This year’s First World War centenary also marks another unusual anniversary – the birth of military operation codenames. This legacy is one with which we continue to live today, but how are these chosen and what do they mean?
The use of operational code names began in Germany during ‘The Great War’ and became increasingly important to hide intentions as communications, especially the radio, became more widespread. The German operational names were chosen to be inspiring and often related to mythology or religion; Operation Valkyrie, Archangel, Achilles and St Michael.
By the Second World War operational codenames had become widespread but the Germans began to use nicknames which revealed their plans; the invasion of Britain was named Operation Sealion (an attack across the sea to the island with lions in its coats of arms) whilst the invasion of the Soviet Union was known as Operation Fritz until it was renamed Operation Barbarossa (after the Emperor of the Roman Empire who extended German power to the east).
In contrast, the Japanese numbered or alphabetised their operations until their situation worsened. At this point the Japanese also tried to inspire success through their operational names. The offensive to prevent the Allied Landings at Leyte Gulf was named Operation Victory.
For the Americans, codenames initially resulted from the colour coding of war plans; Operation Indigo, Gray and Black. Once the involvement grew they drew up a code names list, as the British had, using nouns and adjectives which avoided proper nouns and geographical references. The approved list of codenames was divided across the different theatres and chosen at random.
The British worked on a similar system but Winston Churchill became particularly concerned with the codename selection. He was keen to ensure that the names would not reveal operational plans, as the German’s had, and that the codenames conveyed appropriate gravitas. At one point Churchill was approving every operation name but in 1943, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, he wrote a memo providing clear guidelines:
1. Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be described by code words which imply a boastful or overconfident sentiment,… or, conversely, which are calculated to invest the plan with an air of despondency…They ought not to be names of a frivolous character…They should not be ordinary words often used in other connections…Names of living people – Ministers and Commanders – should be avoided…
2. After all, the world is wide, and intelligent thought will readily supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names which do not suggest the character of the operation or disparage it in any way and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called “Bunnyhug” or “Ballyhoo.”
3. Proper names are good in this field. The heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses, names of British and American war heroes, could be used, provided they fall within the rules above.
Churchill not only employed these rules in Britain, he also convinced the Americans to rename their bomber raid of Romanian oil fields from Operation Soapsuds to Operation Tidal Wave. He also personally chose the name for the 1944 invasion of Normandy – Operation Overlord.
Following the Second World War a number of poorly named US operations (Operation Killer and Ripper during the Korean War and Operation Masher during the Vietnam War) led to further American guidelines in 1972. In 1975 the operation names became computer generated. Each US military command was given a two letter prefix and operational names started with the two letters of the relevant military command. Thus the 1983 invasion of Grenada by US Atlantic Command, which was assigned alphabetic sequences including UM-UR, was named Operation Urgent Fury.
This method of selection by the US military continues today but the advent of 24 hour media management has also led to the selection of emotive second halves of the codename. In 1989, shortly after President Bush had given the order to invade Panama the Commander in Chief called the Operations Officer on the Joint Staff to complain about the operational name; “Do you want your grandchildren to say you were in Blue Spoon?” he asked. Operation Blue Spoon soon became Operation Just Cause, shortly followed by the Gulf War (Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm) and most recently Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (initially called Operation Infinite Justice) and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The operation in Libya, under US Africa Command allocated letters JF-JZ, NS-NZ and OA-OF, was named Operation Odyssey Dawn.
The Canadians also name their operations based upon the geography of the theatre. Operation names begin with a letter based on location but also have to be a word that works in both French and English, Canada’s official languages. Libya, in the region of the Mediterranean, was called Operation Mobile.
The British continue to randomly generate their operational names, although some remained suspiciously related to their specific missions; the 1956 secret tri-partite operation in Suez was named Operation Musketeer whilst the defence of Jordan against the Iraqis in 1958 was Operation Fortitude. Nonetheless, more recent operational names have adhered to Churchillean neutrality; the war in Iraq was Operation Telic and the war in Afghanistan Operation Herrick – much more appropriate than Bunnyhug.
Louise Kettle is a PhD student at the University of Nottingham
Follow Louise on Twitter @LouiseSKettle