If you spend some time researching the social history of the Second World War in Britain, you might just come across some strange tales. I took an interest in one such group of stories some time ago, when a veteran requested help in clarifying something he had been told more than 60 years ago.
These rather gruesome stories (a random example is here), mostly dating to the days of threatened invasion by Nazi Germany, tell of numbers of badly burned German corpses washing up on British beaches. Whether in ones and twos or whole regiments, rumours about them were widespread at the time, even to the extent of being reported in the press. This website comprehensively covers (from a rather credulous angle) the most famous of these stories; that of the hamlet of Shingle Street in Suffolk (see below for more). Wherever they cropped up, the mysterious corpses were at the time attributed to some secret coastal defence system, involving oil or fuel pipelines that could be ignited to defend against an invasion fleet – rather like a modern take on the Greek Fire that was sprayed and ignited from Byzantine ships more than a thousand years ago.
Sound improbable? Well, it’s not. Such a system of “flame barrages” was proposed, designed, installed and tested in stretches around the south coast of England and at least one in Scotland. In addition, the construction of a separate fuel pipeline called PLUTO might just have added to rumours of a more comprehensive version of the same system. But don’t let’s get carried away. The origin of the burned body stories is rather more complex, and has very little to do with any operational use of this offshore flamethrower system (there was none). The system itself was by no means secret, and combined with anecdotal reports of charred corpses, would organically give rise to some very plausible word-of-mouth rumours about an attempted invasion that had been repulsed by British ingenuity.
Sixty years later it’s a little easier to separate fact from fiction, assuming a little healthy scepticism. The primary reason for the widespread and persistent nature of the stories in fact seems to have been an unexpected side-effect of rather interesting British propaganda efforts aimed not at the British public, but at the Germans – invasion was a very real worry in those early days. There is already an excellent article online that covers this aspect of the Allied psychological warfare effort – it also references several publications by author James Hayward, who is responsible for our current level of understanding on this subject. I would recommend all of this material, especially Hayward’s “The Bodies on the Beach” (precied here), to anyone interested in the impetus for what I think is safe to describe as a rather unusual urban myth.
Simply put, the security and military intelligence services of the time pushed the idea that the Channel could be lit in the event of invasion, and following a public test sections of pipeline were built. However, the project was quite limited in execution, and it seems to have been realised that full and effective coverage, as well as successful implementation in the event of invasion, would all be difficult to achieve. However, British military intelligence recognised the powerful psychological aspect to the idea of a hidden fire-based defence system, and set about spreading the idea of a fully-functional and impenetrable British wall of fire through their usual channels (e.g. leaflet drops). They were certainly on to something, perhaps because a primitive fear of fire is instilled in us all from our earliest experiences. It can take our property and loved ones from us for no reason and is difficult to stop once ignited. The prospect of fire-bombing worried civilians at the outbreak of war, and the biggest fear of airmen in the First World War had been burning to death in their highly flammable aircraft.
This “psy-op” must have met with some success amongst German troops, but bizarrely enough became such a popular “meme” that it made the journey back over the channel and spread among both military and civilian populations. Any and all reports of burned bodies, whatever their actual origin (and whether or not there was a body at the root of a given report) could now be attributed to this myth of a foiled German invasion.
One of the few short stretches of flame barrage actually installed in 1940 but not, so far as anyone can show, used in anger.
(Continued from above)
As to Shingle Street itself, the focus of latter-day conspiracy theories about government cover-ups, fairly consistent eyewitness reports from local people and members of the forces stationed nearby (but, crucially, not those directly involved) suggest that some form of explosion or conflagration was seen or heard at that time. Stories and theories as to what this was and why it had occurred would have flourished in the secretive and (understandably) paranoid climate of the day, bolstered by the evacuation of the place itself, and importantly, the official propaganda line already mentioned. This would have spread rapidly amongst the public and the armed forces, just as it did amongst the German forces that it was primarily intended to affect. The idea has persisted, fed by the “conspiracy theory” subculture of today (even appearing, apparently undebunked, in New Scientist magazine), that there was some form of cover-up undertaken by HM Government.
Attention from local press was such that a few years ago, the Government allowed the relevant file (HO 207/1175 plus related here) on the evacuation of Shingle Street to be released by the National Archives. You can peruse this for yourself at Kew. It contains no great revelations, stating simply that Shingle Street was evacuated to facilitate the laying of a new minefield, although there is mention of some testing of experimental weapons. These were chemically inert but explosively active “dummy” prototypes of what would have been employed (had they been adopted) as mustard gas bombs. Anyone witnessing these explosions out to sea could have gone on to help spread rumours and reinforce this idea of secret weapons being used operationally against an invading enemy.
The history of folklore shows us that it takes very little to start and spread “urban myths” like these, and that the majority of those spreading them would have done so in all sincerity. In virtually all cases the accounts specifying either the flame barrage or hosts of burned bodies in German uniforms are “friend of a friend” in provenance. Those that actually did witness such sights themselves may well have seen downed airmen, victims of land-based fighting in France (bodies can drift for many miles), or even drowned sailors. The comments by John Baker White reproduced in the psywarrior.com article suggests that one incendiary bombing of a German formation in France may have accounted for many of the more sensational reports along these lines, with countless other separate origin rumours contributing to the overall meme. As urban myths today continue to show, it only takes one person to start something like this, and once out in the general population, as it were, they are essentially impossible to eradicate.
So there we go. Like many conspiracy theories, this one was the result of from very real, traumatic circumstances, and a lack of available information. Whereas more modern examples are propagated by a general distrust of government and easy exchange of uninformed ideas, this was not the case in the 1940s. People were justifiably afraid of a very real external threat to their way of life, and were simply looking and hoping for positive developments toward a very uncertain future. Churchill himself apparently refers to the rumours of bodies in his memoirs as something that his government was aware of and certainly did nothing to suppress. In general they acted as an (albeit unintentional) positive morale boost to the British public and those sections of the armed forces based at home. The retelling and embellishment of these stories would have helped to reassure a nervous public that any attempted invasion could and would be quickly and decisively halted. In reality, only the RAF and Royal Navy could have been effective as deterrents for Operation Sealion. Counter to the continued claims of some individuals who insist that there really was a thwarted German invasion, had this taken place there can be little doubt that the resulting propaganda coup would have been splashed across the papers and broadcast over wireless, just as victory in the Battle of Britain was.