In July 1945, less than 2 months after V.E Day, a general election was held in Great Britain, the first since 1935. Amongst the candidates nominated in Richmond was Squadron Leader Norman Howard, who was working at the time for the Air Ministry. Unlike other candidates who were able to promote themselves with full profiles and C.Vs all Sq/Leader Howard could say for himself is that during the war he worked for a ‘hush-hush’ department… and so he did. Sq/Leader Howard of 56, Richmond Hill, helped design and build the many ‘decoy towns’ around the U.K that deceived the Luftwaffe into dropping their bombs on open land – thus saving many lives. They were known as ‘Starfish Decoys’.
For more about the Decoy Sites of WW2 and the role of Richmond Park in the grand deception please read St Margarets Newsletters 3rd and 9th May 2012
70 years ago, in 1946, Sq/Leader Howard was able to talk about his work to the ‘Richmond Herald’…
“Even before the Battle of Britain it was apparent that the enemy intended to attack our aerodromes and our first operations were to put up dummy planes in fields so as to give the appearance of real aerodromes… When they changed over to heavy night bombing we had to change our tactics too.
“After the raid on Coventry we were sent all over the country to build decoy fires with any material we could obtain on the spot to protect those towns most likely to be attacked.
“By 1941 we had our decoys on a really scientific basis. This consisted of lights laid down in full-scale patterns to represent streets, docks, marshalling yards and industrial plants. We also had to protect our airfields by laying down decoy flare paths. Eventually we had so many real aerodromes in this country it was impossible to find room for the decoys!”
In January 1941 a ‘Starfish’ site to deflect enemy bombing from London was set up in Richmond Park. Its code name was SF8A – the S. F standing for “Special Fire”. Pen Ponds were drained to prevent them being used as navigational aids by enemy aircraft, a heavy anti-aircraft battery was installed and ditches dug to prevent enemy aircraft landing. Similar SF sites were established at Farleigh near Croydon, Rainham Marsh near Dagenham, Lambourne End in Essex and Lullingstone in Kent.
By day the SF sites resembled nothing more than chicken sheds, but they were equipped with specially designed boilers and fire baskets which, when ignited at night, resembled exploding bombs, burning incendiaries and buildings on fire.
By the end of the war there were approximately 630 Decoy Sites in the U.K consisting of 230 decoy airfields and 400 decoy towns including railway marshalling yards, steelworks, foundry and factory complexes. Of these, the dummy airfields were bombed 443 times, and the decoy towns about 100 times, drawing some 5% of the bombs intended for real airfields and cities. Official figures calculated that the sites saved an estimated 2,500 lives and prevented 3,000 injuries.
The entire success of the deception relied upon the government’s insistence that the ‘black out’ when all visible naked lights were extinguished was strictly maintained. A decoy could only serve as protection if the real target was completely invisible.
As well as laying out the decoys Sq/Leader Howard tested them as well. One night he and a squad of RAF engineers laid down a dummy ‘flare path’ to represent the real one at a nearby aircraft factory. After judging the deception a success the second night the decoy flare path was laid out by a team of civilians – who were all immediately arrested as traitors by the local Home Guard who accused them of ‘assisting the enemy’. Sq/Leader Howard had to go and bail them all out.
On another occasion Sq/Leader Howard went to inspect a decoy ‘railway installation’ managed by an elderly man with a wooden leg who had been manning the site every night for over a year. During the course of his inspection the old man asked what the decoy was for…
“It is to divert enemy bombing from the railways,” Howard replied.
“Do you mean to say that if I fire up the decoys the German bombs will fall here?” the old man asked.
“Well, I did not know that before. If I had I would not have taken on the job. Good night. I’m off!”
And with that the old gentleman limped off into the night taking his matches with him!
As for Starfish Bombing Decoy SF8A/Richmond Park on or around August 1944, with its work done, it received this signal:-
LD0469/44 Instructions on Abandonment of sites
Sites should be de-requisitioned and cleared of obstructions quickly in order to hand the land back to agriculture etc., as soon as possible.
Shelters should be disposed of (by sale if this is feasible) to the owners or tenants in order to avoid unnecessary work in dismantling structures which may be of use as they stand… and so on.
The site SF8A has now reverted back to parkland. Aerial photography from 1971 does not show any surviving features of the decoy town… unless it is still there but so well camouflaged that we cannot see it!
— from Martyn Day