But the military DID try to set fire to the sea at Orford, says historian

East Anglian Daily Times: Newspaper cuttings about the Shingle Street claimsNewspaper cuttings about the Shingle Street claims (Image: Archant)

Oh, we do love a conspiracy theory. Most of us, anyway. Especially when it involves Nazi invaders on Suffolk’s doorstep.

It’s the rumour that never dies: the story about the North Sea being set ablaze in the autumn of 1940 and corpses of German troops washing up on the beach. It’s said the authorities hushed it up.

Historian James Hayward debunked the theory more than 20 years ago and today, after a fresh look and more research, is still convinced there’s nothing to it.

But while he can find no shred of evidence of bodies on the beach at Shingle Street, near Woodbridge, he does present some teasing food for thought.

East Anglian Daily Times: The austere beauty of Shingle StreetThe austere beauty of Shingle Street (Image: (c) copyright citizenside.com)

Some dead Nazis were washed up on beaches (but only a few of them, and not here) and there were officially-spread reports of major German invasions being thwarted (but those were lies ? propaganda sown by the British authorities to galvanise American support for the allied cause).

And James does publicise – for, essentially, the first time – details of Britain’s initial military experiments involving setting fire to the sea, which took place at Orford. But that was during the First World War, not the second – a few weeks before Christmas, 1914.

You can see how these intriguing but unconnected happenings, if mashed together and left to ferment over time, could conceivably fuel myriad conspiracy theories.

It’s all a bit complicated. Let’s try to separate the strands.

East Anglian Daily Times: Historian James Hayward says: 'I dont honestly think theres any mystery about Shingle Street. The file that wasnt opened was just one of many files that werent opened, about areas that had been evacuated of civilians who had had their houses knocked about and had to be paid compensation. I think its as prosaic as that'Historian James Hayward says: 'I dont honestly think theres any mystery about Shingle Street. The file that wasnt opened was just one of many files that werent opened, about areas that had been evacuated of civilians who had had their houses knocked about and had to be paid compensation. I think its as prosaic as that' (Image: Archant)

The Shingle Street myth

In the summer of 1992, following pressure from people keen to see what it said, a yellowing Ministry of Home Security dossier detailing the “Evacuation of civil population from the village of Shingle Street in east Suffolk” was released by the Government. File HO 207/1175 had not been due to be made public until 2021.

Not surprisingly, some people had regarded the “Official Secret” label as an indication there was something to hide. The papers talked about the military requisitioning of more than 20 homes at Shingle Street – about plans to lay mines on the beach and to use the area for bombing test runs – but revealed nothing about long-dormant legends of flaming seas, a thwarted invasion by the Nazis and burnt bodies on the pebbles and sands.

Those rumours had first arisen years earlier in towns such as Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Wickham Market, fuelling “lurid tales of a failed invasion attempt”, says James.

The release in 1992 of that declassified – but pretty innocuous – file led to a reawakening of the “flames and bodies” stories – triggered, he says, by an anonymous call to a newspaper.

It all became a major news story again, and a pretty febrile one at that.

James, born in Colchester in the mid 1960s, had grown up there and gone to The Stanway School. He was passionate about military history and with pals would cycle around Essex, investigating sites linked to the Battle of Britain.

Later he went to university in Glasgow, returning to Colchester in 1991 to study law at the University of Essex. He was well-placed, then, when those Shingle Street invasion theories flared up again. “I got bitten by that particular story and carried on researching it after the media interest had died away,” he says. James spent much time driving around, talking to people and researching the documents, and concluded the Shingle Street claims were pure myth. His findings were published as his first book, The Bodies on the Beach.

More recently, with that book now more than 20 years old, he decided to revisit the Shingle Street phenomenon. “When I originally did that research in the early ’90s, I was able to travel around East Anglia and interview people face to face, and do primary research with people who had been around at the time. You can’t do that now, because they’ve all gone.

“In the last 20 years we’ve had the advent of the internet, so aspects of the wider story have actually been a lot easier to research. It’s meant I’ve been able to broaden the book out and discover a lot more information relevant to the original story in 1940.”

His resultant new book includes information from files now declassified that he didn’t have access to in the early 1990s.

That said, he’s as sure as ever there’s no truth in the invasion story, with its washed-up corpses.

“The whole thing has been a conspiracy theory before people coined that term. I think the story of something happening there in 1940 – a German landing attempt – is bunkum. There is absolutely no evidence for that at all.

“I don’t honestly think there’s any mystery about Shingle Street. The file that wasn’t opened was just one of many files that weren’t opened, about areas that had been evacuated of civilians who had had their houses knocked about and had to be paid compensation. I think it’s as prosaic as that.

“For all the time I was investigating this, and anyone else was investigating this, no eyewitness has ever come forward. There have been plenty of people who said ‘My father or grandfather or someone I knew saw it all’, but not one single eyewitness account.”

The historian admits being “a teeny bit critical” of the media for the way the story has been presented over the years.

Take that revival of the myth in the early 1990s, he says – based on an anonymous phone-call from someone purporting to be close to the Ministry of Defence. “That just doesn’t mean anything.”

How Britain did ? elsewhere ? try to set the sea ablaze… and peddled ‘The Big Lie’

After the evacuation from Dunkirk, James says, Britain faced Germany “alone” and didn’t have many arms to fight with, so propaganda was an important tool.

“There were some experiments done, very quickly, in May and June of 1940, using surplus petrol stocks as an offensive weapon. They thought that as well as pouring this over tanks on land, they could try to set the sea on fire.

“Some beach flame-barrages were created on the south coast. One was at St Margaret’s Bay in Kent.

“If he’s to be believed, and I think he is, a guy called Major John Baker White, part of the Directorate of Military Intelligence and one of the people responsible for trying to find ways of suggesting to the enemy it wasn’t a good idea to try to invade, came up with this idea of ‘Why don’t we say that we can set the sea on fire?’ because we’re already having these experiments. That would have taken place in late July, 1940.”

The story that Britain had terrible destructive powers at its disposal was released quietly, “underground”, as if it were a big secret, and was picked up by the Nazis, as the spooks intended.

“By the end of August there are contemporary Government documents that show the story that Britain could set the sea on fire, and had already defeated a German landing attempt, was in circulation in Europe.”

The “Big Lie” was also given to the American media by British intelligence, and given official credence, to convince the US it ought to stand firm with its transatlantic neighbour, who while being no lost cause was also in need of help. The story went that Britain had set fire to the English Channel to defeat a German invasion.

“In fact, the story became Britain’s first significant propaganda victory of the Second World War, and helped convince America that Britain was worth backing.”

Truth being the first casualty of war, British newspapers were not allowed to report these (false) stories about blazing seas, washed-up bodies and thwarted invasions, though the rumours had swept much of southern and eastern England during 1940 (and helped raise morale). Their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic had no such problems!

“In the whole course of the war,” Britain’s chief press censor later admitted, “there was no story which gave me so much trouble as that of the attempted German invasion, flaming oil on the water and 30,000 burned Germans.”

There were some facts to feed the deception, says James, such as the odd Nazi soldier or two being washed up on southern British beaches, but it’s almost certain they weren’t part of any planned and/or repelled invasion force.

Also helping give the Shingle Street story some potential credence was the major invasion alarm that September, when church bells rang around England and local defence volunteers were called out.

“You’ll hear that in the Shingle Street stories. People say ‘Well, it must have happened, because there was a big alert at the beginning of September’.” It wasn’t specific to Suffolk, James points out.

What about those “blazing sea” experiments near Dover; did they have any link to Shingle Street?

“It was successful in that a number of large flame-barrages were built, but most of those were not built until after 1940. The big ones at sea didn’t get finished until the following year. And there were only about four of them. And they were on the south coast. There’s no evidence I’ve ever come across that any kind of beach flame-barrage was ever constructed any closer to Suffolk than Southend-on-Sea.”

This is new: there were ‘blazing sea’ trials at Orford… but way back in 1914

The man behind it was Lord Maurice Hankey, who 26 years or so later would try something similar in those experiments near Dover.

But, back in 1914, Suffolk was chosen for his trials. This is what James writes in his new book:

“A senior Whitehall naval secretary in 1914, ‘fired’ and inspired by Edward Gibbon’s account in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Hankey corralled several of the ‘best petroleum experts of the day’ in an effort to reformulate Greek Fire.”

Greek Fire was some kind of substance used by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire from the late 7th Century. It burned while floating on the water, so was a powerful weapon in naval battles.

“The endgame was to flood and fire suitable rivers running into enemy territory, such as the Rhine. Ten barrels of fuel – some 300 gallons – were mixed by specialists at Chatham naval dockyard before being driven to Orford for a trial on December 5, a day on which newspapers reported fierce fighting around Antwerp and Lodz, as well as ‘lively intermittent cannonades’ at Ypres.

“Unfortunately, due to a strong wind and choppy waters on the River Ore, the results were disappointing. ‘Part of the raft became detached and drifted away before getting thoroughly alight… three centres of flame, each of great intensity, were formed, instead of a single mass of flame as had been intended’.

“The project was quietly abandoned. ‘They worked for a month doing nothing else on a pond lent by the Admiralty near Sheerness’, Hankey rued later of this disappointing failure.”

It’s interesting that Orford is not far from Shingle Street, though this trial came more than a quarter of a century before 1940!

James says there were some inaccurate details in a biography of Hankey, suggesting the experiments were on the Orwell. He tracked down the file at The National Archives and discovered it was the Ore.

He admits one of his first responses was “‘Oh dear, that’s very close to Shingle Street. What can of worms am I opening up?’ But I don’t think there is a connection. I really don’t. But isn’t that remarkable?”

Burn the Sea – Flame Warfare, Black Propaganda and the Nazi Plan to Invade England brings together all these elements of “the invasion that failed” and examines its “astonishing longevity… as well as its remarkable revival in 1992”. Shingle Street gets a chapter to itself.

James is cheerfully resigned to the thought the Shingle Street legend will pop up at regular intervals, to be recycled once more, and will do so until any credible eyewitness account emerges.

“Until then, the best you can say is it’s not proven.”

Burn the Sea is published by The History Press at £17.99