Under the Influence

How American troops used inflatable tanks to fool the Nazis in WWII

There were 1,100 people in the American army's top secret division, but they weren’t soldiers. They were artists, sound engineers and set designers, and their mission was deception.
(YouTube "The WWII Ghost Army" - LiveScience)

In World War Two, the American army had a very special, top-secret division. It was the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. Also known as the Ghost Army.

There were 1,100 people in this special unit, but they weren't soldiers. They were artists, sound engineers and set designers. Their mission: to persuade the German army that there were big platoons of soldiers and equipment in strategic locations, where there weren't any at all.

The Ghost Army was a mobile, self-contained deception unit capable of staging multi-media illusions on command. Using ingenuity, they could create the illusion that 30,000 troops and hundreds of tanks and artillery were holding the line. When, in fact, the army wasn't there at all. The illusions were so good, they would persuade the Germans not to attack a weak spot or could draw German troops away from where real American units were preparing an attack.

The Ghost Army used three main strategies to fool the Nazis. The first was visual. Artists, architects and designers created inflatable tanks, cannons, trucks and aircraft. They would look incredibly authentic from a distance - and the Ghost Army could set up hundreds of phantom tanks very quickly.

The second tactic was to use sound. Using giant speakers that could be heard for 15 miles or 24 kilometres, they would blast sound-effect recordings of tank brigades moving up a hill, or the sounds of thousands of soldiers arriving and setting up camp.

The third tactic was radio. Skilled radio operators would create phony dispatches and bulletins, and could perfectly mimic a telegraph operator's style. It was performance art of the highest level.

Occasionally, the inflatable tanks also created amusing moments.

One night, a Corporal was on guard duty when two Frenchmen on bicycles accidentally wandered past the perimeter. Their eyes nearly bugged out of their heads as they watched four GI's pick up what looked like a 40-ton tank — and turn it around — by hand. The Corporal just looked at the Frenchmen and said, "American soldiers are very strong."

The Ghost Army was unique. They were so effective that German records show that the deceptions were taken "hook, line and sinker." The Ghost Army was so top-secret, that its existence wasn't made public until 1996. Using only imagination and creativity, this small group saved lives and had a surprising influence on the outcome of the war.

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