Just when World War II history buffs think they have heard it all, another story comes along that is so startling, so far-fetched, that you think it really couldn’t have happened. That’s what happened last summer, when PBS aired a film by East Providence native Rick Beyer that told the story of the Ghost Army in the “European Theatre of Operations.”
“Theatre” has a particular resonance in relation to the Ghost Army because it was an attempt by artists from many fields to create a decoy army that effectively distracted Nazi troops from the real operations of the Allied armies after the invasion of Normandy.
“I had heard about the deception before D-Day, about the inflated tanks and trucks they used in England to convince the Germans they were going to invade somewhere else, but this was something on such a larger scale, so massive that it amazed me,” said Beyer. “It continues to amaze me.”
In secret, Army intelligence put together a team of artists, musicians, recording engineers and scientists whose purpose was to create a convincing illusion of an army on the move. They recorded the sounds of trucks, tank treads, singing and griping soldiers and played them back on what was state-of-the-art hi-fidelity equipment to convince German commanders that they were within hearing distance of an army being assembled for an imminent battle.
“It started when a friend of mine told me I had to meet this woman with an amazing story,” said Beyer. “I agreed to meet her at a Starbucks in Lexington [Mass.] and Martha Gavin walks in with an armful of three-ring binders filled with her uncle John Jarvie’s notes and sketches from his time with the Ghost Army. I was blown away.”
Beyer, who is the son of a Brown history professor, a graduate of Providence Country Day School and Dartmouth and an enthusiastic student of history, was amazed that he had never heard of the Ghost Army and was sure that he was not alone in that regard. Now, with so many of the veterans who made up the Ghost Army long gone, it was time that the country acknowledged its debt to the artists of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops.
Inflatable tanks, planes, jeeps
From June 1944 to March 1945 the 23rd staged 20 battlefield deceptions, beginning in Normandy and ending along the Rhine River. The deceivers employed an array of inflatables (tanks, trucks, jeeps, airplanes), sound trucks, phony radio transmissions and even playacting to fool the enemy.
“Before the men of the Ghost Army made armies appear from nowhere, some of them worked on making things disappear,” according to the Ghost Army website. “Under the watch of the 603rd Camouflage Engineer Battalion, not yet assigned to the Ghost Army, an entire aircraft factory disappeared from the coast of Maryland - at least, from the air.”
The website goes on to explain that military minds had already seen the benefits of making an enemy see, or not see, what was right before their eyes. At the beginning of the war, the military feared bomber strikes against munitions plants and knew that camouflage could make those plants much harder to see. The bombers never came but in the process of making a factory disappear into the Maryland countryside, the 603rd Camouflage Engineer Battalion realized that they could do the same for installations or camps overseas. They evolved into thinking they could also create illusions on the ground that were capable of distracting and frustrating enemy armies.
In the months before D-Day, the Allies created mock staging areas in England on the coast of Dover to convince German intelligence that the invasion would be at Calais. They installed dummy tanks, planes, landing craft and stockpiles, all covered with what they knew would be recognized as attempts to camouflage the activity from the air. While the Germans may have made fun of the clumsy attempt to cover up, they took intercepted messages seriously, not realizing that they, too, were part of the deception. It worked. Germans failed to divert troops from defending Calais to Normandy. Normandy was by no means a cakewalk into Europe, but it could have cost a lot more and possibly failed without the diversion. The same is true of the 21 operations carried out by the men of the 23rd Special Headquarters Troops.
“Each one was mounted in order to deal with a specific battlefield situation and had its own carefully scripted scenario designed to play on the fears and the expectations of the enemy,” according to www.ghostarmy.org “The first elements of the Ghost Army went into action in France in June 1944, a week after the Normandy invasion.”
One of the first assignments was for General Joe Collins’ 7th Corps as an experiment in deception. Their assignment was to set up dummy artillery emplacements, about a mile forward of the 980th artillery, to draw enemy fire. They succeeded. German artillery and aircraft attacked them. Luckily, there were no casualties, but veterans of the 23rd admit they were scared. Their tanks and guns didn’t work. There would be bigger operations - and more danger - in the future.
Ghost army filled the gap
In September of 1944, George Patton’s Third Army was stalled near the Moselle River. When Patton massed troops for an attack on Metz, it left a dangerous gap in the northern front line. A counterattack through that hole could cripple Patton.
“The 23rd was called on to ride to the rescue. Its ambitious mission: plug the hole in the line by pretending to be the 20,000 men of the 6th Armored Division. The sonic company played sounds of different tank movements for four nights. On one recording you might hear the voice of a sergeant saying, ‘Put out that cigarette, private!’ then hear the sounds of tanks starting up and moving out. In the black moonless nights, the roaring columns were extremely realistic.
“After a while my eyes were beginning to tell me what my ears were hearing, and I began to see tanks,” according to Dick Syracuse, of the 3132 Signal Company.
To help the enemy see them, several dozen inflatable decoys were set up in forward positions for the benefit of any German observers, according to www.ghostarmy.org,
“Meanwhile, the special effects teams went to work on what they called the atmosphere, playing to any spies reporting back to the Germans. They sewed 6th Armored patches on their uniforms and repainted the markings on their vehicles. One of the men impersonated a major general and made himself highly visible, traveling from town to town in a convoy of jeeps. All the men were given a short history of the 6th Armored and were sent into nearby towns, supposedly on recreation leave, where they could be overheard talking about their division in cafes and bars.”
It was intended to last for three days, but it worked so well that it was stretched out to a week.
“Each day, the men of the 23rd grew more nervous, convinced that the Germans, who were constantly probing their lines, would eventually see through their deception. But instead the Germans, fooled into thinking an American attack was coming, blew their bridges and retreated across the river.
In March of 1945, as the 9th Army prepared to cross the Rhine into Germany, the 23rd was called upon to feint a crossing in a different place to draw German units away from the point of the real attack. The effort required the 1,000 men of the 23rd to use every resource at their disposal as they impersonated two full divisions of 40,000 men.
Phony convoys hit the road. Spoof radio gave the impression of major forces on the move. At the Rhine, more than 600 inflatable tanks and artillery were set up. They laid down smokescreens. The sonic crews played the sounds of trucks rolling in at night. In the daytime they played sounds of construction, as if bridges were being put together. (Actual bridging units were attached to 23rd to give credibility to the illusion) Crews set off flash canisters for artillery sounds. Germans fired back, but the only tanks and guns they damaged were rubber inflatables. Men scurried around to fix the dummies.
Inflatable tanks from Woonsocket
“Intelligence reported German units converging across the river from the deception. When the two divisions being impersonated by the 23rd attacked miles up the Rhine, they met only disorganized resistance and suffered an astonishingly low number of casualties,” according to ghostarmy.org.
It is astounding to Beyer, and everyone else now familiar with the story, that none of this imagination and bravery was general knowledge before his film came out. Even people who contributed to the effort in this country didn’t know what their handiwork was going to be used for. It was no secret that the U.S. Rubber factory in the Alice Mill in Woonsocket was making rubber rafts and other devices for the military, including barrage balloons. Rubber rafts and inflatable life vests speak for themselves, but huge rubber tanks, cannons and other inflatable ordinance had to be explained to the workers.
Theresa Blais (neé Ricard) was one of the workers who put together tanks at Alice Mill. She was 16 and every day after school she was paid 49 cents an hour and didn’t ask too many questions. Terry thought they were making “targets.”
“When you're 16 you don’t pay too much attention," she explained in an interview with Louise Tetreault in the Valley Breeze.
“We made a reproduction tank for our presentation around the country,” said Beyer. “As far as we know, there are no known surviving tanks from the war.”
Beyer will give a talk about the Ghost Army and the Alice Mill at the Museum of Work & Culture at 42 South Main Street, on Jan. 12. It kicks off Ranger Day Lecture series. The one-hour long Ranger Talks are held on Sundays at 1:30 pm in the museum’s ITU Hall. All talks are free and open to the public. For more information contact the museum at 769-9675.