The Ghost Army of World War II

In which a special unit used inflatable tanks, sound effects, and phony radio broadcasts to confuse the enemy.

During Operation Elephant, the men of the Twenty-Third Headquarters Special Troops (or "Ghost Army") replaced real vehicles with inflatable dummies in a Normandy village. Two Frenchmen on bicycles were surprised to see four GI's picking up a 40-ton Sherman tank. "The Americans are very strong," they were told. (Arthur Shilstone, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)
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A top-secret military unit—that would become known as the Ghost Army—was formed in June 1944, just after D-Day. Made up of artists, designers, radio operators, and engineers, the unit conducted “deceptive missions” to mislead the enemy. Their story is the subject of a new book by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles titled The Ghost Army of World War II (Princeton Architectural Press, 2015).  

Four separate units worked together, note Beyer and Sayles: The 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion Special—379 men—used inflatable rubber tanks, trucks, artillery, and Jeeps to trick enemy aerial reconnaissance observers gathering intelligence. The Signal Company Special—296 men—carried out radio deception, impersonating radio operators from real units. The 3132 Signal Service Company Special—145 men—specialized in “sonic deception,” playing sound effects to simulate the clatter of units moving and operating. The 406th Engineer Combat Company Special—168 men—provided security for the other Ghost Army units, and also helped with construction and demolition.

The unit is credited with 21 different deceptions, write the authors, and are credited with saving thousands of lives. The book—beautifully illustrated with the soldiers’ original artwork—is filled with never-before-published documents. Deadline Hollywood reported on June 16 that The Ghost Army of World War II has been optioned by Warner Bros

Click on the gallery to see more images from the book. Images are reprinted with the permission of the publisher. The Ghost Army of World War II by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles. Published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2015.

The men were trained at Fort Meade. After learning the basics of camouflage, they moved to larger-scale projects. "Fearing German bomber raids," write the authors, "the Army had the unit camouflage coastal defense artillery on Long Island and at the Glenn L. Martin plant in Baltimore [shown here], where B-26 bombers were made."
The tanks weren't simply giant balloons. "They were built on a skeleton of inflatable rubber tubes, covered by rubberized canvas," write the authors. "This made them quicker to inflate and also insured that a single piece of shrapnel could not instantly deflate the entire tank." Here, an inflatable half-track and artillery piece on the factory floor.
The inflatable vehicles came in oversized canvas duffels, note the authors. "The soldiers would open the bundle, spread it out, and inflate the tank through multiple nozzles." ("Inflating Tank at Night," by Arthur Shilstone, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)
A repair shop set up under camouflage netting to patch damaged inflatable vehicles.
One last deception: For Operation Viersen, the Ghost Army would try to fool the Germans into thinking that two infantry divisions would cross the Rhine ten miles south of their actual location. Here, an aerial view of inflatable trucks and tanks—along with simulated tank tracks—set up at Anrath-Dülken.
The men laid out a phoney airfield set up with inflatable L-5 observation planes. So convincing were the fake airfields, write the authors, that a real observation plane mistakenly landed at one—and was promptly told to get lost.
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