Top Ten Wartime Urban Legends

Home

Archives

Links

This month we’re taking a look at ten disturbing urban legends that originated in wartime.

Some of them were no more than propaganda to show the enemy in a bad light. Others were as a result of rumours and hearsay. And others were as a result of the “fog of war”.

The fog of war is the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations.

The term seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability, adversary capability, and adversary intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign.

The word “fog” in reference to uncertainty in war was introduced by the Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz in his posthumously published book, Vom Kriege (1832), which appeared in English translation in 1873 under the title On War.

Here are our Top Ten Disturbing Wartime Urban Legends.


10. German corpse factory

The legend of the German corpse factories war arguably one of the most infamous anti-German propaganda stories circulated in World War I by the British.

According to the story, the Kadaververwertungsanstalt was a special installation supposedly operated by the Germans in which, because fats were so scarce in Germany due to the British naval blockade, German battlefield corpses were rendered down for fat, which was then used to manufacture nitroglycerine, candles, lubricants, and even boot dubbin.

It was supposedly operated behind the front lines by the DAVG — Deutsche Abfall-Verwertungs Gesellschaft.

After the war, in 1925, John Charteris, the British former Chief of Army Intelligence, allegedly stated in a speech that he had invented the story for propaganda purposes, with the principal aim of getting the Chinese to join the war against Germany.

It was later used by the Nazis as part of their own anti-British propaganda.


9. Whale Parade

During the Cold War, a rumour circulated that the American CIA had a bizarre secret weapon – a dead fin whale named Jonah.

Caught by Norwegian whalers in the 1950s, Jonah was mounted on a truck and toured all over Europe in the 1960s.

Exactly why anyone would want to parade a dead whale around the place is anyone’s guess. It seems an odd kind of thing to do. But conspiracy theorists argued that the whole thing was a cover-up for a more cunning purpose. Especially after the whale arrived in Hungary.

Allegedly, the CIA wanted to test if the roads of Hungary could handle the weight of nuclear missiles loaded on trucks.

According to conspiracy theorists, the truck carrying the whale eerily resembled ones used to carry nuclear missiles.

However, no concrete proof was ever presented. And the strangest thing of all is that the Hungarian peopled loved Jonah and tickets were sold out everywhere he went.


8. Beliye Kolgotky

Stories about the Beliye Kolgotky, or White Tights, started circulating during the Chechen Wars in Russia.

The White Tights were allegedly a group of women who were paid to assassinate officers. Their method of killing was, how should we put it, rather unique.

During the First Chechen War it was reported that the rebels were paying the White Tights $2,000 per officer killed, with a very specific request – to eliminate the Russians by blowing their genitals off.

Though the stories of the White Tights seem a little far-fetched, they do have a ring of truth about them.  It’s a well-known fact that even during the Russian Civil War in 1918, the Russians trained and employed woman as snipers.

Not only were they patient and calculating, they could also easily infiltrate certain areas, particularly when they were carrying a child with them. During World War II, many of the top Russian snipers were female.


7. Pig Blood Bullets

During the 1900s when the Americans fought and subsequently occupied the Philippines, they had stiff opposition from the ethnic Muslims, called Moros.

Attacks by Moro religious zealots became so frequent that military commander John Pershing came up with an unusual and sneak solution.

The story goes that Pershing played up on the belief that any Muslim who touched a pig would not be able to enter heaven. Prior to a scheduled execution of 50 Moro insurgents, he ordered his men to dip their bullets in pig’s blood before shooting the insurgents.

After the executions had been carried out he buried the men along with dead pigs and spared the life of one man, in the hope he’d pass on the story to his comrades. Pershing’s actions single-handedly stopped further attacks for the rest of the American occupation.

However, to this day, historians debate how much of this story is true. Reports from 1911 suggest the Pershing actively attempted to negotiate peacefully with the Moros people.


6. Pippo the Ghost Plane

Nearly every culture has tales about scary things that frequent the night. They all have their own Boogie Man. Yet during World War II Italian households had Pippo, the night terror plane.

No one knew where Pippo came from, what type of plane it was, or who piloted it. But it was alleged he dropped explosive device and bombed homes as he flew over villages, towns and cities.

People also claimed that the sound coming from his engines was unmistakably his own, and once you heard them, you would know it was Pippo.

Italian mothers would frighten their children by telling them that if they did not behave, Pippo would come and get them at night.

Historians actually believe that the legends about the night terror plane came from the real night fighters which operated over Italy at the time, such as the Bristol Beaufighter or the de Havilland Mosquito.

TERROR OF THE NIGHT: During World War II, Italian household believed that Pippo was a ghostly plane that would appear at night to bomb your house.

5. Angels of Mons

One of the most popular, but far-fetched legends is about a group of angels who supposedly protected members of the British Army during the Battle of Mons at the outset of World War I.

According to an article in the London Evening News by British author Arthur Machen published in 1914, just as German soldiers were about to step in for the kill they were suddenly confronted by angels in the form of English archers who blocked their path. The angels pointed their bows at the Germans and released their arrows.

This apparition caused the Germans to retreat in terror and allowed the English enough time to regroup.

Machen himself later declared the story as a fabrication, but it gradually became accepted as fact among British soldiers and the British public because for them it was clear proof that God was on the British side.

Sceptics were quick to dismiss the whole incident as nothing more than mass hysteria.


4. Deadly dice

Two weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, an advert was published in an issue of New Yorker magazine. This ad was said to have predicted the entire event.

The story goes that the ads for a dice game called ‘Deadly Double’ contained a coded message warning about the attack.

It featured two dice displaying a selection of numbers. Two of the most prominently visible were 12 and 7. And of course the date of the attack on Pearl Harbour was 7 December. The remaining numbers were allegedly references to the time of the attack.

Later during the war, navy transport pilot Joseph Bell was flying with an intelligence officer who told him that many in the intelligence community considered this ad a secret warning.

The officer had been assigned to investigate the matter, but every lead had led to a dead end. Was it simply a coincidence, or was there something more sinister behind it?

Was it perhaps a sophisticated coded message from Japan to warn co-conspirators of the Pearl Harbour attack?

To this day it still remains a mystery.


3. Wild deserters

One of the most imaginative myths from the Great War was that of a band of soldiers, deserters from both sides, who were living in No Man’s Land.

According to the accounts, these men were ghoulish in appearance and behaved in a most diabolical manner. They only came out at night, raiding corpses for clothing, rations and weapons. There was even talk of cannibalism.

Legends about these World War I wild deserters were first recounted in the memoirs of British cavalry lieutenant Ardern Arthur Hulme Beaman in 1920, and later in an autobiography written by Army Captain Sir Osbert Sitwell.

Sitwell stated that after World War I ended and the troops withdrew, these wild deserters were gassed because they would never have been able to be rehabilitated back into normal society.

In hindsight, such stories may have originated from the occasional cry of wounded men which could be heard from No Man’s Land, while looting of bodies was commonplace on both sides.


2. Ransom collecting pigeons

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq a rather strange story began doing the rounds about kidnappings and homing pigeons.

Iraqi police reported cases in which kidnappers had left homing pigeons in cages on the doorsteps of houses where someone had recently been kidnapped.

A note was placed on the cage with instructions for the families to attach cash to the bird’s legs and release it at a specific time. The pigeons would then deliver the ransom to the gang’s hideouts.

Kidnappers had supposedly begun to use this new tactic as a way of avoiding being caught by police, since it would be difficult for the police to follow the pigeons back to their location.

While the story may seem farfetched, an article in the Telegraph recounted stories of families who had to pay off ransoms via pigeons for the release of kidnapped children.

One such family attached $10,000 in $100 notes to the legs of five homing pigeons, which they found in a cage left on their doorstep. Soon after they released the birds their 12 year old son returned home.


1. The Crucified Soldier

According to this bizarre legend, soldiers from both sides of the First World War crucified their captured opponents in a place that was visible to the prisoner’s comrades.

Allegedly, the Germans started this practice when they crucified a Canadian soldier with bayonets to a barn door. When world spread about this atrocity, the Canadians crucified a German soldier in retaliation.

Soon after, the Germans also accused Belgian soldiers of crucifying their captured prisoners.

Evidence to suggest that any of the crucifixions were anything other than hearsay was never found, but the grisly tale still became embedded in the Canadian national consciousness.

Following the war, artist Francis Derwent Wood made a bronze statue called Canada’s Golgotha, which showed a Canadian soldiers being crucified and mocked by German soldiers.

Top of page