On March 23rd, 1945, an Allied unit known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops took position along the Rhine River to execute Operation Viersen, which proved to be one of the final clashes with Nazi Germany in World War II. This unit was like no other, comprised of artists, actors, and sound technicians who possessed no armored tanks and no ammunition. They were toe-to-toe with Hitler’s imposing army wielding only one weapon: illusion.
Recognizing that perception is as much a part of warfare as actual fighting, former New Yorker journalist Captain Ralph Ingersoll suggested that the U.S. Army create a unit solely for deception. The 1,100 men of the “Ghost Army” were recruited from art schools, advertising agencies, and other creative think tanks, and were sent to Europe to use sleight-of-hand and create elaborate hoaxes to confuse the enemy.
Using rubber, paint, and ingenuity, the Ghost Army created a façade to make itself appear to be a heavily armed division of 30,000 soldiers. They built inflatable replicas of tanks, airplanes, trucks, and cannons that looked real to German reconnaissance pilots. From massive speakers, they blasted pre-recorded sound effects of military vehicles and infantry troops in operation. They created “spoof radio,” with actors mimicking radio broadcasts of real military units that had long since moved out. Actors dressed as high-ranking Allied officials frequented taverns where enemy spies were likely to see them and engaged in “loose talk” about false military operations.
Between 1944 and 1945, this top-secret unit — so secret that most American soldiers didn’t even know they existed — “performed” 21 missions, from impersonating the 83rd Infantry Division on General Patton’s line at the Moselle River until the actual unit could arrive, to representing the 27th Infantry Division outside of Luxembourg just before the Battle of the Bulge. But the Ghost Army’s most ambitious mission was its final exhibition at the Rhine.
“The United States attack came as a complete surprise to the enemy with a consequence of saving American lives."
The Ghost Army positioned itself ten miles south of two U.S. Army battalions that were ready to cross the river and invade Germany. The Ghost Army created an elaborate decoy of hundreds of inflated tanks, cannons, and trucks, going so far as to construct a fake airfield and to blare the recorded sounds of soldiers building pontoon boats throughout the night. The next morning, at a coordinated time, radio operators from the real armed divisions went off the air and let the Ghost Army actors take over, broadcasting false messages that troops were marching toward a fake point of attack.
Simultaneously, the two real divisions crossed the Rhine and, to their astonishment, met little resistance. The misdirection had worked. One report noted, “The United States attack came as a complete surprise to the enemy with a consequence of saving American lives. There is no doubt that Operation Viersen materially assisted in deceiving the enemy with regard to the real dispositions and intentions of this Army.”
After the war, many Ghost Army members such as Bill Blass, Ellsworth Kelly, and Arthur Singer went on to have illustrious careers as artists and designers. Declassified in 1996, the Ghost Army is now being considered for a Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian honors available. Although most of the members of the Ghost Army have passed away, their courageous acts no doubt saved tens of thousands of lives while giving new meaning to “the art of warfare.”