Operation ELSENBORN Part I

3–12 November 1944

During the month of October, the Allied Army was at a standstill along the German border. One place where the Americans were taking a great number of casualties was the wooded and hilly area known as the Hurtgen Forest. There the 9th Infantry Division was slowly moving forward against strong German defenses. To get his army moving again—across the Roer River into Germany—General Bradley proposed Operation QUEEN to clear the plain between the Roer and Wurm Rivers. This called for the largest amount of air support for any ground operation in WWII. Part of his plan to press forward into Germany involved a fresh division suddenly making an appearance in the Hurtgen Forest for a surprise attack.

In late October, the V Corps discussed the idea of the 23rd notionally keeping a division in a rest camp, while the actual division was secretly moved into the front lines. This would be known as Operation ELSENBORN, named after Camp Elsenborn, a military barracks area one and a half miles southwest of the town of Elsenborn, used as a rest center for units pulled off the front line.

The V Corps was convinced there were enemy agents operating in the Elsenborn area keeping an eye on troop movements. Just across the front lines to the east were three German divisions and their corps headquarters. This caused the Americans to feel certain that there would be some German radio interception units in the immediate area.

The 28th Infantry Division, resting up in Camp Elsenborn, was scheduled to replace the 9th Infantry Division in the Hurtgen Forest on 1 November. That left no time for the 28th Division to be used in setting up a deception operation. Plans were then made to set the stage for ELSENBORN with the arrival of the battered 9th Infantry Division in the rest camp, and to make the main focus of the operation the simulation of the next unit to move into the camp. This would be the 4th Infantry Division, which was occupying the front lines just to the west of Elsenborn.

The 4th was to be replaced in the front lines by the 99th Infantry Division. While the 4th was being simulated in the rest camp, it would secretly be shifted roughly thirty miles north, where it would hopefully make a surprise appearance in the Hurtgen Forest. The deception operation was to last no longer than four days, by which time the Germans would have discovered the real location of the 4th.

The 23rd was involved in two other missions during this same time (CASANOVA and DALLAS), so only a third of the deception unit was available to take part in ELSENBORN. Due to the multiple operations, no decoys or sonic troops would participate in ELSENBORN, only radio deception and special effects. Task Force ELSENBORN, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Edgar W. Schroeder, consisted of thirty-six officers, four hundred and thirty-one enlisted men, and one hundred and eight vehicles. Due to the heavy demand for radio operators in this mission, one hundred and ninety-three of the men were from the 23rd Signal Company. On 3 November 1944, Task Force ELSENBORN headed to the camp to prepare for the operation.

One of the problems for ELSENBORN was that the 23rd had previously only simulated units in the field. They had no information on how a division appeared in a barracks area. To prepare for the operation they sent out teams to reconnoiter the 9th Division once it had been pulled out of the line. Careful notes were taken on such items as signage, distribution of military policemen, local patrols, and water distribution points. Other teams were sent to the 4th Infantry Division to make sure the poop sheets for that unit were up to date.

One of the other problems with this operation was that while in a rest camp a unit’s radios were normally silent. This meant that either the 23rd would have to forgo one of its greatest tricks, or else come up with a reason for radios to transmit while in camp. Thus the signalmen of the 9th Division had expected a chance to rest and clean up, but instead were presented with an order mandating a daily test of all CW radio sets and operators.

Going out over the name of William C. Westmoreland, chief of staff of the 9th Infantry Division (and later Commencing at 1400 on——October 1944 the following messages (enciphered by means of the M-209 Converter) will be transmitted on your –——net. The net control station will divide the traffic as equally as possible among the subordinate stations.

  1. commander of U.S. forces in Viet Nam), was the order for a radio operation test:
  2. All stations will turn in their logs and files covering these transmissions to the Division Signal Officer.

What followed was a list of sixteen messages ranging from (message #1) “Patrols third Bn have taken seven enemy prisoners,” to (message # 16) “Activity slight. Baker and Charlie reported nothing and Able reported only slight patrol action. Dog Company had some trouble in their sector but OK now.”

What this did was set the stage for the Germans to see that American divisions in a rest area might be called upon to test their equipment and operators’ competency with transmissions and cipher machines. When the 9th moved out, the Germans would not suspect anything when 4th Division radios began sending the same type of test messages. It was even possible that a German agent might hear some grumbling from signalmen who had to give up some of their free time to take part in some ridiculous radio test.

With the stage set for radio transmissions from a rest camp, the signal experts of the 23rd had to begin preparations for the next phase. They had to assume the guise of the 4th Infantry Division radio net so that the Germans would have no question about the authenticity of the notional radio network operating in Camp Elsenborn. The radio experts of the 23rd were dispatched to the 4th Division at Bullange to observe the idiosyncrasies of their transmissions.

On 27 October 1944, ten radio teams from the 23rd arrived at the 4th Infantry Division. Message center personnel of the 23rd were instructed by their counterparts in the 4th Division on how they actually wrote up messages to be sent. The 23rd radiomen took notes on the style of the 4th Division radio operators. The division had a distinctive way of using the SLIDEX code, and the 4th Reconnaissance Troop message center had their own TPC (Troop Prearranged Code). Records indicate that the 4th Division gave their full cooperation and understood that a successful deception operation could save the lives of their men.

One of the findings was that each message center of the division had its own style of partially encoding their messages. The division headquarters habitually left a few words in clear (not encoded) while the staff of the 8th Infantry Regiment coded every word. The signalmen also discovered that the 8th Infantry Regiment operators dragged out an “R” to indicate a message received. Division artillery always repeated the all-clear text words in their SLIDEX messages, and the transmissions of the 4th Recon Troop were slow and methodical in style. To ensure that this style remained consistent throughout the operation, the actual 4th Division message center personnel coded the proficiency test messages in advance. Once they were familiar with the 4th Division operations, the 23rd signalmen slowly took over operation of the division’s radios and began to handle the actual transmissions of the 4th Division while still in the front lines.

On 5 November, the 4th Division’s radio net was operated by 23rd signalmen only. At 0100 on 6 November, the division was ordered to observe radio silence, as it normally would during a move. The 23rd signalmen moved to Camp Elsenborn and set up their radios to prepare for the notional radio proficiency test. The genuine 4th Division radio operators were instructed to only listen in to their assigned frequencies in case of an emergency call. Under no circumstances were they to transmit unless they received a message classified as urgent.

The radio deception teams at Camp Elsenborn briefed the rest of their comrades on what they had learned about the 4th Division’s style of operation from 6 to 8 November. From 8 until 11 November, the notional 4th Division radio net in Camp Elsenborn transmitted the prepared messages of the radio test. All radios were physically dispersed throughout the camp area in a pattern similar to that used previously by the 9th Division. Transmissions were made using the 4th Division’s SOI (Signal Operation Instructions), authenticators, and frequencies.

To simulate the division, twenty-two radio sets and over one hundred operators were used. Special care was taken to make sure that each operator transmitted only on a specific radio. This was to prevent the Germans from identifying an individual by his “fist” and discovering him transmitting from two different units. Each radio transmission was monitored both by an officer and the man who was to send on that radio the next day.

Major Yocum, the 23rd signal officer, was so pleased that he wrote, “It is recommended that this operation be used as a guide in the future, both for BLARNEY and for the units with which we operate. The time allowed for planning and coordinating, the cooperation given by all headquarters involved, were the best encountered so far.”

The one element of the 4th Division not simulated on the radio net was the 12th Infantry Regimental Combat Team. By the time the preparations were under way, the 28th Infantry Division had taken such a beating in the Hurtgen Forest that the 12th was sent across the corps border to help out. This infantry regiment, plus attached artillery, engineer, and medical troops, was desperately needed to bolster the line in the Hurtgen. Sending this part of the 4th Division ahead to the battle may have helped the situation temporarily, but in the long run it may have compromised the entire deception operation.

The special effects aspect of the mission called for close cooperation with the 4th Division. 4th Division patches were sewn on 85 percent of the deception troops’ uniforms, and vehicles were marked with correct 4th Division bumper markings. Starting on 6 November, the men put on raincoats to conceal the patches and covered over the bumper markings as they drove singly to the 4th Division area. Everyone was given a briefing on the history and commanding officers of the 4th Infantry Division so the men could play their parts.

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