Nearly seven decades ago, victory was declared in Europe against the Nazis. And it was a hard-fought battle, but one made substantially easier by the rise of the nerd. In fact, much of the war was arguably building towards the triumph of a handful of nerds over the German Army, thanks to their superior control of information.
All Brawn, No Brains
On paper, the German army was supposedly superior. Hitler had solved Germany’s economic problems by basically spending enormous amounts of money on the military, largely by forcing companies to accept Mefo bills, which were government IOUs. As a result, he had troops, tanks, and everything you generally need to invade countries and act like a vicious dictator.
But from the start, the Nazis were terrible at collecting and applying the intelligence they needed to use those tools effectively. As we all know, the Germans had absolute faith in the Enigma, and they really shouldn’t have. Truthfully, right from the start, the Axis stunk at keeping secrets; the Japanese codes were equally quickly broken, and essentially, everything the Axis said to each other was decoded.
The modern computer has its roots in those code-breaking efforts. Unlike the Germans, who were competing with each other to break codes and duplicated effort constantly, the Allies formed an efficient code-breaking system that essentially saw the greatest minds Germany had driven off turn around and pluck its secrets from the air.
Bletchley Park is famous, of course, but it’s only half of the equation. The other half essentially boils down to the Twenty Committee, who ensured the Germans never got a single accurate report, and used fussy attention to detail and planning to pave the way for the troops.
A Lack Of Intelligence
Britain’s Twenty Committee was so named because of the Roman numeral for twenty: The double-cross. Essentially the plan was, right from the start, to turn any German spy into a double agent. Keep in mind, the British knew exactly where spies were showing up: The Germans were happy to tell them in code.
And truthfully, most of the German “agents” were using their job as an excuse to flee the country, or were even anti-Nazi and were trying to trick the Reich into paying them to sell Hitler up the river. Two members of the Double Cross system literally walked into a Scottish police station with all their gear minutes after arriving to surrender. Another, code-named Garbo, was possibly the greatest scam artist of all time: Juan Pujol Garcia hated the Nazis so much he was feeding them BS freelance before the British realized what he was up to and hired him.
The system was so effective that the British and Americans were able to feed the Germans any information they wanted. So they did what all nerds do when given the ability to fool people absolutely: They started pulling pranks.
Really, the sheer ability the Allied department of code-breaking nerds and fussy detail-oriented to screw with the heads of the German Wehrmacht can be summed up in two infamous operations: Operation Mincemeat and Operation Bodyguard.
Mincemeat and Bodyguard were essentially the cleverest disinformation campaigns ever attempted. Mincemeat was made famous from The Man Who Never Was, and it’s something of an achievement in attention to detail. A homeless man who committed suicide was turned into Major William Martin, and the “secret” documents on his person convinced the Nazis that it was Greece that was going to be invaded.
It was really Sicily, in a crippling defeat that drove the Axis off the island and began the retaking of Europe. But Mincemeat was just a dry run for the most elaborate stunt of the war: Fooling the Germans into being in the wrong place at the wrong time on D-Day… and making them stay there.
The Right Protection
Operation Bodyguard was a combination of a number of plans that verged on the ridiculous. Using their operational understanding of Germany, the British and Americans did everything from convince the Germans General Montgomery was elsewhere using an impersonator to Operation Fortitude, which created an entire, fake, part of the United States Army, right down to using inflatable tanks.
Bodyguard was a masterpiece of planning and disinformation. As we all know, it worked: They kept German forces at bay long enough to win Normandy and keep pushing forward.
A War Of Information
There were a lot of reasons the Axis was going to lose World War II. But the nerds were a key part of ensuring that as awful as the war was, it didn’t drag on even longer. By cracking the codes and using that information, VE Day was made possible as much by the guys building the computers as the troops on the ground.