From “Overlord” and “Desert Storm” to “Dracula” and “Mermaid Dawn” — The Cryptic History of Codenaming Military Operations

American troops in combat in Panama City — Dec. 20, 1989. The invasion of Panama, known as Operation Just Cause, was planned under a less rousing codename.

Had it not been for the direct intervention of Winston Churchill, the 1944 invasion of Normandy might have gone down in history as “Operation Roundhammer” instead of the more memorable “Overlord”. Supposedly, the prime minister wanted a name that was in keeping with the monumental importance of the mission.

Similarly, the 1941 Nazi conquest of the Soviet Union was originally dubbed “Operation Fritz”. Hitler himself vetoed that one, opting instead for “Barbarossa” in reference to the 12th Century Germanic ruler Frederick I.

More recently, the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama was planned under the lackluster codename “Blue Spoon”. In the days leading up to the Dec. 20 campaign, the mission was changed to the high-minded sounding “Operation Just Cause”. The Pentagon felt that the latter was more suitable for public consumption.

Ever since militaries started codenaming their operations, generals, commanders-in-chief and their staffs have grappled with just what to call their planned offensives. Some of what they’ve come up with has been memorable – like operations “Cobra”, “Rolling Thunder” or “Desert Storm”. While other times, the monikers chosen have fallen flat. Consider: “Operation Dracula“, the Allied plan to liberate Rangoon; the ethnically insensitive 1943 “Operation Wop“, which targeted Axis-held Gafsa, Tunisia; or the mildly suggestive codename for a post-2003 U.S. counterinsurgency sweep in Iraq dubbed “Operation Viking Snatch“. Even the recent air campaign against Libya was oddly designated by NATO as “Operation Mermaid Dawn“. So where do militaries come up with these names and how are they chosen?

The First Codenames
According to’s Gregory C. Sieminski, the German army first began using codenames to ‘brand’ their operations in 1917. Previously, campaigns were referred to informally as ‘the upcoming attack’ for example or ‘tomorrow’s battle’, etc. But by the First World War’s fourth year, there were simply too many different offensives in the works to keep track of. German generals resorted to… well, name-calling in order to tell their attacks apart. Selecting the right sort of moniker was a tricky business however. Designating operations by their objectives or points on a map didn’t offer much in the way of security – an enemy spy might easily deduce the objective of say “Operation Paris” or “Plan Verdun”. And using simple alphanumeric designations, like “Operation 12a” was seen as unimaginative. The high command hoped that using more inspiring names, such as “Albion, “Blucher-Yorck or “Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s fight) might help raise the flagging spirits of their war-weary armies. Soon, other powers were adopting the idea.

Churchill’s Guidelines
By the Second World War, both Allies and Axis were using code names for all of their operations, both major and minor alike. Consider names like “Torch” — the 1942 landings in North Africa, “Husky” — the invasion of Sicily, or “Avalanche” — the Allied assault on Italy. Prime Minister Churchill in particular was intrigued by the effect an appropriate name could have on morale, as well as posterity. He even went so far as provide guidelines for his generals when devising codenames for operations. For starters, the PM warned his officers to avoid titles that might suggest to an enemy details about the plan. For example, the British quickly deduced that Germany’s “Operation Sea Lion” would be an amphibious invasion of the U.K. The Allies should avoid making the same mistake, he said. Churchill also cautioned not to be too boastful or overconfident when choosing a name. The failure of an operation named something like “Inevitable” or “Unstoppable” would be extra embarrassing and provide an added propaganda bonus to the enemy. The PM also suggested steering clear of names that were too glib, irreverent or lighthearted. “Do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called ‘Bunnyhug’ or ‘Ballyhoo’,” he advised.

Inspiration for Codenames
The bulk of World War Two codenames (and a good many operation designations in the post-war era) were inspired by mythological figures. Consider “Jupiter” – the Allied plan to invade Norway, “Aphrodite” – the plan to use B-17s as unmanned missiles, or the German plan to capture Malta named for the Greek hero “Hercules”.

Others drew inspiration from the animal kingdom such as “Operation Tiger” — a dress rehearsal of D-Day, or “Operation Cobra”, which was planned to drive the Nazis from Saint Lo, Normandy in the weeks that followed D-Day.

A number of major German offensives in the Second World War were named simply for colours such as “Case Yellow” for the invasion of France in 1940, “Case White” for the 1939 attack on Poland, or “Case Blue” for a 1942 push into southern Russia.

Planners have also delved into military history when looking for names. Consider the U.S. Navy task force in the Pacific codenamed “Alamo”, which was to retake New Guinea, or the British plan to bomb Gestapo HQ – “Operation Carthage”. Here’s a more complete list of World War Two codenames.

The American Experience
During the Vietnam War, the United States military was gradually becoming mindful of managing perceptions of the war among the American public. Accordingly, Pentagon planners started to pay closer attention to how they named operations in South East Asia.

For example, according to Sieminski, a 1966 offensive codenamed “Masher” was quickly changed to the loftier sounding “Operation White Wing” after it was felt that the original moniker sounded too destructive and might be seen at home as running counter to the goal of winning hearts and minds.

Experiences like this compelled the U.S. military in the 1970s and 1980s to remove the potential for embarrassment in the naming of operations by doing away with high-handed or ostentatious designations entirely. In 1975, the Pentagon even established a computer-based name generator for military missions. Under this Code Word, Nickname, and Exercise Term System (of NICKA for short),  American military commanders were required to dub their operations using simple two-word codenames. Generals would be given a set sequence of initials that would have to be used when naming missions. The result limited the scope for creativity or inspiration, but at least it would avoid the overly dramatic names that had become a lighting rod for public criticism in the post-Vietnam era. Hence some of the missions codenamed during this period included: “Eldorado Canyon” — the 1986 strike on Libya, “Ernest Will” – the 1987 navy mission to guide Kuwaiti tankers through the Hormuz Straits, or “Golden Pheasant” — the 1988 deployment of U.S. troops to Honduras.

But things changed again in 1989 when the Joint Chiefs of Staff broke their own rules and dubbed America’s controversial invasion of Panama, “Operation Just Cause”. While the name drew fire for being more than just a little over-the-top, particularly when considering the dubious legality of the attack, the Pentagon and the White House felt the rousing designation would give the mission some cache among the American voters. They were right.

Since then, the U.S. military has chosen operational codenames in much the same way marketers brand consumer products – with an eye on how the name frames the mission for the public. Titles are chosen to build support for an operation domestically and even internationally, while also conveying the impression of the benevolence of American arms. Consider operations like “Enduring Freedom” — the war in Afghanistan, “Restore Hope” — the 1993 intervention in Somalia, “Provide Comfort” – the post ’91 Gulf War mission to support the Kurds, or “Iraqi Freedom” — the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

According to Sieminski, the Pentagon currently has a series of principles that govern the naming process for missions — guidelines that seem as if they might have been inspired by Madison Avenue itself: make the name meaningful to the situation, consider how it appeals to the audience, be timely and contemporary, and make it memorable.

Bad Call – the Worst Codenames in History
It appears not every army has given its operation names as much thought as the modern day U.S. military does. Consider these unfortunate codenames:

Perhaps the British general who codenamed the 2004 evacuation of U.K. civilians from the Ivory Coast was thinking of his wife (or maybe mother-in-law) when he nicknamed the mission “Operation Phyllis”.

Speaking of evacuations, the mercurial sounding “Operation Peter Pan” was the name given to a 1960s American mission to get anti-Castro Cubans out of their homeland and into the United States. Presumably the plan called for the refugees steer their boats towards the second star on the right and straight on to morning.

“Operation Brother Sam” was the name the U.S. government gave to its 1964 covert plan to support a military coup against the president of Brazil.

If the objective of a codename is to confuse your enemy, the former Soviet republic of Armenia might have stumbled onto something in its 1992 war against neighbouring Azerbaijan. They cryptically dubbed the offensive to seize the town of Shushi in Nagorno-Karabakh “Operation Wedding in the Mountains”.

On the other hand, the most obvious military mission codename ever has to be a 2008 Russian campaign against one of its former republics. The goal of this particular offensive was to force Georgia to the peace table. Accordingly, the Moscow dubbed the project “Operation Force Georgia to Peace”.

Perhaps the most fitting name for any military operation is simplicity itself – the covert 1954 CIA plan to topple the government of Guatemala was named “Operation Success”. Unfortunately the bid to replace the government with a regime friendlier to U.S. interests created conditions that led to 36 years of civil war in the tiny Central American nation – not too successful.

(Originally published Sept. 11, 2012)



3 comments for “From “Overlord” and “Desert Storm” to “Dracula” and “Mermaid Dawn” — The Cryptic History of Codenaming Military Operations

  1. Veritas
    21 May, 2014 at 12:18 am

    Stop with the NYTimes Editorial comments. They sound so gay.

  2. 26 May, 2014 at 9:56 am

    Well written, interesting article. One correction: Operation Earnest Will was actually the US Navy’s tanker escort effort during the Iran-Iraq War 1987-1988. The failed Iran hostage rescue was code named “Eagle Claw.” Interesting that you skip over the original name given to the US operations in Afghanistan following the 11 September attacks: “Infinite Justice.” This drew tremendous criticism from our allies and so was changed to “Enduring Freedom.”

    • admin
      26 May, 2014 at 2:01 pm

      Thanks for the feedback. I have corrected accordingly!

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