Patton’s Ghost Army
The army general george patton fielded for the 1944 normandy d-day invasion was unlike any other. it was a complete and unabashed fake., brian john murphy.
From a distance, an English farmer could see that sometime overnight a column of Sherman tanks had parked on his field. One of his bulls also noticed the American tanks and was eyeing one of them warily. Suddenly, the bull lunged. The farmer braced himself for the sight of one of his prized bovines cracking its skull against armor plating.
The bull struck the tank at top speed, and with a lazy hiss of air, the Sherman deflated into a pile of olive-drab rubber sheeting. The bull and the farmer had stumbled onto one of the most elaborate deceptions in the history of warfare: the creation of a phantom army to divert attention from the real Allied army poised to invade France in the spring of 1944.
Northern France was the obvious target, but the Allies had other options, too. So, once they settled on northern France, it became their goal to lead the German high command—especially Hitler—to believe they would do the unexpected and land somewhere else. British intelligence agencies set to work, launching an enormous deception campaign called Bodyguard, designed to make the Germans believe the invasion might come in Greece, on the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia, in the south of France, on the Biscay Bay coast of France, through the Low Countries, or via Norway and Denmark.
The Germans took all these possible scenarios seriously and maintained garrisons in all those regions. This helped the Allies in two ways: the garrisons guarding the possible invasion sites were removed from the fighting in the Soviet Union, which helped the Russians—and they were not concentrated in northern France, where the Allies really were going to attack.
The Allies did plan to invade at Normandy, and they came up with an elaborate plan that included making an artificial harbor. Codenamed Mulberry, the harbor would consist of concrete caissons sunk offshore to create breakwaters and piers. All this could be for naught, however, if Germany’s massive infantry and panzer reserves garrisoning France’s Pas de Calais region were brought into the battle in Normandy. The Allies had to find a way to threaten the Pas de Calais before, during, and after the proposed invasion. If the threat were credible, Hitler would not realize it was safe to move his reserves into Normandy to combat the Allied thrust.
Patton had made himself available for the role by becoming a public relations liability during his brilliant campaign to invade Sicily in 1943. On two separate occasions Patton had slapped soldiers taken from the front lines to be treated for combat fatigue. The resulting firestorm in the press led to Patton’s being relieved of command. So instead of commanding troops on campaign in Italy, Patton was ordered to participate in a series of junkets around the Mediterranean, making speeches, inspecting facilities, and having his picture taken.
Patton’s months of wandering to Corsica, Malta, and Egypt were hardly pointless. His travels bolstered the Allied deception plan at the time, which was simulating threats against the south of France (from Corsica), the Balkans (from Malta), and Greece (from Egypt). The voyages kept the Germans guessing and prevented them from deploying their reserves to advantage.
On January 26, 1944, Patton was at last brought to England—but not to command American armies in Overlord (the code name for the invasion of northern France). Thanks to the slapping incidents, Patton had lost any chance at that job to his former subordinate, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley. Instead, Patton was given the assignment of commanding the fictional FUSAG. Only after fulfilling that role would he receive command of the US Third Army when it was ready to deploy in France.
The Quicksilver illusion had to be airtight. The first the Germans learned of the FUSAG forces coming their way was through a spy working in New York under the alias Albert van Loop. Van Loop had become a double agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (and, unknown to the bureau, had switched his loyalties back to the Germans, making him a triple agent). In September 1943, using the codes supplied to van Loop by the German intelligence service—the Abwehr—the FBI sent messages in van Loop’s name informing the Germans that the phony divisions were embarking at New York, bound for the British Isles.
As part of the ruse, an eight-inch-thick book of scripted radio transmissions was issued to Quicksilver radio operators. Whenever a phantom unit would have been arriving in Britain, making camp, and making preparations for the invasion, plenty of radio traffic would be generated to create realistic chatter for the prying ears of the Abwehr.
The Abwehr had prying eyes, too: reconnaissance planes that flew at 33,000 feet over the English countryside trying to spot FUSAG units and record their activities and movements. The British and American air forces had to be careful to let the Luftwaffe snoops through to see the mock preparations on the ground, yet not let the flights seem so easy as to raise suspicions.
On the ground, the real units earmarked for Overlord but temporarily assigned to FUSAG had no trouble appearing as though they meant business. But the imaginary units were supposed to have upwards of a million men, and they had to look active, too. This need spawned the greatest deceptive enterprise ever seen in a war. Tent cities were created all over eastern England. There were mess halls, hospitals, ammo depots, and even sewage treatment farms. Fuel depots were constructed and parks for trucks, tanks, jeeps, and ambulances were laid out. For the most part, the vehicles themselves were constructed of fabric and wood or were rubber inflatables like the Sherman tank that the farmer’s bull gored.
Real vehicles move around, of course, and under cover of darkness, that’s just what these fake vehicles did. That was how the line of tanks appeared in the farmer’s field unannounced. Besides the bogus tanks, the farmer also noticed a couple of soldiers moving odd devices around his field that day. Rubber tanks and trucks don’t leave tank tread marks in the earth, so soldiers supporting Quicksilver were equipped with rolling tools to make tread and tire marks for the Luftwaffe to see.
British intelligence concocted plenty of plausible information for neutral diplomats and operatives to see, hear, and pass along to their governments—and possibly to the Germans. Local vicars in East Anglia wrote to the local papers about the terrible behavior of some of the “foreign troops.” The US Army’s heraldry department even made unit shoulder patches up for the phantom divisions [click link to view our exclusive gallery]. Quicksilver operatives on leave in London and elsewhere wore them conspicuously on their uniforms.
The Quicksilver deception plan extended to the ports and waterways of eastern England. There were barely enough landing craft available for the real invasion of France, so with the help of experts from the British movie industry, fleets of dummy landing craft were made, and they began to choke harbors and streams. Close up, they might not have fooled anyone, but the 400 or so concoctions of fabric, plywood, old pipes, and bailing wire floating on oil drums looked convincing to Luftwaffe photographers taking pictures from 33,000 feet. At night, port areas were lit with blackout lights to simulate loading activities. Near Dover, workers put together an entire dummy oil dock from camouflage-painted board, sewage pipes, and fiberboard. King George VI visited to inspect the facility, and the lord mayor of Dover publicly mentioned it as a potential municipal asset after the war. The British Royal Air Force kept fighter patrols overhead to protect the mock dock, and workers on the ground burned smudge pots filled with crude oil to keep the facility in a haze. Because the would-be dock was within range of the German guns at Cape Gris Nez, pyrotechnics were used to simulate fires and damage from the occasional hit.
So far so good. The interception of radio signals and photo intelligence reinforced the belief among the German generals that the Allies were saving their punch for the Pas de Calais. The third element was human intelligence, and the British were well positioned to provide the Germans with plenty of misleading information.
Misleading the enemy was the specialty of the Double Cross Committee, also known as the XX Committee or Twenty Committee. This British intelligence group had a stable of double agents sending specially crafted intelligence about FUSAG to the Abwehr. As far as the Abwehr knew, the upper echelons of the Allied command structure were riddled with Nazi spies. In reality, with tremendous efficiency, the British had rounded up all the Axis spies in the United Kingdom early on and turned a surprising number of them into double agents. Others volunteered for this dangerous game.
Two of the most important British agents were Brutus and Garbo. These two men were arguably among the war’s most devastatingly effective spies. Brutus was the code name of Captain Roman Garby-Czerniawski, a former Polish general staff officer now pretending to spy for the Germans. He told the Germans he had been appointed as a liaison between Free Polish forces and Patton’s FUSAG head quarters. He provided convincing detail on behalf of the Double Cross Committee.
Garbo, a Catalan named Juan Pujol, had begun his spying career as an amateur, deceiving the Germans with false intelligence he cooked up himself. The British found out about him and brought him from Spain to England, where he went to work for the Double Cross Committee. Garbo gave the Germans the impression that he had gotten a job high up in the British government and was the spymaster of a network of 14 agents placed throughout the Allied high command and British government. He sent frequent and detailed reports on the growth and intentions of FUSAG. Those reports fooled the highest echelons of command—up to and including Hitler.
Another secret agent, code-named Tricycle (a Yugoslav named Dusko Popov), sent a detailed report in February 1944 on the FUSAG order of battle. For a few scary days German intelligence analysts in Lisbon, where Tricycle made his report, did not believe it. But when it was passed on to Berlin, the high command bought it, making it possible for further reports from other Double Cross agents to be believed.
Thanks to the British cryptologists working at Bletchley Park, the code-breaking center northwest of London (and the timely acquisition of a German Enigma code machine captured early in the war), Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces General Dwight D. Eisenhower. and the British government received decryptions of German radio traffic. The messages showed that the Nazis were buying the FUSAG deception. What intelligence people call a “closed loop” had been successfully established: the British were putting out false information about the FUSAG and then intercepting enemy communications very soon afterward that showed how well each item of deception had worked. Future deceptions were adjusted accordingly.
Valuable intelligence passed to the Germans when the last commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, General Hans Cramer, captured in May 1943, was exchanged back to the Germans due to poor health. On the way home he was wined and dined one evening by Patton himself, in his role as commander of FUSAG. Patton must have played the role of a somewhat loose-lipped commander well (he was in fact known to be indiscreet on occasion). Other Allied officers also let slip bits of seemingly sensitive information about FUSAG and the Pas de Calais. Cramer was put on a neutral ship for his return to Germany, where he was exhaustively debriefed. After that, the German high command was more convinced than ever that FUSAG was going to be part of an invasion at the Pas de Calais.
When the Allies invaded Normandy on D-Day, June 6,1944, the Wermarcht’s forces in Europe were still spread between active fronts in Italy and Russia and possible fronts in the Balkans, the south of France, Greece, Norway, and northern France. Bodyguard and Fortitude had succeeded in keeping the Germans guessing where the next blows would fall. The real test, however, would come after the landings. If the Germans ceased to believe in the FUSAG threat, then the substantial German forces guarding the Pas de Calais would be sent to Normandy. The result might be the failure of Overlord, a catastrophe no one wanted to think about. Quicksilver had to keep working after the invasion.
The tempo of activity in the FUSAG area quickened after June 6. As real Allied armies moved off the beaches and into the hedgerow country of Normandy, the ports of eastern England were jammed with dummy landing craft and a fair sprinkling of actual warships to create the impression that FUSAG was about to embark for Calais. At night the blackout lights were lit on docks and quays to simulate the loading of materiel and supplies for the Pas de Calais landings. Radio transmission points, which had been humming with the scripted traffic prescribed for FUSAG, went silent—just as they would have on the eve of an invasion. Naval activity, including laying smokescreens and sweeping for mines, was stepped up to further reinforce the illusion of a cross-channel attack.
Brutus and Garbo put the final touches on the deception. Brutus signaled on June 8 that Army Group Patton was preparing to move to its embarkation points on the East Anglia and southeast English coasts. He told the Germans there would be five airborne divisions and at least ten infantry divisions involved in the assault.
Garbo made contact on June 9. His entire message required 120 minutes of continuous transmission. He cited the troop movements that Brutus had mentioned as well as concentrations of FUSAG troops at major eastern ports. Garbo concluded his two-hour transmission by saying he suspected FUSAG’s target would be the Pas de Calais. He estimated there might be as many as 50 divisions in England to strike this second blow. “The whole of the present attack [in Normandy] is set as a trap for the enemy to make us move all our reserves in a hurried strategical disposition which we would later regret,” Garbo said. The message found its way into the hands of Field Marshal Albert Jodl; he passed it on to Hitler, who personally had great faith in Garbo’s intelligence reports.
Mighty reinforcements for the Normandy front waited at Calais—specifically, the tanks and infantry of the German 15th Army. At a midnight conference on June 9, Hitler cancelled orders to send those forces to Normandy. They were to stay at the Pas de Calais. Indeed, even reinforcements currently on the way to Normandy were to be diverted to Calais. The phantom army had won its battle.
The Allied imposture continued for weeks. The presence of FUSAG would keep German forces at the Pas de Calais out of the Normandy battle, even after Patton arrived at Normandy as the head of the US Third Army. The Germans thought that FUSAG formations were being cannibalized by Eisenhower to replace losses in Normandy. In fact, two fictitious American airborne divisions in FUSAG were disbanded and reconstituted as a single fictitious division, the ostensible explanation being that the two original units had been heavily tapped for reinforcements and replacements.
By mid-August, it no longer mattered whether the Germans still believed in FUSAG or not. The German defenders of the Normandy front—the Seventh Army and Fifth Panzer Army—had been cut apart. Patton’s Third Army was racing across France, and the German defenders of the Pas de Calais—now threatened from the landward side by real divisions rather than phantom ones—were heading out of the region and out of the battle.
Brian John Murphy of Fairfield, Connecticut, writes for various history magazines, contributing frequently to America in WWII . This article originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of the magazine. Learn how to order a copy of this issue here . For more articles like this one, subscribe to America in WWII at www.AmericaInWWII.com/subscriptions or by calling toll-free 866-525-1945.
National Archives photos, from top: Backed by a line of troops, George Patton speaks at Armagh, Northern Ireland, in April 1944; Patton’s harsh treatment of combat-shocked troops landed him in charge of harmless inflatable tanks such as this one pictured during training in the States; in England, British and American officers team up to work out security problems in preparation for D-Day; and as part of the massive D-Day preparations, American troops load into LSTs (Landing Ships, Tank) at a British port; in the foreground are barrage balloons, which were flown on a tether to create obstacles for low-flying enemy planes.
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'Ghost Army' in WWII used inflatable tanks to fool the Nazis and win the war
This special U.S. Army unit remained secret for over 40 years.
Today (Sept. 2) marks the 75th anniversary of Word War II 's end. During this historic global conflict, hundreds of bloody skirmishes were waged on land, sea and air. But one top-secret U.S. Army battalion fought not with bullets but with stagecraft, using inflatable life-size tanks, phony insignias, soundscapes and fake radio transmissions to deceive German soldiers on the battlefield.
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, also known as the "Ghost Army," brought together artists, career military officers and audio experts in a unique unit devoted to the art of deception — "the first mobile, multimedia, tactical deception unit in U.S. Army history," according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. The museum features a number of Ghost Army artifacts in the special exhibit " Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II ," on display until Jan. 3, 2021.
Using a combination of science and art, the Ghost Army staged nearly two dozen missions between May 1944 and 1945 with the sole purpose of tricking Nazi troops about the whereabouts of Allied forces in Europe. In the process, their efforts saved the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers. Its existence was kept secret for more than 40 years after the war's end; the Ghost Army remained officially classified until the mid-1990s, according to the WWII Museum.
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"In the past, when deception operations took place, it was usually a temporary duty," said Larry Decuers, a curator at the WWII Museum. "This was a ground-up unit designed specifically for deception."
London-based U.S. Army officers Col. Billy Harris and Maj. Ralph Ingersoll guided the formation of the Ghost Army, inspired by the success of British deception tactics in North Africa, Decuers told Live Science. The British Army's Operation Bertram, staged in 1942, used camouflage and more than 2,000 dummy vehicles to convince the Germans that the British were strengthening a position in the south, and to conceal British mobilization in the north, according to the website History of War .
Leading the Ghost Army was Col. Harry L. Reeder, supervising 82 army officers and 1,023 recruits; among them were art students from the Industrial Camouflage Program at the Pratt Institute in New York, fashion designer Bill Blass, photographer Art Kane and painter Ellsworth Kelly.
These and other strategists designed a four-part approach to bring phantom army battalions to life, Decuers explained.
"The first element was the camouflage engineer battalion — the guys who dealt with the inflatable vehicles, inflatable tanks," he said. These tanks could easily be lifted and moved into position by just a few men, but from a distance they were nearly impossible to distinguish from the real thing. The second element was a signal company that concocted fake radio traffic; the radio operators were so skilled that they could mimic the morse code "fist" — the sending style — of operators in specific army units, to make fake dispatches sound authentic.
"To the trained ear, that telegraphic fist is almost like a fingerprint," Decuers said.
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A third element of the Ghost Army was sonic deception. Audio engineers pre-recorded sounds of military training exercises and the construction of trenches and bridges, and then edited them into soundscapes that could be played on massive speakers within range of German troops, to convince the Nazis that entire combat units occupied locations that were undefended.
And then a fourth layer of deception was supplied by the unit's combat engineer company, which would don the insignias of other military units to confuse the Germans or to mislead potential spies in nearby towns.
"Their most successful operation was Operation Viersen," which took place from March 18 to March 24, 1945, Decuers said. For that mission, the Ghost Army used 600 inflatable vehicles; fake uniform patches to impersonate soldiers from other units; and recordings of pontoon bridge-building, "all to deceive the Germans into believing that the 30th Infantry Division and the 79th Infantry Division were preparing to cross the Rhine River," Decuers said. And it worked. The Germans moved the bulk of their defenses across the river from the suspected location of the two divisions, shelling an army that didn't exist.
And when the Nazis were busy chasing shadows, they weren't engaging the real Allied combat divisions.
"It was like a traveling road show that went up and down the front lines impersonating the real fighting outfits," according to the Ghost Army Legacy Project .
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"Attack when they are unprepared"
Though the Ghost Army's audio technologies weren't available to their predecessors, the art of military deception is likely as old as war itself, and canny leaders have schemed their way to victory for thousands of years. In one of the most famous examples, documented in the eighth century B.C. by the poet Homer, the Greek army wins the Trojan War after they tricked the city of Troy into accepting a gift of a giant wooden horse — with Greek soldiers hiding inside.
Sun Tzu, a renowned general and philosopher who lived in China during the sixth century B.C., wrote "all warfare is based upon deception" in "The Art of War," a book that defined military strategy for centuries, and is studied to this day. It outlined a dozen methods of military deception, including: "When one is capable, give the appearance of being incapable;" "when one is near, give the appearance of being far;" and "attack them when they are unprepared, come forth when they are not expecting you to do so," according to the U.S. Naval Institute .
Confederate generals during the American Civil War also used deception to save the day when they were outnumbered and outgunned. They carved and painted logs to resemble cannons, arranging them around encampments so that Union spies wouldn't suspect that their foes were short on weapons and supplies, according to the Federation of American Scientists .
But the Ghost Army was one of the first known specialized military units that was created specifically to confuse and trick the enemy, Decuers told Live Science.
"Deception has played a major part throughout the history of warfare," he said. "What was new, was this unit was put together to deceive in every way possible. It was their sole mission."
Originally published on Live Science.
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Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.
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- The Remster I agree with you Secundius Reply
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Ghost Army, a World War II Master of Deception, Finally Wins Recognition
President Biden signed a bill that bestows the Congressional Gold Medal to the members of “a traveling roadshow of deception” that built inflatable tanks and trucks to trick the Germans.
By Vimal Patel
The Ghost Army had one goal: Deceive Hitler’s forces and their allies.
Credited with fine-tuning the ancient art of deceptive warfare, the American military units of the Ghost Army used inflatable tanks and trucks to cloak the true size and location of American forces. They played ear-piercingly loud recorded sounds to mimic troop movement. They sent out misleading radio communications to scramble German intelligence.
The objective was to trick the Germans into thinking the Allies were in the neighborhood in force, so that actual units elsewhere had time to maneuver.
The Ghost Army, described as “a traveling roadshow of deception,” was composed of engineers and artists, designers and architects, radio operators and truck drivers. The work was so secretive that group members, who are credited with saving thousands of Allied lives, were unsung heroes for several decades after the war. But a grassroots effort in recent years culminated this week in the ultimate recognition from the U.S. government.
On Tuesday, President Biden signed a bill that grants the Congressional Gold Medal — Congress’s equivalent of the Presidential Medal of Freedom — to members of the Ghost Army for “their unique and highly distinguished service in conducting deception operations” during World War II.
“Through their courageous, creative and innovative tactics, the top-secret Ghost Army outmaneuvered and deceived the Nazis, saving thousands of Allied lives during World War II,” Representative Annie Kuster, Democrat of New Hampshire, who sponsored the legislation, said in a statement . “More than 75 years after defeating fascism in Europe, it’s time these soldiers receive the highest honor we can award: the Congressional Gold Medal.”
Bernie Bluestein, of Schaumberg, Ill., is one of only 10 known surviving members of the Ghost Army, an unofficial term for the two U.S. Army units involved in the subterfuge. The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, Mr. Bluestein’s unit, carried out more than 20 deception campaigns close to the front, including in France and Germany. A sister unit, the 3133rd Signal Company Special, executed two campaigns in Italy in 1945.
In an interview on Tuesday night, Mr. Bluestein, 98, said the award gave him an indescribable feeling of satisfaction, but he expressed sadness that so few veterans were alive to enjoy the honor with him. The other surviving members of the group range in age from 97 to 99.
“Something we did was appreciated by so many people and at the time we didn’t realize that,” Mr. Bluestein said. “It’s really a great feeling to have people acknowledge that I had a job to do in the service and it was helpful in our winning the war.”
In one of the 23rd’s most elaborate feats of trickery, during the critical Rhine River campaign to finally crush Germany, the unit set up 10 miles south of the spot where two American Ninth Army divisions were to cross the river. To draw attention away from the actual divisions, the Ghost Army conjured up a decoy force of inflated tanks, cannons, planes and trucks; sent out misleading radio messages about the American troops’ movements; and used loudspeakers to simulate the sound of soldiers building pontoon boats.
The Germans fell for the ruse. They fired on the 23rd’s divisions, while Ninth Army troops crossed the Rhine with nominal resistance.
During that campaign, Mr. Bluestein and other soldiers would visit bars and gathering spots and pretend to be senior officers to create scuttlebutt among the locals that the Americans were up to something. The hope was that German spies would eventually be misdirected.
But Mr. Bluestein was an artist at heart. Before the unit began using inflatable tanks, he would paint on cloth draped over wooden tanks to make them look authentic. He stenciled insignia for 23rd members, and he produced posters to distribute around towns — anything to create an authentic flourish.
“Like, Coca-Cola signs, so they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, the Americans are here,’” Mr. Bluestein said.
Mr. Bluestein had a long career after the war as an industrial designer for companies that made household appliances like refrigerators and toasters, but in retirement he found himself embracing art again. These days, his favorite objects to sculpt are pins and needles, a tribute to his father, a tailor, and his mother, a seamstress.
About half of the soldiers in Mr. Bluestein’s unit, the 603rd Camouflage Engineer Battalion, were artists, said Rick Beyer, a documentarian who has chronicled the story of the Ghost Army and pushed for the gold medal.
The Army took existing units and “mashed them together, Frankenstein style,” to create the 23rd, he said, but it also recruited from art schools like the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cooper Union. Some members became famous after the war, like the fashion designer Bill Blass and the painter Ellsworth Kelly.
In addition to Mr. Bluestein, the other nine surviving members of the Ghost Army are Bill Anderson, 97, of Kent, Ohio; James T. Anderson, 99, of Dover, Del.; John Christman, 97, of Leesburg, N.J.; George Dramis, 97, of Raleigh, N.C.; Manny Frockt, 97, of West Palm Beach, Fla.; Nick Leo, 99, of Brentwood, N.Y.; Mark Mallardi, 98, of Edgewater, Fla.; Bill Nall, 97, of Dunellon, Fla.; and Seymour Nussenbaum, 98, of Monroe Township, N.J.
Mr. Beyer, who produced a 2013 documentary that aired on PBS about the Ghost Army and later co-wrote a book with Elizabeth Sayles, “The Ghost Army of World War II,” said the effort to bestow a Congressional Gold Medal on the group was the product of a grassroots campaign that required two-thirds of each congressional chamber to co-sponsor the legislation.
“We had to convince literally 350 congressional offices, one by one, of doing this,” Mr. Beyer said. The end result was a rare bipartisan feat at a time of intense partisan rancor. “Sometimes, it’s good to take a breath and say maybe there are some things we don’t have to be completely cynical about,” he said.
“The Ghost Army in some ways is still helping to keep our country safe,” Mr. Beyer said, “because people are still studying what they did and are learning from it and use it today.”
Although warfare has evolved since then, and advanced reconnaissance technology makes fooling enemy forces with inflatable tanks a bigger challenge, the principles and innovation of the Ghost Army live on today in the work of soldiers who practice psychological operations, Gen. Edward G. Burley, a retired Army brigadier general who commanded the Joint Psychological Operations Task Force in Iraq, said in an interview.
General Burley said soldiers today are taught about the imagination employed by the Ghost Army to “think outside the box” to make military deception more believable.
“These are giants, and we’re standing on their shoulders,” he said. “Their techniques are still being used today. We’re just adding additional elements to adjust for technology.”
clock This article was published more than 4 years ago
D-Day would be nearly impossible to pull off today. Here’s why.
‘loose lips sink ships’ — but so can social media.
Seventy-five years ago, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, marking the opening salvo of Operation Overlord . Secrecy was critical to the success of D-Day and, ultimately, the Allied victory in World War II.
Here’s how the Allies were able to keep the D-Day invasion secret from the Germans — and two big reasons maintaining this secrecy would be more difficult to achieve today.
A fake army
The Allies needed the Germans to shift their attention — and military forces — away from Normandy to have a better chance of success when landing on the beaches. The plan? Use a fake army to lure the Germans into focusing on another possible landing site.
The 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops fabricated the Ghost Army , complete with inflatable tanks , rubber airplanes and sound recordings to round out the illusion. To lend credibility to the deception, Gen. George S. Patton , a top field commander, was put in charge of the unit.
During Operation Fortitude , the Ghost Army was tasked with convincing the Germans that the invasion would come at Pas de Calais, 150 miles northeast of Normandy and directly across the Strait of Dover — the most logical choice for an Allied invasion.
In the buildup to D-Day, Ghost Army operations successfully fooled Adolf Hitler into believing Normandy was not the primary landing site. As a result, German force levels in Normandy were lower than they would have been without the successful deception.
This wasn’t the only time the Allies tricked the Germans into thinking an invasion would occur elsewhere. The Allies deployed a similar tactic during Operation Mincemeat before the 1943 invasion of Sicily — albeit on a much smaller scale. The ploy also was used with success in North Africa earlier in the war.
Fake intelligence worked — thanks to strong personal relationships
Gathering accurate intelligence and disseminating false intelligence were both crucial to the overall war effort. But to be successful, those activities depended on relationships between individuals .
Fake intelligence even transpired between friends. In our recently published article in the Journal of Global Security Studies , Jonathan Brown, Alex Farrington and I uncovered new archival evidence showing that British officials cooked up and purposely faked intelligence about German intentions in Latin America.
British officials then shared this bogus information with American contacts with the explicit purpose of trying to bring the United States into the war before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Americans readily accepted the information as legitimate, precisely because it came from trusted British sources with whom they had established positive relationships.
Allied spies also shared fabricated intelligence with the Germans, misdirecting them to maintain the secrecy of the Normandy invasion. The success of this deception once again hinged on the personal relationships between operatives and their targets.
Most famously, Spanish businessman Juan Pujol Garcia was a highly valued British double agent. Pujol Garcia — code name Agent Garbo — had spent years building up trust with his contacts in the German High Command.
After the June 6 invasion, Pujol Garcia told the Germans that Normandy was merely a “red herring” and that the real invasion was still to come at Pas de Calais. He even referenced Patton’s Ghost Army as evidence of the veracity of his information.
Hitler fell for the ruse and waited weeks to send reinforcements to Normandy, giving the Allies precious time to consolidate their foothold in France.
Technology vs. surprise
Deception certainly remains an integral part of warfare . In many ways, advances in technology create new forms of deception, such as cyberthreats and information warfare .
Yet surveillance capabilities have changed dramatically over the past 75 years, making it more difficult to maintain operational and tactical secrecy .
There are now thousands of reconnaissance and remote sensing satellites in space. These satellites not only provide governments with detailed images of on-the-ground operations, but also collect data on other critical signals of military action , including communications.
As Stephen Walt explains , these satellites “can monitor global hot spots on a more-or-less real-time basis and let leaders know if forces are being moved and prepared for combat.”
In 2017, imagery from microsatellites detected military exercises in Venezuela. Satellite imagery also revealed violations of the Safe Demilitarized Border Zone between Sudan and South Sudan in 2012.
Advances in drone surveillance technology further provide fine-grained detail about opposing military forces, including troop movements. Surveillance drones, for example, can track al-Qaeda operatives and support counternarcotics operations .
'Loose lips sink ships’ — but so can social media
Social media and other digital technologies further threaten the secrecy of large-scale military operations. Social media offers new ways to disseminate false information but also opens up operational and tactical vulnerabilities .
Keeping the D-Day plans under wraps was a difficult task and the secret was almost blown on several occasions, according to some sources.
But today’s soldiers can be careless about how they use social media, revealing crucial information about troop movements. In 2014, a Russian soldier posted his status on social media as “To Ukraine!” Another Russian soldier uploaded photos in 2015 that revealed he was in Syria.
These instances, and others, directly undermined Russia’s claims it had no military involvement in Ukraine and Syria at the time. Russian lawmakers recently voted to restrict military personnel from using smartphones or posting information about their service activities online.
Personal fitness trackers can also reveal the location of military personnel. In 2017, the GPS tracking company Strava released its Global Heat Map compiled from location and movement data from personal fitness trackers, including the widely popular Fitbit.
Strava’s map was linked to “ U.S. military forward operation bases in Afghanistan, Turkish military patrols in Syria, and a possible guard patrol in the Russian operating area of Syria.” The U.S. Department of Defense considered banning cellphones and personal fitness trackers from military facilities in response .
Between satellites and smartphone apps, it’s almost impossible to imagine pulling off an operation like D-Day in 2019. It was hard enough to keep secret in 1944.
Danielle Lupton ( @ProfLupton ) is an assistant professor of political science at Colgate University . She is the author of “ Reputation for Resolve: How Leaders Signal Determination in International Politics ” ( Cornell University Press, forthcoming).
AIR & SPACE MAGAZINE
The ghost army of world war ii.
In which a special unit used inflatable tanks, sound effects, and phony radio broadcasts to confuse the enemy.
A top-secret military unit—that would become known as the Ghost Army—was formed in June 1944, just after D-Day. Made up of artists, designers, radio operators, and engineers, the unit conducted “deceptive missions” to mislead the enemy. Their story is the subject of a new book by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles titled The Ghost Army of World War II (Princeton Architectural Press, 2015).
Four separate units worked together, note Beyer and Sayles: The 603 rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion Special—379 men—used inflatable rubber tanks, trucks, artillery, and Jeeps to trick enemy aerial reconnaissance observers gathering intelligence. The Signal Company Special—296 men—carried out radio deception, impersonating radio operators from real units. The 3132 Signal Service Company Special—145 men—specialized in “sonic deception,” playing sound effects to simulate the clatter of units moving and operating. The 406 th Engineer Combat Company Special—168 men—provided security for the other Ghost Army units, and also helped with construction and demolition.
The unit is credited with 21 different deceptions, write the authors, and are credited with saving thousands of lives. The book—beautifully illustrated with the soldiers’ original artwork—is filled with never-before-published documents. Deadline Hollywood reported on June 16 that The Ghost Army of World War II has been optioned by Warner Bros .
Click on the gallery to see more images from the book. Images are reprinted with the permission of the publisher. The Ghost Army of World War II by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles. Published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2015.
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Rebecca Maksel | READ MORE
Rebecca Maksel is a senior associate editor at Air & Space .
How an army of artists and tricksters conned the Nazis and bluffed their way to victory in World War II
It sounds like an idea that was cooked up in a Hollywood writer's room, but it really happened.
By James Clark | Published Feb 20, 2021 3:18 PM EST
The plan sounded like it was hatched in a Hollywood writer’s room. It was early 1944, and with victory in the Second World War far from certain, the Army pulled together roughly 1,100 soldiers to form the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a unit poised to have a far greater impact on the battlefield than others several times their size. Once in the European theater, their mission was to tie up as many enemy troops as possible, throw their foe’s ranks into disarray, and help pave the way for an Allied advance into Germany.
Their arsenal was limited — the heaviest weapons at their disposal were .50 caliber machine guns, and nearly every engagement they took part in left them outnumbered, outgunned, and by all accounts outmatched.
Yet the Ghost Army, as it came to be known, prevailed; Not through massive artillery barrages, aerial assaults, or brutal attacks on the enemy lines, but by bamboozling the German military through deception and trickery.
They did it with inflatable tanks — hundreds of them — backed by the sounds of marching troops, down to soldiers shooting the breeze on duty, blasted out from massive loud-speakers, and with messages sent to fake units, with the intent that enemy codebreakers would decipher them.
This is the story of how an army of con artists headed off to war and bluffed their way to victory.
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Sept. 1, 2020.)
Standing up the Ghost Army
The inspiration for the Ghost Army came from the British military’s successful use of deception at the Battle of El-Alamein during the North Africa campaign. There, the Brits leveraged the unorthodox tactics of Jasper Maskelyne , a stage magician turned-soldier.
Maskelyne helped them “disguise their tanks as trucks, and trucks as tanks, and it actually went a long way toward their success,” explained Larry Decuers, a former U.S. Army infantryman with the 101st Airborne and a curator at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The British military’s ingenuity at EL-Alamein greatly impressed American military planners in England, and on Jan. 20, 1944, the U.S. Army began its foray into the world of deception, though not everyone was thrilled at the idea of spending the war shepherding a bunch of creative types around Europe.
“A lot of the old career Army officers, I think even the commander of the unit, wasn’t too happy about being given command of this deception outfit when he’d rather just be commanding a line battalion,” Decuers told Task & Purpose.
Even the unit’s official history attests to this:
Officers who had once commanded 32-ton tanks felt frustrated and helpless with a battalion of rubber M-4s, 93 pounds fully inflated. The adjustment from man of action to man of wile was most difficult. Few realized at first that one could spend just as much energy pretending to fight as actually fighting.
Designed to be small enough that it could be maneuvered around the theater as needed, the Ghost Army had a big enough footprint that could impersonate a force several times its size.
“They could move the Ghost Army to fill in a lightly defended area in the line — of course, the heaviest thing they had was a .50 cal machine gun, but they can bluff the Germans into thinking ‘there’s two divisions here, so we’re gonna stay away from that part of the line,” Decuers said.
The Ghost Army at war
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was broken into four units each with a specific role to play in their deception operations.
The first, and perhaps the best known, is the 603rd Camouflage Engineer Battalion, which was responsible for creating the inflatable tanks, planes, artillery pieces, and other physical props that “everyone thinks of when they hear the words ‘Ghost Army’” Decuers said.
The idea: Dupe the Germans into thinking you had more armor — and the personnel to maintain and run them — than you really did.
Then there was the 3132 Signal Service Company, experts in sonic deception tasked with producing, and playing, a wide variety of sounds, from troop and vehicle movements, to bits of dialogue between soldiers. If the 603rd formed the skeleton of the Ghost Army, then the deception unit could be considered its muscle and sinew — it made the ploy work .
“They produced a huge library of sound effects,” Decuers said. “They recorded sounds of tanks going uphill, sounds of tanks going downhill — because to a trained observer they can definitely tell the difference. Also, sound effects of soldiers building pontoon bridges, even down to sergeants telling a private to ‘put that cigarette out.’”
“It was a very very wide array of sound effects at their disposal.”
The sounds were recorded at Fort Knox, Ky. on transcription disks — which were akin to giant records. However, they’d sometimes skip, so once in theater, the audio was transferred to a wire recorder, a predecessor to magnetic tape, Decuers explained.
“It’s also one of the first recorded instances of multi-track recording,” added Decuers. “They would mix the sound effects to the deception they were trying to pull off, and then they would broadcast this over big giant speakers in the back of half-tracks that were about 500 pounds.”
It wasn’t enough that they just record and replay these sounds, the sonic unit had to make sure the enemy heard it. To that end, technicians at Bell Labs developed firing tables, like those used for artillery batteries, to allow the Ghost Army to adjust the sound of their broadcasts to reach certain distances, effectively dialing in their audio barrage.
Next came the 406th Combat Engineers Company, who provided physical security for the unit, dug the emplacements for the inflatables, and as the Ghost Army’s deceptions became more elaborate, they got in on the action and helped flesh out the ruse.
“They would make fake division patches, and then these engineer members would wear these fake patches and post [military police officers] at crossroads and go to town, and have drinks and talk loose,” Decuers said, explaining that soldiers would intentionally spread misinformation in the hopes German spies and collaborators would be listening.
“It was for the benefit of German agents,” Decuers told Task & Purpose. “That was very common — they left a lot of agents behind, many of which were indigenous people who were working for the Germans.”
If the camouflage unit could be considered the bones, the sonic unit the muscle, and the combat engineers, the skin, then Signal Company Special — a second signals unit composed of highly skilled radio and morse code operators — would be the brain.
“They were recruited from units all over the Army, and the requirement was that they be very skilled morse code operators,” Decuers told Task & Purpose. “These guys were so skilled they could study another morse code operator’s sending style, and then they could imitate them.”
For example, if the company was impersonating an infantry unit, then they would carefully study that division’s radio traffic, down to the smallest detail: “How many times they sent transmissions between battalion and regiment, things like that; and then they would copy the operator’s sending style,” Decuers explained.
The idea was to create a whole network of phony traffic, with the intention of having it intercepted by German forces.
“It’s like this big multimedia deception operation, where every contingency was thought of,” Decuers said. “And that’s what makes the Ghost Army unique: They were the only unit doing it.”
The Ghost Army was so good, sometimes they even hoodwinked their own forces.
“What I find interesting is how they were almost even more successful at deceiving Allied troops than they were the Germans,” Decuers said.
“During one of their deceptions, they’re playing audio sounds of tanks, and a colonel from an adjacent unit rolls up on them at night and says ‘what are all these tanks doing here? Nobody said anything about tanks being here.’ And they’re like ‘Sir, we don’t have tanks here,’ and he says ‘Don’t tell me, I know what I hear, those are tanks!'”
Then there was the time a friendly pilot landed on what he thought was an airfield but was in fact just a Ghost Army prop designed to trick enemy scouts.
“They built fake airfields, and had inflatables of these L-5 grasshoppers — artillery spotting aircraft — and a real grasshopper pilot landed at their fake field,” Decuers said.
The Ghost Army’s greatest success came during Operation Viersen, in which the unit of craftsmen, artisans, and artists, conned the German military into thinking that two divisions — some 30,000 Allied soldiers — were going to cross a particular part of the Rhine river.
And so, the Germans allocated their limited forces to hold a position against just 1,100 men.
“So for this deception, they employed 600 of these inflatable tanks and artillery pieces,” Decuers said. “They used the fake unit patches and bumper markings on their vehicles, and then they employed the sonic deception, the fake radio traffic, and they even created a phony divisional and battalion headquarters in a town.”
It was like a symphony of subterfuge and each member of the Ghost Army had a role to play; sonic deception formed the brass section, with pre-recorded sounds of tanks and troops thundering toward the river; signals as the woodwinds, sending misdirection over morse code in a harmony of toots and beeps; the engineers as the percussion, leading with bold decoys, manning fake checkpoints and outposts. And finally, the camouflage unit — the string section of this troupe — with hundreds of inflatable tanks, artillery pieces, trucks, and machinery that had to be tied down so a strong wind wouldn’t blow them away.
“This was the operation that is considered their greatest success,” Decuers said. “So they’re impersonating the 30th and 79th Infantry Divisions and they bluffed the Germans into believing they were crossing the Rhine river, and the Germans bit on it.”
“The Germans concentrated a lot of their precious forces at that point, and it cleared the way for actual crossings further up or down the river.”
In an interview with NPR in May 2019 , Gilbert Seltzer, a former Ghost Army soldier recounted the operation:
“The goal was to draw fire away from the real battery to us,” Seltzer told NPR. “For instance, when the Rhine [River] was crossed, we were able to get the German army to assemble opposite us, firing at us. And when the actual crossing was made, about 20 miles to our north, there was practically no resistance.”
Though the Ghost Army’s primary role was deception, they faced their share of danger and took enemy fire on multiple occasions, though they suffered few losses.
“And as dangerous as this job could have potentially been, they only lost three guys in combat,” Decuers said. The Ghost Army soldiers who were killed in combat were Chester ‘Chet’ Pelliccioni, George Peddal, and Thomas Wells.
The legacy of the Ghost Army
From 1944 until the war’s end on Sept. 2, 1945, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops served across Europe, from Normandy, France to Belgium, Luxembourg, at the Rhine in Germany, and conducted more than 20 deception operations.
The men who served in the Ghost Army were drawn from across the country, and from all walks of life — some were graduates of prestigious universities, others had left jobs as gas station attendants in small towns. They were painters, writers, sculptors, engineers, and radio operators. Some were career soldiers, others were draftees.
From their ranks came a number of acclaimed artists , from abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly, to photographer Art Kane, and fashion designer Bill Blass — who hand-tailored his uniform for a more svelte fit.
They were selected for their skill and creativity, but most of all, because they were unconventional — and utterly unexpected.
“They kind of needed people who could see something before it was actually created, so artists were the people they wanted, I guess because they had a vision of what something could be,” said Decuers.
Though kept secret for decades, the Ghost Army’s wartime service is one that lends itself to incredible storytelling. It’s been the subject of books, a PBS documentary , and will be the focus of an upcoming World War II drama directed by, and starring, Ben Affleck .
The soldiers themselves were tireless scribes of their own history, and it makes sense, many were artists, observers of life and the human experience — precisely what made them such formidable tricksters.
But when they weren’t doing that , they painted, sketched, and wrote their way across Europe and through the war. Those images, as well as recreations of the Ghost Army’s inflatable tanks and artillery pieces, were part of a recent display at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
“I think one of the most interesting components of the exhibit is the artwork that all of these guys — these were lifelong artists, and they sketched any chance they had,” Decuers said of the National World War II museum’s current collection. “It’s probably one of the best-documented unit journeys in the Army if I were to guess.”
“They had so many artists, and these guys were so talented. It’s kind of interesting to see the war through the point of view of these paintings and sketches and things like that,” he said.
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops is believed to have saved between 15,000 and 30,000 American lives, according to Smithsonian Magazine . Their deceptions were never discovered by the enemies they fooled, and every inch of ground gained through trickery meant that other soldiers were spared from having to take it by force.
The story of Ghost Army is, at its heart, one of service and subterfuge. It’s about a group of extraordinary soldiers who turned, not to their rifles, but their imagination and wit, to help win the day.
RELATED: Ben Affleck is making a movie about the secret Army unit that tricked Nazis into chasing ‘ghost armies’ during WWII
James Clark is the former Deputy Editor of Task & Purpose. He is an Afghanistan War veteran and served in the Marine Corps as a combat correspondent. Contact the author here.
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Skip to Main Content of WWII
New museum exhibit reveals secrets of world war ii’s ‘ghost army’.
One unit had perhaps the oddest assignment in the US Army: create a fake force, but make it look and sound real.
BATTLEFIELD DECEPTION—the act of misleading enemy forces—has been used for centuries to gain advantage in combat. During World War II the US 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a carefully selected group of artists, engineers, professional soldiers, and draftees, elevated that deception to an art form. Known as the “Ghost Army,” the top-secret unit waged war using inflatable tanks and weapons, fake radio traffic, sound effects, even phony generals—all to fool the enemy into thinking that the army was bigger, better-armed, or in a different place than it was.
Activated on January 20, 1944, the 23rd was the first mobile, multimedia tactical deception unit in US Army history. Beginning in Normandy, two weeks after D-Day, the 23rd conducted 22 deception operations over a nine-month period. The largest came near the end of the war, when, on March 18-24, 1945, the 1,100-man unit mimicked two divisions—more than 30,000 troops—to deceive the Germans about the site and timing of the US Ninth Army’s Rhine River crossing that would take Allied forces deeper into Germany. The deception was a success: when the two actual Ninth Army divisions crossed the river on the night of March 23, they met little resistance.
Up close, one of the Ghost Army’s inflatable tanks—a framework of inflatable tubes supporting a rubberized canvas overlay—would fool no one. But from about a quarter-mile away it looked every bit the M4 Sherman. It and other visual deceptions were the work of the 603rd Camouflage Engineering Battalion, consisting of individuals recruited for artistic talent and high IQ.
This pair of trucks exemplifies effective work from the artist duo in the previous sketch: the truck on the far left is a standard M35 cargo truck; that on the right, an inflatable fake.
Likewise, these supposed heavy artillery pieces are anything but heavy.
The deceptions weren’t all visual: sound was an important aspect. The Ghost Army’s sonic unit—the 3132 Signal Service Company—prerecorded soundtracks of armored and infantry units in action, which it played through speakers that could project sound as far as 15 miles away. Another unit performed radio deceptions.
Some of the Ghost Army’s artists went on to worldwide fame—among them photographer Art Kane, abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly, and fashion designer Bill Blass (who re-tailored his uniform so it would fit better), second from right, above. At far left above is Bob Tomkins, author of the pocket-sized diary (pictured below).
Soldiers of the Ghost Army were sworn to secrecy. After the war, records were classified and equipment packed away. A smattering of newspaper articles appeared in August 1945, but the Pentagon otherwise succeeded in keeping the story quiet until 1985, when a Ghost Army veteran—artist Arthur Shilstone (creator of the header image above)—illustrated his story for Smithsonian magazine. The unit’s records remained officially classified until 1996.
The story of the mysterious unit that fooled Hitler’s armies saved thousands of lives, and played an important part in Allied victory in World War II is now the subject of a new exhibit at The National WWII Museum—the source of the images on these pages. Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II will be on display at the Museum in New Orleans from March 5 through September 13, 2020, and goes on tour after that; dates and locations below.
Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center Skokie, IL Display Dates: June 16, 2022 – January 2, 2023
Nevada Museum of Art Reno, NV Display Dates: March 4, 2023 to July 23, 2023
The Ghost Army Collection
In the pen-and-ink sketch above, by Ghost Army artist George Vander Sluis, two men ready a paint container while another spray paints fabric for an upcoming deception.
Soldiers and sailors were forbidden from carrying diaries during the war; the Ghost Army’s Robert R. Tomkins, an artist and jeep driver, opted to keep one anyway, gambling that its small size—2” by 3” and 56 pages—would make it easier to conceal. An entry from September 16, 1944, when Bob was in Luxembourg near the German border, describes one deception setup: “Last night moved up about 1 1/2 miles and pulled into heavy woods about 3 o’cl. Tanks moving all around us. Woke early. Sewed on patches. Set up tanks. Built fires simulating armored infantry battalion. Truck goes out every hour into village on atmosphere.”
Ghost Army artist Jack Masey created the caricature of Blass above—part of a book, "You on K.P.!," Masey had printed during the war for the others in his company. “I learned a lot fooling people, and deceiving people,” Masey joked to author Rick Beyer in 2006. “And it stood me in good stead my whole life.”
When not staging deceptions near the front, the Ghost Army would take their act into towns, wearing insignia of actual fighting units and sometimes impersonating generals, faking command posts, and spreading misinformation.
When Ghost Army members needed unit patches, they’d make their own by using stencils and painting the fabric.
Although the Ghost Army's work didn’t involve combat, attracting the enemy’s attention was inherently dangerous; three men lost their lives.
Article originally appeared in World War II magazine; © 2020 HISTORYNET, LLC.
A New Orleans native, James Linn first became involved with the institution then known as The National D-Day Museum in 2001 as an eighth-grade volunteer on weekends and during the summer. Linn joined The National WWII Museum staff in 2014 and served as a Curator until 2020.
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The Liberation of Paris
Despite the impending defeat of the Wehrmacht in France, the victory over Germany would not be complete until the capital of France was liberated, and the Vichy government replaced.
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The Eighth Air Force’s first penetrating strike into Nazi Germany was a bloody affair that provided lessons for both sides.
Operation Gomorrah: The First of the Firestorms
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War News | Military History | Military News
Fusag: the ghost army – patton’s d-day force that was only a threat in the enemy’s imagination.
- World War 2
An army can help win a war without even existing. Strange as that may seem, this is exactly what happened in the case of the First United States Army Group (FUSAG), a fictional formation that played a key role in the Second World War.
Preparing for D-Day
By the spring of 1944, Nazi Germany was on the retreat. The Red Army was pushing German forces back on the Eastern Front while American and British troops fought their way up Italy. The tide was turning.
Yet for the western powers, this still created a problem. The Germans under Kesselring were slowing their advance up through Italy, and would become even more of a problem in the mountain passes of the Alps. By the time the British and Americans broke out of Italy and into the rest of Europe, the Russians might have taken most of territory, something the western nations feared. To some extent, Russia was an ally of convenience, rather than anything else.
A seaborne invasion was therefore needed if they were to retake western Europe and invade Germany before it all fell to the Russians. Hitler had built strong defenses against this eventuality – the so-called Atlantic Wall, a string of positions all along the western European coast. Facing 12,000 fortifications and 6.5 million mines, the Allies needed to weaken the German defense in any way they could.
Their solution was to spread out the German troops.
A Trail of False Information
If the Germans knew where the Allies would invade, then they could concentrate both their construction efforts and their troops there. The British therefore undertook a massive campaign of misinformation called Operation Fortitude.
By feeding Hitler false information, they hoped to leave him with the impression that an invasion could arrive anywhere along the coast, and at any time. He would be forced to spread his troops thinly, minimizing resistance when the real D-Day landings finally came.
Three elements were central to this scheme – double agents, radio signals, and the Enigma code. At the start of the war, the British had managed to turn many of the German spies living in their country. These double agents were given false information to feed back to their Nazi spymasters.
Meanwhile, misleading radio traffic was put out for the Germans to intercept, allowing them to believe that they were successfully spying on Allied plans.
The cracking of the German Enigma code allowed the Allies to understand coded messages they themselves intercepted, giving them further insight into how effective their own campaign of misinformation had been.
Inventing an Army
The biggest trick of all was the creation of FUSAG.
To ensure that Hitler was looking in the wrong direction, the Allies wanted to convince him that they planned to invade through the Straits of Dover, the narrowest point in the English Channel. It was a plan that made perfect sense, as it would make for an easy crossing and allow air and artillery support from south-east England. It made so much sense that it would be easy for Hitler to believe – as long as they sold it convincingly.
To make this imaginary invasion convincing, they needed an imaginary invasion force. The answer was FUSAG. Created in 1943 as a planning formation for the invasion, it was led by General Omar Bradley. Bradley and his staff transferred to the headquarters of the group, which in reality existed only on paper. In theory, FUSAG was based in Kent, the ideal place for an army preparing to embark across the Channel from Dover.
However, convincing Hitler would take more than just paperwork.
Proving a Point
The Allies went to extraordinary lengths to make the lie of FUSAG convincing. The set-building staff of film studios and theaters were hired and transported to Kent to build the army. Aside from barracks and tents, there were fake tanks and landing craft, all convincing enough to trick German intelligence officers looking at aerial reconnaissance photographs.
The existing technique of using radio signals came into use again, with radio traffic flooding the airwaves of Kent and drifting out across the Channel for the Germans to catch.
In the build-up to the invasion, General George S. Patton was put in charge of this fantasy force. Patton was renowned as an aggressive and effective commander, exactly the sort of soldier to lead an invading army. What the Germans did not realize was that putting him in an imaginary position, where his tactical skills would not be used, was no loss to the Americans.
Patton had been suspended from command for slapping soldiers exhausted from battle. His new post was a way of using the Germans’ fear of him without giving him any real responsibility.
Perhaps the most ingenious piece of misinformation was inadvertently supplied by a Panzer officer. This badly injured prisoner of war was being returned to Germany and thought he was traveling through Kent. There he saw the massive armed forces of FUSAG and was introduced to Patton. Once he got home, the Germans had eyewitness testimony supporting their other intelligence.
In fact, the prisoner of war had been diverted to Hampshire. The troops he saw were the D-Day armies preparing to embark for Normandy. Everything he witnessed was a ruse.
All the evidence confirmed Hitler’s belief that the invasion would come in the Pas de Calais, and so it was there that he prepared his strongest defenses. The beaches of Normandy, though far from undefended, would have been a far more challenging prospect without FUSAG.
Weeks after the D-Day landings, Hitler was still convinced that FUSAG was coming. As he waited for the other shoe to drop, he held back his Panzers east of the Seine and his fearsome Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais, ready to counter an attack that would never come, fearing the approach of an army that did not exist.
The imaginary soldiers of FUSAG had played their part in the war.
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Veteran honored for once-secret role in WWII ‘Ghost Army’
RALEIGH, N.C. — When World War II veteran George Dramis came home, he didn’t talk much about the war. If someone asked what he did there, he’d tell them the truth: He was a radio operator.
But there is much, much more to his story.
Dramis, 97, was one of the 1,100 soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops . Referred to now as the Ghost Army , they formed in 1944 with a key job: deceive the German military as to the whereabouts of Army divisions. This was after the D-Day invasion at Normandy, as Allied forces fought to free Europe from the Nazis.
WWII ‘Ghost Army’ members to be awarded Congressional Gold Medal
The ghost army refers to two units that used tactics to draw enemy forces in europe away from american units, saving an estimated 30,000 lives..
“We would come in at night,” Dramis told The News & Observer, explaining how the Ghost Army operated.
“[An Army division] would sneak away, quietly. We would come in and fake their radio transmissions. We had huge half-tracks with tremendous speakers on them that you could hear for 15 miles. They were recorded things of actual troop movements — tanks, trucks, guys swearing, yelling ‘Get over here!’” he said.
A half-track was an armored personnel carrier. Those speakers that carried sound for 15 miles weighed 500 pounds, Dramis said, and it sounded like a real division coming in. The Ghost Army used inflatable tanks, trucks and other equipment that would appear to be camouflaged, and soldiers even wore fake division patches.
Those 1,100 troops used visual and audio deception to appear to be 15,000 troops. And as Dramis told people after the war when his work was still classified, he was indeed a radio operator. He kept the secret until 1996, when the Ghost Army’s efforts were declassified.
There are just nine veterans of the Ghost Army still living. With a bill co-sponsored by North Carolina’s U.S. Rep. Deborah Ross and signed into law by President Joe Biden in February, those men will receive a Congressional Gold Medal. Ross, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Thom Tillis’ staffer Trey Lewis were among those who attended a recent ceremony at the Waltonwood Lake Boone assisted living community in Raleigh.
One of Dramis’ modern counterparts was at the ceremony, too.
Army Col. Chris Stangle is commander of the 4th Psychological Operations Group, 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne), at Fort Bragg. Stangle told Dramis that Special Operations was built off of what the Ghost Army started. Stangle told The N&O that the work Dramis did has been built upon with techniques used by what is known as PSYOP today.
Like at other ceremonies of recent years honoring World War II veterans, speakers often call them heroes, including Dramis.
“They keep talking about this hero part all the time. Well, I’m not so sure about that hero stuff,” Dramis told those gathered.
“The 18-, 19-year-old, 20-year-old guys that” — Dramis paused and took a deep breath — “maybe lasted one minute or two minutes or three minutes, and they never made it. They never got to grow up and have a life … those guys are the heroes.”
After the war, Dramis was a factory worker and eventually president of an industrial supply company before he retired in 1990, according to the Ghost Army Legacy Project. He and his late wife had four children, and Dramis’ two living sons attended the ceremony, along with two of Dramis’ grandsons.
Saturday, July 23, 2022, was also proclaimed George Dramis Day by Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin.
Dramis’ son Jim Dramis, of Raleigh, wrote in The Charlotte Observer last year about the Ghost Army Legacy Project’s years-long push to get the bill passed so his father and others would be recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal. While the medal is still being minted, ceremonies for George Dramis and other Ghost Army veterans are already being held.
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FUSAG: The Ghost Army of World War II
By matt soniak | apr 13, 2012.
In the final years of World War II, both the Allied and Axis Powers knew that there was no chance of defeating Hitler without cracking his grasp on Western Europe, and both sides knew that Northern France was the obvious target for an amphibious assault. The German high command assumed the Allies would cross from England to France at the narrowest part of the channel and land at Pas-de-Calais. The Allies instead set their sights some 200 miles to the west. The beaches of Normandy could be taken as they were, but if the Germans added to their defense by moving their reserve infantry and panzers to Normandy from their garrison in the Pas-de-Calais region, the invasion would be a disaster. (Edit 4/16: A reader pointed out that the original post was incorrect about the Germans' assumptions about the invasion site. This paragraph has been changed to correct that information. -Matt)
Success, the Allies decided, would rest on distracting German forces and spreading them too thin across multiple invasion sites. They needed a way to credibly threaten Pas-de-Calais, scaring the Germans into keeping the reserves there and away from the actual battle. The resulting plan, Operation Fortitude, is one of the greatest lies ever told.
George and His Imaginary Friends
The Allied intelligence services created two fake armies to keep the Germans on their toes. One would be based in Scotland for a supposed invasion of Norway and the other headquartered in southeast England to threaten the Pas-de-Calais. The northern operation relied mainly on fake radio traffic and the feeding of false information to double agents to create the impression of a substantial army. Fortitude South, though, was well within the range of prying German ears and eyes, so fake chatter alone would be uncovered too quickly. The Allies would have to make it look and sound like a substantial army was building up in southeast England. They needed boots on the ground there, without actually using too much of their precious manpower.
When intelligence officers learned that the First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG) was to be redesignated the 12th Army Group, they knew they had their Pas-de-Calais invaders. The FUSAG was kept alive on paper, and the phantom army was given a few real soldiers and placed under the command of one of the era’s great military leaders.
General George S. Patton, nicknamed Old Blood and Guts, was feared and respected by Germans, more so than any other Allied commander. Today, he’s an American legend and a military icon, but in early 1944 he was almost out of a job. During the invasion of Sicily the previous summer, Patton had been visiting wounded troops at a field hospital when he came across Private Charles H. Kuhl slouched on a stool and suffering from battle fatigue. When Patton asked him where he was injured, Kuhl explained that he wasn’t wounded, but just couldn’t take it.
Patton didn’t like the answer, so he pulled out his gloves, slapped Kuhl across the face with them, and literally kicked him out of the hospital tent with an order to return to the front line. A media firestorm followed, and Patton was deemed a public relations liability and relieved of his command. He spent the rest of the year hopping around the Mediterranean making speeches, inspecting facilities and having his picture taken with troops.
When the phantom FUSAG got its marching orders, General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied forces, struck a deal with Patton. The general would take command of the fictional army and stay out of trouble, and when the U.S. Third Army actually invaded France, he’d be given the reins.
Tricks of the Trade
Patton’s ghost army was based out of Dover, East Anglia and other areas of southeast England. The choice of location made it look like the Allies were going to push across the English Channel straight into the port of Calais, but also left the operation vulnerable to German snooping. To leave no doubt in Hitler’s mind that FUSAG was a formidable threat and that an attack on Calais was imminent, Allied intelligence launched a multi-pronged campaign of deception against the Germans.
Throughout most of the war, the German intelligence service and military brass believed that the Allied command in Europe was crawling with German spies. In reality, the British had quickly rounded up most of the Nazi agents as they arrived in the UK and turned them into double agents. Two of these spies were instrumental during Fortitude. Roman Garby-Czerniawski (codename Brutus) was a former Polish military officer who pretended to spy for the Germans and convinced his Nazi handlers that he was a liaison between Free Polish forces and Patton’s FUSAG headquarters. Juan Pujol (codename Garbo) was a Spaniard who’d previously trolled the Germans on his own before being recruited by the Allies and put to work feeding fake info to the Nazis on FUSAG’s manpower, maneuvers and battle readiness. British intelligence also passed fake info off to Germany through civilian channels. For example, letters were printed in the local newspapers near FUSAG’s supposed base voicing complaints from citizens about noise and the behavior of the troops.
On the ground in southeast England, something also had to be done about the Germans’ reconnaissance planes. There were a few real American and British units in the area, temporarily assigned to FUSAG before actually heading to Normandy, but the view from above was not impressive. The fake intelligence and chatter was creating the impression that FUSAG was larger than any other Allied army operating in Europe, so now it had to look real and like it meant business.
To bring FUSAG off of paper and into the real world, the Allies built a cleverly conceived, sort-of-real-but-mostly-fake base for the army. Mess tents, hospital tents, ammo caches, toilets, fuel depots and parking areas were built all over the southeast. The parking lots were filled with fake jeeps, trucks and tanks built from cloth and plywood. Inflatable rubber vehicles were also deployed (but frequently fell victim to curious cows from the local farms). Every night a group of soldiers was responsible for picking up and moving the fake vehicles around the bases for the sake of realism, one of them using a custom-made rolling tool to make “tire tracks” in the dirt.
The harbors of the area likewise had to be populated by a false Navy, and British movie industry pros were brought in to “dress the set.” They constructed landing craft, support boats and even an oil dock from wood and fabric and floated them on oil drums.
Waiting for the End of the World
As D-Day loomed, the Allies wondered if their ruse was working. The interception and decryption of German radio traffic (aided by the well-timed arrival of a captured German code machine) gave them a resounding “yes.” The Germans were buying FUSAG and the Pas-de-Calais invasion hook, line and sinker, but the lie could not unravel just yet.
On June 6, the Allies landed at Normandy. As the battle raged there and the Germans considered sending reinforcements, the Allies kept spinning the story, lest the panzers in Calais roll up behind the real Allied armies as they moved up and off the beaches. The waters around southern England were jammed with fake boats and even a few real battleships, the scripted radio traffic went silent, smokescreens were laid, and boats swept the Channel for mines, all to give the impression that another attack was imminent. Brutus and Garbo continued to mislead their German superiors, telling them that Normandy was just a distraction and Patton’s army was going to embark in just a few days for the real invasion.
On June 9, Garbo radioed in to his German contacts and transmitted for a full two hours with false troop movement reports, descriptions of the landing forces, and a reassurance that FUSAG’s true target was the Pas-de-Calais.
The message went all the way up the chain to Hitler, who not only cancelled an order to send the Calais forces to Normandy, but actually rerouted reinforcements coming from other areas away from Normandy and to Calais. During the D-Day landings and for weeks after, as the Allies - including Patton and the US Third Army - moved deeper and deeper into France, the Germans continued to hold onto Calais for dear life. It wasn’t until Patton’s real army began to prod them from the south that the panzers and infantry moved out, after they’d spent almost the whole the summer waiting for an assault that never came from an army that didn’t exist.
Operation Fortitude: the D-Day deception campaign that fooled the Nazis
‘In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.’
In 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the construction of the Atlantic Wall, a series of coastal defences that stretched from the edge of the Arctic Circle down to the France-Spain border. The Germans knew an Allied invasion on Western Europe would eventually come, they just didn’t know exactly where and when.
On 6 June 1944, the largest seaborne invasion in military history heralded the start of Operation Overlord. D-Day kicked off the Western Allies push to Berlin and a large part of its success depended on German ignorance about its exact location, date and time.
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by BP Perry
Up to a year before the Allies stepped foot on the Normandy beaches, a deception campaign was being formulated. It aimed to throw German High Command off about exactly how Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt planned to penetrate Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Its name was Operation Bodyguard and the secret department known as The London Controlling Centre (LCS) mapped out its finer details.
The Allies knew that German reconnaissance would pick up any build-up of forces in England prior to an invasion, so the main aim of Bodyguard was to convince Hitler an attack was coming later than it was actually planned and at a location different to Normandy.
Bodyguard drew on the experiences learnt from a previous failed deception plan, Operation Cockade, which in late 1943 had attempted to draw the Luftwaffe into a series of aerial engagements over the Channel. Historians have credited the success of Bodyguard on the lessons taken from Cockade.
Bodyguard was sub-divided into a series of operations. The most complex and arguably most significant of those was Operation Fortitude. Fortitude consisted of two parts, North and South; North aimed to convince the Germans that the Allied invasion would come via Norway whilst South planned to convince them it was coming via France at the Pas de Calais region, the shortest and most obvious route both across the Channel and to Germany.
Fake military buildings were created whilst inflatable tanks and dummy landing craft were deployed...
A variety of deceptive methods were employed to ensure Fortitude South achieved its goals. First was Operation Quicksilver, which saw the creation of a completely fictional army known as the First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG). This army was supposedly stationed in south-east England under the command of none other than famed US general George S. Patton. Patton was a smart choice by the Allies, he was the general most feared and respected by the German High Command and therefore the one most likely to be put in charge of an invasion force.
To aid in the ruse, fake military buildings were created whilst inflatable tanks and dummy landing craft were deployed across locations in the south-east. To further cement the ruse, Patton was photographed touring these fake FUSAG camps.
The idea was to convince Hitler the Allies had a larger force than they did and that force was supposedly targeting the Calais region, masking the Allies actual invasion preparations as well as convincing the Germans that any attack at Normandy was most likely a diversion from the ‘real’ attack.
Fake radio traffic was sent over the airwaves simulating the communications of FUSAG and detailing the Allies so-called plans to advance on the Calais region sometime in mid-July 1944. Since the Allies had cracked the German Enigma code, they could track and monitor the success of the false information they were handing the enemy.
Under the Double Cross System (German spies turned by MI5), Nazi agents in Britain fed back information supporting the fake radio traffic. The most famous of these double agents was Juan Pujol Garcia, a Spanish national supposedly working for German intelligence but who was actually loyal to the Allies. The British gave him the codename Garbo, the Germans Alaric.
The extent and depth of the Allied campaign of deceit was unlike anything seen before.
Garcia built a fictitious spy network in Britain containing 27 agents, none of whom were real. His German handlers were so impressed with his work he was rewarded the Iron Cross. The credibility that German High Command gave Garcia’s information meant he was able to convincingly sell the Allied deception to them, leaving the Germans completely unaware they were being manipulated.
The extent and depth of the Allied campaign of deceit were unlike anything seen before. They even employed the services of Australian actor M.E. Clifton James who had a remarkable likeness to British General Bernard Montgomery. James was sent on a tour of Gibraltar and North Africa in late May 1944, attempting to convince the Germans that no attack could be imminent if ‘Monty’ was out of the country.
In the build-up the D-Day, Allied bombing also played a key role in fooling the enemy. Whilst bombing under the Transportation Plan campaign looked to cut off Normandy from being effectively supplied by German reinforcements, areas around the Calais region were also targeted to convince the enemy that was the true target for the invasion.
To help draw further German strength away from the Normandy area, around 400 three-foot-tall dummies known as Ruperts were parachuted into areas East and West of Normandy under Operation Titanic on the night of 5 June. Ten members of the SAS jumped with the Ruperts and operated loudspeakers on the ground, blasting out sounds of gunfire and men shouting. The idea was to simulate an airborne invasion and distract German forces from the imminent attack.
As D-Day kicked off the deceptions were far from over. Allied aircraft dropped aluminium foil, known as Window, attempting to fool German radar that a large force was heading for the Calais area. Small boats and aircraft headed in the same direction to further sell the idea.
The Allies had hoped their decoy plans might buy them two weeks, seven was unthinkable.
Even after the day was done, Garcia continued to feed information back to his German handlers that Normandy was a ‘red herring’ and the larger force under Patton was still to strike at the Calais region. Hitler was so convinced of the existence of this ghost army that he refused to send reinforcements to the Normandy area for seven weeks. The Allies had hoped their decoy plans might buy them two weeks, seven was unthinkable.
Operation Fortitude North had conducted a similar campaign of deception, focusing mainly on fake radio chatter and double agents to paint a picture of a sizeable force building in the north of Britain. Whilst Hitler did not completely believe the invasion was coming from that direction, he still retained twelve army divisions there just in case. Every German soldier away from the Normandy region on D-Day was one fewer to resist the invading Allies.
The huge success of Operation Bodyguard and Fortitude saved countless lives and provided the Allies with a foothold in Europe. In just under a year after the D-Day landings, Hitler would be dead and the war over.
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The Battle of Britain
D-Day and detachments
It took two months, two planes and nine ships to get all of the 23rd from England to France. Of course, this does not include replacements. The first group included four sergeants from the 603rd Engr Cam Bn Sp who left the unit at Bristol to go directly to an invasion staging area with the 602nd Engr Cam Bn. Their mission involved the use of phony "Q lighting" during the first critical nights following D Day. They left from Plymouth on four different LSTs and began landing on D Day H-10. It was soon apparent that there were so many real Q lights – at so many points – that the small deceptive effort would be ridiculous, so it was not tried. Instead, the sergeants busied themselves with the camouflage of early beach installations and supply dumps. Two of the party were wounded. (S/Sgt Chester J. Piasecki and Sgt. Tracy B. Slack.)
On 14 June 1st Lt. Bernard H. Mason, 603rd Engr Cam Bn Sp, flew to the Omaha Air Strip with 15 men and a trailer-load of dummy artillery. He was attached to VII Corps Artillery from D-9 to the end of the Cherbourg campaign. This employment of dummy 155 mm rifles was an experiment and it was considered successful. There were no casualties.
Lt. Cols James W. Snee, Armored O, and Olen J. Seaman Jr. Ln O, flew over the D-11. Through First Army they reserved a bivouac area for the 23rd advance echelon and reconnoitered the 2nd and 3rd Armd Divs for future employment of the ELEPHANT task force.
Col Reeder started for France with ELEPHANT (39-0. 1-WO, 319 EM) on 16 June. He was immediately misdirected to Exeter and the entourage spent the first two nights in the fields of Bishop’s Court. On 18 June the group was re-routed east to a shabby camp near Southampton. On the following day they boarded LSTs 284 and 335. Then, by error, LST 284 dropped out of the convoy and hung off the Isle of Wight for a week. But no one cared because the ship was very comfortable and the weather perfect. Motion pictures were shown down in the tank deck and hot bread, butter and coffee were served at 0100 each night. The ship’s phonograph had a large library of classical records. Buzz bombs were just beginning to come over Southern England but at that time they were more curious than frightful. On 24 June LST 335 put ashore on Utah Beach and three days later LST 284 came in. The gracious skipper of LST 284 made a final gesture toward Army-Navy goodwill by opening up his well-stocked larder to all departing passengers.
The residue of the command (32-0, w-WO, 563 EM) was officially called RESIDUE or informally, "Garbage." It remained at Walton Hall until 8 July. On that day under the leadership of Lt. Col Merrick H. Truly it departed for Charborough Park near Bournemouth. This was the spacious estate of Adm. Lord Reginald Ernst-Ernle Drax, K.C.B., D.S.O., and a very fine Lord indeed. Everyone lived in pup tents but the days were balmy and the Admiral often invited the officers in for a warm bath and a glass of port. RESIDUE stayed here for a week and enjoyed themselves very much watching the Lord’s deer and playing baseball on his beautiful lawn. Toward the end, however, a jarring note was introduced when the gray-haired Knight Commander of the Bath said: "Someone has been in my sherry." The next morning RESIDUE pulled out for Falmouth where they boarded the Liberty ship JOHN S. MOSBY – incidentally the same boat that had carried TROUTFLY on D-1. It was a wretched ship which stuffed everyone into the No. 5 hatch. The trip was foggy, uneventful and generally unpleasant. On 21 July D-45 the last man got off on a big, wet "rhino" at Omaha Beach.
HEATER (3132nd Sig Serv Co Sp) did not arrive in England until 11 June so it was not prepared to come to France until 8 August. By this time marshalling yards and channel crossings had achieved a high state of efficiency. Consequently, HEATER had an extremely full passage on LST 1195 to Utah. It joined the 23rd on 9 Aug D-63 in Le Fremondre just north of Coutance. Now for the first time, Col. Reeder finally had all of his command together.
- Deception Forward Deception Forward
- 23rd Activation 23rd Activation
- 23rd Organization 23rd Organization
- Advance Party Advance Party
- USAT HENRY GIBBONS USAT HENRY GIBBONS
- Operation CABBAGE Operation CABBAGE
- D-Day and detachments D-Day and detachments
- Operation ELEPHANT Operation ELEPHANT
- Lessons from ELEPHANT Lessons from ELEPHANT
- Normandy Normandy
- Operation BRITTANY (9-12 Aug 1944) Operation BRITTANY (9-12 Aug 1944)
- Operation BREST (20-27 Aug 1944) Operation BREST (20-27 Aug 1944)
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By: History.com Editors
Updated: May 11, 2023 | Original: October 27, 2009
D-Day was the name given to the June 6, 1944, invasion of the beaches at Normandy in northern France by troops from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries during World War II. France at the time was occupied by the armies of Nazi Germany, and the amphibious assault—codenamed Operation Overlord—landed some 156,000 Allied soldiers on the beaches of Normandy by the end of the day.
Despite their success, some 4,000 Allied troops were killed by German soldiers defending the beaches. At the time, the D-Day invasion was the largest naval, air and land operation in history, and within a few days about 326,000 troops, more than 50,000 vehicles and some 100,000 tons of equipment had landed. By August 1944, all of northern France had been liberated, and in spring of 1945 the Allies had defeated the Germans. Historians often refer to D-Day as the beginning of the end of World War II.
Preparing for D-Day
After World War II began, Germany invaded and occupied northwestern France beginning in May 1940. The Americans entered the war in December 1941, and by 1942 they and the British (who had been evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940 after being cut off by the Germans in the Battle of France) were considering the possibility of a major Allied invasion across the English Channel. The following year, Allied plans for a cross-Channel invasion began to ramp up. In November 1943, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), who was aware of the threat of an invasion along France’s northern coast, put Erwin Rommel (1891-1944) in charge of spearheading defense operations in the region, even though the Germans did not know exactly where the Allies would strike. Hitler charged Rommel with finishing the Atlantic Wall, a 2,400-mile fortification of bunkers, landmines and beach and water obstacles.
In January 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) was appointed commander of Operation Overlord. In the months and weeks before D-Day, the Allies carried out a massive deception operation intended to make the Germans think the main invasion target was Pas-de-Calais (the narrowest point between Britain and France) rather than Normandy. In addition, they led the Germans to believe that Norway and other locations were also potential invasion targets. Many tactics were used to carry out the deception, including fake equipment; a phantom army commanded by George Patton and supposedly based in England, across from Pas-de-Calais; double agents; and fraudulent radio transmissions.
A Weather Delay: June 5, 1944
Eisenhower selected June 5, 1944, as the date for the invasion; however, bad weather on the days leading up to the operation caused it to be delayed for 24 hours. On the morning of June 5, after his meteorologist predicted improved conditions for the following day, Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord. He told the troops: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.”
Later that day, more than 5,000 ships and landing craft carrying troops and supplies left England for the trip across the Channel to France, while more than 11,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion.
D-Day Landings: June 6, 1944
By dawn on June 6, thousands of paratroopers and glider troops were already on the ground behind enemy lines, securing bridges and exit roads. The amphibious invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture beaches codenamed Gold, Juno and Sword, as did the Americans at Utah Beach. U.S. forces faced heavy resistance at Omaha Beach, where there were over 2,000 American casualties. However, by day’s end, approximately 156,000 Allied troops had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches. According to some estimates, more than 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives in the D-Day invasion, with thousands more wounded or missing.
Less than a week later, on June 11, the beaches were fully secured and over 326,000 troops, more than 50,000 vehicles and some 100,000 tons of equipment had landed at Normandy.
For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Rommel, who was away on leave. At first, Hitler, believing the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions to join the counterattack. Reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays. He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. Moreover, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.
In the ensuing weeks, the Allies fought their way across the Normandy countryside in the face of determined German resistance, as well as a dense landscape of marshes and hedgerows. By the end of June, the Allies had seized the vital port of Cherbourg, landed approximately 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy, and were poised to continue their march across France.
Victory in Normandy
By the end of August 1944, the Allies had reached the Seine River, Paris was liberated and the Germans had been removed from northwestern France, effectively concluding the Battle of Normandy. The Allied forces then prepared to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet troops moving in from the east.
The Normandy invasion began to turn the tide against the Nazis. A significant psychological blow, it also prevented Hitler from sending troops from France to build up his Eastern Front against the advancing Soviets. The following spring, on May 8, 1945, the Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Hitler had committed suicide a week earlier, on April 30.
HISTORY Vault: A Distant Shore: African Americans of D-Day
Although largely forgotten by history, nearly 2,000 African Americans were among the troops who stormed the beaches of Normandy. For the first time ever, seven of these forgotten heroes tell their stories.
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