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Operation Cornflakes: How the Allies Scammed the Nazi Postal Service

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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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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