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Monthly Archives: May 2013

The amazing ruse of Operation Mincemeat.

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In the winter of 1942-1943, the British Army pushed steadily across north Africa, determined to oust Field Marshall General Irwin Rommel and the German Afrika Korps.  As part of this campaign a ruse was carried out whereby the corpse of a dead serviceman was placed in a blown-up scout car in a minefield facing the German 90th Light Division near Qaret el Abd.  The body had papers on it giving false locations of British minefields.  Rommel fell for it and his panzer divisions were lured into areas of soft sound where they were bogged down and had to abandoned.

With Rommel on the run, British High Command were already planning an invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe from the south.  The obvious objective would be to cross the Mediterranean Sea and take Sicily, and thence onto mainland Italy.  The trouble with that plan was it would also be obvious to the Italians and the Germans.  Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley and Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, members of a top secret security committee came up with the idea for an even more daring ruse.

Named Operation Mincemeat, the plan was to have a body washed up on a shore, disguised as a British Army Officer, carrying faked documents showing a planned Allied invasion of Sardinia and Greece, in the hope that the Axis powers would take the bait and leave Sicily largely unguarded.  The chosen location for the drop was off the coast of Spain.  Spain was neutral at the time but the ruling Falange Party were sympathetic to and close allies with both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.  It was therefore more than likely that they would share any intelligence with the axis powers.

A fake identity was prepared for this officer of Major William Martin. This was not as easy at it appears.  Nazi intelligence were aware of the identity of the higher-ranking British officers, so they could not make the fake appear to high ranking, yet the Nazis were unlikely to believe a low ranking officer would be privy to and carrying such sensitive information.  Major Montagu came up with the idea of making the fake Major Martin an expert on landing craft on the staff of Combined Operations Chief Lord Mountbatten.  The rank was changed to Captain-acting-major and the impression was to be given that he was on his way to head a training camp in Algiers.

The briefcase attached to the body by handcuffs contained a letter from Lord Mountbatten to Andrew Cunningham, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, asking that Major Martin be sent back to London as soon as possible, containing the reference “bring some sardines with you”, hoping that the Nazis would see this as a coded message about an invasion of Sardinia.  All however rested on one key document; a letter from Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Archibald Nye, to the Commander in Tunisia, General Harold Alexander, giving up-to-minute information about the planned invasions of Sardinia and Greece.  These faked orders indicated there would indeed be an attack upon Sicily, but purely to create a diversion from the main objectives of Operation Husky – the fake name given to the Sardinia/Greece invasion. Nye’s letter stated there was a good chance of making the Nazis “think we will go for Sicily – it is an obvious target and one about which they must be nervous.”  The briefcase also contained London theatre ticket stubs, a letter about an overdrawn bank account, a picture of his fianceé, love letters, a party invitation and a letter from an “uncle” complaining about rationing.

Now all they needed was a body, but not just any body.  They wished to make it look as if the Major had been the victim of an air-crash at sea.  A pathologist was consulted who suggested a victim of pneumonia and exposure, the fluid-filled lungs of whom would look like drowning and damage to body tissues caused by cold would be consistent with long exposure in the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.  They eventually did find such a body but attempts to photograph it and alter the photograph to make it look pre-exposure proved impossible.  It was then a stroke of luck took place.  Montagu spotted an officer who bore an uncanny resemblance to the dead man and, without exposing the purpose, convinced him to pose for a photograph to add to the identity papers of “Major Martin”.

With the Nazis finally vanquished in north Africa, on 30 April 1943, the British Submarine HMS Seraph surfaced under cover of darkness 1600 yards off the northern coast of Spain.  They unstowed a the container, filled with dry ice to preserve the body, now clad in an officers uniform, life vest and with the briefcase attached by handcuffs, removed him and slipped him into the waters.  Now all counted on the body being washed up or otherwise found by the Spanish authorities.

On 3 May 1943 London received a communique from the British Naval attaché in Madrid that the body of a Major William Martin had been found by Spanish fishermen off the coast of the town of Huelva, apparently the victim of a plane crash into the ocean.  This attaché knew nothing of the top secret Operation Mincemeat and merely reported that major had been given a military funeral after Spanish authorities had carried out and autopsy and other “legal formalities”.  There was cause for tentative celebration.  Given that the body had been in the hands of the Spanish authorities, it was more than likely that the briefcase had been opened and the contents shared with Nazi intelligence in Spain.  The only hope now is that they would fall for it.  Within a few weeks of the funeral, the personal effects were returned to London, where British Intelligence examined the briefcase and orders and ascertained that they had indeed been opened.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill was sent the simple message, “Mincemeat swallowed whole.”

On 10 July 1943 Allied forces stormed onto Sicily and were met with only token resistance, enabling them to very quickly take the entire island.  Intelligence reports back to London indicated that Operation Mincemeat was a complete success.  The Axis powers had bolstered their defences in Sardinia and Greece, leaving Sicily almost wide open and giving the Allies an open door into Italy.  It was not long before the end for the Axis powers were in sight.

It was only after World War II that it became apparent just how successful Operation Mincemeat had been.  A memo from the German Naval Commander Admiral Dönitz stated “The genuineness of the captured documents are above suspicion”.  He also recorded in his diary however that not everyone was convinced.  An entry states “The Führer (Hitler) does not agree with the Duce (Mussolini) that Sicily is the most likely invasion point.  He believes that the discovered British orders confirm that the planned invasion will be launched mainly against Sardinia.”  Mussolini had seen through the ruse but Adolf Hitler obviously had not, and being unwilling to listen as he was, had taken the bait hook, line and sinker.

As to just whom “Major Martin” was has been open to speculation ever since Operation Mincemeat.  The official line, which has been restated in a Freedom of Information request in 2010, was that he was Glyndwr Michael, an alcoholic vagrant from Aberbargoed, Wales, who apparently died after ingesting rat poison.  Further support for this comes in the fact that this unlisted, homeless man is named on the village war memorial.

However, in The Secrets of HMS Dasher, John and Noreen Steele pointed out that HMS Dasher, a US-built escort carrier, exploded in the Firth of Clyde on 27 March 1943, which they attribute to the accidental discharge of a torpedo from a British submarine.  In this work they state that the submarine which carried out Operation Mincemeat, HMS Seraph, was berthed in Blyth, Northumberland, at the time but after the sinking of HMS Dasher, was quickly dispatched right round the northern coast of Scotland to the Holy Loch, which is entered from the Firth of Clyde.  They further claim that the body of the Welshman would have been too badly decomposed for use and a fresh body was obtained from the 379 dead from HMS Dasher.  They identify this man as 37 year old sailor John “Jack” Melville.  In 2004 a memorial service for Jack Melville in which Lt. Cmdr. Mark Hill, CO of the naval squadron in Cyprus, referring to a movie about Operation Mincemeat stated, “In his incarnation as Major Martin, John Melville’s memory lives on in the film, ‘The Man Who Never Was’. But we are gathered here today to remember John Melville as a man who most certainly was.”

The Ministry of Defence of course maintain that Major Martin was indeed Glyndwr Michael, but if this were the case, why take HMS Seraph all the way to the Holy Loch, where the official line is that was where the body was prepared for its final journey?  Anything else apart, if John and Noreen Steele are correct, taking a submarine up the North Sea and around the north of Scotland was taking an extreme chance during World War II.  This Scottish connection have led to another unconfirmed claim that Major Martin may have actually been an unknown vagrant from Aberdeen.

Vagrant or serving sailor, we shall never know.  All we do know for certain is that a dead man played a vital part in defeating one of the most dangerous regimes in human history, and for that the UK, Europe and the world owe him an enormous debt.

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Following the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the race was on for Europeans to claim what they could of the “New World”.  As a naval race, the English were in the forefront of this.  Sir Humphrey Gilbert explored and detailed much of the eastern seaboard of North America and claimed Newfoundland in the name of Elizabeth I, Queen of England in 1583.  However, that expedition cost him his life when his ship hit heavy storms attempting to return across the North Atlantic Ocean.  Gilbert had meant to establish a permanent English colony in the Americas and that task now fell to his stepbrother, Sir Walter Raleigh, under a grant from Queen Elizabeth in which it was agreed in March 1584 that one fifth of any recovered treasure would go to the crown.

Two ships under Raleigh’s command, captained by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe set out in April 1584 and sailed across to Florida. Turning north, they progressed 125 miles north until coming to a sheltered cove where they landed.  The land they were on turned out to be an island rather than part of the mainland, and it was named Virginia Island, in honour of Queen Elizabeth, “the Virgin Queen”.  The island would later be renamed Roanoke.  Game was plentiful, the land fertile and Native Americans living there were welcoming, with their leader, Granganimeo, becoming very friendly with Amadas and Barlowe.  It was therefore decided this would be the base for a new English colony.

In the spring of 1585 seven ships under the command of Sir Richard Grenville with a hundred men landed on Roanoke to set up a permanent base there.  A year later Sir Francis Drake, who had been working as a privateer (legal pirate) plundering Spanish ships, set in at the settlement with his fleet of 23 ships.  He found few settlers had survived and those who did were starving.  Crops had failed and had had to turn to the local tribes for support.  The friendly Granganimeo had died and his son Pemisapan, who disliked the colonists was now chief and tried to destroy them.  Other tribes had joined in and many colonists died in the fray.  Others succumbed to disease and starvation.  Drake decided to evacuate the colony but when a storm hit, fifteen men were left behind.  No trace of them was ever seen again.

In these days of empire building greed was a powerful driving force.  The survivors of the first settlement had reported large deposits of copper ore on the islands and rich pearl oyster beds along the coast.  So it was decided for Sir Walter Raleigh to send a second expedition in 1586.  This second wave of settlers included women and on 18 August 1586 a little girl was born to a couple named Dare on the island, the first European child to be born on American soil, and was christened Virginia.  Shortly after her birth, her grandfather, John White, an agent of Sir Walter Raleigh, set sail for England before winter set in, leaving 120 men and women, and baby Virginia, on the island with the promise to return the following year.

England at this time however was on the brink of war with Spain.  Sailing was hazardous due to constant attack from French and Spanish ships and in the spring of 1587 the English government banned vessels from leaving English ports.  Anxious to return, in 1588 White convinced two captains to break the law and they set out across the North Atlantic.  They had to abort this sailing when they got into a hostile encounter with a French vessel and had to return.  Open warfare broke out when the Spanish Armada set sail for England in July 1588 and although the English thwarted this attempted invasion, all ships remain impounded for a further two years.

It was not until spring 1590 that Sir John White managed to sail for America, almost four years since he left the Roanoke colony.  When he arrived in August that year, he was met with complete silence where there should have been a bustling, industrious colony.  Many homesteads the settlers built were gone, the wood used to build a sturdy palisade, which was broken and burned in places.  The huts inside this had been ransacked and no sign of any belongings survived.  The village was deserted but there were several new graves.  One sailor then found a carving on a corner post of the palisade, which read simply “Croatoan”.  White thought this may refer to a tribal village some fifty miles distant but could not be sure.

In worsening weather and with superstitious and nervous crews, White decided to abandon his search for survivors.  No trace of any of them, nor their belongings was ever found.  White was unable to convince anyone to finance another expedition and he went to his grave not knowing what became of any of them, including his little granddaughter, Virginia.

Most people assumed that the settlers had been wiped out by hostile Native Americans, disease, cold, or a mixture of all three, and certainly archaeologists found signs of all three when excavating Roanoke in the 1980s.  However, of the dead found they came nowhere near to the 120 settlers who were left there in 1586.  More importantly, no child’s grave was ever found among them.

When colonisation for the Americas began in earnest, some Native Americans were not surprised by the arrival of white Europeans and they spoke of an entire tribe of blue-eyed, white-skinned people who had lived in the area now known as Virginia in the time of their fathers or grandfathers.

Is it possible therefore that the survivors of the Roanoke settlement gathered their meagre belongings, travelled to the mainland, assimilated with friendlier Native Americans purely in order to survive?  And if so, is it possible that little Virginia Dare grew to become the first European, the first of many, to interbreed with the Native Americans?

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Many would scoff at the very idea of a baby being swept in to a crocodile-infested river, swept away and yet surviving to make the river his home, not least myself among them.  Yet there is a case, albeit with mythological background and overtones, which appears to be documented to have happened in India in the second half of the 20th century.

The story begins in either 1957 or 1958 when a woman named Somni was returning to her home in the village of Baragdava in Utter Pradesh.  She claimed that a huge dark figure loomed up in front of her, threw her to the ground and raped her.  The result was a son, Ramchandra, who was born the following year.  When one year old in 1958 or 1959, Ramchandra fell into the fast flowing and crocodile-infested River Kuano which passes by the village and was swept away.

There is a local legend that a Brahmin, a holy man, had once dug a well near the river and had drowned when he climbed into it to bless it.  Somni claimed the figure who raped her was the spirit of the Brahmin and he had come back to claim his son to go live with him in the river.  Many villagers needless to say dismissed Somni’s fantastical story and the village gossip was that she had thrown the boy into the river due to the shame of bearing a child to another man than her husband, where he had either drowned or been devoured by the crocodiles.

So was the belief for many years, then in 1973 a local priest was walking by the river when he saw a human-like creature apparently walking on the water.  He drew nearer and saw what he claimed was a human boy but with dark, green-black skin.  He observed the creature dive into the water, catch a fish and eat it raw, before lying back and being carried downstream.  Having told everyone, a villager claimed some days later to have seen the same creature.  Thereafter a great many people congregated by the river for some days to catch a glimpse but nothing more was seen and interest soon waned.

Six years later, in 1979, Somni claimed not only to have seen the creature asleep on the riverbank but had got close enough to see what she said was a birthmark exact to that on her missing son, Ramchandra.  A round-the-clock vigil was held on the river and sure enough the creature was seen again.  Moreover, he was apparently captured and taken to the village.  He was described as being like a boy but with a bullet-like head, hard green skin and feet hard as rock, with which he appeared to unable to walk in a normal human fashion, he could not talk, appeared to be deaf, made few expressions but kept putting one hand up to his forehead.  Seemly terrified by this experience, the “fish boy” made a frantic escape back to the river.

The claims are that he did not leave the river however.  Villagers came to believe he was indeed Somni’s lost son and would leave gifts of food on the riverbank for him, which he apparently enjoyed.  He grew to be unafraid of the people and soon hundreds came to watch him take the food, dive for fish, or chew leafy green vegetables.  Details of the Kuano Amphibian Boy appeared in the newspaper Probe India, verifying his existence.

Sadly, the creature, if he was Ramchandra, met with a tragic end.  For some reason in 1982 favour turned against him and he was captured by the villagers, helped by two policemen.  He made another escape and swam to another village, Sanrigar, where he startled a woman who threw a pot of boiling water over him.  He made off back to the water and his dead body was found the following day, scalded and covered in fish bites.

The story seems fantastic and only one photograph (attached) survives and that seems dubious.  Some have claimed that Ramchandra survived due to the no-breathe instinct human babies have.  Others claim that our extra layer of fat which makes us buoyant helped him survive.  That may hold for a short time, but given that Ramchandra was only 1 year old when he was swept away, how would he survive in the long term?  It seems incredulous that a baby, no matter how good a swimmer, could avoid ravenous crocodiles.  Just how did he learn to fend for himself from such an early age?  Feral children are by no means unknown but where a child has survived in the wild, they have been older or have been cared for by other creatures who brought them up as their own.  It seems highly unlikely that schools of fish would have taught a baby how to survive underwater.

Then there are the dates.  The reports read that he was born between 1957-58.  The creature was first seen in 1973 which would make him 15-16.  The newspaper Probe India Investigated six years later, which would have made him 21-22.  Yet the attached photograph shows not a young man but clearly a boy, obviously not old enough for the 1979 sightings.

My own thoughts are that the villagers of Baragdava did indeed capture some kind of river creature, possibly amphibious, which looked human enough to be like a boy.  What I would not like to hazard a guess, but the “bullet head” (not present on the photograph you’ll notice) certainly seems to me to suggest that of a fish held upright.  Whether Somni deliberately threw her son in the river or he fell is open to speculation.  But a mother’s grief can be very powerful; powerful enough for her to wish the creature to be her lost little boy.

Although there is little to nothing on the internet about the Kuoni Aquatic boy, it is a story which keeps propping up now and again in the annals of Forteana and the unexplained, and one which does not seem like disappearing any time soon.

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In 1756, when the elite of Parisian society dressed in gaudy fashions of bright colours, a tall man who appeared to be in his mid-forties, arrived at court in the French capital dressed completely in black and wearing fabulous diamond rings.  A learned man, he could speak French, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Italian, German, English, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit and Chinese fluently and play piano and violin as well as being an excellent singer.  His knowledge of history, politics, philosophy, theology and many other subjects was encyclopaedic.  He had impeccable manners, was ever gracious and introduced himself as the Count de St Germain.

St Germain was also apparently an accomplished physician.  He cured a young woman at court of mushroom poisoning and had also cured Marshall de Bellisle, whom he arrived at  court with, of a disease he contracted during a military campaign.  When word got around about this fantastic man, many wished to meet him.  Among these was the Countess von Gery, who had met a man of the same name in Venice some forty years earlier.

The two met and the Countess found St Germain absolutely charming company, and thought him very familiar.  She therefore asked if she had possibly met his father during her time in Venice.  Count St Germain shook his head and explained that he was indeed the same man the Countess had met in Venice.   The Countess was confused and stated that if he were the same man, then he had not aged a day in some forty years and thus expressed doubt at his claim.  The Count then recounted many facts about their meeting in Venice which only he and the Countess could allegedly have known.  At the end of this he smiled and said “I am very old.”The Countess went white and exclaimed, “You must be a devil.”  At this, the Count’s composure is said to have changed completely.  He became pale and whispered “Please, no such names.” before excusing himself from the room.

It was then that rumours of the Count using supernatural powers or witchcraft began to circulate, whilst others thought he may be the Wandering Jew of legend.  The story of the Wandering Jew was brought back to Europe by crusading knights.  Completely anti-Semitic (the crusaders despised Jews as much as they despised Mohammedans), it claims that as Jesus was carrying his cross up the hill, one Jew, whom some name Cartaphilus, berated Jesus and told him to hurry up.  The legend claims that Jesus replied to him, “I go.  But thou shall wait for my return.” before continuing up the hill.  The legend continues that Cartaphilus laughed at the time, but as the years rolled on, he watched those younger than him, first children, then grandchildren, die before him, and it slowly dawned upon him what Jesus had meant.  Could the Count de St Germain then be Cartaphilus?  Thought the cream of French society.  Could that be the secret of his great knowledge?

Great knowledge St Germain did indeed possess.  Apart from all mentioned above, he performed many marvels of science – and apparently alchemy – at the French court.  He once took a diamond from the king, valued at 6000 francs, and removed the flaws to the point that a jeweller valued it at 10,000 francs.  He was claimed to have transmuted silver to gold, in the presence of Casanova, no less.  Spurious claims of alchemy apart, it is a fact that Count de St Germain set up a factory in Paris with a new method of dyeing silks and softening leather, which added to his not inconsiderable fortune.

Whilst the Count de St Germain when pressed would neither confirm nor deny that he was the Wandering Jew of legend, he would speak often of Jesus and the events of the New Testament as if he knew the participants and was actually there at the time.  He would speak most movingly of Jesus and would openly weep, particularly if pressed for more details, when he would quickly change the subject.

Of course, not all society accepted the preposterous Wandering Jew theory, but as this was the 18th century, some thought he may have discovered the elixir of life, or some other substance allowing him great longevity.  To support this they pointed out that the Count never sat at table with other guests but always retired to his room to dine alone.  Some even claimed he did indeed have such an elixir, stating that he had told them so and that he was older than any of them could ever imagine.

One young noble recounted a remarkable exchange he had with one of the Count’s servants. Being skeptical, the noble had told the servant “Your master is a liar.”  To which the servant had reputedly replied “I know that better than you young sir. He tells everyone that he is four thousand years old. But I have been in his service one hundred years, and when I came the count told me he was three thousand years old.  Whether he has added nine hundred years by accident or has lied to me I cannot say.”  On another occasion when the count was being pressed on a matter of ancient history, he asked his valet to prompt his memory, to which his servant replied “Perhaps the Count forgets that I have been in his service only five hundred years?”  If Count de St Germain did indeed possess the elixir of life, it seems he was sharing it with his servants.

So who was this miraculous Count?  Documents have been uncovered that before he arrived in Paris, he may have been arrested in London in 1745 on suspicion of being a spy in the Jacobite cause of Charles Edward Stewart (Bonnie Prince Charlie), who was at the time approaching Derby.  Horace Walpole recorded in a letter,

…the other day they seized an olld man who goes by the name of Count Saint Germain.  He has been here these two years and will not tell whence… …He sings, plays on the violin wonderfully, composes, is mad, and not very sensible.  He is called an Italian, a Spaniard, a Pole; someoen that married a great fortune in Mexico, and ran away with her jewels to Constantinople; a priest, a fiddler, a vast nobleman.  The Prince of Wales has had unsatisfied curiosity about him.

The year 1755 found the Count in Vienna where he was a wealthy aristocrat.  In 1760 the King of France sent St Germain on a diplomatic mission to the Hague where he took part in peace negotiations between England and the Netherlands.  He is then reputed to have made a fortune in Holland before taking part in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-74, being raised to the rank of general in the Imperial Russian Army.

Then for ten years there is no mention of him, until in 1784 an elderly man, apparently in his seventies, who suffered from rheumatism and bouts of depression, died in the small town of Eckenforde, in Schleswig-Holstein (now part of Germany).  This man, slightly built but with a vast knowledge and impeccable manners, was declared to be by Charles, Prince of Hesse-Cassel, the Count de St Germain, “one of the greatest sages who ever lived.”   If St Germain had the elixir of life, it had apparently ran out, as he died alone in a quiet German town.

And yet, there is one final twist.  After the fall of the Bastille in 1789, Marie Antoinette received a letter porporting to be from Count de Saint Germain, warning her that France would soon be turned on its head by a vast conspiracy.  Madame Adhemer, a close friend of the queen who fled and survived the revolution claimed to have met the Count, and that he had just returned from Japan where he had allegedly uncovered a world-wide plot to bring down France.  By 1870 there were so many reports of alleged meetings with the Count de St Germain that Emperor Napoleon III of France had an investigation carried out.  Hundreds of documents from this investigation were destroyed when fire ripped through the Hotel de Ville in 1871.

So just who was this Count de St Germain?  There is no doubt such a man existed.  We have Walpole’s description, his place in peace negotiations and his rise to become a Russian general, as well as his attendance at the French court.  He was real enough, but then what of his vast knowledge?  We can certainly rule out the claims that he lived thousands of years, for the simple fact that is not physically possible.  Could he then have been an extremely clever trickster who worked his way into high society?  Certainly, there have been many fantastic human beings throughout history, prodigies with a vast mental capacity as well as being very talented.  It is a possibility that Count de St Germain was one such man, but abused his great mental aptitudes for personal gain.

This of course must be the most logical explanation.  But if that were the case, he had already amassed a vast fortune.  Why take it further.  How did he ensure the silence of his servants, who would have been in on his ruse?  There being no honour among thieves, there is no guarantee that they would have not talked.  And what became of them when he ended up alone, if indeed the man who died in Eckenforde was St Germain.   And of course, if he were a clever conman, then how could he have known details of a meeting with Countess von Gery some forty years earlier?

Perhaps we shall never know.

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William of Newburgh (1136-1198) is considered to be one of the more reliable early English historians. certainly not a man given to flights of fancy but one who worked from reliable sources.  He even once went as far as to criticise Geoffrey of Monmouth for his fanciful Hisotria Regnum Britanniae.  Therefore, when William wrote of one of the most perplexing stories in English history, we really have little reason not to believe him.

In a chronicle William of Newburgh wrote about the reign of King Stephen (King of England 1135-1154) of a fantastical tale of two children with green skin being discovered in the village of Woolpit in Surrey.  William wrote;

Nor does it seem right to pass over an unheard of prodigy, which, as is well known, took place in England during the reign of King Stephen.  Though it is asserted by many.  Yet I have long been in doubt concerning the matter, and deemed it ridiculous to give credit to a circumstance reported on no rational foundation, or at least one of a very mysterious character; yet at length I was so overwhlemed by the weight of so many and such competent witnesses, that I have been compelled to believe, and wonder over a matter which I was unable to comprehend, or unravel by any powers of intellect.

In East Anglia there is a village, distant, as it is said, four or five miles from the noble monastery of the blessed king and martyr, Edmund; near this place are seen some very ancient cavities called “Wolfpittes”, that is in English, “Pits for wolves”, and which gave their name to the adjacent village (Wulpet).  During harvest, while the reapers were employed in gathering the produce of the fields, two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from their excavations.

These two poor children were apparently terrified and crying.  They attempted to run away but were caught by the villagers.  They apparently did not understand the villagers nor could make themselves understood.  The villagers took them to the home of their feudal lord, Sir Richard de Calne, who took them under his protection.  It is here that another chronicler, Abbot Ralph of Coggeshall takes up the narrative;

No-one could understand their speech.  When they were brought as curiosities to the house of a certain knight, Sir Richard de Calne, at Wikes, they wept bitterly.  Bread and victuals were set before them but they would touch none of them, though they were tormented by great hunger, as the girl afterwards acknowledged.  At length, when some beans just cut, with their stalks, were brought into the house, they made signs, with great avidity, that they should be given to them.  When they were brought, they opened the stalks instead of the pods, thinking the beans were in the hollow of them; but not finding them there, they began to weep anew.  When those who were present saw this, they opened the pods and showed them the naked beans.  They fed on these with delight, and for a long time tasted no other food.

Sir Richard de Calne, who seems to have been a kindly chap for his time, kept the children in his home.  But sadly, the little boy sickened and died.  The girl however thrived, grew stronger and eventually lost her green hue, apparently as she ate a diet more normal to the times.  She also learned to speak English, was baptised into the Christian faith and as she grew older, worked as a servant for Sir Richard for some years before she married a man from King’s Lynn, Norfolk.

Of course, once the girl could speak, there were those demanding answers to questions, such as where did she and the boy come from and how did they come to be in Woolpit?  Unfortunately this is where stories begin to differ as the girl apparently recounted her experience to many people.  However, the basis of the story was that the boy was her brother and that they had come from an entirely green world, inhabited by green-skinned people and lit by a dim, watery green sun.  She went on that one day she and her brother entered a cave they had not seen before and were lured by the sound of bells, which brought them out into the fields near Woolpit.  Ralph of Coggeshall takes up the narrative

Being asked how she came into this country with the aforesaid boy, she replied that, as they were following their flocks, they came to a certain cavern, on entering which they heard a delightful sound of bells; ravished in whose sweetness, they were for a long time wandering on through the cavern, until they came to it’s mouth.  When they came out of it, they were struk senseless by the excessive light of the sun, and he unusual temperature fo the air; and they thus lay for a long time.  Being terrified at the noise of those who come on them, they wished to fly but they could not find the entrance to the cavern before they were caught.

William of Newburgh’s account is similar.  However for once he seems to have wandered into fantasy, which as a medieval man of God, I think we can forgive him for, when he claimed that the land the children came from was called St Martin’s Land, all the people there were Christians and there were a great many churches.

Needless to say, there have been a great many theories down the ages concerning the narratives of Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh concerning the children.  Twelfth century rural England certainly would still have retained a lot of archaic pagan folklore belief and there can be no doubt some of the villagers saw the children as elves or other such fairy folk.  It is also worth remembering that the Green Man is the oldest known folklore figure in the history of mankind, so there would be others who would have seen them as the children of such forest creatures.

Some have suggested that a dietary condition, possibly anaemia, may have been the cause of their green hue, and this would certainly have accounted for the girl losing her hue as she ate a more wholesome diet, and may explain the boy dying as well.  Others point out that this does not account for the girl’s account of how she and her brother came to be in Woolpit.

Firstly, no matter how reliable, medieval writers still tended to be somewhat fanciful.  I am not immediately pouring scorn on the possibility of the children actually existing.  It is so well documented that I don’t think there can be any doubt they actually existed.  Yet look at the account of William of Newburgh claims about the Christian St Martin’s Land, which are clearly fictional.  Anything else apart, we are told the girl was baptised into the Christian church.  If she came from a land where all were Christians there would have been no need of this.  There are also several different versions of the girl’s account, which tells us alone that if real, it has become convoluted through time and each retelling.  Do not forget that in the 12th century writers such as William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall were rare indeed in a land where most people, from pauper to gentry, were illiterate, and the vast majority of tales were told in the oral tradition.

More fanciful stories have claimed that perhaps because the children were Elfin, or even aliens as some would have it, is why their language could not be understood.  Although, some other claim that they may have been Flemish and their parents killed in one of many Skirmishes between English and Flemish settlers at the time.  However, if this were so, then why did the girl make no mention of her parents, or of any such skirmish for that matter.

My own view is that the children did indeed exist, and I believe were possibly orphaned.  Left to fend for themselves, they soon took to eating what they could find and this poor diet accounted for their green hue and the subsequent death of the boy.  The matter of them not being understood is quite easily explained without even looking in the direction Belgium, the woods or Zeta Reticuli for that matter.  English as we know it has only been with us since the 16th-17th century when the works of Shakespeare and the Wycliffe English Bible (and later the King James Version) brought the first standardisation of the language.  Before then local areas spoke local dialects, so much so that even the inhabitant from one village may not understand someone from another village.  And let us not forget, this was only around 100 years after the Norman Conquest, when the Anglo-Norman tongue was still evolving, assimilating and overtaking the old Anglo-Saxon tongue.  Think that fanciful?  Even today if you were to put someone speaking Buchan Doric in the same room as someone from Devon or Cornwall, they would have a hard time understanding each other.

Theories abound, with many people claiming they have the definitive answer.  I claim no such thing.  I merely expound my hypothesis of what I believe the most likely explanation for an enigma which is not going away any time soon.

Fundamentalism is dangerous – even in non-believers.

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I spent most of my life in a search for God and spiritual enlightenment, until in my 47th year it suddenly struck me that the very reason I was searching is because I saw no evidence for the existence of God(s) at all. I am an atheist and at the most basic level have always been so, without even realising it. During that search, I encountered a great many religions and belief systems. To quote John Lennon’s song I Found Out, “I’ve seen religion from Jesus to Baal”. In that time I have encountered and read about some of the worst excesses of over-zealous religious belief, and can clearly see the dangers of such beliefs. I would argue however, that religious fundamentalism is only part of the story, and that there is today a growing fundamentalist among atheists which has the potential to be every bit as dangerous.

As I have stated from the above, I am indeed an atheist. And what is atheism? The Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition; “atheism: noun; disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” That is it, there is nothing more to it. Yet to listen to some of the more strident atheists today, one would get the impression that, like religions, atheism somehow has its own set dogma and rules.

Undoubtedly one of the main catalysts to this “new atheism”, if not the main one, was the publication in 2006 of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion, along with speeches and quotes from the journalist and author, the late Christopher Hitchens appear to have made up some sort of “atheist bible”, which too many atheists today seem to think they need to adhere to. All too often one hears and reads Dawkins and Hitchens (among others) being quoted by atheists as if these are the only views which count. Worse still, should any atheist disagree with such views, they often lay themselves open to vitriolic attacks and accusations of being “the wrong kind of atheist” or “not an atheist at all”.

The greater danger however comes that from formulating strident views many atheists, sometimes unwittingly, become antitheists, often with views which are openly hostile to religion, seek to attack believers when there is absolutely no reason to do so and actually espouse views which are openly bigoted towards all or one particular religion. Such people are all too prone to see religion as nothing but a force for ill in the world which can only ever hold mankind back, while also claiming that atheism and the removal of all spiritual belief is some great panacea which they seem to believe would cure all the world’s problems.

I have heard and read atheists openly state that if we got rid of all religion, then there would be no more wars or atrocities. Even as a pacifist myself, I find such views to be naive in the extreme. If one looks at warfare and violent atrocities throughout history, it is true that religion has often been the root cause. Indeed, religious fervour was indeed responsible for a great many slaughters and clearly illustrate the dangers of fundamentalist belief, yet in many other cases, had those behind the killing not had religion to fall back upon, they would just as quickly have found another “cause” to justify their actions. It is the religion which is dangerous, not the faith. There are many Christians who understand this and who openly state that they love their faith but hate religion.

Online discourses between atheists and theists have a tendency to enter into “Godwin’s Law”; “that as an online argument grows longer and more heated, it becomes increasingly likely that somebody will bring up Adolf Hitler or the Nazis”. In these exchanges, the theists claim that Hitler, giving quotes of his damning religion, whilst the atheists counter, quoting from Mein Kampf and speeches, to illustrate that Adolf Hilter was a Christian. Having looked at the matter in great detail, I would assert that Hitler was never a serious Christian but rather payed lip-service to his Roman Catholic background to court publicity (probably with coaching from his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels). By equal measure however, Adolf Hitler was by no stretch of the imagination an atheist. He did indeed believe in some sort of God, and held some very outlandish occult beliefs. In more modern times, we saw exactly the same behaviour from the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose Ba’ath regime was officially secular, who lived in opulence, drank alcohol, gambled, and yet was quick to be seen as a devout Sunni Muslim to gain the support of his people. The point being, had neither Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein had religion to fall back upon, that would not for one moment have stopped the worst of their excesses. And the same goes for atheistic regimes. Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot, to use but two examples, did not kill millions on the basis of atheism but rather through their own insanity and megalomania. Even had they been extremely devout believers in God, the chances are the end result would have been no different.

Without a doubt therefore, religion, like any other ideology, in the wrong hands can be extremely dangerous. Atrocities such as 9/11 and the Oslo bombings and shootings by devout Christian Anders Beiring Breivik illustrate that all too well. And there are atheists who all too readily fall into the trap of using such stories, particularly when it is actions carried out by Muslims, off pointing the finger to back up their arguments. In doing so, few actually realise that they are supporting the rampant Islamophobia of the right wing, often Christian backed, bigoted media. I well recall a Christian friend emailing me an anti-Muslim video by one particular atheist. I responeded by sending her an anti-Christian video by the same atheist. I had to make the point that the person in question, in the opinion of myself and a great many others, is a nasty, small-minded, odious bigot, who whilst he is against all religion, appears to be on his own personal crusade against Islam, and who as a result has attracted quite a lot of very unsavoury followers from the neo-nazi extreme-right (which he has done little or nothing to redress). Indeed, if one were to seek and example of a dangerous fundamentalist atheist, this particular person would to my mind be a prime example. Yet other atheists commit no less shameful actions. I have often seen posts by Muslims online which, instead of atheists retorting with intelligent and reasoned debate, make references to bacon and accusations of the Prophet Mohammed being a paedophile. I find such behaviour not only childish, but also disrespectful and actually very ignorant of the Islamic faith.

Some atheists would have you believe that religion serves no useful purpose whatsoever. And whilst on face value, this would appear to be true, I think there is a huge danger of missing the bigger picture. Charitable actions carried out by the faithful, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever, indeed have their place, and there are many people around the world and in your own home town whose lives would be a lot harder without them. Consider the Salvation Army alone, without whose hard work, a great many homeless would suffer all around the world. Other charities hand out food, furniture, and other resources to the needy. And these are not all Christian charities. It may surprise many readers to learn that there are Muslims who are just as deeply involved, as giving charity is a fundamental cornerstone of the Islamic faith. In developing countries, contrary to what some would have you believe, missions do not just preach their faith and hand out holy books but are actively involved in the distribution of food, medicines and other resources, establishing schools, helping and teaching with farming and many other actions which daily campaign to help some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, and which see them achieve their own successes. Doctor David Livingstone (1813-1873), a Congregationalist medical missionary, had such an enormous effect in his works that in Malawi today he is revered to the point that the Malawian capital is named Blantyre, after his hometown in Scotland, and his legacy is that to this day Scotland maintains strong charitable ties with Malawi.

And it is not just abroad that the faiths help people. Contrary to the claims of some not all clergy, particularly those of the Roman Catholic Church, are merely perverts out to prey upon little children. The vast majority are integral and central figures of support to and champion for their local communities, whom they work hard for in return for very little in the way of reward. They are trusted and respected people whom anyone can turn to at any time, always ready with words of advice, guidance, support, or even just a shoulder to cry on, which they bear readily with a patience and dignity many would do well to learn. And even if they are purveying a message of faith which we atheists may find absurd or even distasteful, if it gives comfort to those in need who share that faith, as long as it is not hurting us, what right do we have to ever question that? And let me answer that question for you; none at all.

And among all this, where are the atheists? Where are the atheist charities, soup kitchens, homeless hostels, clothing and furniture distributors and various other resources? How many atheists are in developing countries helping the poorest of the poor? I see a Red Cross and a Red Crescent, where is the Red A? Where are the atheists people can turn to and give support and comfort in times of need and their darkest hours? Certainly some atheist versions of the above do exist, but compared to those from a religious background, they are but a drop in the ocean. It seems to me therefore that until the vast majority of atheists are prepared to get off their bums and get their hands dirty, they should put up or shut up.

As has so often been said, and I count myself in this, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. And those who have allowed themselves to become fundamentalist atheists and antitheists would do well to consider that and much else of the above before deliberately going fighting online with theists in their warm homes, in their comfortable, little first world lives.

Whether we atheists like it or not, faith in God(s) is with us and does not show any sign of going away any time soon. The 2012 discovery of the Bosonic Field, far from destroying the faith of millions, has done nothing to lessen it. As long as this is true, there shall always be disagreements between theists and atheists. And make no mistake, if someone tries to push their faith down my throat, or impose what I consider to be mythology as fact onto children or vulnerable adults, I shall always fight that, as all atheists should. But if people wish to believe in a particular faith without bothering others, then that should be of no consequence to any atheist. It has always been my experience that one need not go looking for trouble; it will find you soon enough.

Religion shall always be with us and that is not always a bad thing. Whether we agree with it or not, faith in God(s) remains a huge positive in the lives of billions of people. Far from conflict therefore, it seems to me that both atheists and theists need to find a middle ground and reach some degree of accommodation with each other. Only the most fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, or any other theist would disagree with that, as I am sure so would only the most fundamentalist atheist.

In the final instance, as each and every atheist is a freethinker, it is impossible to tie any one of us down to any particular set dogma which states “this is what atheism is” – because it is many things, and nothing at the same time. If I do not bow before the altar of the God of Abraham, of Allah, Vishnu, or any other deity, then do not for one moment expect me to bow before those of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or any other “celebrity” atheist. If anyone does, then I for one do not see how they can call themselves a freethinker at all.