An army can help win a war without even existing. Strange as that may seem, that is precisely what happened in the case of the First United States Army Group (FUSAG), a fictional formation that played a vital role in the Second World War.
Preparing for D-Day
By the spring of 1944, Nazi Germany was on the retreat. The Red Army was pushing German forces back on the Eastern Front while American and British troops fought their way up through Italy. The tide was turning.
For the western powers, there was still a problem. The Germans under Kesselring were slowing the Allied advance through Italy and would become even more of a problem in the mountain passes of the Alps. By the time the British and Americans broke out of Italy and into the rest of Europe, the Russians might have taken most of the territory, something the western nations feared. To some extent, Russia was an ally of convenience, rather than anything else.
A seaborne invasion was therefore needed if they were to retake western Europe and invade Germany before it all fell to the Russians. Hitler had built strong defenses against such an eventuality – the so-called Atlantic Wall, a string of positions all along the western European coast. Facing 12,000 fortifications and 6.5 million mines, the Allies needed to weaken the German defense in any way they could.
Their solution was to spread out the German troops.
A Trail of False Information
If the Germans knew where the Allies would invade, then they could concentrate both their construction efforts and their troops there. The British therefore undertook a massive campaign of misinformation called Operation Fortitude.
By feeding Hitler false information, they hoped to leave him with the impression that an invasion could arrive anywhere along the coast, and at any time. He would be forced to spread his troops thinly, minimizing resistance when the real D-Day landings finally came.
Three elements were central to the scheme – double agents, radio signals, and the Enigma code. At the start of the war, the British had managed to turn many of the German spies living in their country. These double agents were provided with false information to feed back to their Nazi spymasters.
Meanwhile, misleading radio traffic was put out for the Germans to intercept, allowing them to believe that they were successfully spying on Allied plans.
The cracking of the German Enigma code allowed the Allies to understand coded messages they intercepted, giving them further insight into how effective their own campaign of misinformation had been.
Inventing an Army
The biggest trick of all was the creation of FUSAG.
To ensure that Hitler was looking in the wrong direction, the Allies wanted to convince him that they planned to invade through the Straits of Dover, the narrowest point in the English Channel. It was a plan that made perfect sense, as it would make for an easy crossing and allow air and artillery support from south-east England. It made so much sense that it would be easy for Hitler to believe – as long as they sold it convincingly.
To help achieve their aim, they needed a fictitious invasion force. The answer was FUSAG. Created in 1943 as a planning formation for the invasion, General Omar Bradley led it. Bradley and his staff transferred to the headquarters of the group, which in reality existed only on paper. In theory, FUSAG was based in Kent, the ideal place for an army preparing to embark across the Channel from Dover.
However, convincing Hitler would take more than just paperwork.
Proving a Point
The Allies went to extraordinary lengths to make the lie of FUSAG convincing. The set-building staff of film studios and theaters were hired and transported to Kent to build the army base. Aside from barracks and tents, there were fake tanks and landing craft, all convincing enough to trick German intelligence officers looking at aerial reconnaissance photographs.
The existing technique of using radio signals came into use again, with radio traffic flooding the airwaves of Kent and drifting out across the Channel for the Germans to catch.
In the build-up to the invasion, General George S. Patton was put in charge of the fantasy force. Patton was renowned as an aggressive and effective commander, exactly the sort of soldier to lead an invading army. What the Germans did not realize was that putting him in an imaginary position, where his tactical skills would not be used, was no loss to the Americans.
Patton had been suspended from command for slapping soldiers exhausted from battle. His new post was a way of using the Germans fear of him without giving him any real responsibility.
Perhaps the most ingenious piece of misinformation was inadvertently supplied by a Panzer officer. The severely injured prisoner of war was being returned to Germany and thought he was traveling through Kent. There he saw the massive armed forces of FUSAG and was introduced to Patton. Once he got home, the Germans had eyewitness testimony supporting their other intelligence.
In fact, the prisoner of war had been diverted to Hampshire. The troops he saw were the D-Day armies preparing to embark for Normandy. Everything he witnessed was a ruse.
All the evidence confirmed Hitler’s belief that the invasion would come in the Pas de Calais, and so it was there that he prepared his strongest defenses. The beaches of Normandy, although far from undefended, would have been a far more challenging prospect without FUSAG.
Weeks after the D-Day landings, Hitler was still convinced that FUSAG was coming. As he waited for the other shoe to drop, he held back his Panzers east of the Seine and his fearsome Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais, ready to counter an attack that never came, fearing the approach of an army that did not exist.
The imaginary soldiers of FUSAG had played their part in the war.