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Ghost Army: The Inflatable Tanks That Fooled Hitler (2013) (theatlantic.com)
87 points by areoform 70 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments

My dad was part of this unit.

Back around 1994 we were talking about data and I was telling him about CD-ROMs and how you could buy libraries with public address and phone records. He was ecstatic at the prospect of finding his fellow veterans of the 23rd and the 3132. He would give me lists of names that I would look up for him with potential matching phone numbers. He ended up getting in contact with around 150 men and helped organize what became yearly reunions in the late 1990s because of our research. It was one of the best side research projects I ever did. This was all before Google and online phone search indexes.

My dad passed away in 2005 and I so wish he was here still to see how much attention and recognition the Ghost Army has received. I always felt that much of the attention and recognition the Ghost Army has finally received over the years were in part from my dad's efforts to reach out and help organize the reunions and reconnecting with so many of the veterans in this unit.

It is actually still a thing:


The ability to make the enemy think you are massing forces somewhere is still invaluable and military dummies (complete with devices that will trace fake track marks on the ground) are actually costly equipment.

Some are designed to fool vision, others to fool radar.

Some are pretty realistic:


Those inflatable hangers look like they would also do a great job as quick legitimate shelters for a campaign in a mild climate

I’m not sure those hangars really are decoys. The military often uses inflatable tents and hangars. It’s not to fool anyone they’re just practical.

Yeah, in the startup world companies would inflate user count, active users, and so on and so forth to fool the "enemy".

One of my favorite RTS games, Ruse, centered around the idea of ghost armies.


A pretty thin article about an awesome topic!

The Ghost Army was [part of] the post-D-day operational aspect of a wider deception named Operation Bodyguard. Absolutely fascinating story - the underlying idea was to convince Axis of an entire non-existent invasion force (which dwarfed the actual Allied forces) and sell the idea that the Normandy invasion was a feint.

It worked tremendously - Panzer units stayed in Pas-de-calais for more than a week following D-Day (awaiting the next invasion) before being moved. And even then that was by necessity; Hitler continued to be obsessed about Calais.

Bodyguard included fake tanks, landing barges, radio traffic etc. But the impact pre D-Day was low because the German spotter planes weren't great. Much more impactful was the double-agent work which basically sold the story. After D-Day, captured German maps matched exactly the maps the deception experts had plotted...

Another fun fact; the Allies told the Germans about D-Day in advance. The top Double Agent (Garbo)[2] ran a fictional network for the Germans, and was authorised to tell them about the invasion at midnight (in a mix up on the German side, his message wasn't received till 8am).

Bodyguard was immense - but it was ultimately based on the ideas of Dudley Clarke[3] who was basically Rommel's nemesis (contrary to popular history about Monty) in North Africa. He basically invented the concept of modern deception techniques - including fake troops (fun note: he came up with the name for the SAS, helped form the Commandos and also named the US Rangers). His ideas were picked up by London and a whole deception department formed to arrange bodyguard (they did a crap job planning it, so Clarke ripped up the plan through a subordinate and made them redo it).

Fascinating and little known area of history. Sadly most of the literature on it is a bit dry... but there are a load of Wikipedia articles which are OK (although I wrote most of them, so subjective!) and Ben Macintyre has written a couple of decent books on the double agent aspect.

(ps in case you hadn't guessed; this is my specialist subject :D)

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Bodyguard 2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Pujol_Garc%C3%ADa 3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dudley_Clarke

This history including the inflatable tanks was referenced in the series World War II in Color, watched it on Netflix a few months back. Many might find it dry but I thought I found it riveting.

“All warfare is based on deception”

(Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_War#English)

Except for nukes.

Well, that's not exactly true either. When your enemy has counter ballistic missile measures then you will likely use more missiles, but since the nuclear part is very expensive, you're likely to use dummy missiles mixed in with the real ones to overwhelm the counter measures.

After the US dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they had no more bombs ready to go, and would have taken at least 12 days to prepare, ship and deliver to its target.

Of course Japan didn't know that.

>>>Of course Japan didn't know that.

Neither did the Russians. I've repeatedly read that dropping the 2nd bomb on Nagasaki was partly to make Stalin think we had the ability to mass-produce these weapons and it wasn't just a one-off capability, in order to deter any Soviet conventional military aggression. The RKKA was overwhelmingly the largest and most capable land army in 1945.

Didn't they do similar stuff in North Africa?

Can't help but notice that the article is a little thin on impact. Are there any known cases of the Germans changing decisions based on the rubber tanks?

Rommel did I think.

Also Serbians used it with great success, NATO was hitting rubber tanks and wooden MIGs and after the bombing campaign assesed that serbian army was as strong as before

Referring to 1999 NATO campaign on then-Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro).

A decent write-up of the tactics used by the Yugoslav army: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/liberation-of-kosovo-bomb...

Well. ErrantX has a good comment on the wider operations. The largest part of Operation Bodyguard was Operation Fortitude which was the Southern England deception.

Impact? Thanks to Ultra we have a pretty good idea. Excellent, except probably none at all from inflatables, some from the artificial radio traffic, and the vast majority from the double agents. From Wikipedia:

During the course of Fortitude, the almost complete lack of German aerial reconnaissance, together with the absence of uncontrolled German agents in Britain, came to make physical deception almost irrelevant. The unreliability of the "diplomatic leaks" resulted in their discontinuance. The majority of deception was carried out by means of false wireless traffic and through German double agents. The latter proved to be by far the most significant.


Yes this started in Africa (its my pet subject!) with a guy called Dudley Clarke[1]. He's fascinating!

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dudley_Clarke

According to Wikipedia the Germans held back troops to repel a landing at Calais.

I think the Germans were particularly receptive to this kind of thing. Hitler was the perfect mark. A man who is utterly convinced that he is cleverer than his enemy. The allies just needed to confirm some things he already thought.

The Germans always had data about what was really going on. They just allowed bias to get in the way.

Soviet Army had been skillful at using maskirovka. During Uranus offensive at Stalingrad and at Kursk. That included building false bridges, trenches, etc.

> (at Stalingrad) Stavka succeeded in moving a million men, 1000 tanks, 14,000 guns and 1400 aircraft into position without alerting their enemy

> In mid-June 1943 German army high command (OKH) had estimated 1500 Soviet tanks in the Kursk salient, against the true figure of over 5100, and underestimated Soviet troop strength by a million.


Damn I remember reading up about what was probably a reference to this as a kid in the beautifully illustrated Russian History in Tales (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7791688-russian-history-... )

The article says this was declassified in the 90s but I distinctly remember a story from the book about fake tanks to fool the German army.

I remember reading somewhere that Serbia used a similar tactic to fool the NATO aircraft in Kosovo.

Weird that there's not a single mention of Jasper Maskelyne in this article


EDIT: formatting

Maskelyne was mostly in Africa (also his claims are somewhat disputed - much of the research points to Victor Jones[1] as the key man)

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Jones_(British_Army_off...

Oof, there goes another childhood hero!

Looks like I've got some reading to do - thanks, internet stranger!

Germany wasn't able to do much aerial reconnaissance by that point in the war so they wouldn't have seen the tanks. The fake signals traffic was probably more important.

They were flying aerial recon missions up to the point they lost the forward airfields in France.

And like most retreating forces, they likely had leave-behinds and friendly locals reporting in. Since locals wouldn't be able to get close, "it sounded like a bunch of tanks!" and "it looked like some tanks!" would have worked pretty well.

The tanks were in southern England, there were no "friendly locals" to report anything to Germany.

This would make a good movie

He probably means a Hollywood movie, not a documentary.

The plot could be based on a real event/mission or just fictional. A WW2 "The A-Team" with rubber tanks and fake generals, it could be good.

Some of these deceptions are mentioned in Ken Follett's novel "Eye of the Needle", which was made into a movie in 1981.

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