Book Review: Ghosts of the ETO: American Tactical Deception Units in the European Theater, 1944 - 1945


by Jonathan Gawne

Philadelphia: Casemate, 2014. Pp. x, 342. Illus., maps, diagr., appends., notes, biblio., index. $22.95 paper. ISBN: 1612002501

Attaining Victory Through Deceit

First published in 2002, Gawne’s ground-breaking account of the “23rd Headquarters, Special Troops” opened up a new chapter in the history of tactical deception when it originally came out, and is still the standard treatment of the subject. In it, he tells the story of a small group of troops (c. 3,500), mostly former theatrical people, set designers, artists, and such, who operated a sort of “travelling road show, ready at a moment’s notice to present . . .” any unit in order to trick the enemy and gain some tactical advantage. 

Gawne opens with a short account of the history of military deception. In the next two chapters he discusses the formation and training of the “23rd HQ” in the United States and its deployment to England on the eve of D-Day, along the way giving us insights into the principles, techniques, and technologies the command was to use.

There follow 24 short chapters that cover the command’s operations from its landing in France in the aftermath of D-Day across Europe and into the heart of Germany, with a side glance a the activities of a subordinate unit in Italy. Gawne gives us a look at over a score of operations, including the Bulge, not to mention the unit’s occasional brush with front line combat. Along the way he overturns some myths about deception, notably many perpetrated by “documentaries” that are often wholly inaccurate (e.g., the use of rubber tanks in pre-D-Day deception, etc.) or perhaps still secret (e.g., several of Patton’s unfortunate gaffes or similar incidents).  The book ends with the unit’s activities supporting Allied forces during the early days of the occupation of Germany, followed by its return to the United States, with some discussion of lessons learned or not learned.  The book is supported by six appendices, including one on deception and George S. Patton.

Ghosts of ETO remains a good read not only for the operations of the “23rd HQ” and their influence on the war but also for throwing light on the unit’s inner workings and methodology, as well as on the lives of the men who served in it, some of whom went on to considerable fame in theatre, film or design. 


Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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