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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Extraordinary story of Second World War sites designed to look like burning cities which saved 2,500 lives and diverted 730 air raids

It was a little-known Second World War tactic to fool the Germans - and it certainly did the job.

These extraordinary photos reveal how Operation Starfish helped to dupe Nazi aircraft by creating a number of decoy towns which were built to lure enemy bombers away from more populated areas.

 The Starfish Sites - which got their name from the initials ‘SF’, standing for ‘Special Fire’ sites - were designed by Colonel John Turner and were intended to simulate burning UK 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


Trevor Denniff, who served on Farleigh Common Starfish in Warlingham, Surrey, spoke in 1998 of his experiences and said the headquarters for the project was at Shepperton Film Studios in Middlesex.

‘The film studios are used to creating a world of make believe, so they were the obvious people to design and set up our sites,’ he told the Hythe RAF Association in a talk reprinted on BBC History.

Mr Denniff said that film crews were ‘erecting a series of skeletal structures all over a valley farm, covering an area of about one mile by a quarter with scaffolding towers and blocks of wire baskets’.
The RAF aircraftman, or ‘erk’ in slang, added that pairs of 1,000-gallon galvanised tanks were placed on top of 20ft-tall towers, with one filled with water and the other with diesel or paraffin.





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



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 system similar to a toilet flush under each tank then released the liquids down pipes into 15ft cast-iron troughs filled with coke or coal over firelighters.

The coal would be lit when enemy bombers arrived at night and the diesel would be released when the trough was hot - boiling and igniting.

‘The water was then released onto the burning oil, causing a virtual explosion of fire and steam,’ Mr Denniff said. ‘It was all very impressive but films lost some of their magic.’
The fire baskets were arranged to look like buildings and covered with tarred roofing felt to ensure they were watertight when it rained. The sites were designed to look like industrial complexes.





From above: This is an aerial photo taken in 1944 of SF8A, the decoy in Richmond Park in south-west London



Starfish sites were first created in December 1940 and diverted five blitz attempts just that month. By the end of the Second World War they had saved an estimated 2,500 lives.

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.
They also ensured that millions of pounds worth of buildings were protected. Portsmouth and Cardiff were two major cities that were saved from extension damage on occasions by Starfish sites.

Middlesbrough, Bristol and Nottingham were also protected by the sites – with the German pilots thinking that a Starfish site 14 miles away from the latter was Derby.

In 730 attacks on decoy sites, four civilians were killed. But for decades the sites have remained something of a secret, with ex-servicemen still true to the mantra that ‘careless talk costs lives’.


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