The Ghost Army

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of the largest amphibious assault in military history: the Allied forces’ invasion of Normandy, or D-Day. This assault would prove to be the beginning of the end for the Axis powers in both the European and Pacific theaters. Many films, essays, and books have attempted to tackle and explain this gargantuan military exercise, but there is a part of D-Day that is often overlooked (and sometimes not covered at all): Operation Fortitude.

The Allies planned to invade the European mainland for years. The invasion of Italy and Sicily from Africa began in 1943, and the Soviet forces began their pushback in 1942 after the failed invasion of the USSR by German forces, but it wasn’t until June 6, 1944, that the Nazi regime really began to feel the heat as they began fighting a war on three separate fronts.

Although the German forces were smaller than their Allied rivals, they still maintained a massive fighting force all along the coast of Europe. This stretched all the way from Turkey to Spain to Norway, not to mention their inland forces that were still battling in Italy, Russia, and parts of France. So, in an attempt to not only confuse the Germans, but to tie up resources, the Allied powers plotted a massive deception strategy that would involve the entirety of the European coast, codenamed Operation Fortitude.

Holt, Thaddeus, The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War (Scribner, New York, 2004) By ErrantX – Own work, based on File:BlankEurope.png &

The bulk of Operation Fortitude was split into two assaults, Fortitude North and Fortitude South. Fortitude North would take place in the Northern-European theater, where the Allies would trick the Germans into believing that they would set off from Scotland to invade Norway. Fortitude South took place only about 100 miles away from Normandy Beach itself at Pas de Calais.

Why go to such great lengths to conceal their movements? The Allied intelligence machine had been (and was still) infiltrated by German spies who constantly sent back information to their leaders at home. It was imperative that the Germans not only be fed false information on where a landing was to take place, but for them to believe that the false invasions were going to take place to make the invasion easier and to save Allied lives.

As June, 1944 approached, Operation Fortitude was finally planned and ready, but the majority of the work was just beginning. The Allies knew they were going to land at Normandy, that much was sure, but they needed to convince the German forces that they would be doing so elsewhere. There was a massive Panzer force at Pas de Calais, and if that division made its way to the Normandy beachhead, it would spell certain defeat for the Allied forces. So, with that in mind, they put their intelligence machine to work.

First, they began broadcasting false radio signals to be intercepted by the Nazis. These were sent to French rebels and to other troops in the European theater. They also began flying missions over their false targets. For every mission they flew over Normandy beach, they would fly two over Calais and Norway, just to make sure that the Nazis thought that they were the real targets.

But the real act of deception was the creation of an entire army, all fake, to trick the Germans into thinking that false invasions were going to occur. Entire companies of men were used to create ships out of wood and canvas, tanks out of frames and rubber, and even makeshift artillery pieces out of plywood. The Allies created fake military bases in southern England, each complete with mess halls, barracks, and even sewage treatment plants. They even had rolling machines to make tracks in the earth to make the movements of the fake tanks and vehicles look real. Every detail had to be exact, because German recon planes were allowed to fly over the south of England. Anti-aircraft guns were told to fire on the planes, but to miss intentionally so the pilots could report false information back to their superiors in Germany.

Four members of the Ghost Army hoist up an inflatable tank.

On the morning of June 6, the Allies were preparing for their invasion of Normandy, but they had to continue their ruse all the way to the end. If the Germans got even the slightest inkling that no invasion was going to happen at Calais, they would move forces to Normandy. During the first hours of June 6, rubber dummies were dropped out of planes off the coast of Calais, and that morning, a 1,100 man army (mostly made up of art students from New York and Philadelphia), nicknamed the Ghost Army, set course for the beachhead with their inflatable army.

As I previously stated, these soldiers had everything – planes, tanks, ships, and equipment – and were even given gigantic speakers to project the sounds of war onto the beach. (Fake tanks and ships don’t make sounds, keep in mind, but the speakers could be heard miles away.)

Members of the Ghost Army posing with a fake half-track and one of their speakers.

Over the next year, the so-called Ghost Army staged more than 20 advancements to fool the German troops. Needless to say, without this group of often-overlooked soldiers, the loss of life in the European theater would have been much greater than it was.

To me, this shows how comprehensive World War II actually was. Everyone was involved, no matter his or her skill. Classicists were enlisted to help discover and return lost or stolen art. Mathematicians were brought in to break and create new code. And art students used their skill to design and create the largest fake army in human history.

So today, on the 73rd anniversary of D-Day, it’s important to remember not only the 150,000+ troops that landed at Normandy, but the thousands of other individuals that helped ensure that the invasion was a success.




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