The origin of the mysterious “Phantom Army” that helped defeat the Nazis in World War II – La Opinion

The origin of the mysterious “Phantom Army” that helped defeat the Nazis in World War II – La Opinion

Members of two secret US military units in World War II, known as the Ghost Army, received the US Congressional Gold Medal more than 75 years after their service.

In this article we tell you what the background was that led to the emergence of that army, made up of artists from multiple disciplines who put themselves at the service of the Allies.

When we think of the artists who worked during the two World Wars of the last century, we tend to imagine those who designed propaganda material.

But what if I told you that they are forgotten heroes and that their participation was crucial to ending those conflicts?

The story of two military units from World War II and how they were inspired by artists who worked in World War I gives us an idea of ​​how they became key actors in the two wars that marked the modern world.

They recast the combat zone as an arena for creative strategy, literally turning war into large-scale “theater.”

The tanks were covered with leaves and branches so that they would go unnoticed by enemy reconnaissance flights.

Optical illusions

In times of peace, artists know how to create illusions: they master the representation of perspective and know how to use light and shadows to deceive the human eye.

Creating illusions is not the goal of all artistic creation, but it is a recurring theme in the history of Western art, from the tales of the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis (who could paint grapes so convincingly that birds tried to eat them) to Pop Art from the 60’s.

In times of war, artists are assumed to have a lesser role than that of a soldier or an airman, for example.

But after the First World War, armies realized how they could benefit from the knowledge of artists.

Above all, in the field of optical illusion.

In the new era of aerial surveillance, camouflaging troops was a priority, and painters and sculptors had the talent for it, thanks to their knowledge of the use of chiaroscuro and perspective.

For the first time, artistic skills became weapons.

Soldiers building a camouflage net.

One of the most important British camouflage artists of the First World War was Solomon J. Solomon, a member of the Royal Academy, who had studied with the famous French painter Alexandre Cabanel.

In the Great War, Solomon joined the division charged with effective military concealment tactics and was posted to the Western Front.

His invention of camouflage nets as a method to hide trenches became enormously influential.

And he worked on many other deception projects, including the creation of an “observation tree,” a replica of a hollow log that was placed in no man’s land and from which a forward observer could monitor enemy trenches.

The sculptor and painter Leon Underwood, who had studied at the Royal College of Art in London before the war, helped in the design and assembly (a very dangerous task) of these trees.

Another artist who contributed to the war effort in World War I was Norman Wilkinson.

Wilkinson had been a fairly ordinary maritime artist before the war.

He had produced paintings, as well as posters and illustrations for newspapers such as The Illustrated London News.

But serving in the British Royal Navy, he began working on more radical ideas to protect ships from hostile torpedoes.

Realizing that battleships could not be completely hidden on the high seas, he developed a technique known as disruptive camouflage either dazzlein English: consisted of complex patterns of geometric shapes in contrasting colors, which interrupted and crossed each other.

Its objective was to confuse the enemy so that they could not identify the real speed at which the ship was going or its specific position.

His experiments were carried out in four studios at the Royal Academy in London, where he worked with a team of artists that included Edward Wadsworth, an English painter associated with the Vorticism movement.

The camouflage techniques of Solomon, Underwood, Wilkinson and Wadsworth would be crucial in inspiring operations to deceive the Nazis in World War II.

However, a new generation of artists would surpass their ancestors in dimension and magic.

It looks like a zebra, but it managed to camouflage an entire ship.

The Camouflage Directorate

In 1942, in the dusty furnace that was the North African desert, Allied forces were fighting a battle against the Axis forces of Germany, Italy and Japan.

On September 16, two British soldiers were summoned to a high-level meeting in Borg-el-Arab, Egypt.

Geoffrey Barkas and Tony Ayrton were the leaders of the Middle East Command’s Camouflage Directorate, a unit dedicated to deception operations and the concealment of men and military material.

It was a very unusual collective: most of the men under Barkas and Ayrton’s command were not battle-hardened soldiers, but artists, set designers and draftsmen who had been recruited for their skills in visual deception.

One of its members had been a famous peacetime magician.

Ayrton was a painter and Barkas was a writer, producer and film director who won an Oscar for a documentary in 1936.

After brief introductions, the men were informed of the top secret plan that would take place in the second Battle of El Alamein.

They were told it was an assault that could change the fate of the war and would likely be the largest desert offensive in world history.

The disruptive camouflage was designed by Norman Wilkinson.

Then, to the astonishment of Barkas and Ayrton, they were told that responsibility for the Allies’ most important strategic maneuver remained in their hands.

They looked at each other in amazement: the high command had dozens of battleships, planes, tanks and artillery at its disposal. What did they need from a gang of unassuming artists?

Until then, the Camouflage Directorate of the Middle East Command dealt only with camouflage tactics.

They painted the ground of the airfields with black and gray spots simulating the shadows produced by weapons to deceive the reconnaissance flights of the Axis powers.

Likewise, they drew the roofs of the aircraft hangars to look like civilian homes.

In other words, they applied the same techniques that Wilkinson and Solomon had pioneered.

The term camouflage began to be used in the First World War.

Magic Tricks

But in September 1942 the Allies needed bigger magic tricks.

They were terrified by the mobility, tactical acumen and firepower of their Axis adversaries, led in North Africa by the legendary Erwin Rommel.

To win, they needed catch their German and Italian enemies off guardmaking them believe that the attack would be much later and that it would come from a different direction than they expected.

To achieve this, they had to camouflage entire legions of tanks in the north of the battlefield.

And also create a decoy army of 600 completely fake military vehicles in the south, to make the Axis forces fear an equally powerful attack from that flank.

In what was a feat of set design, Barkas, Ayrton and the Camouflage Directorate They had only 28 days to create a fictional army and completely camouflage the real one so that it could not be seen.

The fictional southern army was created with fake tanks and food boxes, ammunition silos and oil containers, all made from boxes and palm leaves covered with tarps.

A huge fake water pipe was also built.

In the northern section, the actual tanks had specially fitted wooden compartments, nicknamed “sunshades,” bolted to their upper half to make them look like regular trucks.

Artillery pieces were similarly covered.

Once in position and immediately before the battle began, covers were removed.

It became clear to the Axis forces that they were not prepared.

In front of them and out of nowhere an entire army appeared.

The tricks worked: after a large-scale deadly confrontation, The Allies defeated Rommel’s forces.

After the battle, a German general admitted that the Allies had deceived them with their tactics.

The artists had triumphed, and inspired others.

These ingenious tricks inspired an American military regiment in World War II.

The Special Troops of Headquarters 23, better known as the “Phantom Army”were composed of more than 1,000 men and were used in Europe after D-Day.

Their goal was to deceive the Germans into believing that forces of up to 30,000 additional troops were threatening their lines, leading them to redeploy troops to locations favorable to the Allies.

The Phantom Army

Like the Camouflage Directorate of the Middle East Command, the Ghost Army recruited many architects, designers, advertising creatives and artists along with soldiers and engineers.

Famous members of the Ghost Army included photographer Art Kane, fashion designer Bill Blass, and painter Ellsworth Kelly.

During its service life between 1944 and 1945, it carried out 22 operations to deceive the Germans, and was crucial in the Allies’ final triumph over Adolf Hitler.

The Ghost Army used a variety of techniques to confuse.

The fake military equipment included hundreds of inflatable tanks which looked from a distance exactly like the real thing, and successfully fooled German aerial reconnaissance.

Another team was responsible for fake radio traffic, intended to be intercepted by Nazi spies.

A pair of mobile speakers emitted sounds of troop movements and large engineering projects such as bridge construction.

The problem with any static camouflage pattern is that it only works well against the right background.

Members of the Ghost Army also worked as actors, donning the uniforms of different regiments and mingling in local towns, dropping clues about troop movements in the hopes that local spies would pick them up.

After the end of the war, the Ghost Army was sworn to secrecy, and stories of their elaborate stage work remained confidential until 1996.

The stories of the artists of World War I, the Middle East Camouflage Directorate, and the United States Ghost Army reveal a new direction in the history of illusionism in art.

Although artists had been used occasionally by the military before the 20th century (in recording the topography of enemy positions, for example) modern warfare had involved optical tricks by artists in a wholly original way.

His work on strategic diversion of attention was critical to the overall war effort, reminding us that deception, as Sun Tzu wisely observed back in the 5th century BC. C. in China, it is always the key element in the “art of war”.

This article appeared on BBC Culture. You can read the original version in English here.

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