Skip to main content

Operation Exploit (Viersen)

A jeep and soldier in front of a restaurant

Rebh's headquarters during Viersen. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

The time for long delays between problems was past. The “bulge” was now a depression. Gen. Hodges’ 1st Army had already penetrated the impregnable Rhine at the famous Remagen bridgehead. Patton’s 3rd and Patch’s 7th were driving into southern Germany with unforseen swiftness. Gen. Simpson’s once mysterious 9th was coming out of the shrouds of secrecy and into the world’s headlines with its drive toward the Rhine in the heavily defended Wesel-Dusseldorf area. With the Germans on the jump in all sectors, the scene was set for a Blarney coup – a master stroke of deception capable of saving thousands of lives, and setting the stage for the final capitulation of the German military machine.

The setting for Blarney’s last all-important operation was to be in Gen. Simpson’s 9th Army sector, requiring an extended motor march into position. Early on the morning of 15 March, Lt. Daley’s crack MP’s were sent out to guide the convoy, consisting of the entire organization, on its long trek from Briey to the vicinity of Sittard, Holland (which was the 6th European country to be entered by the organization). The movement was made in two days, with the 406th leaving base camp at 0730 hours on 16 March. None but the traffic guides were able to enjoy the transient pleasures afforded by Arlon, Liege, and the now historic city of Bastogne, but the first platooners who did, realized that with all their soft living, they had never approached the comforts of the real rear echelon.

By 1900 on 16 March, the company was settled in a schoolhouse in Geleen, Holland, having traveled all of 160 miles to see this clean, pleasant land of windmills – only there were no windmills in that sector. The 30th and 79th Infantry Divisions were in the area for riving crossing training on the Maas River. 23rd Hq Sp Trs. Was to represent them as TF 30 and TF 79 in the 9th Army cover plan for the Rhine crossing – Operation Exploit.

The plan was designed to make the enemy think that no part of the 9th Army would be prepared to launch an offensive prior to April 1. The basic idea was to conceal the concentrations of troops and supplies in the XVI Corps zone while a build up for a simulated attack was taking place in the XIII Corps zone. An elaborate scheme to accomplish this was devised by Lt. Col. Truly, Blarney liaison officer with Gen. Simpson’s headquarters.

On March 18, the real 30th and 79th Divisions began moving secretly into their concealed assembly areas in the XVI Corps zone. A strict blackout was enforced on them for the duration of the operation with excellent cooperation received. Their routes of march passed through the same areas that Task Force 30 and TF 79 occupied in the XIII Corps area.

At the same time, the notional units were moved into their assigned positions. On the 18th of March, billeting parties and advanced elements of TF 30 proceeded to the vicinity of Dulken, Germany. On the same day, the 406th sent out a detail of mine sweepers to the vicinity of Dyck, German where a small lake was located. 30th Div patches were worn and the trucks were marked with the insignia of the 305th Eng. The party proceeded up the main highway, dropping off men with a mine sweeper at each side road that led to the lake. At one of these stops, just as Capt. Rebh was giving instructions to make a thorough sweep, a jeep came driving up the dirt road. Suspecting trickery, the mine sweepers proceeded with care to the lake area, letting the nearby Germans note how painstaking were the American combat engineers.

That afternoon the company parted ways, each platoon going to its operational area. The 2nd and 3rd platoons were assigned to Task Force 79 under Lt. Col. Simenson. The 1st platoon simulated the MP’s of TF 30, while the remainder of the company were in Task Force Rebh – Capt. Rebh became the commanding officer of the regiment, 30th Division.

The 1st platoon moved out first, taking over division headquarters and traffic posts in Dulken. The members of the platoon not needed for this or for the roving jeep patrols were given to Capt. Rebh for use in guarding the lake area.

Members of the 2nd and 3rd platoons, posing as 79th Div MP’s, were sent into the TF 79 zone at 0900 on 19 March and proceeded to order all civilians out of the area. Signs declaring the region a restricted zone and putting it out of bounds to all unauthorized personnel were also posted at this time. Sgt. Cogan’s squad was left to guard the area until relieved by an infantry unit attached to Blarney for the operation.

The same procedure was followed in the neighborhood of the TF30 lake. Since the plan was to make extensive use of dummies in open fields, it was imperative that no German be allowed to come close enough to compromise the equipment. Therefore, old women, cripples, and supermen alike were ordered from their homes. None were excepted and none in the Dyck area gave any trouble.

The infantry that came in to relieve the 3rd platoon squad on the morning of the 20th was the 2nd Bn, 405th Regt of the 102nd Inf Div. These men had been told to expect a week of action without casualties – then, look out! They were briefed about the importance of their job, i. e. keeping unauthorized personnel and civilians out of the restricted areas, and told that upon the proper carrying out of their orders depended thousands of American lives. In short, this was to be the job that was to set the stage for the end of the war.

Their job of guarding was almost above criticism. Posted all around the immediate area of the dummies, they were instructed to bring all those who broke through to the 2nd and 3rd platoon MP’s who were stationed further out. Several of these cases were apprehended and dealt with severely, thus preventing any compromise.

The reaction of the doughboys to the items, which were set up starting the night of the 19th, provided a source of amusement to the Blarney personnel. Apparently their briefing had not included what type of equipment was to be used. At any rate, they were observed to stare with wonder when they awoke to a field full of trucks or tanks where the night before there had been nothing. It took but a short time for the true nature of the items to be discovered, but for a long time afterwards, debates were overheard concerning the reality of some vehicles that might be far enough away to preclude the lifting or pushing test.

In order to bring the various units into their areas, circular traffic and Heater convoy noises were employed. MP’s from the 2nd and 3rd platoons were used to guide the mythical traffic into the proper areas, while the 2nd platoon was sent out to provide security for the 3132nd as they played in the various regimental movements under the cover of darkness. The 603rd, which provided real vehicles for the circular traffic, also sent them out at night to implement the sonic impressions, following circular routes so as to be ready to come in each time Heater started a serial. Meanwhile, the rubber vehicles were set up in the areas to which the convoys were moving. Air intelligence would thus corroborate any reports from enemy ground agents that an outfit had just moved to that particular spot. Special effects during the day, and radio deception, would tell them which outfit.

In the 30th Task Force, slightly different methods were used to attract the enemy attention. The 1st platoon MP’s in the town of Dulken gave their usual flawless performance directing traffic and guarding the division CP. In addition, they patrolled the town to enforce the non-fraternization ban. No American troops were found to be disobeying the order. This left an impression of unreality, so it was thought best to have a few volunteers simulate fraternization. The success of the problem attested to the quality of the deception achieved by this group of special operators.

It was in the lake area – known as Task Force Rebh – that speculation grew even among the 406 personnel as to what the hell was going on. As in the 79th zone, a restricted area, sans civilians, was established, with infantrymen posted to enforce the regulations. In this case, it was the 1st Bn, 334th Inf Regt of the 84th Inf Div. 406th’s Hq and leftover 1st platooners assisted in the guard detail whenever their other manifold duties permitted.

The houses in the town of Dornbusch (where the dummies were set up) were cleared by Sgt. Mollenkamp, S/Sgt Price and an officer from another unit. The houses bordering on the lake were cleared by Sgt. H. T. Anderson and his interpreter Pvt. Jake (Professeur de Danse) Orloff. Engineer equipment was brought down to the lake where simulated river training was given to the men of the New Hickory division. The civilians were moved only from the area where the sonic bridge was to be constructed. Thus, one house on the far end of the lake was forced to accommodate most of the civilians from the immediate neighborhood.

The day before the bridge building was to start, a report came in that this one house was not only the refuge for all the people moved out by Sgt. Anderson, but also for a group of German soldiers. Investigated by the G-5 of the nearby 8th Arm’d Div, the case was found to jibe in all the reported details. However, the civil affairs attaché informed Capt. Rebh (who was then the Col in charge of the lake area) that the 8th Arm’d was too busy to handle the matter, and advised that the “colonel” look into it.

Accordingly, arrangements were made to trap these soldiers. On the night of 21 March – the same night, incidentally, that Heater began its bridge building operations on the lake, a detachment under S/Sgt Brodbeck was sent to surround the house and wait for the soldiers to come out. Reports had it that they were accustomed to sleep in the house at night and leave early in the morning to hide in the woods. The ambushers waited all night in vain before deciding that the Heinies must have been tipped off and therefore were not coming out. Just before daybreak, the Bull gave the signal to charge, whereupon the house was entered and searched. To no one’s surprise, no soldiers were discovered, but there was certainly cause enough for suspicion. Straw beds which had apparently been used recently were found in the cellar, along with a knapsack which had the name of a German 1st Sgt – definitely known to be in the area – written inside it. In addition, there was a conglomeration of nationalities living in the house, which would have put Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet to shame as mere amateurs in the game of intrigue and espionage. One Frenchman, for example, told the raiders that he would vouch for everyone in the house. Another Frenchman said everyone in the house was a Nazi, including his aforementioned countryman. The Germans denied everything and knew nothing. The 406th tried hard, but the inefficient 30th Division was too strong an influence, with the unfortunate result that nothing definite was pinned on the heinies.

As for the bridge work, the Hq and 1st platoon men at Dornbusch were required to do security work for that too. Rumors were then rampant that this show was just a trial, and that the unit would be used shortly for a real job on the Rhine itself. This was the impression that the Germans were supposed to get too, except they didn’t know that real bridge equipment and real troops were not used. So perfectly was this plan conceived that even the members of the deception unit themselves were taken in by one phase of it.

The “show,” as the sonic bridge came to be called, was put on for three nights running. In case the sound didn’t carry to enemy agents, signs advertising a river crossing demonstration were posted along the main highways. Of course, only those with the special password were allowed to witness it, but enemy interest was doubtless aroused at the same time. An investigation from the air would indicate that the lake shore was crowded with assault boats (some real, some just nets) and bulldozers. Signs of building activity were strewn about as well. Nearby were the fields of innumerable rubber items, indicating the presence of a big troop concentration. The entire aerial picture would thus correspond in the minutest detail to any of the reporst which their spies must have sent over. At least one Messerschmidt was seen over the area during daylight and several more came over at night – when a special device operated to attract them.

In both task force areas, members of the 130 AAA W Bn set up emplacements in and around the vicinity of the items. During the day their job was to keep enemy reconnaissance planes at a high altitude to prevent close observation of the dummies. They also served to complete the deceptive picture of the presence of a division, since such a large troop concentration would obviously need protection. At night, however, they were ballyhoo agents pure and simple. They fired barrages whether planes were over or not, and their searchlights roamed the sky as though announcing a Hollywood World Premiere. As a result there was a tremendous increase in enemy air activity by the end of the operation.

No enemy aerial photographs were captured, but it is most probable that they were taken. Photographs of the area by our own planes showed a most convincing display, particularly when taken from high altitudes. Concrete proof that the special effects were likewise convincing was demonstrated by the reaction of friendly troops. Even members of the represented units were taken in by the simulation, although at times they were certainly confused.

One truck driver from the real 30th Qm drove up to the MP’s stationed at the Div Hq in Dulken to ask for directions and to see some of his old buddies. It seems he had been a member of the 30th MP platoon just a short while back. He asked the man on duty if he knew various fellows, and was amazed to find that he didn’t. Just then he noticed a number of the 406 MP’s around the building, and of course he recognized none of them. He then came to a startling conclusion. “Christ,” he moaned to his companion, “they must have taken a hell of a beating. There doesn’t seem to be one of the old bunch left alive.”

A major from the 30th medics rationalized his confusion in a slightly different fashion. He had just been to the blacked out 30th CP in the XVI Corps area and was passing through XIII Corps when he noticed the 30th Fwd signs. Naturally bewildered, he stopped in to investigate and came out explaining to his driver, “You see, there must be two CP’s This one’s got G1 and G2 and the other one has G3 and G4.” Of course, had the major bothered to look at the signs outside the headquarters, he would have discovered that he was wrong, but as it was, his curiosity was satisfied, and he accepted the notional CP as his own outfit.

A bit of clockwork luck prevented one GI from catching on to the deception. His brother was in the 315th Infantry of the 79th Div. When he asked where he could find his brother’s unit, the MP told him he had best inquire at division headquarters – but that he was probably still back in Holland. Just as the GI went inside to inquire, a convoy of trucks marked with the 315th insignia came zooming past, carrying infantrymen for simulated activity. The last truck just passed out of sight when the inquisitive GI came outside to tell the MP that he was right, his brother’s unit was still in Holland.

Most amusing incident concerned a captain from the 2nd Arm’d Div who had some business to attend with Brig. Gen. ___, artillery officer of the 30th. The first time he came around, he asked the MP at the gate if the general was in. Answered in the negative, he accepted meekly and left. A few hours later he returned and found another MP on post. “Did Gen ___ get back yet?” he asked. “Not yet” was the somewhat unsure answer. The captain was persistent, however, and returned several more times. Finally he went into headquarters to investigate for himself. When last heard, he was hoarsely pleading with the Sgt. Major, “Look, you come down to my division. Any time. I’ll let you see my general. WHAT KIND OF OUTFIT IS THIS ANYWAY?”

Then there was the case of the 30th Qm truck loaded with Coca Cola bottles which drove up to Dornbusch to find out what was to be done with them. Shunted from one place to another, the drive finally decided to go back to Echt (where he probably had a girl friend) and wait for someone to pick him up … In short, there were literally hundreds of American GI’s who fell prey to the Blarney deception. That the Nazis did the same was later established beyond the question of a doubt.

In addition to the portrayal of the 30th and 79th Divisions in the XIII Corps zone, several other steps were taken to lead the Germans to believe that the Rhine crossing was scheduled to come off in that sector. Since an actual build up had to take place in the XVI Corps zone, every step had to be duplicated, only more obviously, in the XIII area. Thus, with 35 real artillery battalions in the XVI zone, it was necessary to indicate at least as large a concentration on the XIII front. In all, 27 battalions, both real and simulated, operated in the corps, but they moved frequently to new positions, continuing the activity and camouflage in the vacated spots. By proper registration they were able to indicate a heavy increase in the corps artillery power. The dummies for the simulated battalions were, of course, furnished by 23rd Hq Sp Trs.

Engineer parks were established in the corp zone consisting of both real and dummy installations. These were made and maintained by the 1141st Eng Group, assisted by personnel from the 84th and 604th Engineer Cam Bns. In the Uerdingen area, extensive preparations for a river crossing were carried out. Patrolling, as a matter of fact, was actually ½ greater on the XIII Corps front than on the XVI Corps.

Air reconnaissance was conducted on the same scale in both sectors. Evacuation hospitals in the army area were so placed as to give the impression from the air that the attack would be in the XIII zone. Only one hospital was installed in the XVI Corps forward, and with a similar one set up in the XIII Corps area.

Tank destroyer emplacements were constructed all along the XIII front similar in nature and number to those of the XVI Corps. Anti-aircraft batteries, in addition to their above-mentioned showmanship, built up their apparent strength in the corps by installing sixty-four 40mm and sixteen 90mm gun positions, using Blarney furnished items. The signal picture followed the normal pattern for any corps about to engage in an operation.

Meanwhile, the XVI Corps was attempting to deemphasize its build up. All units entering its zone did so under cover of darkness and moved insofar as possible to covered positions. Artillery positions were carefully camouflaged, and registration was done by battery fire on normal harassing missions. Engineer and other installations were likewise concealed or camouflaged. Personnel from the 30th and 79th Divisions were not permitted to enter the corps zone with any unit markings or identification. And, while there, they were restricted and otherwise kept under a strict blackout.

The enemy, meanwhile, was beginning to show definite reactions to the operation. At the start of the problem, they had two panzer-type divisions in immediate reserve in the sector opposite the 9thh U. S. Army and the 2ndd British Army, to act as a mobile counter attacking force in the event of a crossing of the Rhine by U.S.-British troops. The east bank of the river was reported to be lightly held by screening forces while the Germans made hurried attempts to build up their depleted divisions. Their artillery fire was confined to harassing missions on forward troops and supply installations. During the period of the operation, an increase in these artillery positions opposite the XIII Corps zone of action was observed.

A growing concern by the enemy over the activity in the XIII area was indicated by an increase in enemy air activity. Enemy reconnaissance planes were reported over the XIII Corps near areas nightly. A further manifestation of enemy sensitivity to aggressive action in the XIII zone was shown by the sharply increased reaction to friendly patrols. Their outposts showed unusual alertness and their ground activity became quite daring. The smooth functioning of enemy intelligence was demonstrated by their accurate and well-coordinated fires from March 18th to the close of the period. A considerable portion of this accurate fire was directed at the dummy artillery positions.

Road and rail activity in the enemy rear areas from 18 March to 20 March indicated a possible movement of reserves into the area opposite the XIII Corps. The continued presence in the corps zone of two parachute divisions, even after the crossings further north by XVI Corps on 24 March , appears to show that even after part of the deception had been demonstrated, the enemy was still expecting a crossing in the Mundelheim region. The enemy’s failure to regroup properly after the 9th Army crossing, may well have been the deciding factor in making possible the Ruhr trap.

The best evidence of how well the enemy was sucked-in came when the 30th and 79th made their attack in the XVI Corps zone on 24 March. In the initial crossing, the two divisions suffered something like 30 casualties, a saving of so many American lives that Col. Reeder was prompted to say that this problem alone would have justified the activation of 23rd Hq Sp Trs. The completeness with which the Germans were tricked was later brought out when the 30th Div G-2 reported that not one P/W (including battalion and regimental officers) taken by the division expected an attack from the west. All had been advised by higher commanders to expect and prepare an attack from the north across the Lippe River and Canal.

This corresponded with the 9th Army G-2’s report which stated that the enemy estimated that the main allied grossing would be north of Wesel (opposite the British sector) and that another crossing would be made in the Uerlingen area (opposite 23rd Hq Sp Trs).

A German Order of Battle map, captures by the 79th Division, showed all the U. S. divisions west of the Rhine and north of Cologne in their proper locations – except the 79th Div shown in the area of Task Force 79, considerably south of the real position, and the 30th Division, which was not shown at all.

In the words of the intelligence officer of the 30th Division, “It is apparent that the operation was highly successful and resulted in the XVI Corps’ attack being a complete surprise to the enemy with the consequent saving of many American lives.”

The only suggestion offered to improve this type of operation was to have the simulated divisions move with their markings to the Task Force area before blacking out. The area to which they then move should have all units blacked out, otherwise it would be apparent that some division, even if the exact one was unknown, was present in the new area.

If a mistake was committed, however, it apparently did not affect the success of the operation. Lt. General Simpson, Commanding General of the 9th U. S. Army, subsequently commended the entire unit for the high calibre of its performance. (See commendation letter)

Please Support Our Ongoing Efforts

The soldiers of The Ghost Army used inflatable tanks, sound effects, and imagination to fool the Germans on the battlefields of Europe. The Ghost Army Legacy Project is ensuring that these men and their accomplishments are never forgotten.

Give via credit card by clicking the yellow “Donate” button.

Or, send a check to:

Ghost Army Legacy Project
1305 S. Michigan Ave. #1104
Chicago, IL 60605

All donations are tax-deductible!