However, Patton had a plan. That plan was to create a unit that the U.S. army had never seen before. A unit, only 1,000 strong, whose main talents relied less on traditional combat skills and more on art, design, and radio engineering. The unit was officially known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, but was commonly referred to as the Ghost Army.
The ghost army was skilled in the ways of deception. Overnight, they could transform any empty farm into a U.S. military camp that appeared to be 40,000 soldiers strong and that included tanks, planes, and jeeps.
These instant camps, of course, would gain the attention of the Germans. However, what the Germans did not realize at the time was that the entire base was a farce. All of the equipment that was being captured by German recon was nothing more than full scale inflatable dummies.
The sounds of the base were nothing more than records being played to simulate the sounds of an active base. Even the radio chatter was staged. All of this deception was to lure the Germans’ attention away from actual U.S. Army units.
Yet, to pull this deception off successfully, it took complete coordination between the four subunits that made up the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops: 603rd Camouflage Engineers, 3132 Signal Company, The Signal Company Special and the 406th Combat Engineers.
One of the Largest Subunits
The 603rd Camouflage Engineers was the largest of the four subunits and was responsible for all of the visual tactics deployed during a battlefield deception. It was these men that created the life-sized inflatable tanks, planes, and other faux army equipment that was inflated by air compressors.
The 603rd was not only responsible for fake equipment; they were also responsible for fake structures. They would create motor pools and bivouac sites. One ingenious method the 603rd would use is that they would create these sites, but then camouflage them “imperfectly so that enemy air reconnaissance could see them.” (1)
This tactic fooled the Germans in believing they found an actual site. However, looking like an actual military camp is only part of guise; the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops had to sound like an actual military camp.
The responsibility of sounding like 40,000 troop camp belonged to the 3132 Signal Company. 3132nd was trained at the Army Experimental Station in Pine Camp New York in the art of Sonic Deception.
The men of the 3132nd recorded every sound a typical military camp would make. They also recorded sounds that would be specific to certain camps; such as an artillery battery of an airfield.
The unit was so meticulous in its recordings that it even recorded the unit noises from various distances and during various weather conditions. (2) The 3132nd then used sound trucks to broadcasts the sounds out for the Germans to hear.
Fake Radio Transmissions
The second part to the sound deception was the Signal Company Special, also known as the “Radio Men”. These guys would broadcast fake radio transmissions intended for the eavesdropping ears of Germany. These transmissions would include fake coordinates, troop movements, and other falsified information.
The Signal Company Special became so skilled at the false transmissions that they could actually impersonate specific operators of other units, which often fooled the listening Germans into thinking that the Division was still present when actually there were listening to the Ghost Army.
The 406th Combat Engineers was probably the most battle-ready of all of the subunits in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. These men constructed the earthworks need for the simulated camps and provided perimeter security.
This subunit of engineers was outfitted much better than other engineering groups. According to Jonathan Gawne, author of Ghosts of the ETO:
“The only major change in organization was the addition of a bulldozer to each engineer platoon (a normal engineer company had one per company.)” (4)
This meant that where most engineer units had one bulldozer, the 406th had three.
The Ghost Army of World War II has a fascinating history. It is also a primary example of how cleverness and creativity is just as important as brute force and firepower when engaging the enemy. To learn more about the Ghost Army, see the PBS premier on May 30, 2013.
References & Image Credits:
(1) Ghost Army
(2) CBS News
(4) Gawne, Jonathan. Ghosts of the ETO: American Tactical Deception Units in the European Theater, 1944-1945. Pg 28.
(5) Uncensored History