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c. 1918-1945

The Ghost Armies of World War I & II

The Ghost Army deployed fake tanks, jeeps, guns and aircraft — even dummy airfields.

It is a false belief that wars are won simply through the might of military force. Equally as devastating is the ability to deceive, to misdirect the enemy into committing a fatal error. Enter the Ghost Army.

Subterfuge as a strategic or tactical skill has ancient precedent. The Art of War, written in China in the 5th Century BC, devotes significant space to the techniques of misdirection. Or think of the mythical Trojan Horse. Across the centuries, deceiving one’s foe became as crucial as direct confrontation. 

But in the 20th century, a new form of fakery appeared, with a new type of war machine — the tank. The presence of these huge heavy destroyers was, it seemed, certain evidence of a planned offensive. 

Unless they were not real.

Imitation tanks could be constructed of timber — or, making them even more maneuverable, out of thin air. Such practices began in World War I, but it was during World War II that they came into their own.

After D-Day, in 1944, the U.S. Army deployed 1,1000 troops in the Ghost Army — a tactical deception unit, aka “1st Headquarters Special Troops” aka “Operation Quicksilver” — tasked purely with misdirecting the Axis powers.

As well as the inflatable tanks seen here, the Ghost Army deployed fake jeeps, trucks, guns and aircraft — even dummy airfields — as well as sound recordings and radio transmissions.
The imitation soundtracks, broadcast from specially equipped trucks, could be heard as far as 15 miles away. As close as possible to the enemy lines, the Unit would stage more than 20 false battlefields.

Many of the Unit’s troops were, in civilian life, employed as actors, architects and set designers, and were drawn from art schools, advertising agencies and design practices.

And yet, vital as it was, the Ghost Army was largely unknown and remained uncommemorated. Ghost by name and nature, the Unit remained an official secret until the 1980s.

1939
A rubber tank in England.
Roger Viollet / Getty Images
WWI
A dummy tank made of reeds used as a decoy to draw the bombs of Allied aviators
Corbis / Getty Images
1916
A camouflaged dummy tank at the Royal Engineer’s School of Camouflage, Kensington Gardens, London.
Imperial War Museums / Getty Images
1928
At a maneuver at Uckermark, mock tanks made of cardboard.
Getty Images
c. 1930s
A soldier standing by a dummy anti-tank gun, set up to draw invader fire during wargames.
David E. Scherman / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images
1931
Tank dummies made of plate and board.
Ullstein Bild / Getty Images
1931
Soldiers with pieces of a dummy next to a car.
Ullstein Bild / Getty Images
1932
A dummy Tank crossing the river Oder on a pontoon ferry.
Ullstein Bild / Getty Images
1934
Camouflaged dummy tanks, made of tin with wooden guns & rubber tires, used by the German Army during maneuvers as the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany to rearm.
Margaret Bourke-White / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images
WWII
Soldiers inflate a tank
Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis / Getty Images
1944
Two American soldiers inspect a dummy German tank, fashioned of wood and built on top of a four-ton truck, Molsheim, France.
Photo12 / UIG / Getty Images
1945
A soldier of the 104th Inf, Div, 1St US, Army, examines a dummy tank constructed with wood found during the driving east to take Cologne, Germany.
Photo12 / UIG / Getty Images

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