Why call it OVERLORD?

5 minutes | OVERLORD | Churchill | MOTHBALL | Morgan | ISSB

Whichever explanation you prefer for the letter ‘D’ in D-Day, there’s little doubt that one-letter designations don’t hold a candle to eponymous codenames for tactical assaults and operations. As long as they are apposite, eponymous codenames of course. That said, I believe there’s an unfêted reason why Operation OVERLORD might have been called OVERLORD. 

Good words may persuade us to think, but great words have the power to make us act. In his novel, Unconditional Surrender, Evelyn Waugh wrote: “In the perspective of ‘Overlord,’ that one huge hazardous offensive operation on which, it seemed, the fate of the world depended, smaller adventures receded to infinitesimal importance.”

A huge, hazardous offensive operation on which the fate of the world depended? Succinct, n’est pas. Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Edgworth Morgan, KCB, was the officer charged with organising the event. The battle to tip the balance of the second world war segued a sister operation— NEPTUNE— the amphibious invasion to secure a foothold in Normandy, and it was Morgan’s responsibility to present both of those plans on an operational level to Churchill, for his approval.

As early as the Spring of 1943, Morgan— or so Morgan’s own auto-biography records, and the Churchill Society does confirm this— Morgan had the outline of a plan but still had not, as yet, give a name to the assault phase.

Following best practice, he despatched his senior deputy, Major Roger Fleetwood Hesketh (thence TD, D, JP, MP, OBE), to collect an appropriate new codeword for ‘the great plan’ from the Inter-Services Security Board.

The ISSB? That was set up in February 1940. It was originally created to handle operations in Finland but, under direction of the Joint Intelligence Committee, it also became responsible for all of the security in and around the British war effort, deception schemes and the co-ordination and control of code names included (until that role was transferred to a special section within the War Cabinet, from 1941).


Believe it or not, naming strategies had been a bit random up until 1940. The risk of magnanimous cock-ups was eventually realised, and then mitigated by the ISSB as they assigned differentiated codewords to each operation. And, while I think about it, the ISSB’s official definition of a ‘codeword’? “A word used to help preserve secrecy – its use may prevent chance disclosure to a person who, whilst not entitled to know of an operation, may see a paper or overhear a conversation concerning it; and, a word used to help identify an operation under discussion or in a document, without disclosing the nature of the operation; its use may be particularly important in administrative instructions.”

Blocks of codewords were issued to each Ministry as needs arose, and a memo to Director Military Operations and Planning on 8th July 1940 (WO 193/212, if you’re checking), records that “an operation must always be prefixed with the word ‘operation’ or followed by the word ‘-force’.” Fair enough. Consistency is to be admired. Cavaliers are not.

The Longest Day.

CAB 121/109 records that Churchill was ‘fond of making up his own codewords for operations and projects’ … and ‘it is far better to accept the Prime Minister’s desire to select his own code names rather than irritate him by allocating blocks of code names to these kinds of operations’. 

Incorrigible man. But let’s get back to Hesketh.

In short, Roger pulled a dodger. The ISSB officer on duty only had one name left at the time: Operation MOTHBALL.

Hesketh reported back to Morgan and, less than an hour later, Morgan presented MOTHBALL as a proposition to Churchill who, not surprisingly ‘went right through the roof’. According to Morgan’s memoirs, Churchill was, to put it mildly, not best pleased: “Do you mean to tell me those bloody fools want our grandchildren 50 years from now to be calling the operation that liberated Europe, Operation Mothball? If they can’t come up with a better code name for our landing than that, I’ll damn well pick the code name myself.” Churchill glowered for a moment, and then shouted, “Overlord! We shall call it Overlord!” 

But why Overlord, why that word in particular? Well, I have a theory.

Churchill was a tenacious, prolific gambler. From an early age he racked up huge gambling debts, at cards mostly, but his first love was horses. In 1928 he was responsible for setting up the gambler’s friend— the Tote, originally the Racehorse Betting Control Board— to provide a state-controlled alternative to illegal bookies and make sure some revenue went back into the sport itself. 


In addition to his cavalry career, he was also a very successful racehorse owner and breeder. His racing colours? Pink shirt, chocolate sleeves. Churchill loved the gee-gees. Now, look at the newspapers.

Browse through British newspapers of the time and you will find the terms ‘Nazi overlords’ and ‘German overlords’ in several places, but the word ‘overlord’ wasn’t in the common corpus.

Churchill’s favourite, COLONIST II

By contrast, and pitching a healthy 9-0 as it romped home down Stockton racecourse under the fair whip of Tom Dearie— who was apprenticed to Capt Charles Elsey, MC (awarded that cross for services to the Royal Berkshire Regiment) … — you’ll find several reference to the exploits of a horse named ‘Overlord’.

A coincidence? Okay, probably. Or was it a coincidence? Is it far-fetched to imagine that Winston Churchill was browsing through the pages of the Racing Post in his spare time, keeping an eye on up-and-comer ponies? Absolutely bloody not. Could ‘overlord’ have struck a chord in the context of current affairs? Most definitely. It’s no Beecher’s Brook, but you don’t need to make a huge leap, do you. 

Irrespective, I’m pleased Churchill made a bold choice. It has to be said, Operation MOTHBALLS doesn’t have quite the same level of derring-do.

Not Overlord, but isn’t this a good picture?

The Evening Express. Saturday, April 8th, 1944.