The “Ghost Army” of World War II

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Thalia Ertman
October 31, 2019

Happy Halloween from your Friends at the National World War II Memorial! In the spirit of all things spooky, it feels fitting to take a look at the so-called “Ghost Army” of World War II.

During World War II, the Allied Armies deployed a tactical deception unit known as the “Ghost Army.” Officially called the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops under Operation Quicksilver, the 1,100-man unit was given a unique mission within the Allied Army: to impersonate other Allied Army united to deceive the enemy.

The insignia of the so-called “Ghost Army.”

From a few weeks after D-Day, when they landed in France, until the end of the war, they put on a “traveling road show” utilizing inflatable tanks, sound trucks, fake radio transmissions, scripts, and pretense. They staged more than 20 battlefield deceptions, often operating very close to the front lines.

Inspiration for the unit came from the British units who had honed the deception technique for the battle of El Alamein in late 1942, as Operation Bertram. The unit had its beginnings at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, and was fully formed at Pine Camp, New York, before sailing for the U.K. in early May 1944. In Britain they were based near Stratford upon Avon, and troops participated in Operation Fortitude, the British-designed and led D-Day deceptions of a landing force designated for the Pas-de-Calais.

A soldier stands with a dummy M-4, which was a mainstay of the Ghost Army visual deceptions. The unit had literally hundreds of these.

Some troops went to Normandy two weeks after D-Day, where they simulated a fake Mulberry harbour at night with lights which attempted to draw German artillery from the real ones. After this the entire unit assisted in tying up the German defenders of Brest by simulating a larger force than was actually encircling them.

As the Allied armies moved east, so did the 23rd, and it eventually was based in Luxembourg, from where it engaged in deceptions of crossings of the Ruhr river, positions along the Maginot Line, Hürtgen Forest, and finally a major crossing of the Rhine to draw German troops away from the actual sites.

Instructions for using and inflating the dummy tanks.

Ghost soldiers were encouraged to use their brains and talent to mislead, deceive, and befuddle the German Army. Many were recruited from art schools, advertising agencies, and other occupations that encouraged creative thinking. In civilian life, ghost soldiers had been artists, architects, actors, set designers, and engineers.

Although the 23rd consisted of only 1,100 soldiers, the contingent used equipment pioneered by British forces such as dummy tanks and artillery, fake aircraft, and giant speakers broadcasting the sounds of men and artillery to make the Germans think it was upwards of a two-division 30,000-man force. The unit’s elaborate ruses helped deflect German units from the locations of larger allied combat units.

The unit consisted of the 406th Combat Engineers (which handled security), the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, the 3132 Signal Service Company Special, and the Signal Company Special.

Four soldiers lift one of the dummy tanks.

Enjoy the spooky season!