During the Second World War, planners of the United States Army created an ultra secret unit known as the ghost Army capable of deceiving the Nazis in the battlefields of Europe.
The Special Troops of Headquarters 23, also known as the Phantom Army, used illusions to pose as real combat units on the front, to confuse the Germans about the size and location of the allied forces.
It is estimated that, in the course of 21 different operations, the Ghost Army saved thousands of lives and was never discovered by the Nazis.
Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles, authors of “The Phantom Army of World War II,” reveal ways in which the Phantom Army used to mislead the Germans, hear are some of those ways:
1) Inflatable army
The Phantom Army used hundreds of inflatable tanks, trucks, artillery pieces, jeeps and other vehicles to make them look bigger and stronger.
They could be installed overnight, so that from the air it seemed that the American units had moved.
Attention to detail was critical: they used an excavator to create footprints that led to each fake tank.
They had to be very careful to make sure that no civilians got too close. On one occasion, two French cyclists were not detected by the security officers, and they saw what looked like four soldiers lifting a 40-ton Sherman tank.
When Corporal Arthur Shilstone surprised them, he gave them the first explanation that came to mind: “Americans are very strong.”
2) Night light flashes
At night, the Phantom Army used flashes of light to imitate shots in order to drive the Germans away from American artillery batteries.
The Army installed fictitious units with inflatable artillery pieces about 400 meters away. They used artillery covers filled with black powder, which were activated with an electric lighter. By means of telephone lines, the real artillery and the Phantom Army synchronised the real shots with the false flashes.
3) Sound effects
The sound engineers recorded noises of tanks, trucks, excavators and even the noise that occurred during the assembly of bridges to cross rivers.
“You could hear them hammering and cursing,” said soldier Harold Flinn.
The sounds were recorded on 16-inch glass transcription discs, like those used to record music albums.
They mixed different sound effects to create specific scenarios and then reproduce them by means of powerful loudspeakers mounted on armored vehicles to simulate the noise of units moving to comply with nighttime operations.
With a range of more than 16 kilometres, they not only deceived the Germans but also, quite frequently, the American units located nearby.
4) Fictitious messages
During World War II, most of the critical radio messages were telegraphed in Morse code.
German intelligence was so sophisticated that they could recognize the style, or ‘fist’, of individual radio operators in American units. That is why the radio operators of the Army had to become imitators.
They learned to copy the precise techniques of the operators they imitated, so that when the real radio networks finished their transmission and the false ones relieved them, no one knew.
To this day, some experts claim that copying the fist of another operator is almost impossible. The fact is, however, that the Ghost Army high-speed telegraphists did it routinely.
5) Special effects
Part of the work of the ghost Army was to set up a show for the German spies who were in the cities near where they carried out their deceptions. This was called ‘special effects’.
If, for example, they pretended to be the 75th Armoured Division moving into an area, they carefully marked all their vehicles with the number 75 and drove them all over the city.
Each truck covered by a canvas carried two men in the back to make it look like it was full of soldiers. The same trucks could be painted with slightly different markings and circulate around the city over and over again.
6) Needle and thread
Another special effects tactic was to use the patches of the unit they were passing through, and then interact with civilians in the local cities.
In some cases, men sewed fake patches on their uniforms, with the larger ones at the top and the smaller ones at the bottom, to be able to imitate several units.
They entered a city and entered a local bar. Then the upper patches were ripped off and they went to the next bar.
Corporal Jack Masey remembers that his shirts ended up threadbare from so many patches he sewed on them.
7) False generals
For the sake of realism, they established a false headquarters for each unit they imitated.
And, of course, a fake headquarters must have fake generals.
Therefore, even though it was expressly forbidden by US Army regulations, junior officers would get stars and pass themselves off as high-ranking officers.
As one officer said: “You can not represent a woman if the bust is forbidden.”