hydaspses

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Painting showing Alexander at the Battle of the Hydaspes (Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

During his invasion of present day Pakistan in 326 B.C., the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great found his advance blocked at the unfordable Hydaspes River. A force of 34,000 Indians and 200 war elephants under King Porus waited for him on the other side, ready to attack at the first sign of a crossing. To deceive the enemy about his intentions, Alexander spread rumors that he didn’t plan to sail across the swollen river until the monsoon season ended, and he even brought in massive shipments of grain to help sell the ruse. He then added to the confusion by marching his men along the river for weeks and repeatedly loading them into boats to give the impression he was about to attack. Once Porus had grown accustomed to these feints, Alexander secretly led more than half of his army away from his camp and crossed the Hydaspses some 20 miles upstream. Porus still believed the main Macedonian force was on the other side of the river, and he was caught largely by surprise when the attack finally came. In the battle that followed, Alexander encircled and decimated the Indian army and claimed King Porus as his prisoner.

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