Masters of disguise: the story of the Allies’ WW2 ‘Ghost Army’

As the Allies pushed through Europe at the end of World War II, they needed a secret weapon to stay ahead of the German war machine. Gavin Mortimer tells the story of the ‘Ghost Army’ – a talented band of artists and engineers who created the ultimate distraction

A decoy rubber tank such as those used by the Allies during WW2.

By the middle of September 1944 the Allied drive east across France towards the German border had almost reached the end of its tether. The American XX Corps had as its objective the French city of Metz, 20 miles west of the border, but they were thinly stretched against a desperate enemy fighting to defend the Third Reich.

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Two US divisions were assigned to the assault on Metz, but the problem facing HQ was the lack of troops at their disposal to guard the 50 miles that lay between the city and the Luxembourg border to the north. This was needed to ensure that the Germans didn’t launch a sweeping counteroffensive.

Nevertheless, late in the afternoon of Saturday 15 September, the advance element of the 6th Armored Division began arriving in the wooded land on the outskirts of Bettembourg, a town one mile inside the Luxembourg border.

During the night the sound of armoured vehicles was heard moving into the woods, and when dawn broke on the Sunday, a dozen M4 tanks were visible among the trees. As Lieutenant Dick Syracuse and his platoon manned their positions, they heard from their rear an angry holler.

“What the hell is going on here, son?” Glancing round, Syracuse was confronted by a colonel from a US cavalry unit.

“What do you mean, Colonel?” Syracuse responded.

“What are those tanks doing there?” Syracuse replied that there were no tanks – at least not real ones.

A look of stupefaction crossed the colonel’s face. “I know what I hear!” he snapped. “There are tanks out there, and nobody told me there was going to be tanks here!”

Syracuse sent for his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Edgar Schroeder. When he arrived, he took the cavalry officer to one side and explained who they really were. They weren’t from the 6th Armored Division, but instead belonged to the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. However, their task was to fool the Germans into believing they really were from the 6th Armored Division: hence the wearing of their insignia.

As for the tanks themselves, they were rubber ones that had been inflated during the night, and the sound of their ‘tracks’ was actually an audio recording being played by a sonic deception truck.

“Well,” exclaimed the colonel, “you certainly could have fooled me.”

Pretenders assemble

Captain Ralph Ingersoll and Colonel Billy Harris of the 12th US Army Group Special Plans branch (see box below) would have been delighted with the colonel’s embarrassment. If they had fooled one of their own, then surely they could trick the Germans, too – and their creation did, on many occasions, during the final year of the war in Europe.

If Ingersoll and Harris had fooled one of their own, then surely they could trick the Germans too

The pair’s commanding officer, General Dan Noce, answered to General Jake Devers, who commanded US Army forces preparing for the Normandy invasion, and they both saw the potential of a unit dedicated to deceiving the enemy. The difference between what Ingersoll and Harris proposed to previous acts of military subterfuge was outlined in the so-called Ghost Army’s official history, written in September 1945 by Captain Fred Fox: “[Previous] deceptive efforts were handled by a small group of officers with pick-up detachments,” he wrote. “Some observers felt that deception could be strengthened and its employment widened, by the formation of a self-contained unit especially and solely designed for tactical deception. This group would serve as a nucleus of experts and its T/E [Table of Equipment] would be loaded with tricky devices.”

This unit, designated the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, was activated by the War Department on 20 January 1944. Its commander was Colonel Harry Reeder, a veteran officer who was selected to lead the Ghost Army because he had proved himself an adaptable and original thinker. Recruits came from four existing units: 379 soldiers from the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion; 296 from the 244th Signal Operations Company, 168 from the 293rd Engineer Combat Battalion and 145 men from the 3132nd Signal Service Company.

It was a melting pot of skills: artists and designers adept at camouflage, radio hams adroit at communications and engineers who could create anything from nothing.

Ralph Ingersol and Billy Harris: an unlikely duo

Despite their differences, the brains behind the Ghost Army were a perfect partnership

Described in his 1985 obituary in the New York Times as a “tall, slender man with a voluminous memory, a combative spirit and an intense interest in the people and events that shaped his times”, Ralph Ingersoll turned 41 on the day America declared war on Japan on 8 December 1941. He volunteered despite his age and became a controversial staff officer with a habit of “playing fast and loose with the truth” – a reputation he had also earned as a journalist during the 1930s, when he served as a publisher of Time magazine and as one of the founders of Life magazine.

The turning point in Ingersoll’s military career came when he was posted to London as a member of the US Army’s ‘Special Plans’ branch, answering to Colonel Billy Harris. A professional soldier who was the opposite in temperament to Ingersoll, Harris nonetheless encouraged his subordinate’s creative thinking, and between them, they conjured the idea of a Ghost Army that could be deployed to deceive the enemy ahead of the invasion of Europe.

In the words of Ingersoll, it was to be a “super-secret battalion of specialists in the art of manipulating our antagonists’ decisions”.

The art of war

Several members of the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion were recruited from the Industrial Camouflage Program, a scheme started in 1940 at Pratt School of Art in Brooklyn. One such recruit was Seymour Nussenbaum, who had been enduring the miserable life of an artilleryman before he had heard of the call for artists. “You had to be transferred into this unit because it had a high priority,” he reflected many years later. “They didn’t tell us much because it was a slow evolution. They had never tried anything like it before.”Another recruit was Bernard Bluestein, who was midway through his second year at the Cleveland Institute of Art in Ohio when he heard the army were on the lookout for talented artists. Realising it could keep him out of an infantry unit, Bluestein volunteered and was sent on a camouflage course before he joined the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion. “We learned how to camouflage ourselves, and with buildings, we carried it a little further,” Bluestein said. “We had to build fake army equipment: tanks, jeeps, trucks, artillery, airplanes. We made these out of wood.”

While the members of the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion mastered their craft, recruits to the 3132nd Signal Service Company visited military camps in the US to record the noise of armoured vehicles and infantry soldiers. With the help of top civilian sound engineers, the signallers then mixed these sounds with the situation they wanted (such as the digging of defensive positions) in what was called ‘sonic deception’.

Making waves

As well as using sonic deception vehicles to blast misleading noises out loud, the Ghost Army also broadcasted spoof radio signals they knew the Germans would intercept – taking care to mimic the styles of real operators from other units.

On 2 May the Ghost Army was spirited out of New York on board the USS Henry Gibbons. Unlike other soldiers being shipped overseas there was no fanfare on the quayside; like all good phantoms they came and went in the night.

Once in England the camouflage battalion took delivery of a new weapon: inflatable rubber imitations of military hardware. “The dummies were usually inflated by air compressors,” explained Nussenbaum. “They ran off batteries or they plugged them into a car. When those didn’t work, we had bicycle pumps, and if that didn’t work, you blew them up with your lips!”

The camouflage battalion took delivery of a new weapon: inflatable rubber imitations of military hardware

The fighter planes and tanks were not just easier to construct, they gave the Ghost Army more time to devote to other deceptions, including creating replica insignia and uniforms of frontline units that they may be asked to impersonate.

Bafflement in Brittany

A small advance party from the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was deployed to France shortly after D-Day on 6 June, and the rest of the Ghost Army followed. But it was to be a frustrating few weeks, as the official history noted: “Much time was spent looking for jobs, but the Normandy build-up simply did not lend itself to deception. At least, no one with sufficient influence thought it did. The 23rd was told to wait for the expected ‘break-through’.”

Nevertheless, there were occasional moments of comedy to lighten the men’s mood. Gilbert Seltzer recalled the afternoon that he and a buddy were told to move an inflatable tank into a new position. As they picked up the tank, they heard a cry of incredulity from a passing Frenchman. “Americans are very strong!” shouted Seltzer, and the Frenchman ran off to tell his neighbours of the supermen in their midst.

The ‘break-through’ was finally achieved at the end of July as General Omar Bradley’s army smashed the stalemate, and in the space of a week, covered more than 60 miles into Brittany. The Ghost Army was tasked with tricking the Germans into believing that Bradley’s priority was to clear the Brittany peninsula, while in reality it was to thrust south.

Forming into four notional battle groups, the Ghost Army ranged across Brittany, often at night, using their sonic deception to create the sound of a huge armoured force on the move. Reconnaissance patrols displaying fake insignia would carry out missions aware that they were under enemy observation. According to the official history: “While the 23rd does not hold itself responsible for the destruction of the German Seventh Army, there is always a possibility that its ruse helped becloud the German estimate of the situation.”

Keeping up appearances

Later in August the Ghost Army deployed a fake artillery battery against the Germans in Brittany, emitting the flashes and noises of heavy guns half a mile in front of a German artillery battalion. Over three nights the fake battery was targeted by the German howitzers who believed them to be real.

A month later the Ghost Army was supporting XX Corps as they attempted to liberate Metz. Once the red-faced cavalry colonel had departed, the men of the 23rd began cooking breakfast, sparking up stoves as if they were a brigade and not a battalion. Later, some of the soldiers strolled into Bettembourg, where it was known there were enemy spies. They wore the shoulder patches of the 6th Armored, and in the cafes and bars they boasted of their Division’s reputation – information they knew would be passed on to the Germans.

Ghost Army personnel even impersonated 6th Division Military Policemen, arriving to empty the cafes of Bettembourg of soldiers and ordering them to return to their positions. “Civilians were observed photographing bumpers, taking notes, and asking ‘friendly’ questions,” recalled Lieutenant Colonel Clifford Simenson.

The Ghost Army had been instructed to plug the line north of Metz for 48 hours until the arrival of the 83rd Infantry Division, but they were delayed. Fear grew that the Germans would rumble the ruse and launch an attack against soldiers ill-equipped materially and physically to resist an assault. But the attack never came, and on 22 September the 83rd Infantry finally arrived.

Ghost Army in numbers

1944 | The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was activated at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, on 20 January 1944

23 | Although officially designated the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the unit was nicknamed the ‘Ghost Army’

4 | The Ghost Army recruited from four established units, including the 3132nd Signal Service Company and the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion

57 | Colonel Harry Reeder was the only officer of the unit, and he initially had 57 enlisted men under his command

93 | One deception weapon was the inflatable M4 tank, which weighed a mere 93 lbs rather than the ‘real’ 32 tonnes

1,105 | By the time the unit had shipped to France, its strength had grown to 82 officers and 1,023 enlisted men

46 | The diverse unit brought together artists, students and bartenders from 46 US states

20 | During the course of the war, the unit staged 20 deception operations in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany

119 | The average IQ for members of the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion was 119

1996 | The activities of the Ghost Army remained a closely guarded secret until their official history was declassified in 1996

Vow of secrecy

The Ghost Army continued to distort reality as the Allies advanced into Germany. In March 1945 the camouflage battalion pretended they were two crack divisions preparing for an assault against Viersen. As the Nazis focused their energies on defending the town, the 9th Army crossed the Rhine five miles to the east. “We went into town at dusk when no one could see us, but we had a sound system that had the sounds of troops moving,” recalled Bernard Bluestein. “We were only about 1,100 men. We simulated two divisions of 30,000.”

The next morning the Germans began shelling the Ghost Army, which Bluestein saw as a badge of honour. “[It] gave us the indication that we convinced them that we were the real outfit.”

The story of the Ghost Army was kept secret in case a similar unit was needed in the Cold War

When the war ended a few weeks later, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops shipped back to the US, and Bluestein and Nussenbaum returned to art college. For decades, the story of the Ghost Army was kept secret in case a similar unit was needed in the Cold War, so Nussenbaum came up with a typically imaginative way to explain his wartime exploits.

“When they asked me what I did, I said ‘I blew up tanks’, which wasn’t a lie. And it sounded good.”

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For more information on the World War II Ghost Army, visit the Ghost Army Legacy Project website: ghostarmylegacyproject.org