“False Flag” was a phrase that was originally coined to describe the practice of pirate ships that fly the colors of other nations to trick merchant ships into thinking that they were friendly vessels. Once they were close enough, the pirates would raise their real flag, followed by attacking the unsuspecting victims. Sometimes, the false flag would still be flown while the raid was happening, creating the term “attacking under a false flag.”  Believe it or not, in naval warfare, this kind of ruse of war was permissible as long as the ship doing so raised its actual flag before firing its first gun.

Through time, the phrase evolved into any operation with the purpose of one nation blaming another for something that they did themselves to justify a further attack. In the long history of warfare, perhaps starting with the Trojan Horse used to gain entry to Troy by Greek troops, the practice of employing a false flag is rather common.  Recently, there have been accusations leveled against both the Russians and Ukrainians for mounting false flag operations, like the recent attack on an oil storage facility inside Russia by Ukrainian air force helicopters and Russian accusations that Ukraine murdered hundreds its own civilians and blamed the Kremlin for it.

Here are three instances of false flag attacks in history.

German Invasion of Poland

The German-soviet Invasion of Poland, 1939. (Planet News photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

On the night of August 31, 1939, German operatives sneaked in dressed in Polish soldiers’ uniforms and entered the Gleiwitz radio tower on the German side of the border between Germany and Poland. They used the tower to broadcast a quick anti-Nazi message in Polish, declaring that the station was now in Polish hands. The German SS soldiers also left behind the bodies of a pro-Polish German farmer and Dachau concentration camp prisoners that they dressed up in German uniforms to make it look like they were killed by Polish attacks. This was one of the covert actions that the Nazis did on the border to justify Germany’s Poland invasion. Lo and behold, Adolf Hitler made a speech the next day and cited the Gleiwitz “attack” as reasons why they were attacking the Poles.

Winter War

A group of Red Army officers demonstrates a captured Finnish state flag. (Хайкин, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In November 1939, the Russian village of Mainila came under shell attack by an unknown group. Mainila was located near the border with Finland, and the Soviet Union condemned Finland for the said assault. As Soviet Foreign Minister Vjatšeslav Mihailovitš Molotov wrote to Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Armas Aarno Sakari Yrjö-Koskinen:

Monsieur le Ministre,

According to information received from the headquarters of the Red Army, our troops posted on the Carelian Isthmus, in the vicinity of the village of Mainila, were the object to-day, November 26th, at 3.45 p.m., of unexpected artillery fire from Finnish territory. In all, seven cannon-shots were fired, killing three privates and one non-commissioned officer and wounding seven privates and two men belonging to the military command. The Soviet troops, who had strict orders not to allow themselves to be provoked, did not retaliate.

This started what was known as the Winter War, which broke the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Finland. This sounded justifiable, given that the Finnish troops allegedly showed aggression first. However, the truth was that the shelling was carried out by Russia’s very own NKVD state security agency and used it as an excuse to disregard the treaty.

As a result of the war between Finland and Russia, the Finns handed a humiliating defeat to Russian arms and were compelled to side with Nazi Germany during World War II.

Through time, historians could only speculate about the Soviet Union’s fabricated attack on them until in 1994, the first President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin finally admitted that the Winter War was indeed because of Soviet’s aggression.

Gulf of Tonkin

May 1968: Moving In: Leathernecks of the 2d Battalion, 4th Marines [2/4] move into Dai Do village after three days of heavy fighting with NVA forces east of Dong Ha during Operation Napoleon Saline (official USMC photo by Private First Class Thurston Bechtel). (Archives from Quantico, USACC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
On August 2, 1964, a conflict between the destroyer USS Maddox and North Vietnamese torpedo boats occurred in the Gulf of Tokin just off the coast of Vietnam. According to the United States National Security Agency, the North Vietnamese boats torpedoed and fired shots at the US destroyer, so they struck back. Both parties experienced damage to their vessels, with the North Vietnamese losing four of their men while six others were wounded. Just two days after, the US claimed that a similar incident occurred again. The captain of the destroyer claimed that he was surrounded and fired upon by torpedo boats, but later on, he said that the bad weather and low visibility made him uncertain if the assailants were indeed from Vietnam.

This resulted in the US passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in Congress, with the US sending ground troops to the area, soon followed by bombing raids. This escalated to the US getting involved in the Vietnam War fiasco.

In 2005, some declassified documents suggested that the North Vietnamese Navy was really not trying to attack the US vessel but was attempting to salvage two of their boats that were damaged because of the prior August 2 encounter.