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A ‘lost’ haversack of forged papers fooled the Turkish Army during WW1

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, World War 1 on Friday, 3 January 2014

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This edited article about World War One first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 502 published on 28 August 1971.

Meinertzhagen drops the bait, picture, image, illustration

The bait was a haversack full of false papers dropped by Colonel Meinertzhagen in full sight of the enemy, by Graham Coton

A Haversack dropped in the desert sand by a decoy horseman, full of documents meticulously faked to mislead the enemy – it seemed pure story-book stuff, as far removed from real war as an episode in a boys’ adventure yarn.

Would the wily Turks be taken in by it? Or would they see it as a clumsy piece of bluff, sponsored by the stupid Britishers?

General Allenby’s Intelligence officers at G.H.Q. Palestine, asked themselves this in October, 1917, the third year of the First World War, as they put the finishing touches to the Baited Haversack.

They need not have worried. The Turks fell for the deception hook, line and sinker. And in doing so they opened the way for a great British victory that ended in Allenby’s triumphant entry in Jerusalem in the December of that year.

In July, 1917, Allenby’s problem, as he faced the Turks across thirty miles of Palestine front, was how to turn the Turkish flank and drive them out of well-nigh impregnable Gaza. Without taking or side-stepping Gaza, a powerful coastal fortress, he could never advance towards Jerusalem. So, direct assault being virtually impossible, he decided to concentrate on the other end of the front, thirty miles inland, and outflank Gaza.

Here, opposite his own waterless right flank, lay well-watered, Turkish-held Beersheba, whose wells, when captured, could supply him as he moved west to attack hostile Sheria and Hereira, in the direction of Gaza.

But to take Beersheba, surprise was essential. The Turks must still think Gaza was the main objective.

It was to create this surprise that Allenby’s Intelligence men hatched up the hoax of the Baited Haversack.

More precisely, it was the remarkable Colonel Meinertzhagen, sometimes known as Mannering, man of many secret service exploits, who planned it as the titbit in a diet of false information cunningly fed to the Turks in September, 1917, all with the aim of persuading them that Gaza was to be attacked in November (whereas Beersheba was to be the real target, and the date late October).

The Baited Haversack itself consisted of a wallet, to be dropped by a British rider near a Turkish outpost and in full view of the enemy, packed with assorted papers faked down to the last detail – a dossier that would “sell” them the Gaza attack beyond a shred of doubt.

The only thing in it not faked was to be a generous wad of money thrown in to disarm suspicion. This was a brilliant touch of Meinertzhagen’s, for he knew that the Turks could not imagine a man dropping genuine money about on purpose!

For the rest, the dossier, as worked out by the colonel contained a cleverly mixed bag of official and unofficial documents.

First, there was an Army Form notebook containing entries obviously made by the G.H.Q. staff officer. Then there was a copy of a recent General Order stating that an exact British model had been made of a Turkish trench-system near Gaza, and directing that all officers and N.C.O.s in a certain area should study it.

A letter from an office was added, dated September 6, implying that the offensive had been postponed until late November. And there was another letter supposedly to come from a loving wife. Included with these were various tell-tale maps and a copy of a telegram from G.H.Q. to the Desert Mounted Corps, facing Beersheba, suggesting that the physical obstructions on that part of the front made an enveloping movement from there impracticable.

This, together with £20 in good English notes, was the bait. Into the Army Form notebook went the money, as did the well-thumbed letter from the “wife” and the officer’s letter; and these, with the maps, other papers, and a packet of lunch, the colonel stuffed into his haversack – for he was to plant it in the desert himself – on the morning of October 10.

Mounting his horse, he set out northwards with a small escort into the desert’s No-Man’s-Land. Soon, as planned, he left the escort and rode on alone, crossing a wadi and making towards enemy-held Sheria.

He scanned the horizon for a Turkish patrol. Suddenly, at a spot named Girkeir, he saw one. This was what he wanted. He knew the Turks would give chase; and, as they spurred their horses, he put his own into a gallop.

After a mile, the Turks pulled up, and Meinertzhagen stopped too and dismounted, opening fire on them from about six hundred yards.

This brought the Turks after him again, blazing away as they galloped; and in remounting, the colonel – it was all part of the plan – managed to loosen the straps on the haversack, which after a few yards fell on to the ground. He dropped his field glasses and water-bottle too, and his rifle, which he had smeared with blood from a cut on his horse.

Behind him thundered the patrol, right up to the spot where he had dropped the haversack. Seeing it, they pulled up, and one of them dismounted to collect it and the other things he had let fall.

That was enough; the job was done, and, slumped in his saddle as if wounded, Meinertzhagen galloped straight for the British lines.

The make-believe was not quite finished. Next day a British patrol was sent into the desert to “look for” the lost haversack. One of them conveniently dropped an official Army order notifying its disappearance, just to make sure that the Turks should know of its value to the British.

And the sequel? The Turks swallowed the bait in its entirety. Straight to the desk of General von Kress, the German Commander himself, went the captured documents, to be scrutinised by his Intelligence experts whom they fooled completely. Action was taken on the strength of them which transformed the war-picture in Palestine.

Everything happened that Allenby had planned for. At once work on the Turkish defences around Sheria, Hereira and Beersheba slowed up, while the Gaza fortifications were reinforced. So, when Beersheba was attacked in the small hours of October 31, it was wide open to the British. Later that day it was captured, and its greatest prize – water – was assured to Allenby’s parched and thirsty forces.

Early in November, the Turkish flank based on Sheria and Hereira was broken. On the 7th, Gaza fell and the Turks were in retreat.

Four weeks later, Jerusalem was taken.

It was victory in Palestine. And it is on record from captured Turkish Army orders how much the Baited Haversack had contributed to that victory.

The order said,

“The information contained in these documents is of such great value to us that we have been able to ascertain the date of the enemy’s offensive, and it will enable us to forestall him in that all our reinforcements will now be at Gaza in time for us to crush the arrogant English.”

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