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23rd Headquarters Special Troops

Operation Brest

August 20-27, 1944

Inflatable Tank at Brest  Colorized

Inflatable tank at Operation Brest

Operation BREST marked the first time the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops used visual, radio, and sonic deception altogether. It was one of the rare times that they found themselves in the midst of a major battle. Corporal Jack Masey, from Brooklyn New York, recalled that Brest as “the biggest piece of action I ever saw in World War II.”[i] And it was a learning experience that readied the deception troops for future operations in the months to come.

Map of Operation Brest
Tenaciously held by the Germans, Brest was under siege by the Allies. German troops holed up there were determined to fight it out to the end. Three American divisions from the VIII Corps – the 2nd, 8th and 29th – encircled the port city. The Americans set out to take Brest because they needed a port to supply the growing number of divisions piling in over the Normandy beaches. Changing circumstances reduced its strategic importance, but Generals Omar Bradley and George Patton decided they couldn't let up. “We must take Brest,” Patton quoted Bradley in his diary, “in order to maintain the illusion of the fact that the U.S. Army cannot be beaten." Patton himself concurred. “Any time we put our hand to a job we must finish it.” [ii]

The soldiers of the Ghost Army used inflatable tanks, sound effects, and illusion to fool the Germans. Their mission at Brest was to inflate the apparent size of American forces attacking the city and help convince German General Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke to surrender. They also aimed to draw German forces to the flanks and away from the center, where American VIII Corps commander Troy Middleton planned to launch an assault on Friday, August 25. [iii] To accomplish this, they would pretend to be two tank battalions from the 6th Armored Division, which in reality had been withdrawn from Brest two weeks earlier, as well as a field artillery battalion.

Rain was coming down in sheets the day they set out to drive across Brittany to Brest. Sgt. Bob Tomkins of the 603rd Camouflage Engineers drove the 158 miles in a jeep completely exposed to the elements. “Oh Adolph you son of Bitch” he wrote in his diary. “I feel like a frozen drowned rat.”[iv] The deception troops arrived in Lesneven on Monday, August 21, and formed three notional (fake) task forces: X, Y, and Z.

Task Force X

Task Force X commanded by Capt. Oscar Seale carried out the most intricate and, perhaps, the most dramatic part of the deception. The 200 men under his command set out to persuade the enemy that the 15th Tank Battalion was moving into an assembly area approximately two kilometers from the front, and from there into an attack position threatening the German right flank. [v]

Patrols reconnoitered the area on Wednesday morning, August 23. Men from the 406th Combat Engineers came across a grisly scene: the wrecks of 15 halftracks, destroyed by German panzerfausts (bazookas). It was a grim reminder that they were in the middle of an active battlefield. [vi]

The bulk of the deception troops arrived that afternoon in the assembly position, near the hamlet of Kerlin. They set up 53 dummy tanks and several other vehicles. Company D of the 709th Tank Battalion was assigned to work with them. A light tank from the 709th laid down realistic tracks throughout the area. From 10:30 PM until past midnight, five halftracks equipped with wire recorders and oversize speakers played sounds of vehicles moving in. The sound effects began with one tank, then built in volume until the noise of a company of 18 tanks had been portrayed. They repeated this twice more to simulate the arrival of a second and third company. [vii] “Sound effects throughout the operation were extremely realistic,” said Capt. Bill Paden, an observer from the 2nd Infantry Division. “Such sounds as shifting of gears, tread noises, crackling of brush and voices of guides leading tanks into final positions could be clearly distinguished.” Paden praised the attention to detail. “Any interested observer within a 2.5 mile radius would have been convinced that a large number of vehicles was assembled . . . daylight investigation from a distance of 200 yards from the dummy positions would have apparently verified the presence of the tank battalion.” [viii]
During the day on Thursday the 24th, the men lit fires, pitched tents, and even hung out laundry—all part of the visual illusion. Looking southeast, Sgt. Bob Tompkins could see Germans observing them from the church tower in nearby Gouesnou.[ix] Their presence certainly fooled some of their fellow Americans. GIs from other units who heard the sounds of tanks moving in during the night were delighted to see soldiers apparently from the Sixth Armored. “We pulled into that area,” said John Jarvie, “and they came running and said, ‘Boy, are we happy to see you guys.’”[x]

That night, between 10 PM and 3 AM, the simulated tank companies deflated their dummies, moved forward to the “attack” position about a kilometer south to L’Ormeau, in the same area where the real 6th Armored had suffered major casualties August 8-9. (There is a monument to the 6th near that spot.) “Maintained items – tore them down at 9 PM,” scribbled Tompkins in the tiny diary he carried with him in violation of security regulations. “Moved up 500 yards to new area and set up 10 tanks.” He and his buddy, future fashion designer Bill Blass, didn’t get to set up their tent until 3 AM, at which point they promptly passed out with their feet sticking out into the pouring rain.

Meanwhile, Cpl. Al Albrecht, a 20-year old from Milwaukee Wisconsin serving in the 3132 Signal Company Special, drove his specially-equipped halftrack to a forward position just a few hundred meters from German lines, along with the crews of the other halftracks. They cranked up their 500-pound speaker arrays, and between 10:45 PM and 1:15 AM they played sounds of tanks moving up.[xi] The men felt extremely exposed. “I remember looking out there and saying ‘we’re pretty close to the enemy,’” said Albrecht. PFC Phil Dellisante described it as “like being on the firing line.” [xii]

The American attack went off the next day at 1 PM. PM. Bob Tompkins observed from the top of a hedgerow. “Fireworks start. Artillery raising hell” he wrote in his diary. “Saw shells landing about 400 yards in front of us. Could hear machine guns, rifles, mortars, etc. Saw time firing – saw 4 thunderbolts strafing with rockets. They roared over our heads and then dove into the thick of it. Havoc came over and bombed. Couple of mortar shells came our way. Landed about 50 yards behind us. Whole front line is one screen of smoke.” [xiii]

German artillery had clearly zeroed in on the installation of fake tanks, as many rounds fell upon the deceivers. Twenty-two year old John Jarvie, a corporal from New Jersey, was sitting in his jeep when he heard a couple of shells coming in. “I thought, ‘Holy shit, I got to get out of here.’” He tried to get out of the jeep, but his gun belt caught on the wheel, and he couldn’t get out. “Those two shells slammed down into the ground, 50-60 feet in front of my jeep, dead on. Plunk, plunk. Dirt went up in the air and no explosion. That was one of my nine lives I got there.”

The enemy fire was evidence the deception had succeeded. But that very success had an unanticipated, tragic effect. Through a miscommunication or a misunderstanding of the deception’s impact, Company D of the 709th Tank Battalion joined the attack from near where The Ghost Army had focused the enemy’s attention. As a result, they were hit instantly with artillery fire. Five tanks were blown to bits. “Those guys never reached the line of departure,” recalled Cpl. Jarvie. “They just got decimated.”[xiv]

The incident weighed heavily on the men of the 23rd. Lt. Colonel Clifford Simenson, the unit’s operations officer, considered it a lesson on the crucial importance of careful coordination and communication. The tanks “should not have attacked in that place,” he later wrote in an analysis of the operation, “or otherwise the 23rd should have employed deception in another area.”

Task Force X pulled out that night, sonic trucks “playing” their departure to maintain the illusion. The next day, Tompkins made a last entry in his diary about the Battle of Brest. “Just beginning to realize how vulnerable we were the last three days as stories came in from various sources.”[xv]

Task Force Z

The 160 men of Task Force Z, commanded by Lt. Colonel Simenson, simulated the 69th Tank Battalion moving in to an area on the right flank about one kilometer northeast of Milizac. This deception was also supported by a company from the 709th Tank battalion, and sonic halftracks from the 603rd. It was similar in size and scope to the work of Task Force X, except that it was shorter in duration, two days instead of three. Officers who climbed the church steeple in Milizac to observe the display of inflatables could not tell difference between real tanks and fakes. A map below shows how Task Force Z dispersed its dummy vehicles. [xvi]
​Task Force Y

Task Force Y, commanded by Lt. Col James Mayo, had a very different mission to carry out. His men were positioned near Lannou, about 800 meters in front of the 37th Field Artillery Battalion. Their goal was to draw off counter-battery fire from the real artillery once the battle commenced on Friday the 25th. They were not using inflatables, but rather flash canisters to simulate the muzzle flashes of actual artillery. A telephone wire connected them to the fire direction center of the real battery, allowing the phony unit to co-ordinate their flashes with the actual artillery fire. The home-made flash canisters were made from spent shells loaded with half-a-pint of black powder, and an electric igniter. (See schematic to the right.) “We planned to flash Wednesday and Thursday nights in the hopes the enemy would spot our flash and locate us as a battalion to be countered,” wrote Mayo in his official report. “Should we be successful the 37th FA Bn could support the attack without interference from enemy counter-battery fire.” [xvii]

Anticipating enemy artillery fire, the men in the unit dug their foxholes deep and hunkered down. Enemy shells from big German coastal guns started pouring in half an hour after the attack started. “We definitely drew fire,” wrote Mayo.[xviii] “All hell seemed to be hurtling through the air,” commented Corporal Rolff Campbell of the 406th Combat Engineers. Most of the shells landed just in front of the fake artillery position. Some of the shrapnel pieces were “as big as a man’s arm,” wrote Campbell.[xix]No shells at all fell on the real artillery battery firing on the Germans – a strong indication that the deceivers accomplished their goal.

Communications Diagram for Operation Brest showing both wired and radio communication. All radio communciations were designed to be heard by the enemy, while secure conversations were transmitted over wire.
Results
In many ways, Operation Brest was a notable success. “Visual effects were thorough and complete for both enemy air observations and/or enemy agents or patrols,” reported Colonel Cyrus Searcy, VIII Corps chief of staff. As for the sonic deception, Searcy noted that an American engineering unit more than a mile away heard enough to convince them that tanks were assembling.[xx]He reported that “between 20 and 50 88 mm anti-tank guns were shifted to meet what they evidently believed to be a major armored threat.”[xxi]

The deception did, indeed, achieve one of its objectives: Drawing German attention to the flanks. It did not, however, fulfill the larger mission of compelling the Germans to surrender. Neither did it weaken the center sufficiently for the Americans to end the siege with their attack on the 25th. German commander Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke had more troops than estimated, 38,000 instead of 21,000, and held out for 27 more days. It was generally agreed that, while the deception was well carried out, it was thwarted by the enemy’s lack of aerial observation and Ramcke’s fierce refusal to surrender under any circumstances.

Nevertheless, Operation Brest was a significant milestone for The Ghost Army. It was the first time all of its means of misdirection were brought to bear simultaneously, a baptism under fire that wiped out any idea that their mission would be some kind of lark. It honed their deception skills and taught them the urgent importance of co-ordination. Lessons learned at Brest made them battle-ready for critical deceptions missions to come.

Today
A Ghost Army historical marker was placed on the site of Task Force X's original position in 2021.
Rick Beyer and Beth Webster at Historical Marker in Plabennac

Ghost Army Legacy Project President , and U.S. Consul for Western France Beth Webster stand at the historical marker in Plabennac

Reports

Below are some of the operation reports from this mission. The originals are in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops records at the National Archives in College Park Maryland.

End Notes
[i] Rick Beyer interview with Jack Masey, (Ghost Army Legacy Project Archive, 2007)

[ii] Martin Blumenson, The Patton Papers, p 532

[iii][i Frederick Fox. The Official History of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. (US Army, 1945. National Archives)

[iv]Bob Tompins, World War II Diary, (unpublished, a transcription by Bill Blass’s mother is in the Ghost Army Legacy Project Archive)

[v] Fox

[vi] Rolff Campbell, History of the 406th Combat Engineers (Photocopy in Ghost Army Legacy Project Archive)

[vii] Capt. Oscar Seale, “Task Force X, Operational Report for Period 230715 Aug – 260115 Aug, 1944” (National Archives)

[viii] Capt. Bill Paden (Assistant Operations Officer, 2nd Division.) Inspection Report (Untitled) August 24, 1944 (National Archives)

[ix] Bob Tompkins interview with Rick Beyer, (Ghost Army Legacy Project Archive, 2007)

[x] Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles The Ghost Army of WWII (Princeton Architectural Press, 2015)

[xi] Seale; Also review of maps in the National Archives, and observations of Rick Beyer on location in June 2018.

[[xii] Al Albrecht, The Ghost Army of World War II (self published oral history video, VHS copy in Ghost Army Legacy Project Archive)

[xiii] Tompkins WWII Diary

[xiv] Jarvie

[xv] Tompkins WWII Diary

[xvi] Harold Deutsch (ed.) Basic Deception and the Normandy Invasion (Garland, 1989)

[xvii] Lt. Col James Mayo, “Report on Operation of Task Force Y (Brest) Aug 231400-261900” (National Archives, 1944)

[xviii] Mayo

[xix] Campbell

[xx] Beyer and Sayles

[xxi] Colonel Cyrus Searcy, “Report on the Results of Deception Operaton at Brest” (National Archives, 1944)

updated: 1 month ago

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