Operation Starfish: Extraordinary story of Second World War sites designed to look like burning cities which saved 2,500 lives and diverted 730 air raids
Starfish decoy towns in Britain helped to dupe Nazi aircraft during Blitz
They were built to lure enemy bombers away from more populated areasTanks containing diesel and paraffin were placed on top of 20ft towersDiesel was released onto coke or coal before water was released on topCaused a virtual explosion of fire and steam, looking like a burning town
00:11 GMT, 1 March 2013
01:04 GMT, 2 March 2013
It sounds a little like something Captain Mainwaring might have dreamed up.
But don’t panic – not all the fires that raged across Britain during Hitler’s bombing onslaught were homes and factories ablaze.
For a cunning plan to build decoy towns and set them alight bamboozled the Luftwaffe into believing they had hit their targets.
Burning: A Starfish basket fire is pictured in an unknown location. The Starfish sites – which got their name from the initials 'SF', standing for 'Special Fire' sites – were intended to simulate burning cities during the Blitz
Decoy: A boiling oil fire is pictured at an unidentified Starfish site. Starfish sites were first created in December 1940 and received five blitz attempts just that month
The so-called Starfish towns, named
after initials that actually stood for ‘Special Fire’ sites, were
commissioned to avoid the kind of disaster that destroyed Coventry
during the Blitz.
The dummy towns were sited miles away
from communities and cities likely to come under attack. As soon as the
first wave of German bombers lit up or attacked a real target, emergency
teams raced to extinguish the flames – then lit the decoy fires.
The aim was to convince the second wave this was the target and to fool them into dropping bombs harmlessly on the decoy site.
The ruse was developed by Colonel John Turner, a respected engineer and retired Air Ministry officer.
But the construction, deployment and
ignition of the fires may have been more akin to a stroke of Dad’s
Army-style genius. Tanks containing paraffin or diesel were placed on
top of 20ft towers, arranged to resemble rows of buildings or industrial
Ready for action: An anonymous Starfish site is pictured. Liverpool, Bristol and Nottingham were protected by the sites – with the German pilots thinking that a Starfish site 14 miles away from the latter was Derby
A valve that operated like a toilet
flush was opened to release the fuel on to burning coal, creating an
instant blaze and engulfing the area in black smoke.
Then the fire was flushed with water
to send a column of steam into the night sky. Result: a rather
convincing mock-up of a bombing raid that hit its target.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DECOY SITES
Dummy sites were a key tactic to preserving important transport hubs and cities in Britain during the bombings of World War Two.
There were around 230 dummy airfields in the UK and 400 dummy urban and industrial sites.
Dummy railway marshalling yards and docks also existed in an attempt to trick the Luftwaffe.
By the end of the war there were 237
Starfish sites protecting 81 cities, factories and other potential
Official figures reveal that 730 bombing raids were diverted
to these dummy targets.
Among them was one built several miles outside Derby, home of Rolls-Royce aero engine production.
Middlesbrough, Bristol, Nottingham, Portsmouth and Cardiff were some of the other major cities protected.
Starfish towns were among several decoy projects used to dupe the enemy during the Second World War.
Other masterstrokes included building depots of cardboard tanks, or planting landing lights to look like airfields.
From above: This is an aerial photo taken in 1944 of SF8A, the decoy in Richmond Park in south-west London