Fighting in Plain Sight—Impostors on the Battlefield
From Nazis to the Taliban, wearing your enemy’s uniform achieved surprise
One of the most obvious reasons armies wear uniforms is to distinguish themselves from the enemy. On the battlefield anyone who is wearing your uniform is friendly, and everyone who isn’t wearing your uniform is your enemy.
But what happens when the enemy wears your uniform—or rides in tanks and trucks that look just like yours?
The presence — or even rumored presence — of enemy impostors can cause panic in any army. Posing as the enemy is a game any anyone can play, from armies to bands of guerrillas.
In late 1944, Nazi Germany was on the ropes. Fighting the Allies on the east and west, Germany was losing ground daily. Defeat was inevitable. Adolf Hitler needed a miracle if his Thousand-Year Reich was to last another six months.
Hitler’s battered forces could conduct one last major offensive, and he chose to land the blow in the Ardennes Forest. Hitler’s offensive would break through the Ardennes westward to the Belgian port of Antwerp. Their armies in disarray, the Allies would sue for peace on the western front, allowing Germany to focus its attention on the Soviet Union.
Imposter units would lead the way.
Using impostors was Hitler’s idea. He envisioned a unit of English-speaking German soldiers wearing Allied uniforms and traveling in captured Allied vehicles to impersonate American and British soldiers.
The unit would capture choke points, issue fake orders, cut communications wires and secure three bridges across the Meuse River. Hitler called it Operation Greif.
The German Army combed the ranks for English speakers. It located ten perfect English speakers, plus another 400 whose command of the language varied greatly. The soldiers formed what would become Panzer Brigade 150.
The Germans scrounged for captured American vehicles, but only one M-4 tank, four M-8 scout cars, and several dozen jeeps and trucks were found. The army ended up attaching five German Panther tanks to give the unit added firepower. A little sheet metal here, a U.S. Army turret roundel there, and the Panthers bore a passing resemblance to American tank destroyers.
150 Panzer lost time to traffic jams at the start of the offensive—the result of the German army trying to shove hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles down a handful of backwoods roads. The bulk of the brigade ended up fighting as a conventional, front-line combat unit, wasting weeks of training and preparation.
The best English-speakers set out to infiltrate American ranks and create mass confusion—and achieved some success. One managed to turn around an entire U.S. Army regiment by secretly switching road signs.
As rumors of German impostor units spread throughout the ranks, there were numerous incidents of Americans firing on one another and security precautions slowed down the Allied defense.
This Battle of the Bulge was a failure for Germany. The Allies tried and executed 18 German soldiers for their role in Operation Greif, many before the battle was even over. The soldiers were technically out of uniform and considered spies. Sneaking around and committing acts of sabotage didn’t help their legal defense.
Vietnamese tanks … in East Germany
Here’s a bizarre rumor. East Germany had a unit of Vietnamese tanks for fighting World War III.
The Vietnam War ended in 1975 after the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese army overran the southern capital of Saigon. The South Vietnamese army collapsed and thousands of U.S.-made tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopters changed hands.
Rumor had it some of these vehicles ended up on the border between NATO and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.
East Germany, so the rumor went, created a special mechanized infantry battalion and equipped it with American-made M-48 tanks and M-113 armored personnel carriers. Vietnam provided the vehicles, from captured stocks.
The National People’s Army, as the East German Army was called, painted the vehicles West German Army markings. The troops wore West German uniforms and equipment. Rather than being subordinated to the Ministry of Defense, the unit was reportedly under the Ministry of State Security’s direct control.
The unit’s wartime mission was to pose as West German mechanized battalion, a combat unit of about 50 tanks and armored vehicles and several hundred men. The unit was based in southern Germany, where the terrain gave it a chance of infiltrating NATO lines during the chaos of combat.
Just like Panzer Brigade 150, the East German unit would have tunneled deeply into NATO lines, where it would have seized bridges, key road junctions and attacked supply depots and command posts.
Allegedly, both Soviet and East German soldiers were planning to masquerade as NATO soldiers in wartime. As bizarre as the East German rumor is, the Soviet rumor is much more plausible, as we know that Soviet Spetznaz special forces trained for unconventional warfare missions behind enemy lines.
The end of the Cold War has shed little light on these mysterious units. The rumor of an East German unit with Vietnamese tanks may have just been that — a rumor. The Soviets, on the other hand, had greater resources to train and equip impostor units. They almost certainly existed.
North Korea’s American-made choppers
The South Korean army and air force maintain fleets of Boeing MD-500 Little Bird helicopters. A descendant of the OH-6 Cayuse that played a big role in the film Apocalypse Now, the Little Bird flies worldwide as a scout, gunship, transport and anti-submarine platform.
The South Korean army has 175 Little Birds—130 in the observation role, and 45 armed with TOW anti-tank missiles. In wartime, Little Birds from the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment would also likely operate on the Korean peninsula, supporting Special Operations Forces.
If fighting broke out, not just Americans and South Korean Little Birds would fill the sky. North Korea is believed to have 87 Little Birds of its own. In 1985, Pyongyang circumvented foreign regulations and purchased civilian versions of the Little Bird from a West German exporter.
Pyongyang promptly gave them to the air force. They are thought to be used as an anti-tank platform and for covert insertion of North Korean special forces.
Obviously, the fact that they look just like South Korean helicopters is a big deal. Painted in South Korean army livery, they might appear identical at a distance. The North Korean Little Birds could operate in and around South Korean ground forces, gathering intelligence, conducting ambushes and dropping off small teams of commandos.
Except these Little Birds would fly north to refuel and rearm.
We don’t know the current state of the North Korean Little Bird inventory. The helicopters are nearly 30 years old. It would be difficult for the impoverished, sanctioned country to obtain spare parts. It’s unlikely that all 87 helicopters are still flying. Many have probably been cannibalized to keep an ever-shrinking pool of helicopters mission-ready.
The last sighting of North Korea’s Little Birds was in the summer of 2013, when two appeared over a military parade in Pyongyang. The pair mounted Soviet-designed AT-3 Sagger anti-tank missiles. The fact that only two participated in a major military parade may give some indication how many are still flyable.
Impostor units still pose a threat. The Taliban force that attacked the coalition base at Camp Bastion in September 2012 wore American uniforms.
The disguise was more than a bit off — the Taliban wore U.S. Army ACU uniforms to storm a base where U.S. Marine MARPAT camouflage would have been more appropriate. Still, the Talibs managed to destroy six Harrier jump jets and damage another two.
Being in a military impostor unit is exceptionally dangerous, since it means getting very close to the enemy while keeping up the ruse. It also doubles the number of people who might shoot at you.