Home History How a British Fire Barrage Deterred a German Invasion

How a British Fire Barrage Deterred a German Invasion

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Eight miles north of the White Cliffs of Dover sits Deal, a picturesque resort city famend for its pebble seaside and traditional Victorian buildings. Prewar guests used to walk alongside the beachfront promenade, grabbing an ice cream cone alongside the way in which. Others jumped into the bracing sea for a swim. On a transparent day, beachgoers may see the coast of France, 25 miles throughout the English Channel. In June 1940 the frolicking got here to a screeching halt after Germany attacked and occupied France. Deal’s storefronts had been boarded up. The promenade was festooned with barbed wire. Concrete bunkers popped up alongside the seashores. Troopers changed the vacationers.

It had been solely a few weeks for the reason that Germans had pushed French and British troops into the ocean at Dunkirk. Throughout the ensuing evacuation of practically 340,000 troopers, the British Military left behind huge portions of weapons, together with 1,500 artillery items, 600 tanks, and 60,000 assorted automobiles. As a result of these losses Britain discovered itself, in a really actual sense, unable to wage battle. Worse but, the British authorities confronted the true chance that the enemy would invade England within the early autumn, a plan the Nazis known as “Operation Sealion.” (If the Wehrmacht knew how desperately depleted Britain’s arsenal was, they may have pushed up their timetable.) The protection of the realm was at stake, and the Warfare Workplace frantically sought options to repulse the onslaught earlier than the Germans may attain English soil. The powers-that-be got here to imagine one of the best ways to discourage the Germans was a steady of flame-based defensive weapons.

Britain’s use of fireside in battle dates again centuries. The Royal Navy, for instance, had utilized fireplace as a weapon in 1809 once they sailed flaming ships straight at Napoleon’s fleet, panicking the French and sending them scurrying away in such haste that they collided with each other or ran aground. The British once more turned to fireside as a weapon of battle throughout World Warfare I. 

In 1914 Secretary of the Warfare Council, Lord Maurice Hankey, conceived of a weapon that might be deployed to set fireplace to the ocean itself. In December of that yr, a take a look at carried out by British petroleum consultants, using a mix of oils, was tried at Chatham Dockyard exterior London. The success led to a different take a look at on the River Ore, northeast of the capital. Hankey was happy with the outcomes, later writing, “We created an enormous blaze which unfold out over the river along with nice columns of smoke.” Afterward, Hankey submitted a report on his findings, solely to have the Admiralty demur transferring ahead. The mission was shelved.  

Within the 20 years following World Warfare I, the event of recent flame weapons in Britain went moribund. When England and France declared battle on the Third Reich on September 3, 1939, that modified. Hankey, now a member of the Warfare Cupboard, dusted off his 1914 proposal and, within the spring of 1940, introduced it to the chiefs at Whitehall. This time what got here to be known as the “flame barrage” was accepted, and work started instantly on designing a system utilizing a matrix of pipes and pumps able to producing massive floating swimming pools of unstable fuels which, when set alight, spawned hellacious flames and voluminous dense black smoke.

The English seaside resort of Deal traded beachgoers for troopers as soon as World Warfare II broke out. Troops look forward to a meal on the city’s Clarendon Lodge, the place an equipment of oil tanks, pumps, and piping was later put in within the quest to set the Channel on fireplace. (Reuben Saidman/Popperfoto by way of Getty Photographs)

A brand new group, the Petroleum Warfare Division, was created that July underneath a colleague of Lord Hankey’s, oil minister Lord Geoffrey Lloyd. Lloyd was tasked with growing a collection of flame weaponry that the British may set up to cease invading Germans. In the future quickly after, Lloyd known as in Brigadier Sir Thomas MacDonald “Donald” Banks, named him director-general of the brand new outfit, and instructed him what he needed: “Flame all throughout Britain, ringing the coasts, spurting from the hedges and rolling down the hills. We’ll burn the invader again into the ocean.”  

Sir Donald Banks, 49, had been within the civil service, hooked up to the Common Submit Workplace since 1909. With the arrival of the Nice Warfare, he took command of the tenth Battalion Essex Regiment and noticed fight in France. There he distinguished himself by main his troops into the Battle of the Somme, and was subsequently awarded the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Order, and the French Croix de Guerre. After the battle Banks returned to the submit workplace. In 1934 he was promoted to director-general and was concerned in a number of well-known initiatives, amongst them the “999” emergency cellphone system in addition to the introduction of the photogenic pink phone packing containers that when dotted each nook of the UK. For his labors he was knighted by King George V in 1935. He joined the Air Ministry the next yr as everlasting secretary with a mandate to discover business transatlantic routes with the People.  

As fears of an autumn 1940 German invasion of Britain rose, Banks set to work. He shortly assembled a small workers of six and secured three rooms in a Westminster constructing. Whereas design work for the flame barrage shifted into excessive gear, the Petroleum Warfare Division started to develop different defensive flame weapons of a a lot easier nature. The “flame lure” was a rustic highway lined with perforated pipes. On the method of an enemy convoy, well-hidden operators let the pipes fill with petroleum and set it afire, thus trapping the invaders. The “flame fougasse,” a primitive improvised flame-spewing mortar, was created by partially burying a 55-gallon metal barrel into the bottom and filling it with a flammable combination. When triggered, a roar of fireside would immediately erupt, reaching up and out 30 yards and extra. Throughout the course of World Warfare II, the British manufactured over 50,000 flame fougasse bombs, and the weapon nonetheless sees use all over the world in the present day.  

In late August 1940 the prototype flame barrage was prepared for a trial. Ten oil tankers had been parked on a cliff 30 toes above the Solent strait close to the Isle of Wight. The gas combination, 40 p.c gasoline and 60 p.c gas oil, ran down pipes to the shoreline by way of a gravity feed to units of nozzles mounted within the sand. On the sign “Fireplace!” technicians opened the tankers’ valves. The oil floated out a couple of dozen yards into the Channel and, as soon as swimming pools had fashioned, the ordnance crew ignited them. Inside three minutes the ocean was afire alongside a several-hundred-foot entrance, taking pictures flames 40 to 50 toes excessive with a core temperature of 1800 levels Fahrenheit, and pouring out thick, blinding smoke. Troopers making an attempt to penetrate the fireplace barrier would have been incinerated.

So intense was the warmth {that a} group of official observers on the sting of the White Cliffs of Dover was pressured to retreat some yards again to cooler security. Close by, two younger brothers, Paul and John Stone, watched the spectacle in awe. “It was so dense and sticky and black that it truly discolored the White Cliffs,” recalled Paul.  

The British weren’t the one ones to take an curiosity within the conflagration. Simply two dozen miles throughout the Channel, Wehrmacht troopers had been busy constructing boats for the deliberate invasion. They puzzled what all of the smoke was about, which was “billowing 1000’s of toes into the blue sky,” Banks recalled in his postwar memoir, Flame Over Britain. So, the enemy despatched some planes to test it out. “The following day the official communiqué from Berlin said that South Coast cities had been attacked with wonderful outcomes, with very large-scale fires having been noticed,” Banks wrote. Nonetheless, the fires each puzzled and frightened the Germans.

August 1940 noticed different puzzling and worrying developments for the Germans. Over the course of the month, the our bodies of 40 Germans washed up at scattered factors alongside the English coast. Most had been airmen shot down over the Channel, some had been sailors, however just about none had been troopers. Former British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill might have described it greatest in his 1949 historical past, Their Most interesting Hour, when he wrote, “This was the supply of a widespread rumor that the Germans had tried an invasion and had suffered very heavy losses whether or not by drowning or being burnt in patches of sea lined with flaming oil. We took no steps to contradict such tales, which unfold freely by the occupied nations in a wildly exaggerated type.” Spreading these rumors was fairly deliberate, and thus started a wierd twist to the story of Britain’s flame barrage. 

Among the many observers at one of many flame barrage exams was Main John Baker White, 38, a deception specialist for the Directorate of Navy Intelligence, an company reporting to the British Warfare Workplace tasked with giving the enemy misinformation about England’s navy capabilities. Baker White was an unlikely candidate to be tapped for a task in one of the restricted departments of the British secret companies. Throughout the Nineteen Thirties the novel proper anti-communist was a vocal admirer of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The navy intelligence authorities seemed askance at his prewar proclivities once they selected him to be one of many “black propaganda boys,” a staff of intelligence operatives who efforted to supply the enemy with “pretend information.” 

Round 500 BC Chinese language navy thinker Solar Tzu puzzled if rumors might be a weapon of battle. Decidedly so, reckoned the British in 1940. Their idea was to disseminate misleading info meant to be plausible to all who heard them. And that was the crux—who heard them. These rumors had been often called “sibs,” a contraction of the Latin verb sibilare, “to hiss or whisper,” and had been meant to be transmitted orally. Among the many guidelines that quickly emerged for a profitable sib: “A great rumor ought to by no means be traceable to its supply”; “A rumor must be of the sort which is prone to acquire within the telling”; and “Rumors are only if they are often originated in a number of completely different locations concurrently.” British counterintelligence brokers in impartial nations, in public locations like cafés and lodge lobbies in Lisbon, Madrid, Stockholm, Cairo, and Istanbul, whispered these fabrications to contacts who might be counted upon to unfold the lies.  

Whereas returning to London from the flame barrage experiment that day, Main Baker White had a sudden revelation for the proper sib: setting the ocean on fireplace. Why not type a marketing campaign primarily based upon the man-searing flame barrage? As he wrote later, the British ought to “create within the minds of the German Excessive Command, and of Hitler himself, a totally fictitious image of what they must face in the event that they launched an invasion try. An image of a powerfully armed Britain, and above all, armed with new weapons of horrible harmful energy. We needed to put over the Huge Lie.” Baker White put ahead his proposal to the decision-makers and awaited a go-ahead.  

In the meantime, on the Petroleum Warfare Division workshops, Banks was organizing the manufacturing of each fougasse bombs and flame barrage programs. The work was set again for a time as a consequence of a scarcity of metal and manpower. His staff of “wonks” and “boffins” (scientists) made regular progress on growing the facility and burn length of varied gas mixtures. And down the highway, Banks had a cadre of engineers growing flamethrower kits that might be mounted to a wide range of automobiles that had been able to taking pictures a stream of fireside as much as 70 yards.  

The coastal flame barrage was just one system of fire-based protection weaponry developed by Banks and his staff. (IWM D 24854)

In late summer time 1940 Baker White acquired approval for the “burn the ocean” sib. The brass added a observe to their approval: “No objection, however we predict it a reasonably poor effort.” Despite that dim view, the flame barrage propaganda turned one of many largest and most profitable of the Huge Lies of World Warfare II. As soon as the Directorate of Navy Intelligence brokers on the continent had been duly knowledgeable, the fabrication started to flow into. “Over the subsequent fortnight the rumors appeared to spring up like mushrooms at midnight from far and wide,” wrote Baker White in his 1955 memoir, The Huge Lie, including that, “because of the French underground, the burning-sea story had already circulated in Paris.” It unfold all through Europe, together with Germany, and finally made its means again to England and throughout the Atlantic to America. Baker White was amused when a “well-known admiral instructed me in nice element of the abortive [German] invasion try,” including that a whole lot of charred our bodies had been discovered on Chesil Seaside in southern Dorset. “I’ve seen them myself, my boy,” the flag officer instructed the younger main. Baker White had even hoodwinked the Royal Navy.  

On September 17, 1940, Hitler suspended Operation Sealion. The primary motive for his resolution seems to have been Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s failure to achieve air superiority over Britain. With out management of the skies, the deliberate invasion may have been a catastrophe. Some historians imagine the rumored existence of the flame barrage may also have performed a component within the Führer’s directive. Baker White was certain on that time: “I’m satisfied that [this] one rumor, [this] one deception, above all others, discouraged the Germans from launching their invasion in 1940.”  

By the top of the yr, the “burn the ocean” sib had taken on a lifetime of its personal. A headline within the December 15, 1940, version of the august New York Instances blared that Nazi invaders had been “‘Consumed By Fireplace.’ Lifeless are put at 80,000.” The primary sources for writer Boris Nikolayevsky had been Frenchmen “able to know.” The article mentioned two separate invasions had been tried, the primary in August and once more in September. Each had been reportedly repelled by the burning sea, he wrote. In gentle of this success, Baker White had good motive to be pleased with the persuasiveness of his black propaganda deceits.  

So profitable was the unique sib that the British furthered the fraud by publishing a four-page pamphlet within the type of a useful vacationer dialog information in German, French, and Dutch. In it a wide range of phrases had been introduced. Examples: “What’s that sturdy scent of petroleum?”; “What’s setting the ocean on fireplace?”; “Doesn’t the Captain burn superbly?”; “Karl is incinerated.” Starting in February 1941 tens of millions of those leaflets had been airdropped on each German-occupied and impartial nations. As Banks later wrote, the falsehood “assisted in weakening the enemy’s will to assault at this most vital interval.”  

On nonetheless one other entrance, Sefton Delmer, a Berlin-born Briton, ran black broadcasting operations. One among his most profitable radio stations was Gustav Siegfried Eins, geared toward Wehrmacht troopers. Programming was a mix of fashionable music, folksy humor, and thinly disguised propaganda. Tied into Baker White’s efforts was an “English lesson” from Delmer. “Now I gives you a verb that ought to are available in helpful. Please repeat after me, “Ich brenne, I burn; Du brennst, you burn; Er brennt, he burns; Sie brennen, they burn.” The entire intent of the broadcasts was to sow doubt among the many battle fighters. And it labored.

By then the German Excessive Command had grown anxious about their enemy’s perceived functionality to burn the ocean. They tried any variety of tacks to cut back the hazard to their forces. On one event they put 50 asbestos-suited troopers into an invasion barge and despatched it right into a pool of flaming gasoline. It was a spectacular and expensive failure: all of the occupants had been burned to dying. Nonetheless, the Wehrmacht ordered 1000’s of asbestos fits from a French producer.  

At first of 1941, the Petroleum Warfare Division started rolling out a much-improved flame barrage. Below the in a position course of Banks, a well-thought-out, well-engineered equipment was produced. One was arrange within the deserted resort city of Deal; the Clarendon Lodge in town’s Seaside Avenue, straight going through the Channel, was chosen as a web site for the {hardware}. A pair of well-camouflaged 30 x 9-foot cylindrical gas tanks with a mixed capability of 48,000 gallons had been positioned behind the constructing. Plumbed to them was a robust pump with a gasoline-powered electrical generator. Pipes led down into the cellar, connecting there to a mixing valve which led to a dozen quad-headed nozzles that ran 250 yards outward underneath the floor of the Channel. They had been arrange 25 to 30 yards aside throughout a strip of foreshore some 1,100 toes extensive. When the factor was fired up, the flames had been blistering and the smoke was profound.  

Building of the ocean flame barrages continued apace all through 1941. On England’s southeastern shores 18 programs had been established. Headquarters had initially envisioned a matrix of 150 miles of barrages alongside the English coast however ended up with only a few miles, partly due to the diminishing chance that the Germans would ever truly invade. Nonetheless, the gear was saved totally manned and maintained till after D-Day in June 1944.  

The “flame fougasse” concerned partially burying a 55-gallon drum of flammable liquid. The liquid was then ignited and propelled—with dramatic outcomes. Britain made greater than 50,000 fougasse bombs in the course of the battle. (PJF Navy Assortment/Alamy)

With work on the barrages persevering with apace, in early 1941 Sir Donald turned his full organizational powers towards the creation of offensive flame weapons. Banks’s new mandate was to design and put into service a sequence of wheeled and tracked flame machines. The ensuing first effort was to connect a flame tube to a tracked Bren gun chassis. The car was simply 12 toes lengthy however was quick and extremely maneuverable. As a result of a scarcity of flame vary, the British Military dropped the mission, however the Canadian Military picked up the baton and created what got here to be often called the Ronson (after the lighter firm) Flamethrower. Squadrons of those, dubbed the “Ronson Cavalry,” noticed profitable service within the European and Pacific Theaters, notably tank-mounted Ronsons at Iwo Jima.  

Banks then led his Petroleum Warfare Division boffins to develop the final word mechanized fireplace weapon—a big flame gun mounted on the nostril of Britain’s foremost battle tank, the Churchill Mark IV. This thrower had a spread of over 120 yards. In his postwar guide, Banks cited a number of notable actions the Churchill participated in after D-Day, noting that the large flamethrowers “struck terror into the hearts of the Nazi hordes.” In all, throughout World Warfare II some 10 million gallons of “liquid fireplace” was expended.  

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On September 26, 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill despatched this message to the Petroleum Warfare Division: “It’s of nice significance to discover a means to dissipate fog at aerodromes in order that plane can land safely.” To meet Churchill’s command, Banks coordinated the work of consultants from various organizations. Their labors led to the creation of FIDO (Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation). Utilizing jets of flame alongside the perimeters of runways, thick banks of fog might be dissipated in order that plane may see the touchdown strip. Banks later wrote that FIDO helped practically 2,500 bombers and fighters put down with out incident.  

The final large mission for Sir Donald Banks, now a significant basic, was the event of PLUTO (Pipe-Line Below the Ocean), a system to run gas strains from England to France using versatile oil pipes that unwound from an enormous floating cylinder. Because the cylinders had been towed throughout the Channel, the pipes sunk to the seabed. Upon reaching the continent they had been hooked as much as a sequence of in-ground pipelines to supply gas for the quickly advancing Allies. Banks returned to his civil service job on the Air Ministry in 1945.  

In 1943 Main John Baker White was posted to Cairo—a hotbed of Nazi spies and collaborators—to proceed his work as a deception specialist. After the battle he served eight years in Parliament earlier than taking on writing and lecturing in regards to the Huge Lie—throughout the strict confines of the British Official Secrets and techniques Act.

With the top of hostilities, Deal woke up from its wartime somnolence. The barbed wire got here down, the bunkers had been eliminated, and the flame barrage was parted-out for salvage. Regardless of a protracted interval of postwar austerity, the little resort city steadily reclaimed its fame as a favourite summer time hang-out for Londoners. At the moment guests once more queue as much as purchase ice cream from the kiosks or amble down the promenade. On a transparent day the coast of France can nonetheless be seen clearly 25 miles throughout the Strait of Dover. 

The Clarendon is now a full-service lodge and pub with superb views of the shoreline and Channel. Down in its dank, keg-stacked cellar, there’s a sq. recess within the again wall. 4 stubs of metal pipe protrude a couple of inches—all that continues to be of certainly one of Britain’s strongest defensive weapons. Highly effective not in a standard means, however as a little bit of black propaganda that had a profound optimistic payoff for the British within the early days of World Warfare II. The flame barrage was a type of uncommon situations the place phrases proved extra highly effective than deeds. 

This article initially appeared within the Winter 2023 subject of World Warfare II.

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