Tracing the Footsteps of the United States’ Ghost Army

Similar to British plans for what was to become Operation Fortitude South, the U.S. Army established a special “field deception” unit known as the 23rd Headquarters Special troops with one goal: to deceive the German Army. They became known as the Ghost Army.

Inflatable M-4 Sherman Tank positioned in a wooded area (Credit: Ghost Army Legacy Project - The George William Curtis Collection)

Created in late 1943, the U.S. Army quickly began recruiting 1,100 men who were artists, radio operators, and other engineers to join a new secret battalion comprised of three specialized units.

The first was a visual unit who used “special effects” – fake inflatable rubber artillery, jeeps, M4 tanks, L-5 planes, and even fake soldiers (though they were never used) to create the appearance of a fake U.S. battalion on the field.

The second unit was engaged in Sonic Warfare – who created the first “mixtape”, wire recordings of moving equipment, pontoon bridges, tanks, and army personnel that could be adapted to fit the terrain and the character of the battalion. These recordings were then played on 200kg speakers that could be heard up to 25km away.

The third and final unit was the Signal Company Special who studied the army’s radio transmissions and then replicated them to fool the Germans who often relied on radio communications for their intelligence.

Together these three units worked together to impersonate a specific battalion to deceive the Germans about the true size and whereabouts of Allied forces.

A week after the D-Day landings in June 1944, 15 men from the Ghost Army deployed to Normandy under 1st Lt. Bernard Mason to set up dummy artillery emplacements with the VII Corps Artillery. From July until August, the Ghost Army conducted many important decoy missions in the battle of Normandy using only the visual and radio units.

Often, they would establish a command post in newly liberated villages disguised as a specific battalion, complete with “Special effects” such as fake badges, vehicle stencils, and even a fake battalion headquarters staffed with fake generals. The men were then encouraged to talk “loose” in bars and shops to spread disinformation about their movements in order to confuse any potential remaining spies.

By mid-August 1944, the Ghost Army was sent to assist in the siege of Brest, diverting the Germans to the flanks to allow the allied forces to take the city. They then deployed to eastern France to fill a crucial gap in George Patton’s Third Army north of Metz, pretending to be the 6th Armored Division.

For several days, they held the line with only several hundred inflatable rubber tanks that separated Paris from the Germans on the front. The U.S. 83rd Division finally came to replace the Ghost Army and to provide reinforcements, bringing importantly - real tanks.

The Ghost Army relocated to Luxembourg in September 1944. Throughout autumn of 1944, they completed several important operations along the front. In December, the Ghost Army went to the Ardennes to bolster the appearance that more than just four U.S. divisions held the region.

On the night of December 15, they hastily withdrew just hours before the Germans launched their offensive that would become the infamous Battle of the Bulge. Back in Luxembourg, the men saw their first taste of action defending the city against German air raids before retreating to Verdun to prevent the secret of the Ghost Army’s deception techniques from potentially falling into German hands.

During the winter of 1945, the Ghost Army deployed across Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and Germany in a series of missions. Tragically on March 12, 1945, while impersonating the U.S. 80th Infantry Division in Operation Bouzonville near the Saar, their tactics proved too real for the Germans who fired upon them, killing two and injuring fifteen.

Operation Viersen fake supply depot near Anrath, Germany (Credit: Ghost Army Legacy Project)

The Ghost Army’s final mission (Operation Viersen) proved to be one of the largest and most dramatic of their wartime operations. In March 1945, as the Ninth U.S. Army (30th and 79th Divisions) prepared to cross the Rhine near Wesel, the Ghost Army needed to convince the Germans that this crossing would take place 15 kilometers to the south between Duisburg and Düsseldorf.

By far the most intricate decoy yet, the Ghost Army deployed hundreds of inflatables and real vehicles around the towns of Anrath and Dulken. They transformed forests into decoy vehicle staging areas with fake repair depots. They constructed several landing strips complete with fake L-5 planes.

As the Ninth U.S. Army moved into positions further north, they ceased radio operations as the Signal Company Special took over the broadcast to trick any listening Germans. The assembled sonic trucks played the recordings of soldiers moving equipment and assembling the pontoon bridges for the Rhine crossing.

The Ninth U.S.Army finally made their crucial crossing of the Rhine on March 24, 1945 where they encountered a disorganized German defensive and experienced very few casualties proving the Ghost Army’s decoy mission a success.

Following the war, many of the Ghost Army went on to become successful artists, notably minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly and fashion designer Bill Blass. The successes of the Ghost Army remained secret for many years during the Cold War for fear that the Americans would need such techniques in a future conflict. It was not until 1996 that the U.S. government declassified the Ghost Army’s history and the ingenuity of these 1100 men became known to the world.

In 2018, the first historical marker dedicated to the Ghost Army was erected outside the commune of Bettembourg in Luxembourg, commemorating Operation Bettembourg.

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