So much of history depends on the smallest twists of fate. One of the craziest examples is when Union soldiers stumbled on three cigars that contained the Confederate battle plan for Antietam entirely by chance.

I recently learned that the all the Allied plans for the D-Day invasion in the British War Office blew out a window, and one copy was only recovered several hours later! British war correspondent David Armine Howarth wrote about the fateful gust in his book, Dawn of D Day:

A window was open in the War Office in London, all twelve copies of a top-secret communique that gave away the whole show blew out and fluttered down into the crowded street below. Distraught staff officers pounded down the stairs and found eleven copies, and spent the next two hours in an agonized search for the twelfth. It had been picked up by a passer-by, who gave it to the sentry on the Horse Guards Parade on the opposite side of Whitehall. Who was this person? Would he be likely to gossip? Nobody ever knew, and the only comfort was that the sentry said he had very thick glasses and seemed to find it difficult to read.

It turns out that this wasn’t even the only potential catastrophe. Howarth writes of several more “minor scares.”

Years after World War Two ended, a railwayman spoke about finding the D-Day plans in a briefcase on a train:

A railwayman who retired in 1957 announced then that in 1944, just before the invasion, he had found the plans of it in a briefcase in a train, and had given them to the station master at Exeter, who had kept them in his safe, watched by the Home Guard, till an officer came to claim them the next morning.

A final, more mysterious possibility, was contained in the crossword puzzle of the Daily Telegraph:

The oddest of all the scares was the Daily Telegraph crossword puzzle of May 22nd. When this puzzle was solved, it included the name Omaha, which was the code name for one of the beaches where the Americans were to land, and the word dives, which might have been the River Dives, on which the left flank of the whole invasion was to rest Another vaguely suspicious name in it was Dover. It caused some concern to staff officers who still retained the English middle-class habit of doing the Telegraph crossword after breakfast, and in after years it provided a story with un- limited scope for growth. Everybody enjoyed stories against the security forces, and stories of narrow escapes from disaster, and sooner or later most of the dozens of code words in the invasion plans were said to have been revealed in this puzzle.

Howarth’s description of the fear this crossword puzzle caused does not really do the event justice. It took years to figure out how so many D-Day codewords were included in a crossword puzzle.

Just how many top secret words were in the puzzle?

  • 2 May 1944: ‘Utah’ (17 across, clued as “One of the U.S.”): code name for the D-Day beach assigned to the US 4th Infantry Division (Utah Beach). This would have been treated as another coincidence.
  • 22 May 1944: ‘Omaha’ (3 down, clued as “Red Indian on the Missouri”): code name for the D-Day beach to be taken by the US 1st Infantry Division (Omaha Beach).
  • 27 May 1944: ‘Overlord’ (11 across, clued as “[common]… but some bigwig like this has stolen some of it at times.”, code name for the whole D-Day operation: Operation Overlord)
  • 30 May 1944: ‘Mulberry’ (11 across, clued as “This bush is a centre of nursery revolutions.”, Mulberry harbour)
  • 1 June 1944: ‘Neptune’ (15 down, clued as “Britannia and he hold to the same thing.”, codeword for the naval phase: Operation Neptune). (Tuesday, 6 June 1944 was D-Day.)

British intelligence thought there was no way on earth that this could be a coincidence, and they were right. The likeliest explanation is that the crossword’s creator regularly asked his students to give him words to include in the puzzle and he would build it around their words. Before the invasion, there were countless troops stationed near where he lived in Surrey, and one of his students, Ronald French, admitted years later that “he had learned of the codewords from Canadian and American soldiers camped close by the school, awaiting the invasion.” French insisted that the codenames were open secrets, but that no one knew what exactly they referred to: “He was adamant that, in the final days before the landings, the words were well known and the only thing secret was the where and when.”

Despite these trio of incidents that could have, at worst, led to widespread knowledge of the D-Day invasion, the Allies were able to keep their plans under wraps and in fact fooled the Nazis into thinking the invasion was coming at Pas-de-Calais and not at Normandy. This deception required that the British prepare an entire decoy army filled with inflated weapons and machines.

For more Profiles in History, on ancient long distance trade to Rhode Island’s Civil War governor to Alabama’s Attorney General telling the KKK to “kiss my ass” to the Billy Possum, Sean Spicer as the Easter Bunny, presidents losing their home states to the story behind Hacksaw Ridge, political video games, Greece’s Brexit over 2,000 year ago, the Battle of the Cats, America’s first Donald Trump, and more, check out the rest of my Profiles in History here!

 

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