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Operation Cone of Power: When British Witches Attacked Adolf Hitler

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It was the summer of 1940, just weeks after a narrow escape by the British armies at Dunkirk, and the United Kingdom was braced for the onslaught of a threatened German invasion.

On the nation’s South Coast, one of many areas in danger of invasion from the sea, towns and villages were transformed by sandbags, barricades, and barbed wire into coastal redoubts where volunteers kept watch on the sea and the sky. The Battle of Britain was yet to reach its peak, but the drone of enemy planes could be heard flying overhead.

In the town of Highcliffe-on-Sea, the story goes, a secretive group of witches and spiritual seekers resolved to do what they could to defend their country. It’s said they arranged to meet in an ancient forest before midnight on August 1, 1940—the eve of Lammas Day, a harvest festival and one of the Greater Sabbats of the neopagan religion known as Wicca.

There, they are said to have staged a magical assault on the mind of Adolf Hitler in distant Berlin, by means of a ritual that became known by the mock military codename "Operation Cone of Power."

According to Gerald Gardner, the retired British civil servant who founded modern Wicca, the magical assault was based on secret knowledge passed down through generations of English witches. In his 1954 book Witchcraft Today, Gardner wrote that invasions had been turned back by magic twice before in English history—the first in 1588, when the Spanish Armada became discouraged after being scattered by storms, and then in 1805 when Napoleon called off his planned invasion of England.

An English folktale relates that the British admiral at the time of the Armada, Francis Drake, had joined a group of "sea witches" at a headland called Devil’s Point, near the naval port at Plymouth, to attack the approaching Spanish ships with a magical storm. It is said that on foggy days at Devil’s Point, the disembodied chants of Drake and the witches can still be heard. And in the early 19th century, Gardner wrote, another group of English witches cast spells to deter Napoleon.

Gardner claimed that similar rituals were used in 1940 against the Nazi leader by a secretive coven of witches who lived around Highcliffe: "Witches did cast spells, to stop Hitler landing after France fell," he wrote in Witchcraft Today. "They met, raised the great cone of power and directed the thought at Hitler's brain: 'You cannot cross the sea' ... just as their great-grandfathers had done to Boney and their remoter forefathers had done to the Spanish Armada …

"I am not saying that they stopped Hitler," Gardner added. "All I say is that I saw a very interesting ceremony performed with the intention of putting a certain idea into his mind … and though all the invasion barges were ready, the fact was that Hitler never even tried to come."

The British author and Wiccan Philip Heselton, who has researched Operation Cone of Power for Witchfather, his biography of Gardner, and several other books, thinks 17 people took part in the Lammas Eve ritual in 1940—including members of a local family said to be descended from witches.

They were joined by several Highcliffe residents, like Gardner, who had met through a local dramaturgical group called the Rosicrucian Crotona Fellowship, which had links to older esoteric groups such as the Co-Masons—a form of Freemasonry that admitted women—and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Heselton believes the group met in the New Forest, a few miles north of Highcliffe, near an ancient gallows-tree called the Naked Man, and made their way by foot to the site selected for the ritual, near a woodland called Ferny Knapp Inclosure.

In a forest clearing surrounded by pines, Heselton wrote in Witchfather, they marked out a witches' circle, the stage for their magical efforts. In place of a traditional bonfire—perhaps for fear of being spotted by enemy aircraft or local air defense wardens—a flashlight or shuttered lantern may have been placed to the east of the witches' circle, in the direction of Berlin, as a focus for their magical assaults. Naked, or "skyclad" as Wiccans say, they began to dance in a spiraling pattern around the circle, building up to the communal ecstatic state that they believed can control magical forces.

As they danced, their chants echoed the magical formula Gardner said had been used in the earlier ceremonies against the Armada and Napoleon, a psychological assault on the mind of Adolf Hitler that they hoped would weaken his resolve to invade England.

Historians have found no direct evidence beyond the writings of Gardner himself for the ritual, but the events he described have become important legends among modern Wiccans, says Professor Sabina Magliocco, an anthropologist and folklorist at California State University, Northridge and an initiated Gardnerian witch.

Magliocco says that frankly, she doesn’t know if the Cone of Power ritual really occurred. "As a folklorist, I'm interested in narratives because of what they tell us about people's values, and what they tell us about what people want to be true, even if the stories are not 100 percent true," she tells mental_floss.

Whether or not the ritual happened, Magliocco says, "it tells us something about what [those] witches wanted to be true … It’s about the power of witches to do something that is nearly impossible. It is also about the patriotism of these witches, and it also talks about the power of witchcraft to channel the energies of the earth, of nature, through their bodies, to create this Cone of Power."

Gardner wrote about Operation Cone of Power in two books about witchcraft in the 1950s. But questions about his version of events arose in the 1970s, when they were challenged by Amado Crowley, a writer who claimed to be the son and magical heir of the famous British occultist and writer Aleister Crowley.

Amado Crowley wrote that the ritual described by Gardner was a fiction based on a real wartime ritual carried out by his father, which he had witnessed as a boy. He claimed that this ritual, dubbed Operation Mistletoe, had taken place in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex in early 1941, with a detachment of Canadian soldiers dressed in wizardly robes and a dummy in Nazi uniform seated on a throne.

(In yet another version of Operation Mistletoe, related by author Richard Spence in his 2008 book Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult, the British authorities only wanted the superstitious Nazi leaders to learn that they were being attacked by British magic—but after the plan was dropped, Crowley went ahead on his own.)

Amado Crowley claimed that one result of his father’s magical attack was the bizarre episode in 1941 when the Nazi deputy leader Rudolph Hess made an unexpected solo flight across the North Sea in a Messerschmitt fighter plane, before bailing out by parachute over Scotland because he had lost his way and run out of fuel. Hess made his journey in the misguided belief that he could single-handedly convince the British to make peace with Germany, but he ended up in prison until he died in 1987.

Heselton and the British historian Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, who has written extensively on the history of the neopagan movement, are dismissive of Amado Crowley’s claims.

Hutton’s research, described in his history of modern witchcraft, The Triumph of the Moon, has found that the very detailed diaries Aleister Crowley wrote throughout his life make no mention at all of his supposed son and trainee magician, and no mention of any wartime activities or rituals (although Aleister wrote to Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division in 1939, two weeks after the German invasion of Poland, he was never offered a job).

In fact, there’s no evidence that the writer Amado Crowley had any genuine connection to Aleister Crowley at all.

"Amado Crowley's account of his previous life and his relations with [Aleister Crowley] is unproven in its entirety," Hutton tells mental_floss.

Hutton says it is not possible to know if Operation Cone of Power took place the way that Gardner described it. But he notes that Gardner’s account of Operation Cone of Power at least provided an opportunity to show Gardner’s patriotism when he was writing about the ritual in the 1950s—a time when neopagan witchcraft was routinely associated in the British media with stories of Satanism and ritual murder.

"If it didn't happen, then it was a wonderful way of trying to get people to regard Wiccans as being patriotic and fellow citizens, instead of being some kind of enemies of society," he says.

"Gerald [Gardner] produced the story of Operation Cone of Power after he'd coped with a great deal of barracking from the media about witches being inherently evil and perverted people. So this was one very good way of explaining that they weren't," Hutton says.

Heselton believes that Operation Cone of Power probably did take place as Gardner describes, because such magical ceremonies would have been an important expression of belief for the community of witches who have come to be known as the New Forest Coven.

"I think it's largely true. In fact, I turn the question on its head and reply that I think it extremely unlikely that something like this would not have happened," Heselton tells mental_floss.

Heselton points out that the group that Gardner was involved with, the so-called New Forest Coven of witches, were mostly too old to join the armed military or civil defense forces.

"But they were motivated by the times to take part in the defense of their country, however it could be achieved, so they used what skills they believed they had, which were magical ones," he says. "Operation Cone of Power was just the sort of thing they would have done."

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9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences
King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.

1. KING LOUIS XV WAS KIDNAPPING CHILDREN.

In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.

2. LONDON WAS GOING TO BE DESTROYED BY AN EARTHQUAKE.

Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.

3. JEWS WERE POISONING WELLS.

A deep well
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Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.

4. BRIGANDS WERE TERRORIZING THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE.

In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.

5. GERMAN-AMERICANS WERE PLOTTING SNEAK ATTACKS ON CANADA.

Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade
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Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.

6. THE INDONESIAN GOVERNMENT WAS HUNTING HEADS FOR CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS.

In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.

7. POWERFUL APHRODISIAC GUM WENT ON SALE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum
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In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.

8. SORCERERS WERE PLAGUING INDONESIA.

In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.

9. OBAMA WAS INJURED BY A WHITE HOUSE EXPLOSION.

These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

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20 Old Hat Styles Due for a Comeback
John Firth, BIPs/Getty Images
John Firth, BIPs/Getty Images

One thing that illustrated and photographic archives have taught us is that people have always known how to rock a stylish piece of headwear. From squat caps to towering toppers, history has produced a hat for every occasion. Here are 20 old styles that, with a healthy dose of fashion and confidence, could still look just as fabulous today.

1. THE CLOCHE

A woman wearing a cloche hat decorated with flowers.
Sasha, Getty Images

The sleek, head-hugging cloche was the perfect companion to the bobbed hairstyle worn by flappers in the 1920s. The hats were typically left plain to emphasize their bell-shaped silhouette, though they also offered a blank canvas for embellishment. The cloche was most popular during the Jazz Age but it’s occasionally incorporated into retro fashion styles today.

2. THE OTTOMAN HEADDRESS

A drawing of a man wearing an Ottoman headdress.

In Ottoman ceremonial costumes, hats played a starring role. The headgear often featured bright colors, feathery ornamentations, and elaborate designs that signified status. The wearer’s class, religion, gender, and clan could all be gleaned from the way the fabric in their headdress was layered.

3. THE BOWLER HAT

Oscar Wilde wearing a bowler hat in 1885.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The top hat was popular in the 19th century but it wasn't always the most practical choice for outdoor activities. When looking for a way to protect the heads of horseback riders from branches, brothers Thomas and William Bowler came up with their namesake cap. The bowler hat was sturdy, compact, and appropriate for most any occasion. Though the bowler hat largely fizzled out by the 1980s, the item's original London manufacturers Lock & Co. still sell thousands each year.

4. THE PILLBOX HAT

Woman wearing a pillbox hat in the 1960s.
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

Unlike some hats from history, this one was prized for its simplicity. It could be easily identified by its brimless, round shape evoking that of a pillbox. It began gaining steam in the 1930s before reaching peak popularity with First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s.

5. THE FASCINATOR

Victoria Beckham wearing a fascinator in 2007.
Mark Mainz, Getty Images

Depending on the look you’re going for, a fascinator can be worn as a subtle accent item or a show-stealing statement piece. The hat is defined as an ornamental headpiece that’s secured to the crown using a headband or comb. Once they fit that criteria, fascinators can take the form of flowers, feathers, fabric, or whatever else the wearer can engineer to stay on their head. And though they're still popular in the U.K., Americans don't tend to utilize fascinators outside of Derby Day attire.

6. THE TRI-CORNER HAT

A tri-cornered hat from Spain, circa 1780.
Gabriel Bouys, AFP/Getty Images

In 17th century Europe and America, tri-cornered hats, or tricornes, gave men the opportunity to show off their lustrous wigs poking out from beneath the upturned brim. It's no surprise then that the hat style died out with the powdered wig fad, but that doesn't mean it isn't fit for a comeback. Even if wearers don't have wigs to flaunt, they could take a page from our forefathers' book and upgrade the hat itself with feathers, brocades, and fabrics—or maybe just sports insignias.

7. THE DEERSTALKER HAT

British actor Peter Cushing wearing a deerstalker hat circa 1960.
Keystone/Getty Images

If you’ve seen this hat anywhere, it was most likely on the head of someone portraying Sherlock Holmes. The headpiece has been tied to the character since the books were published in the 19th century (it was the illustrations—not the story—that did it, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never mentions the cap in the text). It’s peculiar that an urban detective would be wearing a deerstalker hat in the first place, considering they were designed for hunting game and not tracking clues, but the smartly styled hat's comeback should be ... elementary.

8. THE HENNIN

Illustration of a French woman wearing a hennin in the 15th century.
plaisanter, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

These striking hats were a clear sign of royalty in the medieval era. Reinforced with wire or padding and draped in fine fabric, the cone-shaped hennin is still synonymous with the stereotypical princess today. English hennins were fairly modest in height, but the French version reached up to to three feet and the hat's Mongolian predecessor towered five to seven feet high.

9. THE NEWSBOY CAP

Newsboys in St. Louis in 1910.
Lewis Hine, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This hat goes by many names (the big apple, the eight panel, the Gatsby), but its strongest association is with newsboys at the turn of the 20th century. The floppy, brimmed cap wasn't just popular with the younger working class. It was worn by men across the social ladder and was a common sight on the golf course.

10. THE PEACH BASKET HAT

Actress Marion Davies in a peach basket hat.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The origin of this hat name isn't too hard to figure out: It resembles a bulky, over-turned fruit basket. The peach basket hat first appeared at the start of the 20th century, but it was shunned by many for being an "unpatriotic" display of vanity during the first world war. It was revived in the 1930s and experienced a popularity streak until the 1950s.

11. THE PORK PIE HAT

Actor Buster Keaton wearing his signature pork pie hat in 1939.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This hat is known for having a domed crown inside a pinched rim, creating a shape similar to that of a certain savory pastry. The style was originally worn by women in the 19th century and was later embraced by men’s fashion in the early 1900s (thanks in part to Buster Keaton). It’s not as popular as it was in the 1920s but it recently enjoyed a brief return to the spotlight by way of the Heisenberg character on Breaking Bad.

12. THE CARTWHEEL HAT

Actress Fanny Brice wearing a cartwheel hat circa 1910.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Out of context, a cartwheel hat could be mistaken for an hor d'oeuvres platter or a tiny landing pad. The hat was worn slightly askew for an eye-catching look and was often crafted from luxurious materials. But after catching on in the 1930s, the broad hats have since fallen out of fashion.

13. THE CHAPEAU BRAS

Bicorne hat.
Marie-Lan Nguyen, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

With the chapeau bras, gentlemen in the 18th century proved you don't need to compromise style for convenience. The bicorne shape of the hat was designed to both sit comfortably on a head and fold flat when tucked beneath an arm. The French name roughly translates to "hat arm." It was a popular hat style among military men in the 1800s, including U.S. admiral George Dewey.

14. THE BOUDOIR CAP

Hat on mannequin.

For a brief period at the turn of the 19th century, hair nets were fashionable. Women used boudoir caps to protect their hair while getting dressed in the morning or at night, though more stylish designs also worked as statement-making loungewear. Typically made from silk, muslin, or other lingerie fabric, the cap was the perfect companion to the kimono negligee, which was just beginning to gain popularity in the West at the time.

15. THE EUGÉNIE HAT

Illustration of Victorian woman.

The Eugénie hat is named after Empress Eugénie de Montijo, one half of France’s last reigning royal couple. It’s traditionally made from felt or velvet and worn tilted forward slightly to cover the wearer's eye. The hat saw an initial popularity spike in the mid-19th century, then a second after Greta Garbo worse a version of it in the 1930 film Romance.

16. THE GAINSBOROUGH HAT

Portrait of woman wearing hat.

Gainsborough hats, or picture hats, were popularized by 18th-century artist Thomas Gainsborough, who often depicted the society women in his portraits beneath massive headwear. The hats are known for their wide brims and over-the-top embellishments. It wasn't uncommon to see women walking around with stuffed birds perched on their hats during the style's peak.

17. THE PAMELA BONNET

Woman wearing bonnet.

Named for the protagonist of Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel, the Pamela bonnet was an elegant hat option for women in the 19th century. It's crafted from straw and tied with a ribbon in such a way that folds the wide brims against the wearer's cheeks. The sides of the hat slope down and away from the head, allowing the woman’s fashionable ringlets to peek out.

18. THE HALF HAT

The Queen wearing a half hat and waving from a car.

The sleek, close hat trend reached its peak in the 1950s with the half hat. Part-hat, part-hair accessory, the half hat cups the back of the skull and curves across the crown, stopping just short of the ears. Milliner Lilly Daché received an American Designer award for the hat in 1941.

19. THE WHOOPEE CAP

Actor wearing a hat.

The whoopee cap is best known as the crown hat Jughead wears in the Archie comics. Instead of buying a professionally-made version from a hat shop, wearers fashioned caps of their own by tattering the brims of old fedoras and turning them inside-out. The style appeared recently on Riverdale, the gritty Archie reboot, so a comeback may be on the way.

20. THE HOMBURG

British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden (right) with Neville Chamberlain, Leader of the Conservative Party, wearing Homburg hats while walking in London in 1937.
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Homburg isn't a household name like the top hat or the fedora, but the men’s hat is still a classic. The style is distinguished by a curled brim and a dent depressing the center of the crown. King Edward VII launched the trend in the late 19th century. When he brought a hat back with him following a visit to Bad Homburg, Germany, the rest of the world noticed his new look and started wearing Homburg hats of their own.

A shorter version of this story originally ran in 2017.

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