How Rubber Planes and Inflatable Tanks took back France from Hitler in 1944

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Wooden outline of a Sherman tank in 1944.
A dummy Sherman tank under construction, 29th April 1944.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You wouldn’t believe it, but the Allies had to resort to some truly wild tactics to win the Second World War. 

Amongst them, was the use of a pile of schoolboy-friendly toys, like rubber planes, blow-up tanks, spoof radios, and some cutting-edge speaker systems pre-recorded with “battle-like” sound effects.

Manning them, wasn’t any platoon of soldiers, but instead, an elaborate army of cunning actors. To impersonate an actual army, they all spoke in “military-talk” and starred the very recognizable army costumes. Alongside their costumes and props, the performances were carefully “choreographed” to confuse the Axis powers and make them think the Allied armies were bigger than they actually were. 

Numbering over 1,100 actors, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was a force uniquely gifted with the art of “tactical deception”. As it turns out, that was exactly what they were tasked with. Not a single one of them was selected for their fighting prowess, but for their creativity and “screen-smarts”. The “Ghost Army”, as they later came to be known in popular culture, was organized to stage phony “military build-ups” to send the spooks in the German forces. 

The patch of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the “Ghost Army”.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Much like a “prank on steroids”, the actors and their props were part of a wider strategy of “tactical deception”, intended to sow confusion and chaos within the enemy. As the “real armies” battled through the forests and trenches, the Ghost Army was busy staging a bunch of “traveling shows”. Often, the Ghost Army officers would simply field as little as two rubber tanks, grab a few speakers to roar some noises, and would then stage what they’d call “looping convoys” to give the impression that an entire infantry was “on its way”. Then, they’d mount their wire recorders onto half-tracks and elevated platforms, to project the sound effects as far as they possibly could. Using some powerful amplifiers, the roar of “tanker battalions” were heard as far as 15 miles away, as some reports went. 

Many of these theatrical stunts took place in close proximity to the frontlines, starting on the beaches of Normandy and stretching as far as the Rhine River. On numerous occasions, their cleverly planned stunts misled the Axis into thinking the Allied forces were in places they actually had departed. This clouded their decision-making, as well as their view of the battlefield. And, as common sense goes, not knowing what’s happening around you, isn’t going to lead to the smartest decisions on where to attack, where to defend, and where to place your divisions. 

Away from the frontlines, some of the more aged-looking actors would dress up as senior army officers, and enter French cafes where German spies liked to mingle. As one Ghost officer aptly put it, they’d order “omelette and talk loose”, in the hope that some German spy was sitting nearby and eavesdropping on whatever crumbs of “intelligence” spilled out between their loose chatter. 

Then, using their “spoof radio” systems, they’d chat whatever rubbish they could conjure up, knowing full-well that the Germans would be busily decoding whatever signals of radio they could intercept. As hinted above, they imitated the lingo of the real officers and made the impression that they were simply engaging in “official communication”. When the truth was, that the radio systems were deliberately unencrypted, and the communications were nothing more than fibs designed to throw off the enemy into a spiral of confusion and puzzlement.

Inflatable Sherman Tank
An inflatable dummy M4 Sherman tank.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

And, the funny thing is, these ploys actually worked. No shots were fired, no bombs were sent flying, and no body bags had to be raced back to the field hospitals. But the German forces quickly began to lose sight of the battlefield in front of them. Not knowing where to station their troops, or where the Allies were about to attack. This greatly hindered their planning and often sent Axis troops where they weren’t needed. Predictably, this also meant that wherever the troops were really needed, they were often spread thin. A little too thin to hold back the Allies advance, just as they had planned. At times, so deep did the deception seep into enemy lines, that the famous radio propagandist, Axis Sally, mistakenly announced that a massive Allied attack was imminent in an area… that had no single Allied troop whatsoever. 

Axis Sally
Mildred Gillars aka Axis Sally.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At times, it’s easy to wonder what made a very un-threatening bunch of toys so spectacularly effective. I mean surely the German forces couldn’t have been so gullible. Well, it didn’t matter if any suspicions were raised, because the relented actors were always one step ahead. Part of the plan was to not only field entire dummy divisions but also bundle them alongside real tanks and planes. Not only did this make the existing divisions seem larger than they actually were, it made it doubly confusing for the Germans to even pick apart the real from the fake. Coupled with their artfully tuned radio systems and amplifiers, the Ghost Army left no gap in their precisely planned stunts. 

In a brilliant display of military genius, then, they poured sand in the eyes of many an Axis commander, further aggravating their mounting losses and defeats. By triggering confusion and disarray within the German ranks, it’s estimated that the Ghost Army saved the lives of at least ten thousand Allied soldiers. As things later transpired, these saved lives then went on to inflict further defeats on the German forces, leading to their eventual surrender in April 1945. 

As military strategist, Sun Tzu aptly states in The Art of War – “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.” 

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