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."

15 Fascinating Facts About Schindler’s List

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List brought to the screen a story that had gone untold since the tragic events of the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, used his pull within the party to save the lives of more than 1000 Jewish individuals by recruiting them to work in his Polish factory. Here are some facts about Spielberg’s groundbreaking film on its 25th anniversary.

1. The story was relayed to author Thomas Keneally in a Beverly Hills leather goods shop.

In October 1980, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally had stopped into a leather goods shop off of Rodeo Drive after a book tour stopover from a film festival in Sorrento, Italy, where one of his books was adapted into a movie. When the owner of the shop, Leopold Page, learned that Keneally was a writer, he began telling him “the greatest story of humanity man to man.” That story was how Page, his wife, and thousands of other Jews were saved by a Nazi factory owner named Oskar Schindler during World War II.

Page gave Keneally photocopies of documents related to Schindler, including speeches, firsthand accounts, testimonies, and the actual list of names of the people he saved. It inspired Keneally to write the book Schindler’s Ark, on which the movie is based. Page (whose real name was Poldek Pfefferberg) ended up becoming a consultant on the film.

2. Keneally wasn't the first person Leopold Page told about Oskar Schindler.

The film rights to Page’s story were actually first purchased by MGM for $50,000 in the 1960s after Page had similarly ambushed the wife of film producer Marvin Gosch at his leather shop. Mrs. Gosch told the story to her husband, who agreed to produce a film version, even going so far as hiring Casablanca co-screenwriter Howard Koch to write the script. Koch and Gosch began interviewing Schindler Jews in and around the Los Angeles area, and even Schindler himself, before the project stalled, leaving the story unknown to the public at large.

3. Schindler made more than one list.

Liam Neeson, Agnieszka Krukówna, Krzysztof Luft, Friedrich von Thun, and Marta Bizon in Schindler's List (1993)
Universal Pictures

Seven lists in all were made by Oskar Schindler and his associates during the war, while four are known to still exist. Two are at the Yad Vashem in Israel, one is at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and one privately owned list was unsuccessfully auctioned off via eBay in 2013.

The movie refers to the first two lists created in 1944, otherwise known as “The Lists of Life.” The five subsequent lists were updates to the first two versions, which included the names of more than 1000 Jews who Schindler saved by recruiting them to work in his factory.

4. Steven Spielberg first learned of Schindler in the early 1980s.

Former MCA/Universal president Sid Sheinberg, a father figure to Spielberg, gave the director Keneally’s book when it was first published in 1982, to which Spielberg allegedly replied, “It’ll make a helluva story. Is it true?”

Eventually the studio bought the rights to the book, and when Page met with Spielberg to discuss the story, the director promised the Holocaust survivor that he would make the film adaptation within 10 years. The project languished for over a decade because Spielberg was reluctant to take on such serious subject matter. Spielberg’s hesitation actually stopped Hollywood veteran Billy Wilder from making Schindler’s List his final film. Wilder tried to buy the rights to Keneally’s book, but Spielberg and MCA/Universal scooped them up before he could.

5. Spielberg refused to accept a salary for making the movie.

Though Spielberg is already an extremely wealthy man as a result of the many big-budget movies that have made him one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, he decided that a story as important as Schindler’s List shouldn’t be made with an eye toward financial reward. The director relinquished his salary for the movie and any proceeds he would stand to make in perpetuity, calling any such personal gains “blood money.” Instead, Spielberg used the film’s profits to found the USC Shoah Foundation, which was established in 1994 to honor and remember the survivors of the Holocaust by collecting personal recollections and audio visual interviews.

6. Before Spielberg agreed to make the movie, he tried to get other directors to make it.

Part of Spielberg’s reluctance to make Schindler's List was that he didn’t feel that he was prepared or mature enough to tackle a film about the Holocaust. So he tried to recruit other directors to make the film. He first approached director Roman Polanski, a Holocaust survivor whose own mother was killed in Auschwitz. Polanski declined, but would go on to make his own film about the Holocaust, The Pianist, which earned him a Best Director Oscar in 2003. Spielberg then offered the movie to director Sydney Pollack, who also passed.

The job was then offered to legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who accepted. Scorsese was set to put the film into production when Spielberg had an epiphany on the set of the revisionist Peter Pan story Hook and realized that he was finally prepared to make Schindler’s List. To make up for the change of heart, Spielberg traded Scorsese the rights to a movie he’d been developing that Scorsese would make into his next film: the remake of Cape Fear.

7. The movie was a gamble for Universal, so they made Spielberg a dino-sized deal.

When Spielberg finally decided to make Schindler’s List, it had taken him so long that Sheinberg and Universal balked. The relatively low-budget $23 million three-hour black-and-white Holocaust movie was too much of a risk, so they asked Spielberg to make another project that had been brewing at the studio: Jurassic Park. Make the lucrative summer movie first, they said, and then he could go and make his passion project. Spielberg agreed, and both movies were released in 1993; Jurassic Park in June and Schindler’s List in December.

8. Spielberg didn't want a movie star with Hollywood clout to portray Schindler.

Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson auditioned for the role of Oskar Schindler, and actor Warren Beatty was far enough along in the process that he even made it as far as a script reading. But according to Spielberg, Beatty was dropped because, “Warren would have played it like Oskar Schindler through Warren Beatty.”

For the role, Spielberg cast then relatively unknown Irish actor Liam Neeson, whom the director had seen in a Broadway play called Anna Christie. “Liam was the closest in my experience of what Schindler was like,” Spielberg told The New York Times. “His charm, the way women love him, his strength. He actually looks a little bit like Schindler, the same height, although Schindler was a rotund man,” he said. “If I had made the movie in 1964, I would have cast Gert Frobe, the late German actor. That’s what he looked like.”

Besides having Neeson listen to recordings of Schindler, the director also told him to study the gestures of former Time Warner chairman Steven J. Ross, another of Spielberg’s mentors, and the man to whom he dedicated the film.

9. Spielberg did his own research.

In order to gain a more personal perspective on the film, Spielberg traveled to Poland before principal photography began to interview Holocaust survivors and visit the real-life locations that he planned to portray in the movie. While there, he visited the former Gestapo headquarters on Pomorska Street, Schindler’s actual apartment, and Amon Goeth’s villa.

Eventually the film shot on location for 92 days in Poland by recreating the Płaszów camp in a nearby abandoned rock quarry. The production was also allowed to shoot scenes outside the gates of Auschwitz.

10. The little girl in the red coat was real.

Promotional image for 25th anniversary rerelease of Schindler's List.
Universal Pictures

A symbol of innocence in the movie, the little girl in the red coat who appears during the liquidation of the ghetto in the movie was based on a real person. In the film, the little girl is played by actress Oliwia Dabrowska, who—at the age of three—promised Spielberg that she would not watch the film until she was 18 years old. She allegedly watched the movie when she was 11, breaking her promise, and spent years rejecting the experience. Later, she told the Daily Mail, “I realized I had been part of something I could be proud of. Spielberg was right: I had to grow up to watch the film.”

The actual girl in the red coat was named Roma Ligocka; a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, she was known amongst the Jews living there by her red winter coat. Ligocka, now a painter who lives in Germany, later wrote a biography about surviving the Holocaust called The Girl in the Red Coat.

11. The movie wasn't supposed to be in English.

For a better sense of reality, Spielberg originally wanted to shoot the movie completely in Polish and German using subtitles, but he eventually decided against it because he felt that it would take away from the urgency and importance of the images onscreen. According to Spielberg, “I wanted people to watch the images, not read the subtitles. There’s too much safety in reading. It would have been an excuse to take their eyes off the screen and watch something else.”

12. The studio didn't want the movie to be in black and white.

The only person at MCA/Universal who agreed with Spielberg and director of cinematography Janusz Kaminski’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white was Sheinberg. Everyone else lobbied against the idea, saying that it would stylize the Holocaust. Spielberg and Kaminski chose to shoot the film in a grimy, unstylish fashion and format inspired by German Expressionist and Italian Neorealist films. Also, according to Spielberg, “It’s entirely appropriate because I’ve only experienced the Holocaust through other people’s testimonies and through archival footage which is, of course, all in black and white.”

13. Spielberg's passion project paid off in Oscars.

Schindler’s List was the big winner at the 66th Academy Awards. The film won a total of seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director awards for Spielberg. Neeson and Ralph Fiennes were both nominated for their performances, and the film also received nods for Costume Design, Makeup, and Sound.

14. Schindler's List is technically a student film.

Steven Spielberg gives a speech
Nicholas Hunt, Getty Images

Thirty-three years after dropping out of college, Spielberg finally received a BA in Film and Video Production from his newly minted alma mater, Cal State Long Beach, in 2002. The director re-enrolled in secret, and gained his remaining credits by writing essays and submitting projects under a pseudonym. In order to pass a film course, he submitted Schindler’s List as his student project. Spielberg describes the time gap between leaving school and earning his degree as his “longest post-production schedule.”

15. Spielberg thinks the film may be even more important to watch today.

In honor of the film's 25th anniversary, it's currently back in theaters. But Spielberg believes that the film may be even more important for today's audiences to see. "I think this is maybe the most important time to re-release this film," the director said in a recent interview with Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News. Citing the spike in hate crimes targeting religious minorities since
2016, he said, "Hate's less parenthetical today, it's more a headline."

Additional Sources:
The Making of Schindler’s List: Behind the Scenes of an Epic Film, by Franciszek Palowski

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2015.

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

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iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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