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Operation Cornflakes: How the Allies Scammed the Nazi Postal Service

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On February 5, 1945, with World War II in its last desperate months, a German train made its way to the city of Linz. Suddenly, Allied planes swooped in, dropping bombs and derailing it. As the train’s cargo—mail bound for several northern Austrian towns—scattered over the area, a second wave of bombers flew in with a strange payload.

Eight mail bags hit the ground around the train with a thud. Inside each bag were 800 propaganda letters, all addressed to homes and businesses along the train’s route and appropriately stamped. When the train was discovered, German postal workers recovered the bags and delivered the letters without being any wiser about their contents or origins.

Operation Cornflakes had begun.

Propaganda was a favorite tool of the Office of Strategic Services during the war, but the usual method of distributing it, airdropped leaflets, had major drawbacks. Huge numbers of leaflets had to be produced to increase the chances that those who were supposed to see them actually would. Even with enough materials, heavy winds, rain, or Nazi knowledge of a planned drop could result in diversion or destruction of the leaflets before they reached their audience. There had to be a way to remove the variables and the risk from the operation and hand the propaganda right to the Germans.

Going Postal

Eventually, they hit upon the idea of using the German postal service itself as a distribution system. They’d make their materials look like legitimate German mail, leave it around bombed trains, and let the enemy collect and deliver it. The German government would wind up bringing the Allies' propaganda right to its own citizens every day. What’s more, the plan had the added benefit of straining the already overworked and chaotic German communications and transportation sectors.

Operation Cornflakes (named so because the subversive mail was usually delivered just as its targets sat down for breakfast) had many advantages over simple airdrops, but required a lot of legwork to get off the ground. The inner workings of the German mail system had to be learned, so POWs who had been postal workers were interrogated about everything from postal cancellation markings to the ways mail bags were supposed to be packed and sealed. Spies and sympathizers gathered samples of stamps, postal cancellations, mail sacks, and envelopes while OSS staff pulled names and addresses from German telephone directories.

Every aspect of the German postal system, down to the smallest details, were replicated, with some small changes. While most of the envelopes were franked with a regular stamp, some went out bearing subliminal insults. Forgers manipulated the standard stamp with Adolf Hitler’s face to show the Fuhrer’s exposed skull. Other stamps had their country tag on the bottom changed from “Deutsches Reich” (German Empire) to “Futsches Reich” (Ruined Empire). Update added : 3/6/12 - Some featured both changes. These subliminally insulting stamps were stuffed inside the envelopes with other propaganda and, in some cases, maybe even used as postage on the letters (This latter use isn't as well documented as the former. See discussion in the comments below).

Once they knew the ins and outs, OSS operatives scattered throughout Europe began preparing materials. A group in Rome prepared envelopes with more than two million names and addresses at a rate of 15,000 envelopes a week. Groups in Switzerland and England, meanwhile, printed propaganda newspapers and letters and forged stamps. Swiss neutrality posed a serious problem for the OSS office there. With the German Army on its border, Switzerland did not want to face retribution for unwittingly hosting Allied agents, so the government constantly tried to track down and deport operatives there.

Special Delivery

When all the materials were prepared, the loaded mailbags were turned over to the 15th Army Air Force, which was tasked with delivery. Special bombs were designed to hold the bags and were equipped with a detonator linked to a control in the cockpit. With the push of a button, the pilots could launch the mailbags at a height that wouldn’t damage them, and then keep the bomb canister on the plane to prevent the Germans from finding evidence of the drop.

Among the propaganda that arrived in German homes during the operation were Das Neue Deutschland, an OSS-produced newspaper that claimed to be the voice of a growing opposition party within Germany. There were also letters supposedly written by Nazi regional party leader Erich Koch discussing Hitler’s poor health and generals who either wanted to surrender or take the Fuhrer out while he was weakened, creating doubt in the minds of civilians about the strength and unity of the government. Another letter, allegedly from the Verein Einsamer Kriegerfrauen ("Association of Lonely War Women”), was sent to German soldiers to give them the impression that it had become common for the women left at home to engage in promiscuous casual sex while they were gone, weakening their morale.

Most of the fake mail bore return addresses for legitimate businesses, like the Wiener Giro-und Kassenverein, a central securities deposit. This address eventually blew the operation’s cover when an OSS operative writing out the addresses misspelled the name as “Cassenverein.” After German police recovered Allied mailbags from one of the train bombings and took it to a post office, one of the postal clerks noticed the misspelling. The same mistake turned up on several envelopes and the postal workers grew suspicious. They opened the envelopes and discovered the propaganda. Operation Cornflakes was shut down because of a typo.

Over the course of the operation, 20 loads of fake mail were dropped for a total of 320 mailbags and more than 96,000 pieces of propaganda mail. For all the mail that made it into German homes, though, no one is sure if Cornflakes had any significant effect, at least psychologically. The Allies attempted to evaluate the damage their psyops did to enemy morale by surveying German deserters and POWs, but the results were murky. At least 10,000 of the men questioned said they were directly affected by OSS propaganda at some point during the war. For the rest of the soldiers, demoralization was cumulative and affected not just by propaganda, but injuries, battle fatigue, deaths of fellow soldiers, and other conditions, and Cornflakes’ effects just couldn’t be pinpointed. From a strategic standpoint, however, Cornflakes was a clear success, putting extra work on the German postal system and delaying mail, and forcing the German government to divert resources to repairing damaged trains and rail routes.

Most of the forged stamps, envelopes and their contents were destroyed during war, either by the post office after the fraud was discovered or by the mail’s recipients, who simply threw it away. A few items did survive, though, and are highly valued collectors items. To please the keepers of the purse strings, the OSS collected some of the propaganda material and forgeries it had created and compiled them into booklets to gift to members of the Congressional Oversight Committee. Several of these scrapbooks made it out to the public and have sold for as high as $5000. A number of forged German stamps entered the public marketplace when President Franklin Roosevelt’s stamp collection was sold at auction after his death and continue to circulate. Many of these items, especially the Hitler skull stamps, are so sought after by collectors that some people have started to produce and sell forgeries of the forgeries.

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This Newspaper Article Was Hyping the 2017 Eclipse All the Way Back in 1932
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If you’ve turned on a news station or browsed the internet recently, you’ve likely learned of the total solar eclipse set to pass over the U.S. on Monday, August 21. Many outlets (Mental Floss included) have been talking up the event for months, but the earliest instance of hype surrounding the 2017 eclipse may have come from The New York Times.

Meteorologist Joe Rao presented this news clip at a recent panel on the solar eclipse at the American Museum of Natural History, and fuel analyst Patrick DeHaan shared the image on Twitter earlier this year. It shows a New York Times article from August 1932, selling that year’s eclipse by saying it will be the "best until Aug. 21, 2017."

The total solar eclipse on August 21 won’t be the first to fall over U.S. soil in 85 years. The next one to follow the 1932 eclipse came in 1970, but an author at the time apparently predicted that "poor skies" would be likely for that date. That early forecast turned out to be correct: There were clouds over much of the path of totality in the southeastern U.S. The next total eclipse visible from America, which the article doesn’t mention, happened in 1979. Overcast skies were a problem for at least some of the people trying to view it that time around as well.

The upcoming total eclipse will hopefully be worth the decades of hype. Unlike the previous three, which only skimmed small sections of the lower 48 states, this next eclipse will be visible throughout day as it travels from coast to coast. Check out our field guide for preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

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10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era
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Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.

1. LEECH COLLECTOR

Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collectors’ legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.

2. PURE FINDER

Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.

3. TOSHER

A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
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Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.

4. MATCHSTICK MAKERS

Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.

5. MUDLARK

Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.

6. CHIMNEY SWEEP

A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep
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Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.

7. FUNERAL MUTE

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.

8. RAT CATCHER

An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
Getty Images/Rischgitz

Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.

9. CROSSING SWEEPER

The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.

10. RESURRECTIONISTS

An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
Getty Images/Hulton Archive

In the early 19th century the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition, and as a result many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their body to medical science.

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