Its artillery could not fire, its tanks could not move, and its members were more adept at handling brushes than rifles. Yet a top-secret unit of 1,100 American artists, designers, and sound engineers, informally known as the “Ghost Army,” helped win World War II by staging elaborate tricks that fooled the forces of Nazi Germany on the location and size of Allied forces.
Members of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and 3133rd Special Signal Company who literally practiced the art of war saved the lives of thousands of American servicemen and earned one of the nation’s highest civilian honors.
Using inflatable decoys, fake radio chatter and speakers that emitted sound effects, the Shadow Army could simulate a force 30 times its size as it operated within 400 yards of the front lines. “Rarely, if ever, has there been such a small group of men who have had such a great influence on the outcome of a major military campaign,” said a U.S. Army report.
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Ghost Army: a “traveling road show”
Ghost Army member Freddy Fox described his unit as “a traveling road show that runs up and down the front lines posing as the real battle gear”. From D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge, the Phantom Army flew over 20 missions throughout the European theater of war in 1944 and 1945.
Inspired by the success of British subterfuge in North Africa early in the war, the United States Army established the Ghost Army in January 1944 as a self-contained unit designed specifically to perform visual, sound and radio deceptions in time for the D-Day fashion designer Bill Blass and painter Ellsworth Kelly were among the artists, publicists, broadcasters, sound experts, actors, architects and set designers handpicked for the Ghost Army, which is said to have one of the highest collective IQs. highest in the army with an average of 119.
As its name suggests, the Ghost Army worked under the cloak of night. According to a December 6, 1945 report published in The daily newspaper Meriden. Radio specialists sent misleading communications and even imitated the operators’ unique styles to add authenticity to their false reports. Sound engineers played pre-recorded sounds of military drills and movements over huge speakers that, in some cases, could be heard 15 miles away.
The Phantom Army deploys on D-Day
The bulk of the Shadow Army arrived in England in May 1944 as preparations for D-Day were being finalized. Four members joined the D-Day landings in Normandy and a 17-man platoon landed on Omaha Beach eight days later to create dummy artillery emplacement which drew German fire.
The Phantom Army engaged in its first large-scale deceptions in the summer of 1944, deploying 50 dummy tanks and positioning sound trucks a few hundred yards from the front line during the siege of the French port of Brest. As part of Operation Brittany, the Phantom Army tricked the Germans into the location of General George Patton’s 3rd Army, which evaded the enemy and raced east through France.
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When a gaping breach opened up in Patton’s line during his attack on the fortified French city of Metz in September 1944, the Shadow Army again aided the general. Until a division arrived to fill the void, the illusionists held the precarious line for seven days with their inflatables and loudspeakers playing the sound of rumbling tanks, troop shouts and even barking sergeants. orders for the soldiers to put out their cigarettes. The Phantom Army’s radio deception also kept the Germans away from Patton’s relief of the Belgian town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
Rick Beyer, co-author of The Shadow Army of World War II and producer and director of a 2013 documentary on the outfit, said the Shadow Army found Patton to be among the easiest generals they worked with. “Patton was extremely helpful and welcoming and made suggestions to improve the disappointment. He totally embraced their ideas,” he says.
The Phantom Army pulled off their most elaborate hoax in March 1945 as part of Operation Viersen. As the 9th Army prepared to make the dangerous crossing of the Rhine, the Phantom Army positioned itself 10 miles south of the planned landing point to redirect German attention. The Phantom Army inflated both 600 mannequins and their own size by posing as two divisions and 40,000 soldiers.
To give the impression that the 30th and 79th Infantry Divisions were assembling, radio conversations broadcast false reports of their planned movements and sonic trucks played a soundtrack of construction of pontoon bridges, artillery fire and even fire. officers swearing. The Shadow Army stencilled fabricated division numbers and insignia onto its vehicles and erected fake headquarters and command posts manned by fake commanders and generals. They sewed counterfeit shoulder patches onto their uniforms and loudly discussed their false intelligence in local bars and cafes to ensure that their disinformation would be heard by any German spy in hiding.
The trick worked. As the Nazis attacked the Phantom Army, the 9th Army crossed the Rhine with little resistance.
A few weeks later, the Shadow Army’s mission ended with World War II. The soldiers may have fabricated lies, but their heroism was all too real. While three of its members were killed and about 30 wounded, the Ghost Army saved the lives of between 15,000 and 30,000 American servicemen, according to military estimates.
The Phantom Army rewarded with a belated congressional gold medal
After the war, Ghost Army members returned home and embarked on careers in advertising, architecture, design, theater, art, fashion, and radio. For decades, their exploits remained little known as members followed strict orders not to even tell their families about the Shadow Army for fear a similar unit would have to be deployed against a new enemy of war. cold: the Soviet Union.
While a few articles about the Shadow Army escaped censorship in the aftermath of the war, the Army did not officially declassify information about the outfit until 1996.
Seeking to gain official recognition for the Ghost Army, Beyer started the nonprofit Ghost Army Legacy Project as well as a grassroots campaign to have the Ghost Army awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. “I was very aware that because of the secrecy these guys hadn’t received any recognition and thought it was something they were due,” says Beyer. “I thought what they did was remarkable, and I was amazed at how far they were out of the WWII pantheon.”
In February 2022, the 23rd Special Headquarters Troops and 3133rd Special Signals Company, which undertook a pair of sonic deception operations against the Nazis in Italy, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for “their unique service and highly distinguished in the conduct of deception operations”.
“Performance and art aren’t just things we do as hobbies, they’re an essential part of human endeavor,” says Beyer. “The Phantom Army used creativity and illusion to save lives.”