Culture Trips

The artists who outwitted the Nazis

These ingenious ruses were inspiration to a US military regiment formed later in World War Two. The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, better known as the “Ghost Army”, was comprised of more than 1,000 men, and used in Europe in the aftermath of D Day. Its objective was to double-cross the Germans into believing that superior forces of up to 30,000 extra troops were threatening their lines, thus leading them to redeploy troops to locations favourable to the Allies. Like the Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate, the Ghost Army had recruited many architects, designers, advertising creatives and artists alongside regular soldiers and engineers. Famous members of the Ghost Army included photographer Art Kane, fashion designer Bill Blass and the painter Ellsworth Kelly. During its lifespan between 1944 and 1945, it created 22 deception operations to mislead the Germans – and it proved crucial in the Allies’ ultimate triumph over Adolf Hitler.

The Ghost Army used a range of misdirection techniques. False military equipment included hundreds of inflatable tanks that looked from a distance exactly like the real thing, and successfully tricked German aerial reconnaissance. Another team was responsible for bogus radio traffic, intended to be intercepted by Nazi eavesdroppers. A set of mobile speakers pumped out sounds of troop movements and large engineering projects like bridge-building. Members of the Ghost Army also worked as actors, putting on the uniforms of different regiments and mixing in local towns, dropping hints about troop movements in the hope that local spies would pick them up. After the end of the war, the Ghost Army was sworn to secrecy, and the tales of their elaborately orchestrated stagecraft remained officially confidential until 1996.

The stories of the World War One camoufleurs, the Middle East Camouflage Directorate and the US “Ghost Army” reveal a new direction in the story of illusionism in art. Although artists had been used occasionally by the military before the 20th Century (in recording the topography of the enemy’s positions, for example) modern war had involved artists’ visual tricks in a totally original way. Their work in strategic misdirection was critical for the overall war effort, reminding us that deception, as Sun Tzu wisely observed way back in 5th Century BCE China, is always the key element in the “Art of War”.

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