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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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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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15 Fascinating Facts About the Brooklyn Bridge
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Don't agree to buy it, but you can never know too much about the most famous way to get across the East River—which officially opened 135 years ago, on May 24, 1883.

1. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE NEEDED A LITTLE BRIBERY TO GET STARTED.

In its initial conception, the Brooklyn Bridge had an honorable goal: Providing safe passage across the rough and frigid East River for Brooklyn residents who worked in Manhattan. In the 1850s, Prussian-born engineer John Augustus Roebling dreamed of a suspension bridge that would make the commute easier for these working class New Yorkers.

However, the methods employed to get the project rolling weren’t quite as honorable. After Roebling was hired by the New York Bridge Company to help span the river, infamous political kingpin William “Boss” Tweed funneled $65,000 in bribes to city aldermen to secure funding for the bridge.

2. THE BRIDGE HAS GONE BY SEVERAL NAMES.

“Brooklyn Bridge” seems like a natural handle for the hybrid suspension and cable-stayed bridge connecting lower Manhattan to its neighbor across the East River, but the name evolved over time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle first referred to the project as the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1867, but in its early days it was still referred to as the “Great East River Bridge” as well as the “Great East River Suspension Bridge." At its 1883 dedication, it took on the clunky official name the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge.” (Brooklyn wouldn’t become a part of New York City until 1898.) Brooklyn civic pride led to the name officially changing to the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1915.

3. ROEBLING PAID A HIGH PRICE FOR THE BRIDGE.

The Brooklyn Bridge was Roebling’s brainchild, but he wouldn’t live to see its completion. While making measurements for the future bridge in 1869, a ferry crushed Roebling’s foot. The engineer developed tetanus as a result of these wounds and passed away in July 1869.

4. ROEBLING’S SON TOOK HIS PLACE AND HAD EQUALLY BAD LUCK.

After Roebling’s death, his son Washington Augustus Roebling stepped in as the bridge project’s chief engineer. The younger Roebling soon developed a problem of his own. To build the structure’s massive foundation, workers labored in caissons, sealed chambers that kept the riverbed dry and allowed for digging. Breathing and working deep in the caissons required compressed air, which meant workers who came up from the depths were vulnerable to “caisson disease,” better known today as the bends. In 1872, Roebling came down with this decompression sickness and was confined to bed.

5. THE PROJECT BECAME AN EARLY FEMINIST VICTORY.

After Washington Roebling fell ill, a third Roebling stepped in as the de facto chief engineer of the bridge, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. Although Emily began her tenure running orders between her husband, who was laid up in a Brooklyn Heights apartment with a view of construction, and his workers, she soon took bona fide command of the project, overseeing the design, construction, and business management of the tremendous undertaking. Emily Warren Roebling is now widely recognized as a pioneering female engineer and a driving force behind the bridge. Following her work on the bridge, Emily went on to earn a degree in law from New York University and published essays in favor of gender equality.

6. A ROOSTER MADE THE FIRST TRIP ACROSS THE BRIDGE.

Technically, the rooster was tied for first. Emily Warren Roebling earned the honor of being the first human to make the trip across the historic bridge, riding proudly in a carriage a week before its official opening in front of an audience that included President Chester A. Arthur. Sitting in Emily’s lap all the while was a rooster, a symbol of good luck.

7. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST STEEL-WIRE SUSPENSION BRIDGE.

John Augustus Roebling himself is credited with introducing the steel-wire innovation into bridge design. The engineer proudly referred to steel as “the metal of the future.”

8. A SNEAKY CONTRACTOR INTRODUCED LOW-QUALITY WIRE INTO THE MIX.

Construction materials were accumulated under the watch of John Augustus Roebling, who failed to notice that he had been swindled on his cable wire. Contractor J. Lloyd Haigh snuck a substantial amount of inferior, even faulty, wire into the mix. The flaw went unrecognized until after the wires were incorporated into the standing bridge, at which point replacing them was impossible. Instead, the construction team doubled down on its security measures, introducing far more wire than calculations deemed necessary while working desperately to keep the discovery from reaching the public. For his part, Haigh escaped prosecution for this crime, but was arrested and convicted for forgery in an unrelated case. 

9. THE BRIDGE WAS THE SITE OF A STAMPEDE SOON AFTER OPENING.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public on May 24, 1883 and enjoyed a fairly harmonious first five days in operation. On May 30, however, disaster struck when either a woman tripping or a rumor of a pending collapse sparked a panic among the massive crowd of pedestrians crossing the bridge. The mob’s frantic race to escape the bridge resulted in the deaths of 12 people and serious injuries to 36 more.

10. TWENTY-ONE ELEPHANTS WALKED ACROSS THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN 1884.

How do you convince one of America’s busiest cities that its newest bridge can offer safe transport to its many commuters? Elephants. Since the most common haven for trained elephants in the 1880s was a circus tent, the city called upon entrepreneurial showman P.T. Barnum to march 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in May of 1884 to show just how sturdy the span was.

11. COMPARTMENTS IN THE BRIDGE WERE USED FOR STORING WINE.

If you think a nice glass of wine would be the perfect companion for a moonlit stroll across a river, this is the bridge for you. Engineers built sizeable vaults that were up to 50 feet tall into the bridge beneath its anchorages. Thanks to their cool temperatures, these granite-walled storage spaces made the perfect wine cellars, and they were rented out to the public until World War I. The company A. Smith & Co. Productions forked over $500 a month as rent for the Brooklyn-side vaults, while the liquor distributor Luyties Brothers paid a pretty $5000 for the prime real estate beneath the Manhattan anchorage.

12. ANOTHER COMPARTMENT WAS TURNED INTO A FALLOUT SHELTER.

At some point during the Cold War, one of the bridge’s compartments transformed into a survival shelter stocked with food and water rations and medical supplies. After fading into obscurity after the close of the Cold War, this fallout shelter was rediscovered in 2006 during a routine structural inspection of the bridge.

13. NOBODY CAN FIGURE OUT EXACTLY WHAT COLOR THE BRIDGE WAS.

Upon the announcement of a plan to repaint the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010, controversy erupted over the landmark’s original color. Some historians insisted that the young suspension bridge wore a proud buff color, renamed “Brooklyn Bridge Tan” for the modern makeover. (The option of “Queensborough Tan” drew groans.) On the other side of the battle, old documents and hand-colored lithographs supported the argument that the icon’s original color was “Rawlins Red,” a hue derived from the iron-oxide from the eponymous mountain town of southern Wyoming. In the end, Brooklyn Bridge Tan won out.

14. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE STANDS WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT.

The Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge features a bronze plaque commemorating the land below as the former location of the country’s first presidential mansion. Known alternatively as the Samuel Osgood House and the Walter Franklin House, the Lower Manhattan mansion served as the home of George Washington during his first ten months as America’s Commander-in-Chief. The residence stood at the intersection of Cherry Street and Pearl Street for 85 years before its demolition in 1856.

15. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE LONGEST IN THE WORLD FOR 20 YEARS.

Just two years before starting work on his New York project, John Augustus Roebling made a bit of suspension bridge history with the humbly named John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which spanned 1057 feet over the Ohio River between Covington, Ky. and Cincinnati. Roebling put that endeavor to shame with the Brooklyn Bridge, which bested its predecessor’s principal span by about 50 percent. Boasting a main span of 1595 feet and a total measurement of 5,989 feet, the Brooklyn Bridge held the superlative of longest suspension bridge in the world for two decades. When it finally lost the title in 1903, its successor was none other than its fellow East River crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. The latter’s main span bested the Brooklyn Bridge’s by only four and a half feet, though its total length reached 7308 feet.

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