Kristine has a B.A. in journalism from Penn State University and an M.A. specializing in American history from the University of Michigan.
During WWII, many specialized divisions existed for combat or engineering. One special division, however, existed for the sole purpose of fooling Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.
The Ghost Army, also known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, was the first mobile multimedia unit deployed by the U.S. Army, according to the article “Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of WWII” published on the National WWII Museum website. Consisting of 82 officers and 1,023 men under the command of Col. Harry L. Reeder, the top-secret unit could simulate two combat divisions of 30,000 men by using visual, sonic, and radio tactics to confuse and deceive the Nazis.
With Nazi Germany holding much of Europe in a stranglehold, U.S. military officials along with allied leaders planned a landing on the beaches of Normandy, France for the spring of 1945. They understood, however, the importance of concealing this plan from the Nazis.
To confuse the German military, allied commanders launched a military campaign codenamed “Operation Bodyguard” whose sole purpose was “to induce the enemy to make faulty strategic dispositions in relation to operations by the United Nations against Germany,” according to the History.com article, “Fooling Hitler: The Elaborate Ruse Behind D-Day.”
Fooling the Nazis
The allies knew it was imperative that the impending invasion remain secretive. Even a 48-hour notice could prove disastrous for the operation. They developed a plan to fool the Nazis by essentially faking a buildup of troops in alternative locations.
According to History.com, Operation Bodyguard’s goal was to persuade the Nazis that an attack was possible at any point along their Atlantic Wall. This was a 1,500-mile system of coastal defenses constructed by the German High Command that stretched from the Arctic Circle to the northern border of Spain.
The deception began by feeding information to more than a dozen German spies who had been discovered in Great Britain, arrested, and flipped by British intelligence officers. The Allies provided these double-agents with false information which they then passed along to German intelligence officials in Berlin.
A Campaign of False Information
The Allies went to great lengths to make the ruse believable. For example, they had a pair of double agents, codenamed “Mutt” and “Jeff,” pass along reports that the fictitious British Fourth Army was amassing in Scotland and intended to join up with the Soviet Union troops for an invasion of Norway.
The Allies even fabricated radio chatter describing issues with ski bindings and tank engines in the subzero temperatures. The false information campaign worked so well that Hitler sent fighting divisions to Scandinavia shortly before D-Day, according to History.com.
The Allies knew that the most logical place in Europe for the D-Day invasion was France’s Pas de Calais region, which is 150 miles northeast of Normandy. This was the closest point across the English Channel from Great Britain. It was also the most heavily fortified section of the Nazi’s Atlantic Wall and would be an extremely difficult landing site.
Wanting to convince the Nazis that the Allies were taking the shortest route across the channel, the Ghost Army created the illusion of a massive troop buildup in the Pas de Calais region. They sent General George Patton, whom the Nazis considered to be the best American commander, to the area along with a small contingent of soldiers, according to History.com. The phantom army created fictitious radio broadcasts describing troop movements and supply chains. They even went as far as to publish fake engagement announcements for soldiers in the local French paper.
To give the illusion of impending military maneuvers, the Ghost Army created dummy airplanes and landing crafts. They positioned them near the mouth of the Thames River to fool air reconnaissance missions by the Nazis. This armada consisted mainly of painted canvasses draped over steel frames. Adding to the deception was a fleet of inflatable tanks which they would reposition at night while using rollers to give the illusion of tank tracks in the dirt.
Taking the Bait
Allied code-breakers had already cracked Germany’s codes and knew the Nazis had taken the bait. To make the deception even more believable, an Australian lieutenant named Clifton James, who had previously worked as an actor and bore a strong resemblance to British General Bernard Montgomery, dressed in the general’s British military uniform and impersonated his mannerisms.
The allies flew James to Gibraltar on May 26, 1944, then sent him to Algiers. This got the attention of German intelligence, who assumed the General was inspecting troops for an impending attack and then flying off to scout the Mediterranean for future missions, according to History.com.
Even as the D-Day assault began on the beaches of Normandy, the Allies continued the deception. Aircraft flew close to Pas de Calais and dropped aluminum strips, which would give false radar readings to the Nazis and make it appear that a large armada was approaching.
The allies also dropped paratrooper dummies wired for sound far from Normandy. When they hit the ground, speakers inside the dummies simulated rifle fire and grenade rounds. To confuse the Nazis even further, the British landed special operations forces along with the dummies. These soldiers set up phonographs that broadcast combat sounds along with soldiers’ voices.
The success of Operation Bodyguard encouraged the Allies to continue the deception. A few days after the Normandy landing, a Spanish businessman named Juan Pujol Garcia, who was a British double agent, passed information to the Nazis that the Normandy landing was a “red herring” meant to distract the Germans while the First Army prepared an invasion at Pas de Calais, according to History.com.
To prove the accuracy of his information, Garcia pointed out that General Patton remained in England. Hitler trusted Garcia and was so convinced that no invasion would take place without Patton that he kept Nazi reinforcements in Pas de Calais from moving to Normandy for seven weeks, allowing the Allies to gain a stronghold in the region.
The Ghost Army would take part in 22 large-scale deceptive operations in Europe over the course of the war while armed with nothing heavier than .50 caliber machine guns. The unit was the brainchild of Colonel Billy Harris and Major Ralph Ingersoll, two American military planners stationed in London.
To carry off the deceptive nature of their missions, they filled the unit with artists and engineers as well as professional soldiers and draftees. The Ghost Army would include icons such as fashion designer Bill Blass, painter Ellsworth Kelly, and photographer Art Kane, according to the National WWII Museum.
A “Rubber Army”
According to the article “Ghost Army: The Inflatable Tanks That Fooled Hitler” published in The Atlantic, Ghost Army members would often pretend to be members of other units deployed elsewhere in Europe to confuse Nazi intelligence. Patches from other divisions would be sewn onto their uniforms while divisional insignia was painted on their vehicles. The Army would then dispatch a few of these soldiers to drive around in the canvas-covered trucks bearing the fake insignia. Often as few as two vehicles would be driven around in loops to create the illusion that an entire infantry was being transported to the area.
Unit member Arthur Shilstone recalled in the article “When an Army of Artists Fooled Hitler” published in Smithsonian Magazine that a short time after D-Day, two Frenchmen saw four American soldiers pick up a fake Sherman tank and turn it around. As the stunned Frenchmen stared in disbelief, Shilstone said, “They looked at me, and they were looking for answers, and I finally said: ‘The Americans are very strong.’”
An Army of Illusions
With the help of companies such as Bell Labs, the unit created many successful illusions. The faux soundtracks of battle sounds they created together with powerful amplifiers and speakers were mounted on halftracks and could be heard as far as 15 miles away. They also created "Spoof Radio”—actors impersonating radio operators of actual units—and fake Morse code signals.
Axis armies picking up these codes and radio signals would believe that an Allied unit was in their vicinity when in reality they had already left. In fact, the Ghost Army's fake signals worked so well that they fooled radio propaganda broadcaster Axis Sally. She announced that an entire Allied division was preparing to launch an attack in an area where no Allied troops were actually stationed, according to The Atlantic.
A secret to the unit’s success was that they were consistently able to appear larger and more powerful than they actually were. The Ghost Army would employ real tanks and artillery along with the fake ones, and actual soldiers and along with dummy soldiers. From a distance, the real and illusionary would blend together to mimic a massive military unit.
A Critical Mission
The 23rd participated in missions from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge. Their most important mission, however, was conducted near the end of the war. When the American Ninth Army was preparing to cross the Rhine and penetrate deep into Germany, the Ghost Army was charged with luring German troops away. Their task was to pose as both the 30th and 79th divisions, and 1,100 men somehow had to appear as an army 30,000 men strong.
By placing real tanks alongside the inflatable tanks and fake airplanes, the 23rd appeared to be a massive force assembling for an attack. The dummy observation planes were so realistic that American pilots actually tried to land in what they thought was an actual airfield, according to Smithsonian magazine. When the Ninth Army finally crossed the Rhine under the observation of both General Dwight Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the area was captured with little German resistance.
Since military records regarding the Ghost Army were not declassified until 1996, families of many of the soldiers who served in this unit never knew that their loved ones participated in this massive military deception. It is estimated to have saved tens of thousands of lives and played an important role in several Allied victories in Europe.
The role this unique unit played in WWII continues to come to light, and the tales of their creative deceptions continue to amaze. As one former unit member told The Atlantic, “I used to refer to us as 'the Cecil B. DeMille warriors.'" DeMille would surely be impressed.
Binkovitz, Lisa (2013, May 20). "When An Army of Artists Fooled Hitler." Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-an-army-of-artists-fooled-hitler-71563360/
Garber, Megan (2013, May 22). "Ghost Army: The Inflatable Tanks That Fooled Hitler." The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/ghost-army-the-inflatable-tanks-that-fooled-hitler/276137/
Klein, Christopher (2014, June 3). "Fooling Hitler: The Elaborate Ruse Behind D-Day.” History.com. https://www.history.com/news/fooling-hitler-the-elaborate-ruse-behind-d-day
The National WWII Museum. "Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II." https://www.nationalww2museum.org/programs/ghost-army-combat-con-artists-world-war-ii#:~:text=Reeder%2C%20this%20unique%20and%20top,World%20War%20II's%20final%20year.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.