Military & Aerospace

The ‘Invisible Ghosts’ who paved the path for allied victory in World War II
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 22 Mar , 2024

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near”― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Deceit and deception are battle winning factors and important tools to outmaneuver, outwit, and outsmart the enemy in any war, even during peacetime. Deceit and deception have always played a significant role in warfare throughout history. According to Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, deception is the key to gaining a military advantage over your opponent.

Deception includes feigning weakness when you are strong or professing ignorance when you are informed. Appearing to be weak, unprepared, or small in size can lure your opponent into traps and make them susceptible to misguided actions or responses.

The aim is to control your opponent and overcome them in any conflict. Controlling their belief helps you understand their assumptions and plan a strategy accordingly.

For instance, creating a scenario in which only a small portion of your force is visible can mislead opponents into thinking they can overwhelm or outnumber you. When they prepare an attack under that guise, they will be ill-prepared for the full strength of your forces. 

Another example is allowing your opponent to win small victories or gains. Your opponent may fall victim to greed or an inflated ego, which will confuse and hinder their strategy when the truth is revealed. 

There are many reasons why deceit and deception are important.

    • Strategic Advantage: Deception can provide a strategic advantage by misleading the enemy about one’s intentions, capabilities, or movements. This can lead the enemy to make mistakes or misallocate resources, and thus create opportunities for the deceiving force.
    • Protect Secrets: Deception can be used to protect sensitive information and prevent the enemy from gaining access to critical intelligence. By misleading the enemy, a military force can keep its true plans and capabilities hidden.
    • Confusion and Disruption: Deception can create confusion and disrupt the enemy’s decision-making process. By presenting false information or creating a false impression, a military force can sow discord and uncertainty among its adversaries.
    • Force Protection: Deception can also be used to protect one’s own forces. By creating false targets or decoys, a military force can draw enemy fire away from its actual positions, reducing the risk to its troops.
    • Psychological Warfare: Deception can have a powerful psychological impact on the enemy. By creating a sense of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, a military force can undermine the morale of its adversaries and weaken their resolve.

However, the use of deception must be carefully managed to avoid the risk of being deceived oneself.

During the early phase of World War II, Nazi Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler dominated much of Europe. Soon after the invasion of Poland in September 1939, which marked the beginning of the war, Germany quickly overran several countries including Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France using blitzkrieg strategy. By mid-1940, Hitler’s regime seemed unstoppable and much of Western Europe was under Nazi control.

The period between 1939 and 1941 saw the rapid expansion of the Nazi empire, with Germany exerting control over a large part of Europe. However, this dominance began to wane after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the entry of the United States into the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The tide of the war gradually turned against Germany, leading to its eventual defeat in 1945.

The credit for making the German war machine bleed goes to the collective effort put in by the militaries of the United States, the United Kingdom with more than ample assistance in terms of manpower from its colonies, Soviet Union, and others who played a crucial role in turning the tide. Several key leaders like Winston Churchill (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom), Franklin D. Roosevelt (President of the United States), and Joseph Stalin (Premier of the Soviet Union) played a part by providing strategic direction and coordination.  Apart from them the credit for winning the Great War should also go to the resistance movements like the French Resistance, which played significant roles in disrupting German operations and providing intelligence to the Allies as well as the industrial as well as scientific and technological advancement of countries like the United States, which supplied weapons, equipment, and other resources to the Allies and thus helped tip the balance in their favor.

It was the combined global effort that eventually led to the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies.

But no narrative of World War II will ever be complete without mentioning the deeds of the unsung heroes who risked their lives and silently worked behind the scene to transform a near certain defeat into victory.

Not many people or military historians talk or rather know about the role played by a top secret unit of the United States Army, known as the Ghost Army or the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops which played a key role to mislead and confuse the enemy in several key campaigns during World War II.

Origins and Formation

The Ghost Army was formed in 1944, under the command of Colonel Harry L. Reeder. The idea behind its creation was to fulfill the need for tactical deception in the European theater of operations. As a result, the unit was raised drawing personnel from various fields like dramatics, advertising, graphic design, and architecture.  The motive was to deceive the enemy about the strength, location, and intentions of American forces. To achieve this, the unit adopted a variety of tactics and decoy equipment like the inflatable tank to create the illusion of large armored formations, thus diverting the enemy attention away from actual troop movements.

Apart from the inflatable decoy tanks, the Ghost Army used sound effects to simulate the noise of large army formations. They also employed radio operators to create fake radio transmissions, further confusing enemy intelligence.

This cunning and deception tactics helped in convincingly misleading the enemy in several major campaigns during World War II like the Battle of Normandy.

While the main force of the Ghost Army arrived in Europe after D-Day, a small detachment of the Ghost Army set up inflatable tanks and other decoys to create the illusion of a larger force, drawing German fire away from real landing zones. In the weeks that followed the Ghost Army used sound effects, fake radio chatter, and inflatable tanks to make the Germans believe there were more Allied troops than there actually were. This helped pin down German forces and allowed real Allied forces to maneuver elsewhere. By misleading the German forces and creating the illusion of a large army build-up in Calais, the Ghost Army drew German forces away from the actual amphibious landings on the beaches of Normandy. On the whole the Ghost Army played a vital role in the success of the Allied campaign Operation Overlord.

Operation Overlord, also referred to as the Battle of Normandy, was the codename for the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France in World War II. It marked the beginning of the liberation of Western Europe. The Ghost Army’s efforts helped the Allied troops to advance quickly, with fewer casualties to secure a foothold in Normandy and liberate France. This was a major turning point in World War II and led to the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.

The Ghost Army’s contributions to World War II were largely unrecognized for many years due to the secrecy surrounding their operations. It was not until decades later that their story began to emerge, thanks in part to the efforts of former members to document their experiences. Today, the Ghost Army is recognized as one of the most innovative and effective units of World War II, demonstrating the power of creativity and deception in warfare.

In conclusion, the Ghost Army’s creative tactics and innovative use of technology helped to deceive and confuse the enemy, contributing to the overall success of the Allied war effort. Their story serves as a reminder of the importance of thinking outside the box in times of conflict and the enduring impact of creative thinking in military strategy.

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