Operation Sealion Part 5

Battle in and over the Channel – Set the sea on fire and drench them with gas

The Petroleum Warfare Department (PWD) was an organisation established in Britain in 1940 in response to the invasion crisis during World War II, when it appeared that Germany would invade the country. Rat catcher has already outlined the work of the department in his excellent essays on FIDO and PLUTO. The department was initially tasked with developing the uses of petroleum as a weapon of war and it oversaw the introduction of a wide range of flame warfare weapons. The closure of 17,000 petrol stations due to mass vehicle requisitions and only issuing of fuel to those on essential duties, meant that fuel was available in abundance.

From its inception the PWD was tasked with “setting the sea on fire,” as much for the propaganda value this weapon would have as well as its actual affect. It was all very much within the myths and use of Greek fire during the wars against Islam in the early Middle Ages. Although PWD would go on to work on burning floating oil, a plan was hatched to spread the story that such a weapon already existed even before the first trials were performed. This disinformation was circulated in neutral cities around the world, that Britain possessed a weapon that could turn the seas to fire. The effectiveness of this disinformation was confirmed by the interrogations of captured Luftwaffe personnel, who confirmed the absolute certainty that such a weapon existed.

Moreover the story of the burning seas was embellished when an American war correspondent William Shirer based in Berlin, visited Geneva in Swizerland and filed a story: News coming over the near-by border of France is that the Germans have attempted a landing in Britain, but that it has been repulsed with heavy German losses. Must take this report with a grain of salt. But a lie is halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on. However, when Shirer arrived back in Berlin he made the following observation:

I noticed several lightly wounded soldiers, mostly airmen, getting off a special car which had been attached to our train. From their bandages, the wounds looked like burns. I noticed also the longest Red Cross train I’ve ever seen. It stretched from the station for half a mile to beyond the bridge over the Landwehr Canal. […] I wondered where so many wounded could have come from, as the armies in the west stopped fighting three months ago. As there were only a few porters I had to wait some time on the platform and picked up a conversation with a railway workman. He said most of the men taken from the hospital train were suffering from burns.

Whatever the propaganda, the efforts of the PWD were real enough; they continued with experiments to actually set the sea on fire. While initial tests were discouraging, on 24 August 1940, on the northern shores of the Solent, near Titchfield, ten tanker wagons began to pump oil down pipes running from the top of a thirty-foot high cliff down into the water at the rate of about 12 tons per hour. In front of many spectators, the oil was ignited by flares and a system of sodium and petrol pellets. In a matter of seconds, a raging wall of flame was produced; the intense heat caused the water to boil and people at the cliff edge were obliged to retreat. Unfortunately it was not an unqualified success because the circumstances were improbably favourable; in the sheltered waters of the Solent, the sun-warmed sea was calm and the winds light. The solution was to spray and burn the oil/petroleum mixture over the water rather than on it. By August 1940 Lengths of this flame defence were completed at Deal between Kingsdown and Sandwich, at St. Margaret’s Bay, at Shakespeare Cliff near Dover railway tunnel, at Rye where a remarkable system of remote controlled devices across the marshes was installed and at Studland Bay.

The PWD went on to develop and issue a number of flame devices to the defence forces, including portable flame throwers for the Home Guard, vehicle-mounted weapons on armoured trucks and AFVs as well as flame stops at points of concentration. In the hands of determined and able troops, these petroleum weapons would have been extremely effective and terrifying to those they were used against and possibly those who operated them.

The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, usually called the Geneva Protocol, is a treaty prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflicts. It was signed at Geneva on 17 June 1925 and entered into force on 8 February 1928. It was registered in League of Nations Treaty Series on 7 September 1929. The Geneva Protocol is a protocol to the Convention for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms and Ammunition and in Implements of War signed on the same date, and followed the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.

There may be some people who would be shocked that Britain not only contemplated the first use of weapons banned under the Geneva Protocol, but actively produced, stockpiled and made preparations for the delivery of chemical weapons on any invading German forces. At the end of June 1940 Churchill ordered that the production of mustard gas should be increased and by August the RAF had over 264,000lbs of chemical bombs stored in airfields around the country. Apart from the Engineers, the Army had insufficient training to operate chemical weapons so the bulk of the task would fall to the RAF. Lysander, Blenheim and Battle aircraft were fitted with crop spraying devices and a plan for their deployment and use was drawn up. The bombers of No 2 Group who already had experience of bombing the coastal ports, would saturate the embarkation ports with mustard gas bombs. These devices were designed to explode at a predetermined altitude after release and shower the closely packed barges and their troops with persistent blister agent. Those enemy troops that made it to the other side of the Channel would be doused in mustard agent from the Lysander spray aircraft.

Whilst first having been issued in 1939, the acceleration of the issue of improved gas masks to the civilian population was possibly more to do with the likely use of chemical weapons by the British rather than any specific threat from the Germans. Additionally, all British troops were issued with the updated respirator with an improved filter system. Very little information is available regarding the disposal of the unused stockpiles of mustard gas, but people are still uncovering mustard gas canisters from ancient, deteriorating stockpiles, such as those recently discovered in the woods around the former RAF Woodall Spa.

© Blown Periphery 2018