Pioneers of Deception: Lessons from the Ghost Army


In June 1944 in Normandy — shortly after D-Day — two French peasants stumbled upon an unusual sight: Four Americans were hoisting a 40-ton Sherman tank into the air and seemed to be barely breaking a sweat. One of the G.I.s, noting the farmers’ bewilderment, called out, “The Americans are very strong!” The baffled Frenchmen could have been forgiven for believing they had just witnessed a scene from a Captain America comic book. In reality, they had wandered into the bivouac of an important and highly secretive military unit — the 23rd Special Troops. What they had seen was not a real Sherman tank, but an elegantly crafted, inflated replica.

Also known as the Ghost Army, the 23rd Special Troops were activated on Jan. 20, 1944, in Camp Forest, Tennessee. The Ghost Army’s mission was straightforward: hoodwink Hitler’s military machine into thinking the Americans possessed more men and hardware than they actually did and deceive their opponents as to their basing, deployments, and movements. In short, the soldiers of the 23rd were charged with tactical deception, and their inventory reflected this mission. In lieu of artillery and heavy weapons, the Ghost Army was equipped with truckloads of inflatable tanks, trucks, artillery, jeeps, and airplanes. Recordings of sound-effects were mixed on turntables, then blasted from speakers to emulate the din and activity of nearby divisions — the hammering of pontoon bridges, the movement of convoys, and the salty conversations of soldiers. Radio operators trained in the art of mimicry imitated American radio personnel, spoofing the Germans as to the whereabouts of various divisions. Together, these techniques allowed the Ghost Army to impersonate Army divisions up to 30 times its size.

From June 1944 to March 1945, the Ghost Army crisscrossed Northwestern Europe, crafting the military equivalent of Potemkin villages from the verdant fields of Normandy to the snowbound forests of the Ardennes. All in all, they were involved in more than 21 full scale deception operations — often placing their men in harm’s way and at times suffering casualties. In September, the Ghost Army impersonated the 6th Armored Division — helping to plug a 70 mile gap north of Lt. Gen. George Patton’s assault on the French fortified city of Metz. In December, the Ghost Army bolstered the line along the Ardennes, just barely evacuating before one of the bloodiest American battles of World War II — the Battle of the Bulge. In March of 1945, the 23rd performed their most spectacular act of deception — simulating two infantry divisions just south of the planned American attack across the Rhine river. With Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery looking on, the 30th and 79th infantry units crossed the Rhine with little resistance — the Germans were expecting the attack from elsewhere. The deception was deemed a great success. Altogether, the Ghost Army  is estimated to have saved tens of thousands of Allied lives.

Despite the historic record on the utility of deception in war — from the Trojan horse, to Byzantine General Belisarius’ campaigns on the Italian peninsula, and the more recent deception operations in Operation Desert Storm — deception continues to be broadly underutilized or viewed in a siloed fashion by elements of the U.S. military. This is partly rooted in a deep-seated American cultural aversion to waging wars via trickery and cunning over frontal attrition and the exertion of overwhelming technological superiority. One might argue that it can also be attributed to an American propensity to take an ahistorical approach to strategy and foreign policy. Indeed, we tend to forget deception’s track record of success. This is problematic, as successful deception campaigns can act as cost-effective force multipliers and prove decisive in generating conditions of tactical or strategic surprise.

As potential peer-competitors and adversaries — in particular, Russia and China — undergo protracted periods of military modernization and reform, deception may prove increasingly important. Indeed, while Moscow and Beijing’s capabilities may not be comparable, in the aggregate, to those of the U.S., what matters is the localized correlation of force in certain key regions. As Michael Handel notes,

[W]hen all other elements of strength in war are roughly equal, deception will further amplify the available strength of a state—or allow it to use its force more economically—by achieving a quicker victory at a lower cost with fewer casualties.

As a result, the Ghost Army offers several important lessons for the United States, particularly in a time marked by a revival of great power competition that increasingly manifests itself in the cyber, information, and cognitive domains.

Drawing on Non-Traditional Warfighters

In the early 1940s, James Boudreau — the dean of Pratt’s art school and a general in the U.S. Army Reserve — peered down from his aircraft at the camouflage installations assembled below on the Pratt family estate on the North Shore of Long Island. Boudreau had organized an experimental laboratory dedicated to camouflage research and development. This laboratory experimented with everything from chicken feathers to tin cans. He recruited camouflage experts to the art faculty at Pratt and implemented a camouflage certificate course, “Military Tactical Camouflage.” The farsighted Boudreau was grooming the Army’s future camouflage soldiers-cum-artists.

Alongside more “conventional” warfighters, the 23rd included artists, architects, and actors in its ranks. These men used their training in texture, shadow, color, and shape to deceive the enemy. They took a literal interpretation of the art of war and the battlefields of war-torn Europe provided their canvas. Visual deception requires extreme attention to detail, appreciation for how light interacts with a physical object to generate shadow, and how texture can optically transform two-dimensional images into three-dimensional shapes. The Ghost Army built on these techniques and more. The men of the 23rd would erect camouflage netting over their decoys, “hiding” their inflatables in plain sight for the Germans to identify and misperceive. They fostered the illusion of activity around their inflatable assets by pitching tents, lighting fires, hanging laundry, and creating tire tread marks for their dummy tanks. At night, flash canisters were used to simulate firing. By day, they painted signs and helmet insignias to mimic Army divisions that were, in reality, maneuvering elsewhere. Everything was choreographed to the most minute detail. As the Ghost Army’s unpublished Official History, 23rd Headquarters, Special Troops — now available to consult in the National Archives — notes, “Its complement was more theatrical than military. It was like a traveling road show that went up and down the front lines.”

Ghost Army artists went on to illustrious careers in the art world after the war. Twenty-one-year-old Bill Blass, for instance, became a major fashion icon, creating his own luxurious women’s wear brand. Brooklyn native Art Kane went into photography, capturing the legendary image of 57 jazz musicians sitting on a stoop in Harlem. Ellsworth Kelly rose to fame for his minimalist deconstructions of the physical world, jettisoning conventional canvases, and designing pieces that exist somewhere between traditional paintings and sculpture.

These creative types offer some useful lessons for the present. Deception in the information age requires the ability to mislead the adversary  in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum. This naturally includes manipulating data and information via cyber and electronic means. Likewise, social media, as we have witnessed repeatedly over the last few years, can be leveraged by hostile actors in order to misinform and misdirect. This new battlefield requires warfighters with unique skills: computer programmers, hackers, big data analysts, engineers, social media mavens, and artificial intelligence and machine learning scientists. These skills may not be readily available in the military, and the people that possess those skills may not fit the archetype of a “typical” warfighter.

While the stereotype of hackers as anti-social, un-athletic men clad in black hoodies hunched over a keyboard is overwrought, it is also true that the skills that may help us to fight and win in an increasingly contested and complex battlespace may force us to rethink current recruitment and retention paradigms. Just because someone may not fit the “ideal type” of a warfighter, does not mean they cannot be a good soldier. Indeed, the Ghost Army proves otherwise. Many believed the bohemian young artists weren’t cut out for the army — that they would be flops. Instead, like the troops conscripted from other sectors of society, the artists held their own. When under fire, they maintained their cool and completed their missions. In the end, the artists proved their worth, earning a letter of commendation at the end of their service from the commander of the 9th Army, Gen. William Simpson, for their “fine work” and “important part” in the operation to cross the Rhine river.

Employing New Technology in Warfare Requires Experimentation

At the outset of World War II, sonic deception was in its infancy. The British experimented with sonic deception in late 1941, yet, it was unclear if sound could be effectively employed for trickery. The science of recording and playback was still immature — recording equipment was bulky and speakers had limited range and accuracy.

The Americans began to study sonic deception in earnest in February 1942 at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. The following year, the Army set up its Army Experimental Station at Pine Camp, New York — now Ft. Drum. The area proved an ideal location for testing sonic deception. Sound travels close to the earth’s surface, so topography and weather can impact its range. The diverse terrain at Pine Camp — woods, open land, and lake — provided an ideal experimental test bed for identifying the distance sound travels under different topographic and weather conditions. The 3132nd — the sonic portion of the Ghost Army — used the tests at the Army Experimental Station to create a firing table with sound ranges based on topography and weather. Much like how artillery can identify the range of its munitions, the 3132nd could do the same, but their ordnance was noise. Upon deployment, sonic deception was so successful that even members of the 23rd found it deceiving. As one Ghost Army G.I. stated, “My eyes were beginning to tell me what my ears were hearing. Psychologically it was the most unnerving thing; I would actually begin to see tanks in the dark.”

Just as the U.S. military tested the technical possibilities of trickery with sound, such experimentation must be done today with information operations. Information operations employ tools — any tool — to positively shape the information environment in support of friendly force missions. While this naturally incorporates classic deception and propaganda techniques, today’s information operations also consist of cyber and electronic operations, alongside the targeted exploitation of social media, bots, and artificial intelligence.

Moreover, much like the unique topographic environment at Pine Camp for the Army’s Experimental Station, experimenting for future information operations also requires a unique testing area. Live training ranges fail to simulate the complexities of the technical and cognitive dimensions of the information battlespace. The synthetic training environment — to include cyber, electronic, and social media “range” spaces — provides the requisite fidelity to mimic a future contested and complex information environment for experimentation. Indeed, experimentation must move beyond the physical environment to the information environment. As one senior executive civilian in the U.S. Air Force noted at 2017’s I/ITSEC—the largest modeling, simulation, and training conference in the world— “We need to think about information rounds, not just weapon rounds.”

Know the Enemy and, More Importantly, Yourself

In July 1942, the Allies captured a German Afrika Korps 621 Radio Intercept Company commanded by Captain Alfred Seebohm. Not only did this immediately deprive German Gen. Erwin Rommel of a wealth of tactical intelligence, the captured intercept unit and an affiliated German intelligence handbook cued the Allies into Axis intelligence gathering techniques. The Germans gathered most of their intelligence from radio intercepts, and they paid close attention to the number and types of broadcasts, as well as an individual radio operator’s “style” of Morse code, their way of tapping dots and dashes.

The 23rd realized that if they were to effectively impersonate U.S. radio units, they would need to conduct reconnaissance on various American signal outfits. Not only would they have to emulate how different radio nets functioned, but they would also have to mimic individual level radio operators. The men of the 23rd began eavesdropping on friendly radio force transmissions. They met with the other unit’s chief signal officers to learn specific call signs, radio techniques, and the frequency in which messages were sent between regimental and battalion headquarters when the division was in movement. This information formed the basis for elaborate radio deception scenarios.

However, it was not just via radio that the Germans were able to identify Allied troop movements and planning. The Third Reich’s redoubtable intelligence services also collected information by utilizing agents or recruiting local civilians in areas where the Germans had recently been in retreat. Therefore, the Ghost Army needed to deceive entire communities, not just Hitler’s troops.

As a result, the 23rd became actors, the local villages their venues, and the villagers their audience. The Ghost Army would mimic the distinctive characteristics of the unit they sought to impersonate: vehicle markings, road and command post signs, how uniforms were worn, their patches, or the ways in which military police were positioned around the division area. They’d enter a village and were instructed to “talk loose” at local bars and brothels — spilling phony stories of military plans and operations. If the 23rd found out a division or unit had a favorite song they’d like to sing, they’d, in the words of one soldier, “get blitzed and sing their song!” While impersonating general officers was expressly forbidden — and a court-martial offense — the Ghost Army portrayed all the officers within a unit, to include generals. As one soldier rationalized in a memo, “Remember we are in the theater business. Impersonation is our racket. If we can’t do a complete job, we might as well give up. You can’t portray a woman if bosoms are forbidden.” The 23rd was granted official permission for such mimicry.

These performances became known as “atmosphere” or special effects. They required the Ghost Army to collect intelligence on American units. 23rd Special Troops soldiers would visit units engaged in combat and study their warfighting techniques and day-to-day activities. They’d measure division signs, draw sketches of patches and other insignia, and take notes. This information was collected onto what became known as “poop sheets” — detailed files of a unit or a division’s characteristics — which could be instantly made available for last minute operations.

Just as the Ghost Army sought to hoodwink Hitler’s legions, in today’s information environment, the need to manipulate the information that informs adversary decision-making remains. This involves understanding how adversaries acquire intelligence, and how they then translate that intelligence into combat decisions. As a recent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report notes,

Although enemy decision-making has always been a target for military operations, advances in electromagnetic sensors, communications, and countermeasures during the last 20 years make a singular focus on information a more viable warfighting strategy.

Likewise, comparatively new intelligence gathering methods — like computer network exploitation — provide unique opportunities to spoof adversaries or to create in the 23rd’s parlance “atmosphere.” Employing cyber denial and deception techniques, requires an understanding of one’s own networks and systems. If done effectively, it can play an important role in denying an adversary accurate situational awareness.

Tightly Integrating Deception with Conventional Battle Plan

In August 1944, the Ghost Army joined the Battle for Brest. The Allied aim in this operation was to seize the main port facility at Brest and to clear the Bretton coastline of German coastal artillery. The Ghost Army’s Operation Brest was the first time the 23rd used all four types of deception in tandem — signal, sonic, decoys, and atmosphere. On the road to Brest, radio trucks were employed to create the perception that a convoy was approaching the city. At night, sonic trucks pulled within 500 yards of German lines — mimicking the noise of approaching armored units. At the same time, over 50 decoy tanks were assembled along with inflatable jeeps and trucks. The soldiers pitched tents, hung laundry, and lit fires. The following morning, Ghost Army soldiers donned 6th armored division patches and placed 6th armored markings on their vehicles, traveling between their decoy tank battalion and the local town.

In some respects, the deception operation was a success. Nearby American units were elated by the presence of what they believed to be the 6th armored division. More importantly, their German foes seemed to have also bought into the presence of a phantom division. Intelligence reports noted that the Germans shifted more 88 millimeter anti-tank guns to meet what they believed to be an impending American armored onslaught. However, any success the Ghost Army experienced was overshadowed by a major failure in Allied coordination.

On August 25, the commander of VIII Corps, Gen. Troy Middleton ordered an attack along the lines. Due to a breakdown in communication, or perhaps a failure to appreciate the nature of the Ghost Army’s operation, an assault was launched by Company D of the 709th Tank Battalion in the precise area of the Ghost Army’s phantom armored division. The German anti-tank guns opened fire on the American tanks — obliterating the advancing vehicles within 15 minutes. As one Ghost Army soldier recalled, “Those guys never reached the line of departure…They just got decimated.” The incident haunted many of the members of the 23rd. They stood by and watched, lacking the ability to help. Their tanks, unbeknownst to the soldiers engaged in combat, weren’t real. As one 23rd Special Troops soldier stated later, “We had no way of knowing they were going to kick off an attack and they had no way of knowing that we weren’t going to help them. And it makes you feel lousy.”

While it remains unclear to what extent the deception contributed to Company D casualties on that day, in the minds of Ghost Army veterans, the incident provided the perfect case study of how a breakdown in coordination and communications can almost fatally imperil combined operations. The deception operation had to be tightly integrated with the conventional battle plan. From that point on, the 23rd was careful to not draw enemy attention to any potential staging area for an Allied attack.

Operation Brest was a learning experience for the Ghost Army. It forced them to adapt. The locations of future operations were selected with careful consideration for potential conventional attack plans. This adaptation process could have been rendered less painful however, had it taken place prior to combat, and if the Ghost Army and other infantry or armored divisions had been afforded the opportunity to properly train together. Communication and coordination failures can often be identified and rectified through repetitive training. In a future conflict against a near-peer adversary, the failure to coordinate deception — particularly when cyber, electronic, or information operations are involved — could prove far deadlier. Indeed, the rapid pace of combat may leave little room for such ad-hoc moves toward integration. Instead, the United States should ensure their current training environment supports integrated operations, across all services and domains.

Deception, at its core, is about misleading the adversary, channeling or misdirecting it into actions that, ideally, not only work to its detriment, but also benefit the deceiver. While the information environment has changed, the lessons that can be drawn from the past have not. In these troubled times characterized by a revival of great power rivalry and gray zone competition, it may be time for U.S. military planners to reexamine the actions (and artwork) undertaken, by those brave, gifted, and unusual men in the Ghost Army.

Jennifer McArdle is an Assistant Professor of Cyber Defense at Salve Regina University and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in Washington D.C. focused on military cyber operations and synthetic training. She is currently a PhD Candidate at King’s College London in War Studies.

The author thanks her Salve Regina University student, Ryan Ciocco for his research assistance on this piece.


Image: Courtesy, The Ghost Army