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What's in a code name?

LCTs unloading supplies on Omaha Beach during Operation Overlord (Photo: Public domain)
LCTs unloading supplies on Omaha Beach during Operation Overlord (Photo: Public domain)

Operation Overlord. The name itself conjures up an aura of authority, majestic power and righteous vengeance. One month from the publication of our newest article, the world will be celebrating the 78th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Allied landings in Normandy on D-Day. The names of other famous operations are also immortalized in memory: Operation Dynamo, the miraculous evacuation at Dunkirk (Read our earlier article – The “Miracle of Dunkirk”); Operation Husky, the landings in Sicily; or Operation Market Garden, the ill-fated attempt to liberate the Netherlands in one fell swoop. But do you know why military operations are given code names, or how those names were assigned?
 
The use of code names for operations was pioneered by the German Empire during World War I, and they came about as a result of several changes in how wars were being fought.
 
One change was the widespread use of radio. Radio is great, because it lets you give and receive orders, or discuss important matters very quickly and across great distances. However, radios are also a major security risk, since anybody, the enemy included, can listen in with a radio receiver of their own. Code names were an effective way to protect the secrecy of military plans, since an eavesdropping enemy would not know what the names actually mean.

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Trench radio receiver in use during World War I in France (Photo: University of Illinois)

The second major cause for code names was the rise of operational warfare. Operational warfare, or operational art, connects the large-scale plans of strategy with the small-scale thinking of tactics. To put it in simple terms, strategy is about deciding the ultimate goal of a military campaign. Tactics is about deciding what to do once your troops are in battle and the bullets are flying. Operations are how you get from your strategic goal to the actual battle. Which part of your forces do you send and where? Where do you send the rest of your forces so they can support your main effort? What routes do your forces take? What battles will they have to fight before even getting to the ultimate objective? How will they be supplied?

Training in operational art in the present day (Photo: Lieutenant Colonel Brian Fickel, U.S. Army)
Training in operational art in the present day (Photo: Lieutenant Colonel Brian Fickel, U.S. Army)

For much of history, slow travel, slow communications and army sizes limited by low food and industrial output kept campaigns relatively simple affairs. The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of what eventually became operational art, as modern agriculture and industry allowed the creation and moving of much larger armies than ever before. These larger armies allowed for more complex maneuvers, utilizing many separate forces moving and acting independently of each other. This, however, meant that military plans became a lot more complex. By assigning different code names to different operations or sub-operations, military planners and field officers could discuss things and give orders without getting bogged down or confused by lengthy explanations.
 
In 1918, an exhausted, desperate German Empire, teetering on the edge of defeat, went for one final push to win World War I: the Kaiserschlacht ("Kaiser's offensive"), also known as the Ludendorff Offensive. While making plans for this all-important operation, Erich Ludendorff, Chief Quartermaster General at the German supreme army headquarters, realized that well-chosen operation names can also improve the soldiers' morale, something that was badly needed at the time. Therefore, various parts of the offensive were given uplifting names based on history, religion and mythology: Archangel, St. Michael, St. George, Roland, Mars, Achilles, Castor, Pollux and Valkyrie. Unfortunately for the Germans, even such uplifting code names could not change the outcome of a battle that was already decided by the numerical and supply superiority of the French, British and American forces facing them.

German troops during their last major offensive on the Western Front in 1918 (Photo: German military)
German troops during their last major offensive on the Western Front in 1918 (Photo: German military)

Between the world wars, America adopted a color code for war plans drawn up in anticipation of possible future conflicts. For example, War Plan Black was the plan for a war against Germany, Orange against Japan, and Red against the British Empire (additionally, Crimson, Scarlet, Ruby, Garnet and Emerald were sub-variants for wars against specific parts of the empire). One of these color-coded war plans, War Plan Indigo, was actually executed in 1941, during World War II: it was the military occupation of Iceland, which was necessitated by the German invasion of Denmark, to relieve British troops who have already secured the island. In the final years of the 1930s, five new plans, the so-called Rainbow plans, were created as a reaction to Nazi Germany's and Japan's expansionistic aggression. These plans varied in which other countries would be allied with the United States, and which parts of the world would most of the fighting take place in.

American ships with Iceland in the background during the occupation (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)
American ships with Iceland in the background during the occupation (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

Nazi Germany had a similar color-based system for large-scale World War II operations, with plans such as Fall Weiß ("Case White"), the invasion of Poland, and Fall Gelb ("Case Yellow"), the invasion of Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium.
 
It should be noted that color-coded plans were only suitable for large-scale plans, such as entire wars. Once World War II began, the system could no longer be used on an operational level, simply because there were far more operations, sub-operations and locations to be given code names than there are colors.
 
In order to cope with the increased demand for code names, the American War Plans Division (later renamed the Operations Division) took a clue from their British counterparts at the Inter-Services Security Board, who had already developed a system to generate code names that can't be cracked by the enemy. Both organizations compiled a list of about 10,000 words each by randomly picking from a dictionary. Care was taken not to have overlaps, so as to avoid the possibility of having two operations, one American and the other British, running under the same name. Once the two lists were established, they were further divided into geographical blocks, so that each word could only be used in a single theater. For example, both Market and Garden were in the European block (and that's why Market Garden could only possibly be an operation in Europe), while Olympic was reserved for Asia. (Operation Olympic was the planned invasion of the southern part of the southernmost of Japan's main islands, a part of the larger planned Operation Downfall. It was rendered moot by the deployment of atomic bombs and Japan's surrender.)

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DUKW vehicles transporting supplies at Nijmegen during Operation Market Garden (Photo: Public domain)
DUKW vehicles transporting supplies at Nijmegen during Operation Market Garden (Photo: Public domain)

The two lists were compiled randomly, but when it came to picking a specific name for an operation, it was done with careful thought, sometimes subtly implying the relationships between operations. For example, the international conference meetings at which Allied leaders discussed and planned the war often incorporated an ordinal number corresponding to which conference it was. The Third Washington Conference was code named TRIDENT, meaning a three-pronged polearm ("tri" meaning three), while the Cairo Conference, SEXTANT, had the word "six" hidden in the name.

Churchill and President Roosevelt fishing between two TRIDENT Conference discussions (Photo: FDR Presidential Library & Museum)
Churchill and President Roosevelt fishing between two TRIDENT Conference discussions (Photo: FDR Presidential Library & Museum)

There were also other considerations when choosing a code name, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was extremely keen to set standards for the practice. He initially insisted on personally approving every single British code name, but relented when he realized just how much work that was. After that point, he was content with only approving the most important ones. He set strict guidelines on choosing appropriate names:
 
"Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be described by code-words which imply a boastful and overconfident sentiment, such as "Triumphant," or, conversely, which are calculated to invest the plan with an air of despondency, such as "Massacre," […] "Pathetic" […] They ought not be names of a frivolous character […] They should not be ordinary words often used in other connections […] Names of living people– Ministers or Commanders– should be avoided […]
 
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."
 
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. There are no doubt many other themes that could be suggested. […]

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Churchill in the secret Cabinet War Rooms in London during the war (Photo: Jefferys Auctions/BNPS)

Churchill even went so far as to meddle with American code naming practices on at least one occasion. The U.S. Army Air Forces were set to bomb oil refineries near the Romanian city of Ploiești in early August 1943. The original name the Americans picked for the operation was Soapsuds. It was only changed to Tidal Wave at Churchill's insistence, as he thought it was too light-hearted. History proved the British Prime Minister right. The operation failed to achieve the desired effect, and involved the loss of 53 bombers and the death, injury or capture of 500 airmen, making it the proportionally most costly major Allied air raid of the war.

A B-24 over the target during Operation Tidal Wave (Photo: 44th Bomb Group Photograph Collection)
A B-24 over the target during Operation Tidal Wave (Photo: 44th Bomb Group Photograph Collection)

Churchill was also responsible for picking Overlord. The plans for the Normandy landings went through several iterations over the years. Two earlier versions were called Roundup and Sledgehammer. The 1944 plans, incorporating elements of both, were originally named Roundhammer, a meaningless word apparently loathed by war planners. Besides being ugly and meaningless, Roundhammer was also considered a security risk. The plans called for two landings in France, one in the north, and one in the south, catching the Germans between a hammer and an anvil, so to speak. In fact, the original name for the southern landing was Operation Anvil before it was renamed to Dragoon. Churchill was concerned that an operation whose name includes "hammer" and another one whose earlier name was "anvil" might tip off the Germans about the Allied strategy. And thus, Overlord was named.

Operation Dragoon, whose earlier name, combined with "Roundhammer," might have posed a security risk (Photo: Department of Defense)
Operation Dragoon, whose earlier name, combined with "Roundhammer," might have posed a security risk (Photo: Department of Defense)

The Germans also made heavy use of code names during World War II, but without such a detailed system for assigning them. Their names were usually random, but high-ranking officials sometimes interfered with the naming of operations. The invasion of the Soviet Union was originally named Fritz after the son of Colonel Bernhard Von Lossberg, the plan's author. Hitler felt that such a grand invasion should have a grand name, and renamed it Barbarossa. Literally meaning "red beard," Barbarossa was the nickname of 12th century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. While the new name was certainly regal, it was also a security risk: one of Barbarossa's major accomplishments was extending German authority eastward over the Slavs. Naming the eastward invasion of the Slavic country of the Soviet Union after him was perhaps a bit too obvious. Luckily for Hitler, the invasion caught Stalin by surprise.

German tanks and halftracks preparing for an attack during Operation Barbarossa (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
German tanks and halftracks preparing for an attack during Operation Barbarossa (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The Nazis fared worse with Unternehmen Seelöwe (“Operation Sea Lion”), the planned amphibious invasion of Britain. It called for an attack across the sea, against a country whose heraldic animal is the lion. This code name was far so poorly considered that British intelligence managed to divine the operation's goal from the name alone.
 
This is not to say that all German code names were bad. Unternehmen Weserübung (“Operation Weser Exercise”) was pretty good at misleading the enemy. The Weser is a river in North Germany, not far from the Danish border. The name implied the operation to be some sort of training exercise or wargame near the river, which would explain the presence of German troops there. What it really was was the invasion of Denmark and Norway, which were a resounding success.

German soldier in the Danish capital of Copenhagen during Operation Weserübung (Photo: Unknown photographer)
German soldier in the Danish capital of Copenhagen during Operation Weserübung (Photo: Unknown photographer)

Another similarly misleading German operation was Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”), planned for the winter of 1944. Anyone hearing the name would have assumed it was about defending the Rhine against Allied attempts to cross into Germany. In truth, it was far from defensive: it was the major counterattack in the Ardennes known in America as the Battle of the Bulge.
 
The Japanese system of code names was neither particularly inspiring, nor very obvious. For most of the war, they simply used nondescript letter and number codes, such as Operation Ai, the attack on Pearl Harbor. Later in the war, once the tide of battle turned against Japan, Japanese leadership started using code names designed to improve morale. Kikusui Sakusen (“Floating Chrysanthemum”)  was a series of kamikaze attacks on Allied ships during the invasion of Okinawa, while Ten-Ichi- gō (“Heaven One”) was the planned glorious last stand of the battleship Yamato (which never happened, as the Yamato was sunk by aircraft long before getting to its destination).

A kamikaze Zero about to hit the water after missing the USS Essex carrier off Okinawa (Photo: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)
A kamikaze Zero about to hit the water after missing the USS Essex carrier off Okinawa (Photo: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

The Soviet code name system was not strictly defined, either. Many of their code names haven't been recorded for posterity, and the operations are now known by the area they took place in, such as the Vistula-Oder Offensive. The major operations whose names we do know typically followed two schemes. One used celestial objects: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Polar Star. The other was based on Imperial Russian military leaders.  Operation Bagration, the Belorussian offensive, was named after Pyotr Bagration, a prominent Russian general during the Napoleonic Wars. Operation Kutuzov, part of the Battle of Kursk, bears the name of General Mikhail Kutuzov, who is credited with saving Russia from Napoleon's advance.

Soviet T-34s and infantry on the attack during the Battle of Kursk (Photo: Soviet military)
Soviet T-34s and infantry on the attack during the Battle of Kursk (Photo: Soviet military)

It's important to note that operation code names during World War II, at least British and American ones, were not intended to raise the spirit of soldiers or the civilian population. The reason for this was simple: these code names were classified until after the war, so the only people who knew about them were the ones making the plans and other high-ranking officers. This secrecy changed after the war. In 1946, Vice Admiral W. H. P. Blandy chose the code name Operation Crossroads for the Bikini Atoll atomic bombs tests with public perception in mind. He intended the name to reflect the tests' importance, in his own words, "that seapower, airpower, and perhaps humanity itself . . . were at the crossroads."

Detonation Baker during Operation Crossroads (Photo: Department of Defense)
Detonation Baker during Operation Crossroads (Photo: Department of Defense)

The Korean War saw another twist in the use of code names. Like in World War II, operation names were chosen from a preapproved list; but unlike in World War II, General Douglas MacArthur made them public once each operation was underway. In early 1951, Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgway, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II, used this to prop up the failing morale of the Eighth Army reeling under Chinese attacks. He selected aggressive operation names such as Killer and Ripper, knowing that the troops would learn about them since the names were not classified. He was right, and the Eighth Army was reinvigorated in spirit. At the same time, the names sounded too bloody-minded for the media and for civilians back home, decreasing support for the war and also souring relations with China during negotiations. Ridgway remained unrepentant about the matter: "I am not convinced that the country should not be told that war means killing. I am by nature opposed to any effort to `sell' war to people as an only mildly unpleasant business that requires very little in the way of blood."

Generals Mark Clark and Matthew Ridgway in Korea (Photo: Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)
Generals Mark Clark and Matthew Ridgway in Korea f(Photo: Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)

The military became aware that a well-chosen operation name can raise support at home, but a poorly-selected one can also erode that support. Therefore, planners during the Vietnam War took great care to only use safe and positive-sounding names, with many operations named after American cities, battles or historic figures.
 
Another turn in code naming conventions came in December 1989, when the U.S. invaded Panama to depose Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. The original name for the operation, Blue Spoon, was deemed too bland and was changed to Just Cause. The name immediately became popular in the military establishment and with the government, since it expressed a moral justification for a military action which drew heavy criticism from scholars and other countries, many of which considered the invasion to be illegal under international law. While the media was quick to pick up the name, it was also quick to criticize it. They felt that the government was trying to force them to praise a war simply by saying out or writing down its name, which violated freedom of opinion. Critics started referring to the invasion as Operation Just 'Cuz, claiming it happened without a legal reason, "just 'cuz" the President wanted it.

U.S. troops laying down barbed wire during Operation Just Cause (Photo: AFP)
U.S. troops laying down barbed wire during Operation Just Cause (Photo: AFP)

American war planners continue to pay attention to the PR value of well-chosen operation names to this day. Operation Desert Shield (the precursor to Desert Storm) during the Gulf War stands shining as a positive example of smart PR: the name is both evocative of a typical terrain type involved in the operation, and also helps garner popular support by highlighting the defensive nature of the action. On the other hand, it's still easy to slip up and come up with names which are less than memorable, and therefore not very effective. For example, can you tell, without looking it up online, which 90s American operations were Promote Liberty, Restore Hope, Uphold Democracy and Provide Promise? They all sound a bit too much alike, which makes it hard to tell them apart, don't you think?

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