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The Ghost Army: How One WWII Unit Fooled the Entire German Army

A misinformation campaign was vital to the Allied forces' efforts.

ghost army
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

During the 1943 Tehran Conference, Winston Churchill addressed a number of remarks to Joseph Stalin, including one quote that has stood the test of time: “In wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” With this, Churchill was referring to Allied deception operations, particularly those related to the Normandy landings of 1944.

The 1st Headquarters Special Force, better known as the “Ghost Army”, was an important part of that bodyguard. They created entire armies using inflatable vehicles, false radio chatter, officers posing as more senior officers and used a vast sound library so their illusions could be heard as well as seen. Operating on and sometimes just beyond the Allied front line, they haunted their way from the Normandy beaches to the borders of the Third Reich itself.

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The Ghost Army’s exploits remained under wraps for over 40 years; some of its work even remains classified to this day. Composed of actors, artists, sound recordists, set designers, engineers, art school graduates and advertising experts, their job was two-fold. These soldiers were to convince the Nazis they were seeing things that weren’t actually there and distract them from what actually was occurring around them.

The exploits of the Ghost Army were inspired by the efforts of British troops doing similar work in North Africa. Before the second Battle of El Alamein, British deception experts conducted Operation Bertram. Bertram fooled commanders of the Afrika Korps into believing the British assault would come somewhere other than El Alamein and two days after it actually started. The ‘Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate’ scored a resounding success. The second Battle of El Alamein was the beginning of the end for Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps.

American commanders were impressed, and the Ghost Army was formed in 1943. Inspired by British deceptions, they also adopted British equipment as well as some highly effective methods of their own. During 1943 the unit, comprising the 406th Combat Engineers, 603rd Camouflage Engineers, 3132 Signal Service Company Special and the Signal Company Special, trained at Fort Drum in New York State. 3132 Company spent part of their training at Fort Knox assembling a vast library of recordings while working out how best to deceive Nazi ears.

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The 406th handled security and protection. The 603rd, 3132nd, and Signal Company Special handled deception of all kinds. The 603rd was responsible for all forms of visual deception. Using air compressors, a vast array of inflatable dummies, fake tents and various other counterfeit equipment they could conjure up anything needed to fool enemy reconnaissance units and aircraft into believing they’d seen vast forces that simply didn’t exist. 

Infantry encampments, truck parks, tank regiments, fuel and supply dumps, dummy airfields and even a complete Mulberry harbor were assembled in a matter of hours wherever they were needed. Naturally, these were camouflaged, but just badly enough for enemy reconnaissance units to see them without being too obvious. 

WWII Ghost Army fake tank
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  • A "tank" done up by Ghost Army forces.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

3132 Company handled sonic deception. Using their vast sound library and wire recorders (then state-of-the-art technology) they mixed and matched vehicle noises, aircraft engines and human voices. The recordings, played through loudspeakers mounted on halftracks, could be heard fifteen miles away. This mattered because the mere sight of a large enemy force without the usual noise would arouse suspicion. 

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Radio deception was handled by the Signal Company Special. Just as large encampments have constant noise, real ones have a constant stream of radio chatter. Nothing would have destroyed an illusion quicker than Nazi units and agents seeing vast Allied units only for their radio experts to point out the total lack of communications. 

Not just window-dressing for the visual deception, false radio chatter meant false information could be broadcast directly to enemy ears. The Signal Company Special existed to do the same job as 3132 Company, from a different angle. The Signal Company created recorded sounds of infantry, tanks, guns, and more to populate the faux camp. The two companies worked together to supply the sounds to match the 406th’s vision. In doing so, both companies made the entirely fake seem all the more real.

The Ghost Army included a number of actors whose particular specialty was “atmosphere”. Atmosphere was a more subtle brand of fakery. Knowing that enemy agents and observers often operated in or behind Allied lines, the Ghost Army routinely gave its actors prepared scripts and the uniforms of high-ranking officers.

In areas where enemy agents might overhear these supposed generals and colonels (often really lieutenants or captains), the actors made sure they were overheard talking loosely about non-existent events, operations, and movements. Enemy agents, always looking out for loose-lipped officers, would be sure to eavesdrop as much as possible and report whatever they heard. 

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Other members dressed as military police, making themselves conspicuous at road junctions and crossroads while wearing the insignia of various units. This more subtle sort of fakery had its uses. Enemy agents made a point of identifying unit badges, trying to discover exactly who and what they were up against. 

Columns of trucks, each with only two passengers in the back, travelled in circular routes, simulating large troop movements that didn’t really exist. Again, passengers wore the insignia of units that were headed somewhere else. Atmosphere was perhaps the simplest form of trickery but still a useful weapon, a bit part in Churchill’s bodyguard of lies.

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  • A Ghost Army trooper paints an rubber tank modelled on an M-4 Sherman.

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

Formed in the U.S., the Ghost Army were deployed to England in May 1944. In the weeks leading up to the Normandy landings, they honed their skills as part of the vast deception codenamed Operation Fortitude. Fortitude was simple in theory, but incredibly complicated and risky in practice. Intended to convince the Nazis that the impending invasion was headed for the Pas de Calais instead of Normandy, everything possible was done to support the deception. The Nazis thought the First US Army Group was based in south-eastern England, waiting to cross the Channel. The only part of FUSAG that really existed was General George S. Patton who, in misinformation campaigns spread by Allied forces, was named as its commander. 

It worked perfectly. Two weeks after the landings on June 6, 1944 the Ghost Army were redeployed to France to support the advancing Allies. They took considerable risks to do it, both physical and strategic. The physical risks were obvious—working under the noses of the enemy is inherently dangerous. 

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Strategically, there was great risk in one of their operatives being captured. The Ghost Army possessed valuable intelligence of Allied deception operations and how they were mounted. If captured they knew the Nazis might want that intelligence and be unfussy about how they obtained it. Any failure to deceive the enemy might expose whatever the Allies didn’t want them seeing.

As the Allies advanced, the Ghost Army set up a headquarter location in Luxembourg. From there they continued toward Germany deceiving the Nazis as they went. They operated close to their enemy—sometimes under their very noses. Due to the danger, and no doubt also the intrigue, some of their work remains classified today. 

Once their headquarters were established, the Ghost Army operated in the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. In the Hurtgen Forest, an area so dangerous that American troops nicknamed it the Death Factory. Parts of the Maginot Line, pre-war French fortifications intended originally to protect France from German attack, played host to the Ghosts. Finally, they supported the vast Allied crossing of the Rhine itself. As Fortress Europe and the Third Reich cracked and crumbled, the Ghost Army took full advantage of the confusion, all while sowing more.

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After the war, the Ghost Army simply melted away. Their work remained hidden under secrecy rules and almost forgotten for over forty years. Only relatively recently have they really been acknowledged. A 2013 documentary, The Ghost Army, and a few articles have only begun to chronicle their work. By contrast, British deception operations like Operation Bertram, Operation Mincemeat and the Double Cross scheme are far better known.

The Ghost Army, though far less famous, were no less important to the World War II cause.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons