Today marks the 70th anniversary of VE Day. Let us remember those who gave their lives for us by exploring a lesser known piece of history; the Ghost Army of WWII.
The Ghost Army, a World War II deception unit, used inflatable tanks and other illusions to mislead the Germans on the battlefields of Europe. The Army recruited artists to create these illusions; in private moments, they painted and sketched their way across Europe, creating a unique visual record of the war. Rick Beyer leads tours around Europe exploring the path of this unique task force, and has created a book with Princeton Architectural Press giving the world the chance to learn about this incredible feat of creative ingenuity.
Read the introduction from The Ghost Army of World War II: How One Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects, and Other Audacious Fakery below.
They drove east from Paris, leaving the City of Light behind and hurrying into the inky darkness that soon enveloped the blackedout French roads. The convoy of half-tracks, trucks, and jeeps moved relentlessly through the night, stopping only briefly before resuming the journey in the gray dawn light. By midday on September 15, 1944, the men of the Twenty-Third Headquarters Special Troops had traveled 250 miles and were moving into position along the Moselle River, near the border between Luxembourg and Germany. The weather was cold and rainy, presaging a winter that would be called the worst in forty years. The GIs were understandably edgy: the German lines were said to be less than two miles to the east, just across the river. “We’re the only outfit on this part of the front except for one cavalry squadron spread very thinly,” wrote Sergeant Bob Tompkins in his diary. “No one knows where [the] front is.” They had been rushed here from Paris to perform a vital but dangerous job code-named Operation Bettembourg.
Their mission was to put on a show, with the German Army as the audience.
They were plugging a hole in General George Patton’s army by pretending to be the Sixth Armored Division, with all its tanks and might. But the men of the Twenty-Third had no tanks—no real ones, anyway— and precious little might. In fact, they carried no weapon heavier than a .50-caliber machine gun. This cast of artists, designers, radio operators, and engineers was equipped instead with battalions of rubber dummies, a world-class collection of sound-effects records, and all the creativity the soldiers could muster. They understood all too well that their own lives depended on the quality of their performance—if the Germans saw through their deception, they could attack and overrun the small, lightly armed unit. “There was nothing but our hopes and prayers that separated us from a panzer division,” Lieutenant Bob Conrad recalled. But thousands of other lives were at stake as well. If the Germans realized how thinly held the sector was, they could break through and attack Patton from the rear.
In other words, it was just another day in the life for the men of what became known as the Ghost Army.
This top-secret unit went into action in June 1944, a few weeks after D-Day. For the next nine months they conducted deception missions from Normandy to the Rhine River. “Its complement was more theatrical than military,” noted the unit’s official US Army history. “It was like a traveling road show that went up and down the front lines impersonating the real fighting outfits.”
What they did was so secret that few of their fellow American soldiers even knew they were there. Yet they pulled off twenty-one different deceptions and are credited with saving thousands of lives through stagecraft and sleight of hand. Like actors in a repertory theater, they would ask themselves: “Who are we this time?” Then they would put on a multimedia show tailored to that particular deception, often operating dangerously close to the front lines. They threw themselves into their impersonations, sometimes setting up phony command posts and masquerading as generals. They frequently put themselves in danger, suffering casualties as a consequence. After holding Patton’s line along the Moselle, they barely escaped capture by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, and in March 1945 they performed their most dazzling deception, misleading the Germans about where two American divisions would cross the Rhine River.
Their mission bordered on the surreal. But that is only part of their amazing story. The artists in the unit, recruited to handle visual deception, used their spare time to chronicle the unit’s adventures in thousands of paintings and drawings, creating a unique and poignant visual record of their war. After coming home many took up postwar careers as painters, sculptors, designers, illustrators, or architects. A surprising number went on to become famous, including fashion designer Bill Blass, painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly, and wildlife artist Arthur Singer.
Thirty years after the war, when the details of their story were still being kept secret, a United States Army analyst who studied their missions came away deeply impressed with the impact of their illusions. “Rarely, if ever, has there been a group of such a few men which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign.”
They were the “Cecil B. DeMille Warriors,” in the words of Ghost Army veteran Dick Syracuse.
This is their story.