'I always had a passion for play-making," says Robert Landis, co-founder of the legendary Footlights Theatre of San Diego (1947) and equally legendary Scripteasers (1948). "Theater has always been -- how to put this -- a source of decompression for me, something apart from the stress of business. I always loved to see a show, talk about theater, write plays, dream.
"Maybe," he adds, "that's why I got that assignment during the war. They needed people who could write fiction" -- the biggest fictional production, it turns out, of the 20th Century. The war was World War II. The assignment: construct an imaginary army to confuse the Nazis about Allied invasion plans for D-Day.
"It all started with a clerical error," says 86-year-old Landis, still tickled by the irony. He studied English and theater at DePauw University. During spring break of 1942, he enlisted in the Navy and received an on-the-spot commission. "Wasn't that unusual...they had jobs to fill, needed bodies fast. They called us 'Golden Boots' -- instant officers."
One hundred Golden Boots assembled for training at Newport, Rhode Island. Owing to a clerical error William deLannoy -- "should've been with the Ds, right?" -- got put next to Landis. DeLannoy was from San Diego. "I'd heard of the place," Landis chuckles, "but couldn't tell you precisely where it was."
They discovered a shared love. DeLannoy had an MA in theater arts from USC and, before enlisting, had taught drama at San Diego High.
Landis began writing and staging Sherlock Holmes mysteries when he was eight. Two years later he wrote, directed, and played the lead in a show about Tom Sawyer. "That was fun! I got to cast the prettiest girl in class -- and kiss her!"
Landis says he didn't do much writing at DePauw, but before the war broke out he planned to do graduate study at Yale School of Drama.
At Washington D.C, Landis and deLannoy worked communications -- 12-hours-on/24-off shifts -- in the Navy Department's top-secret BritCom room. They sent and received encrypted messages from Washington and the admiralty in London. During his stay in D.C., Landis wrote a drama about a task force in battle. "I hadn't even been on a warship and wrote the play anyway! What chutzpah, huh?"
The minute they got leave, Landis and deLannoy beelined to Broadway to see theater. Their first show, Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth, "knocked our socks off! It had Fredric March, Tallulah Bankhead, a young Monty Clift, and the production quality was unbelievable. I can't begin to tell you how thrilled we were!"
They got to see Mary Martin in One Touch of Venus from backstage. "We watched next to her suspicious husband, who was there every night keeping an eye on his wife. Even met her. Imagine that!"
Early in 1943, they shipped to London on the Queen Mary. It was more a barracks than a luxury liner, "just a troopship with all amenities removed. I came home on the Queen Elizabeth. Same deal."
His duty on the Queen Mary: watch for submarines and report anything that looked suspicious. "We sailed -- zigzagged, really -- crossing paths where German U-boats sunk ships left and right. So the Atlantic Ocean was a dump, with barrels, lumber, oil slicks, wooden cartons floating on the surface. I reported all of it, and they didn't mind, 'cause you just never knew."
Landis and deLannoy were members of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) assigned to Communications Central for Allied Forces in London ("Ike was our boss"). Their office was the basement of Selfridge's on Oxford Street. Above ground it was a prosperous, six-floor department store. Military personnel entered by a back door, got in an elevator, and went below. The elevator opened to a warehouse-citadel, the size of a city block, filled with the latest in communications equipment, wires, cables, and blinking lights secured against bombing by reinforced walls and ceilings. Winston Churchill's direct line to Washington, D.C., went from his Cabinet War Room through Selfridge's basement, where a computer scrambled his messages into code.
Landis and deLannoy became part of a joint task force. Along with cohorts from Britain, they created disinformation about D-Day.
"By spring of '44, everyone knew an invasion was coming. The build-up was obvious -- you got all kinds of troop and supply ships crossing the Atlantic. But the question was when Allied Forces would land -- and where?"
Hitler became convinced they'd choose the Pas de Calais, the shortest stretch across the English Channel from Dover. He believed it so strongly he kept several crack tank divisions in Paris. "Our job," says Landis, "was to keep him convinced and keep those Panzers in Pay-ree."
If the allies were attacking at Calais, they'd need an army in southeastern England. So the basement task force created one. They wrote "bogus communications" about a nonexistent base in Kent, where 28 imaginary divisions, allegedly led by General George S. Patton, prepared to make the major assault.
A London film company constructed false barracks, shells of buildings, aircraft, "even fake LSTs" [landing ship, tank] in the water. Large swaths of obvious camouflage concealed empty fields. The fictional messages and fake movie sets created the impression that the Allies had almost twice the strike force they actually did (for a full account, see Roger Hesketh's Fortitude: The D-Day Deception Campaign).
"When it comes to misinformation, the Brits were already masters," says Landis. "They taught us fast how to create coded tapes and radio them out to Patton's quote-unquote headquarters." Landis and others sent hundreds of urgent messages to Kent, and received hundreds back, building an entire fictional base, strategies, needs, imperatives.
"Another thing the Brits taught us: before an invasion, communications reach critical mass. Then, the day before, they drop off to nothing. That's a dead giveaway the Germans were alerted to." So instead, come the first week of June 1944, and even after D-Day, Selfridge's basement continued sending communiques: "No drop off, as if plans were still being made for the big one."