This Monday’s Start the Week programme on Radio 4 included an interesting discussion about amateurism during World War II, or as it was titled: ‘The dodgy dossier that fooled Hitler’. The short version (I’d encourage you to listen to the podcast, details at the end of the post):

In 1943, allied troops were in North Africa waiting for orders to attack in Europe. If you looked at a map it was pretty obvious where the attack would start – Sicily. To try and gain the upper hand, an elaborate hoax was put in place to try and convince Hitler that instead of Sicily, the attack was going to begin from Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean and Sardinia in the West. This involved procuring a dead person in London, covering up the fact he had died of poisoning to instead make it look like he died in an air crash, dropping him in the sea to float ashore at a specific location in Southern Spain where intercepted messages suggested a particular German secret agent was operating. The false documents planted on the body should hopefully be discovered by said agent, be identified as real battle plans and hopefully be passed up the chain of command to the very top.

The whole idea sounds like some ridiculous plot in a work of fiction. There are far too many variables and dependencies that could go wrong.  And worst of all, if the German secret agent was not fooled by the fake documents, it would beyond doubt confirm Sicily as the real location and likely double Hitler’s efforts there. In short, the plan had as much chance of making matters worse as making them better.

The plan worked.

Listen to the podcast to hear more about it, including “although World War II claimed more lives than any other conflict in history, finding the right dead body was incredibly difficult…” it’s a great conversation. But what’s interesting, and the reason for this post, was a comment made towards the end of the story:

“If Churchill hadn’t been such an enthusiast for this sort of operation and given them full rein…In a way it’s a celebration of amateurism, they were allowed to think what ever they wanted and try it out.”

An Admiral commented about the plan “You can rely on the enemy’s ‘yesmanship’ and ‘wishfulness’”

How many leaders today be prepared to take such a leap of faith? The preference is to rely on statistics and follow standard procedures over ideas and instincts. A simple example was reported this week. Somebody tweeted they were going to blow up their local airport. When discovered by the police, they were arrested under the Terror Act, have had their phone and laptop confiscated, received a lifetime ban from said airport, and been suspended from work until it is decided whether or not they will be prosecuted.  The missing piece of context from this story: just before the alleged bomb threat, the person had been tweeting their frustration with the snow and how it was ruining their holiday plans because the local airport was closed. It was a stupid joke in the current climate. But really, how long should it have taken for someone to decide if this was a serious terrorist threat or not versus following the standard ‘send in the cavalry’ procedure. Our officials are becoming yes-folk. And that puts us at more risk, not less…

The danger in relying on process and statistics at the expense of ideas and instincts is you risk missing the threat in front of your eyes. Perhaps we should bring a bit of amateurism, or humanism, back into official processes.

For the rest of this week (until January 25th) you can download a copy of the programme via iTunes or listen using BBC’s iPlayer


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