The second World War has its share of stories. Some are horrific, some inspirational, and some can even put a smile on your face. But the story of one of the world’s largest, costliest, gutsiest pranks is so outrageous, you have to see it to believe it.
A few weeks after the Americans landed in France in 1944, a special tactics group went to work planning one of the most elaborate hoaxes in history. More commonly known as the Ghost Army, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was a unit of 1,100 artists, actors, set designers and engineers recruited for their excellent creative thinking abilities. Their mission: to deceive the German troops into believing that their cozy little group was actually a fully equipped, 30,000-man battalion.
The trick was achieved by the cooperation of four tactics: visual deception, sonic deception, radio deception, and a mix of techniques that was generally called “atmosphere.”
Visual deception was the responsibility of the 603rd Camouflage Engineers. They were equipped with formidable weapons indeed: inflatable tanks, cannons, jeeps, trucks and airplanes that the men would bring to life with air compressors, bike pumps, or if things were really desperate, their own lungs. They would then intentionally botch the camouflage of these “machines” so that enemy scouts would see and report them. They could create fake airfields, troop bivouacs, and tank formations in just a couple of hours.
The 3132 Signal Service Company Special took care of the sonic deception. Using sound effect records they’d created at Fort Knox, the unit provided an audio ambiance of armored and infantry sounds that made quite a racket, audible from fifteen miles away. The sound recordings could be mixed to create the exact sonic scenario that the army needed at the time.
Radio deception, or “Spoof Radio,” involved impersonating radio operators and creating phony traffic nets. This was handled by the Signal Company Special, who perfected the practice of sending Morse Code so that enemy eavesdroppers would never detect that the actual unit, and its operator, were long gone.
The creation of “atmosphere” was basically the final finishing touch placed on the unit to make it really seem authentic. It involved theatrical effects such as sewing divisional patches of an existing unit (which was deployed elsewhere) onto the uniforms and decorating the inflatable vehicles with unit designators. Empty trucks would be driven in convoys with a couple of troops hanging out near the tailgates, giving the impression that under the canvas cover lurked an intimidating truck-full of infantry. Mock generals and staff officers would wander the towns, letting themselves be seen so that enemy agents would know of their visits.
The Ghost Army staged more than twenty battlefield deceptions, some of which were nail-bitingly close to the front lines. They successfully distracted German units from real American troops and hid the things that needed to remain unseen. Sometimes they were even surrendered to by much larger German forces, which must have been humiliating once they realized that they’d been overpowered by a bunch of balloons.
It was so successful that the whole operation remained top secret until 1996, and some aspects of it remain classified even today. In the end, the Ghost Army’s convincing fakery is thought to have saved up to 30,000 Allied lives.
Watch this video to hear the stories firsthand from WWII veterans who served with the 603rd Camouflage Engineers in the Ghost Army.
Find more on this and other WWII stories in the WWII European Theater Army Records on Fold3.