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We blew up the US Army (the inflatable one, that is!)

It was one of the war’s strangest plots – how a brave team of men fooled Hitler with a battalion of bouncy tanks

- Vincent Graff The Ghost Army, Wednesday, 9pm, Yesterday.

For more than 60 years, Jack McGlynn harboured an extraordin­ary secret. No one – his wife, his friends, his six children – was allowed to know what this extraordin­ary man, who went on to become mayor in his home town near Boston, Massachuse­tts, got up to in the dying days of World War II in France. ‘I never discussed what we did – it was top secret.’

Jack, now 91, served in the US Army’s 23rd Headquarte­rs Special Troops. The unit’s mission was deception, and Jack’s job, and that of his colleagues, was to fool the German military about where Allied troops were massing and what they were planning. They did this using huge inflatable rubber tanks and Jeeps – arranging these fake vehicles in the French countrysid­e to distract German spy planes from the real thing.

It wasn’t just messing around with pretend tanks, of course. That wouldn’t fool anyone. There were sound effects too. Jack’s specialism was ‘sonics’. His job was to blast the sound of military equipment – tanks battling their way through vegetation, Jeeps, GIs supposedly building metal bridges across the Rhine – from 12ft by 12ft speakers. The sound effects had been recorded a few weeks earlier, 4,000 miles away in the US.

The story of this incredible trickery, which is believed to have saved tens of thousands of lives, is told this week in a documentar­y called The Ghost Army on the Yesterday channel. The show reveals how, yes, there really were soldiers fighting on our side whose job it was to sit round in circles inflating bouncy castle-style Sherman tanks.

Historian Jonathan Gawne, author of Ghosts Of The ETO [European Theatre of Operations], is one of the experts involved in the show. He explains that the unit’s work on the ground began within days of the D-Day landings in June 1944. ‘They wanted to draw attention to themselves – without making it look like that was what they were doing. You can’t just park tanks and trucks in the open and say, “Look, we’ve got a big military operation here,” because the Germans would realise they wanted to be seen. They had to appear to be poorly discipline­d troops who were not doing a good enough job of camouflagi­ng.’

Jack Masey was one of the inflatable-blowers. Speaking from his New York home, the 89-yearold recalls his adventures in the French country- side with great affection. ‘We did a lot of it with great humour. We’d sit around a pile of uninflated tanks, laughing and blowing these things up. We’d each grab a nozzle. Sometimes you’d use a bicycle pump, but other times you had to use your mouth. To do a Sherman – a vehicle that would weigh 30 tonnes in real life – took six of us about an hour.’

A lthough the programme is fascinatin­g, its one weakness is that because it was made for US TV it doesn’t mention that fake tanks were pioneered by the British Army in North Africa (we used wooden ones rather than inflatable­s). But it’s the small details that grab you: such as when the Americans recorded the sound of soldiers building bridges, they made sure the GIs did plenty of complainin­g and swearing – and included their officers barking at them, ‘Put that goddamn cigarette out!’ All for the sake of realism.

There’s another oddity: whereas most military units go to great lengths to hide themselves, the ‘ghost army’ were aiming at just the opposite. One veteran says in the film, ‘We came to the conclusion that this was a suicide outfit.’ In fact, casualties in the 23rd Headquarte­rs Special Troops were low, and in time the soldiers grew grateful that they’d been spared life on the ‘real’ front line.

So how important was the ghost army in securing ultimate victory in the war? ‘The ghost army did not win the war for the Allies,’ says Jonathan Gawne. ‘But their work certainly shortened the conflict – and definitely saved lives, both Allied and German. Most estimates suggest that maybe 20,000 people were spared.’

All this time on, Jack McGlynn and his colleagues are now free to revel in their heroism. So why did Jack keep quiet for all those years? The father, grandfathe­r of 13 and great-grandfathe­r of 14 has been married to Helen for 69 years – the couple wed in April 1944, six weeks before the young GI sailed to the UK to prepare for his mission. ‘I told my wife about our work about seven years ago, when it was declassifi­ed. Before that, I never discussed it – because I wondered whether the US Army would ever want to utilise this method again. And I didn’t want to reveal anything which might compromise us. Even to my wife.’

 ??  ?? British soldiers hoist up one of the rubber
British soldiers hoist up one of the rubber tanks

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