Military hoaxes have been part of warfare since the early stages of the civilizations development. Probably, the best example of the military deception is the story of the Trojan Horse. But until recently, very few people knew much about the deceptive role the U.S. Army's 23rd Special Troops played in World War II. That's because their work was kept secret until 1996. The mission of the 23rd — made up largely of artists, designers, architects and sound engineers — was to deceive the enemy by drawing their attention away from real combat troops. What their weapon was? Inflatable jeeps and tanks, acting, sound recordings and plenty of imagination.
The Ghost Army was a United States Army tactical deception unit during World War II officially known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. The 1,100-man unit was given a unique mission within the Army to impersonate other U.S. Army units to deceive the enemy. From a few weeks after D-Day, when they landed in France, until the end of the war, they put on a traveling road show, using inflatable tanks, sound trucks, phony radio transmissions and playacting. They staged more than 20 battlefield deceptions, often operating very close to the front lines.
Ghost soldiers were encouraged to use their brains and talent to mislead, deceive and befuddle the German Army. Many were recruited from art schools, advertising agencies and other venues that encourage creative thinking. In civilian life, ghost soldiers had been artists, actors, set designers and engineers.
Fashion designer Bill Blass was one of them, as was photographer Art Kane and a number of now well-known artists, including abstract expressionist Ellsworth Kelly. Kelly heard about the 23rd while he was still an art student and decided he wanted to be part of the subterfuge unit. When he joined, work was already underway on developing fake artillery and vehicles. He recalls a jeep that was first made as a prototype with burlap and wood. Later, it was made of rubber and looked like the real thing.
Although the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops consisted of only 1,100 soldiers, the contingent used inflatable tanks and artillery, fake aircraft and giant speakers broadcasting the sounds of men and artillery to make the Germans think it was upwards of a two division 30,000 man force. The unit's elaborate ruses helped deflect German units from the locations of larger allied combat units.
The unit consisted of the 406th Combat Engineers (which handled security), the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, the 3132 Signal Service Company Special and the Signal Company Special.
General George S. Patton, nicknamed Old Blood and Guts, was feared and respected by Germans, more so than any other Allied commander. Today, he’s an American legend and a military icon, but in early 1944 he was almost out of a job. During the invasion of Sicily the previous summer, Patton had been visiting wounded troops at a field hospital when he came across Private Charles H. Kuhl slouched on a stool and suffering from battle fatigue. When Patton asked him where he was injured, Kuhl explained that he wasn’t wounded, but just couldn’t take it.
Patton didn’t like the answer, so he pulled out his gloves, slapped Kuhl across the face with them, and literally kicked him out of the hospital tent with an order to return to the front line. A media firestorm followed, and Patton was deemed a public relations liability and relieved of his command. He spent the rest of the year hopping around the Mediterranean making speeches, inspecting facilities and having his picture taken with troops.
When the phantom FUSAG got its marching orders, General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied forces, struck a deal with Patton. The general would take command of the fictional army and stay out of trouble, and when the U.S. Third Army actually invaded France, he’d be given the reins.
The visual deception arm of the Ghost Army has been presented by its Camouflage Engineers. It was equipped with inflatable tanks, cannons, jeeps, trucks, and airplanes that the men would inflate with air compressors, and then camouflage imperfectly so that enemy air reconnaissance could see them. They could create dummy airfields, troop bivouacs (complete with fake laundry hanging out on clotheslines), motor pools, artillery batteries, and tank formations in a few hours.
The 3132 Signal Service Company Special handled sonic deception. The unit coalesced under the direction of Colonel Hilton Railey, a colorful figure who, before the war, had “discovered” Amelia Earhart and sent her on her road to fame.
Aided by engineers from Bell Labs, a team from the 3132 went to Fort Knox to record sounds of armored and infantry units onto a series of sound effects records that they brought to Europe. For each deception, sounds could be “mixed” to match the scenario they wanted the enemy to believe. This program was recorded on state-of-the-art wire recorders (the predecessor to the tape recorder), and then played back with powerful amplifiers and speakers mounted on halftracks. The sounds they played could be heard 15 miles (24 km) away.
"Spoof radio", as it was called, was handled by the Signal Company Special. Operators created phony traffic nets, impersonating the radio operators from real units. They learned the art of mimicking a departing operator’s method of sending Morse Code so that the enemy would never detect that the real unit and its radio operator were long gone.
To add to the mix of techniques, the unit often employed theatrical effects to supplement the other deceptions. Collectively called "atmosphere", this included simulating actual units deployed elsewhere by sewing on their divisional patches, painting appropriate unit designators on vehicles and having the companies deployed as if they were regimental headquarters units. Trucks would be driven in looping convoys with just two troops in the seats near the tailgate, to simulate a truck full of infantry under the canvas cover. "MP's" would be deployed at cross roads wearing appropriate divisional insignia and some officers would simulate divisional generals and staff officers visiting towns where enemy agents were likely to see them. A few actual tanks and artillery pieces were occasionally assigned to the unit to make the dummies in the distance seem more realistic.
Deception Yields Success, Saves U.S. Lives
The 23rd Special Troops took part in 21 operations during World War II, with mixed results. Sometimes their efforts seemed to have little effect.
But author Gawne says they are credited with one major success: Operation Viersen near the end of the war, when the Americans were crossing the Rhine. "They simulated the 30th and 79th Infantry Divisions and made it appear as though those divisions were training for a river crossing, were moving up supplies for a river crossing in one area, while the actual two divisions were moving secretly to the north and crossed in the north. And the general commanding the 9th Army, Gen. [William] Simpson, said that he felt that that deception may well have saved 10,000 men," Gawne says.
As a young girl, Martha Gavin was intrigued by the paintings of churches that hung over the mantle at her uncle's house in New Jersey. She wondered why the pictures always depicted "broken" churches that had been damaged, as if hit by a bomb. "I asked my parents and they said, 'Uncle John doesn't like to talk about the war,'" Gavin said.
It wasn't until nearly a half-century later that Gavin learned the true story behind those haunting paintings. Her uncle, John Jarvie, had been a member of the "Ghost Army," a secret World War II unit that used the artistic talents and creative genius of perhaps the war's most unusual soldiers to deceive the enemy.
The soldiers, many of them artists and design students, not only played a role in winning the war, but produced a trove of sketches and paintings as they documented their journey across the battlefields of Europe, and also contributed to technological advances in electronic sound. For the last seven years, Gavin has been helping to develop a documentary that will finally spread the story of the Ghost Army, whose operations were classified for years.
Here is a trailer from this documentary:
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