After the US bombing attack on the Ploesti oil fields in Roumania on 1 August 1943, codenamed Operation Soapsuds, Churchill minuted to Ismay that military operations ‘ought not to be described by codenames which imply a boastful and over-confident sentiment’ or equally ones ‘which are calculated to invest the plan with an air of despondency’. Furthermore, ‘They ought not to be names of frivolous character’ or be ‘ordinary words’ and ‘Names of living people should be avoided.’ He had already spoken to Marshall on this subject, and Soapsuds was duly rechristened with the altogether more macho name of Tidalwave. Churchill thought that codenames should be taken from ‘heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses and the names of British and American heroes’.
Racehorse names perhaps betrayed Churchill’s English aristocratic upbringing, but it does indeed seem astonishing that operations in which men’s lives were at stake were often given light-hearted and sometimes downright flippant codenames, but war often throws up such strange phenomena. They almost seem like fey, light-hearted jokes deliberately designed to contrast with the lethal reality of the operations they masked. Among such frivolous codenames of the Second World War were Operations Bingo, Boozer, Bunghole, Cabaret, Cellophane, Chastity, Chatanooga Choo-Choo, Corkscrew, Duck, Grapefruit, Haddock, Hats, Horlicks, Infatuate, Jockey, Juggler, Lilo, Loincloth, Mallard, Manhole, Market Garden, Modified Dracula, Mutton, Nest Egg, Pancake, Pantaloon, Peanut, Puddle, Pumpkin, Raincoat, Razzle, Rhubarb, Rhumba, Sardine, Saucy, Seaslug, Skinflint, Spinach, Squid, Teacup, Wowser and Zipper.
It cannot have been easy for parents to discover after the war that their sons’ lives had been lost on Operation Slapstick, Toenails or Maggot, in comparison to the far more martial-sounding Retribution, Mailfist, Supercharge or Musketeer. Churchill’s fears about creating ‘an air of despondency’ were surely justified by the codenames for Operations Orphan and Batty (remote-controlled B-17 bombers), Moonshine (the naval operation to pick up supplies from Sweden in 1945), Penitent (an attack on Yugoslav ports in 1945), Blot (British air operations in Europe), Grubworm (the air transport of the Chinese Army from Assam to China), Hasty (parachute drops east of Rome in June 1944), Deficient (the advance of the Indian 10th Division in 1941), Frantic (bombing raids by 8th and 15th US Air Forces in 1944), Lost (the SAS raid to the Serent after D-Day), Rockbottom (special operations over the Hump in 1943), Ratweek (a Balkan bombing offensive), Stalemate (invasion of the Palau Islands in 1944) and especially Taxable (the British radar deception operation). Nor did the French take to heart Churchill’s words about not naming operations after living people: the airborne operation by the 2ème Regiment des Chasseurs Parachutistes to harass the German retreat from Normandy near Corrèze in August 1944 was codenamed Marshall.