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(Rick Beyer/Hatcher Graduate Library) Four Ghost Army Soldiers: Strong Enough To Lift An Inflatable Tank.

(Rick Beyer/Hatcher Graduate Library)
Four Ghost Army Soldiers: Strong Enough To Lift An Inflatable Tank.

Ghost Army

The Inflatable Tanks That Fooled Hitler

Shortly after the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, two Frenchmen on bicycles managed to cross the perimeter of the United States Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and what they saw astounded them. Four American soldiers had picked up a 40-ton Sherman tank and were turning it in place. Soldier Arthur Shilstone says, “They looked at me, and they were looking for answers, and I finally said: ‘The Americans are very strong.’

Patriotic pride aside, the men of the 23rd were not equipped with super-human strength. They did, however, have inflatable tanks.

Shilstone was one of 1,100 soldiers who formed the unit, also known as the Ghost Army. They were artists and illustrators, radio people and sound guys.

Handpicked for the job from New York and Philadelphia art schools in January 1944, their mission was to deceive the enemy with hand-made inflatable tanks, 500-pound speakers blasting the sounds of troops assembling and phony radio transmissions.

Over the course of the war, they staged more than 20 operations and are estimated to have saved between 15,000 and 30,000 U.S. lives. The illusion was never broken and not even their fellow soldiers knew of their existence. It’s a great example of how many fantastic, amazing, sort of mind-bending stories there still are 70 something years later coming out of WWII.

To this day, many details of the team’s role in the war following D-Day remain classified and are a closely guarded secret.

Handpicked from U.S art schools and advertising agencies, they constructed fake tanks, repainted existing vehicles, and broadcast audio in order to mislead German forces.

Deception has long been a part of war, the Trojan Horse being perhaps the most famous example. But what set the 23rd troops apart, is the way they integrated so many different strategies to create a multimedia road show capable of being packed up for another show the next night. To shore up potential holes in the line, the unit would set up its inflatable tanks and roll in the giant speakers with a 15-mile range to give the impression that a huge army was amassing. Coupled with decoy radio transmissions, the deceptions proved largely successful.

From the beaches of Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge, the Ghost Army saw a lot of action, but their biggest stunt would come near the end of the war. With the American Ninth Army set to cross the Rhine River deeper into Germany, the 23rd had to lure the Germans away. Posing as the 30th and 79th divisions, 1,100 men had to pretend to be more than 30,000.

Mixing real tanks alongside the inflatable ones, the troops appeared to be assembling a massive attack. Their fake observation planes were so convincing, American pilots tried to land in the field next to them. When the offensive finally made its move across the Rhine, with General Dwight Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill watching, they were met with little German resistance. The riverbanks were left for the taking and the Ghost Army earned a commendation for its success.

As Jack Masey, who was recruited into the Ghost Army at age 18, remembered: “We were told we were going to be using inflatable equipment to try and fool the Germans into thinking that we were a real army, when we were in effect, I suppose, a rubber army.”

The rubber army used its dramatic streak to its advantage. It staged a series of, basically, “travelling shows“: elaborate plays designed to intimidate and/or confuse the Axis. Its members put their theatrical skills to use, engaging in “playacting,” designing “soundscapes,” and creating “set-dressing.” They were dispatched to spend time at French cafes near the war’s front to spread gossip among the spies who might be there,  to, as one Ghoster put it, “order some omelettes and talk loose.” Some actors in the Ghost Army would also play the parts of Allied generals, dressing up as the officers and visiting towns where enemy spies would be likely to see them.

This part of the job ranged from the pleasurable to the tedious. Play-acting assignments sometimes resembled R&R. We were to be seen, mill around, go to pubs, have a good time, pick up girls, enjoy. Having memorized the recent history of the unit they were pretending to be part of, the 23rd’s repertory company convincingly dropped tidbits of information only the real deal would know.

Then they offered a sincere recitation of entirely bogus battle plans, revealing the future position of their battle-scarred unit. Oscar-worthy performances were played out in taverns by these careless “drunks” who spilled vital military intelligence more often than their beers. Lucky members of the unit got instantaneous, if temporary, promotions. Sometimes you’d portray a different rank than what you actually were. Sometimes our colonel was a two-star general, you know, a brigadier general.”

But most assignments were far less enjoyable. Soldiers would drive though villages for hours in looping convoys of trucks meant to transport dozens of men.

In fact, they held only the driver and two passengers positioned in the rear, wearing the proper uniforms and patches to mimic the “division” arriving to prepare for battle. Members of the Ghost Army impersonated parts of so many different outfits, redesigning uniforms and attaching and removing shoulder patches so often, some became expert tailors by the end of the war.

The Ghosters’ role was, in some sense, to cause chaos and confusion. And they played it not just with the help of visual trickery, but also with what they called “sonic deception.” With help from engineers at Bell Labs, a team from the unit’s 3132 Signal Service Company Special travelled to Fort Knox to record sounds of armoured and infantry units onto wire recorders (the predecessors to tape recorders) that were cutting-edge at the time. In the theatre, they then “mixed” those sounds to match the atmosphere they wanted to create, playing their faux soundtracks with powerful amplifiers and speakers that were mounted on halftracks — a combination so effective that the sounds could be heard up to 15 miles away.

The unit’s Signal Company Special also created what it called “Spoof Radio,” in which its actors impersonated the radio operators from real units. The Ghosters mimicked, as well, departing operators’ idiosyncratic methods of sending Morse Code, creating the illusion, for Axis armies, that the Allied unit was in the vicinity when in fact it had already departed the area. The Ghost Army’s sonic illusions, in this case, were so convincing that they fooled Axis Sally, the radio propagandist, into reporting that an entire Allied division was preparing for battle in a spot that actually contained, at the time, no troops at all.

All of which went to serve the Allies’ ultimate illusion: that their military force was bigger and more powerful than it actually was. (Part of the effectiveness of the Ghost Army came from the fact that it would employ real tanks and artillery pieces along with the fake ones, to make the dummies in the distance seem to blend in with the others.) The Ghost Army, today, is estimated to have saved tens of thousands of soldiers’ lives with its deceptions, and to have been instrumental in several Allied victories in Europe.

It accomplished all that by, among much else, taking “the art of war” wonderfully literally.

Megan Garber

The Ghost Army

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