Select Page

10 minutes | OVERLORD | Churchill | code names | language

Until Winston Churchill decided otherwise, evidence shows that Operation OVERLORD was destined to be known as Operation MOTHBALL – which would have been a bit pants, really. Still, while the work of the Inter-Services Security Board is well-documented, and we do know how this codename for the invasion of France was changed, no rationale has ever been offered to explain why Churchill chose the word OVERLORD.

It’s tenuous, but I have an idea.

Language has the power to influence or determine our thoughts and decisions. The fact of the matter is, ‘D-Day’ sounds effective, and OVERLORD feels like men might be embarking on a successful mission. Words matter. Linguistic relativity is real. The words we choose have an impact on how we act, and how we perceive the events around us. But our perception of a word’s meanings is also affected by physical and emotional context. 

From MENACE to BOOMERANG and MUSKETOON, via GUNNERSIDE, and even through the complexities of Operation CARPET-BAGGER … even LUSTY and BIG BANG — every moniker had a certain je ne sais quois, and this was not by accident.

The way in which the word OVERLORD was chosen as the codename for an invasion was recounted vividly by the author Larry Collins, in his book, “Secrets of D Day”. Amazon presents this title with a nod to the author’s writing style rather than the book’s content, which is indicative. He was “a masterful storyteller, and he breaths [sic] life into this amazing tale,” it says. “Collins vividly describes people and events, and his revelations of all the secrecy and covert planning are incredible…” The book is not an authoritatively referenced work. We can count the number of references in it on the fingers of one thumb.

However, Collins’ style does animate the events around codenames being defined in advance and allotted at random, in line with Winston Churchill’s direction — and the extract from Churchill’s memo on this point has been widely circulated. On the 8 August 1943 Churchill, wrote to General Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay, the Secretary of the Defence Committee:[1] 

General Ismay

I have crossed out on the attached paper (marked A) a large number of unsuitable names. Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their live ought not to be described by code-words which imply a boastful and over-confident sentiment such as “TRIUMPHANT”, or conversely which are calculated to invest the plan with an air of despondence, such as “WOEBETIDE”, “MASSACRE”, “JUMBLE”, “TROUBLE”, “FIDGET”, “FLIMSY”, “PATHETIC” and “JAUNDICE”. They ought not to be names of a frivolous character, such as “BUNNYHUG”, “BILLINGSGATE”, “APERITIF”, and “BALLYHOO”. They should not be ordinary words used in other connection such as “FLOOD”, “SMOOTH”, “SUDDEN”, “SUPREME”, “FULLFORCE”, and “FULLSPEED”. Names of living people or Ministers or Commanders should be avoided, e.g. “BRACKEN”.

After all, the world is wide, and intelligent thought will readily supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names which do not suggest the character of the operation or disparage it in any way and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation “BUNNYHUG” or “BALLYHOO”.

Proper names are good in this field. The heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses, names of British and American war heroes could be used, provided they fall within the rules above. There are, no doubt, many other themes that could be suggested.

Care should be taken in all this process. An efficient and a successful administration manifests itself equally in small as in great matters.


Let’s take a step back. Care taken over the choice of good, strong words might persuade troops to take up arms, but Churchill understood that great, suggestive words have the power to make an army fight.

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.”

Awful syntax. But a ‘huge, hazardous offensive operation’ on which the fate of the world depended? Yes, I can go with that.  

Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Edgworth Morgan, KCB, had been charged with drawing up detailed plans both for the aspiration to invade and the practicalities of an invasion at an operational level. It was his responsibility to present plans to Churchill for his approval, along with two such suitable codewords. As early as the Spring of 1943, Morgan —  or so his book ‘Overture to Overlord’ records — Morgan had the outline of a plan but had not, as yet, given a codename to the assault phase. Naming strategies were random up until February 1940, when the risk of confusion was realised and the ISSB was set up.

Created to handle operations in Finland under direction of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the ISSB was also responsible for the security in and around the British war effort, including deception schemes and the co-ordination of code names – and  while it’s a sidebar really, here’s a name to conjure with. Dennis Wheatley. Now then: Dennis Wheatley had been in regular contact with the ISSB in his role as a member of the London Controlling Section, coordinating military deception and cover plans. 

He noted that the ISSB was formed to, ‘carry on certain other functions including the making of cover plans’[2], and that its role — later transferred to the War Cabinet — comprised ‘“security” with all the innumerable problems that involves and the issue and registering of code words … ’[3].

In short, it was the ISSB’s responsibility to assign unique codewords to each operation.

Incidentally, the ISSB’s official definitions of a ‘codeword’ were: “A word used to help to 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.”[4]

Those words were divided into three types: controlled words issued on an inter-service basis; approved words, for use in a specific theatre; and local words, for use on a local basis. From an initial list of 100 names, ‘blocks’ of codewords were issued to each Ministry as needs arose, with thousands of words eventually being proposed for deployment across the services. A memo to Director Military Operations and Planning recorded that — “an operation must always be prefixed with the word ‘Operation’ or followed by the word ‘-force’,[5] which also seems eminently sensible. Logic and order prevailed.

However, Colonel Hollis at the ISSB wrote to the Secretary to the First Sea Lord, Captain R. Brockman  in December 1940, noting that, despite ‘Pug’ Ismay sending a memo to the Prime Minister emphasising the need to follow ISSB protocols[6], Churchill had by now become fond of making up his own codewords.

Ismay stated: “I know this may be cause of annoyance to the ISSB, but I am wondering whether it is really worth trying to regularise the position. I explained this point to the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee, and he agreed with me it was 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.[7]

Thousands of options now existed in official ISSB indexes, although there are no records describing the reason for choosing each word. Wheatley is glib about the up-side to linguistic determinism without a methodology, pointing out the potential to deceive as well as deflect. He describes ‘Solo One’ being allocated to the deceptive plans for landing in Norway, and the word ‘Passover’ was chosen for actions against the Pas de Calais —in the hope German intelligence officers would make a link between ‘Solo’ and ‘Oslo’, and assume ‘Passover’ was connected to crossing the Channel[8]  

With his own penchant for language, Churchill was expressing strong opinions about the type of words being used. As a result, an ISSB memo was issued in August 1943, to the effect the Prime Minister was to be consulted before a codeword was allocated to any major operation. The logical step then, was approval of a codeword for Morgan’s invasion plans, which brings us back to the lurid description of events in Collins’ book.

Collins had a propensity for smattering his text with copious iterations of, “I’m frightfully sorry, old chap…”, so I will paraphrase. According to him, and following best practice, Morgan despatched his senior deputy, Major Roger Fleetwood Hesketh, to collect an appropriate codeword from the ISSB (no date, but we can hazard a guess). The ISSB officer on duty had one name left in his block of approved options: MOTHBALL.

According to Collins, ‘Fleetwood Hesketh was aghast. “Are you absolutely certain?”, he asked. “Operation Mothball seems rather a dreary code name for what is, after all, going to be our most important offensive in the West during this whole damn war.”’ Hesketh reported back to Morgan who, with reservation, then presented Operation MOTHBALL to the Prime Minister.

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?”, he shouted. “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, Morgan said, ‘glowered for a moment, and then shouted, “Overlord. We shall call it Overlord.”’ But why OVERLORD, in particular?

Breaking it into component parts, the word ‘over’ derives from the Old English, ‘ofer’, meaning beyond, above, across, past, more than – it projects an impression of distance. The word ‘lord’ derives from the Old English ‘hlaford’[9], meaning master of a household, ruler, feudal lord or superior. One of the earliest instances of the compound word ‘overlord’ occurs in a translation of Martin Luther’s ‘Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate’ – which, with no small amount of irony, attacked corruption and abuse of  authority, and asserted the right of ordinary people to independence. ‘Overlord’ is a word with powerful connotations.  But why that word, why not Overcast, Oversight, Overjoyed, Overdrive, or even Overthrow?

As it happens, OVERSIGHT became the name for the British element of ‘Operation RATION, the maritime blockade of Vichy France in 1940. OVERJOYED was a British operation in July 1944 to destroy small naval craft trying to attack the Allies’ invasion efforts. OVERDRIVE — which never came to pass — was a strike force aimed at the Caucasus; OVERCAST was renamed as Operation PAPERCLIP in early 1945, and OVERTHROW was a deception plan aimed at pulling attention towards Calais and Boulogne in the autumn of 1942.

As for OVERLORD ~ well, we find the terms ‘Nazi overlords’ and ‘German overlords’ in many contemporary, social accounts, but the word ‘overlord’ itself wasn’t in the common corpus in the mid-1940s. However, while it’s true that the planning for this operation took place much, much earlier … in early 1944, we start seeing references in the sporting pages to a young horse named ‘Overlord’ making a good show at Stockton racecourse.

On Monday 10 April 1944, Overlord was an also-ran in the Carlton sweepstakes under the whip of Tom Dearie who was weighing in at 9 stone. On Tuesday 11 April 1944, in the Channel Swells Win Spring Handicap – this young horse was running regularly, winning against the odds as long as the going was good. With his connections to racing and breeding in particular, Churchill would have known that horse from the time it was born – and I reckon he fancied its chances. That makes it odds on favourite for me.