Warning this article contains fake news!
Fake news isn’t actually a new concept. During the Second World War both sides used it intensively.
For an effective fake news campaign you need a number of different elements. Firstly a secret that needs covering-up, secondly an all action hero that people will “follow”, thirdly a plausible story to explain things and fourthly some public good to come out of it all.
During this month of the commemoration of the 80th Anniversary of the Coventry Blitz, our thoughts go to the fighter pilots who took on the thousands of enemy planes on their night time raids. Fighting at night is very challenging. But it was not just the pilots who were involved, there was an infrastructure of support teams, controllers and supply lines that kept the fighters in the air and beyond that a team of scientists and engineers who were developing the weapons needed to fight the enemy.
In 1939 those scientists had developed an early form of radar that was able to pinpoint enemy bombers before they reached the English Channel. This secret technology was known as on-board Airborne Interception Radar (A1). This was the secret that the Government wanted to hide.
Step forward the All Action Hero – John ‘Cats Eyes’ Cunningham! Or to give him his proper title Wing Commander John Cunningham CBE, DSO & Two Bars, DFC & Bar, AE. He lived from 27 July 1917 – 21 July 2002. In September 1940 he was promoted to Squadron Leader of a specialist night fighter unit with converted Bristol Beaufighters that included the new AI equipment.
Eighty years ago, on the night of the 19 November 1940, Cunningham claimed his first victory using the new technology. The first German aircraft he brought down was a Luftwaffe – Junkers JU88. Flying from his base at RAF Middle Wallop in Hampshire he was sent to intercept bombers on their way to bomb Birmingham. Only a few nights before they had bombed Coventry but not one bomber was brought down.
This time with radar he was able to track down a bomber and getting under the aircraft he was able to get in closer and hit the Junkers with all four cannons. The plane came down in Wittering, Cambridgeshire.
By the end of the War “Cats Eyes” had twenty “kills” to his name, nineteen of them at night.
To cover up the reason for this success the Ministry put into place a misinformation campaign, claiming that the pilot got his superpowers from eating carrots. Whilst this was not true it did have a strong element of plausibility.
Carrots are rich in Beta-carotene which is an essential precursor for vitamin A, and without it, it can lead to cataracts, muscular degeneration and xerophthalmia – dry eyes, swollen eyelids and corneal ulcers. So carrots help to protect vision, but there is no evidence that eating more will improve your eyesight or that quote ‘Carrots help you see in the dark’. At that time there was a nightly black-out so people wanted to be able to see in the dark better!
The carrot campaign was heavily promoted in Britain, with a lot of spin off benefits. Carrots are easy to grow and eating fresh vegetables is beneficial for health. At a time of sugar rationing a carrot on a stick was even marketed as the modern version of an ice lolly.
It is not known whether the Germans believed any of this propaganda, but the English certainly did and there was a community benefit from this mis-information campaign.
…. and the Coventry connection? John Cunningham’s mother came from Coventry. Born Evelyn Mary Spencer, she was a member of a family that owned an engineering company in Coventry which supplied heavy machinery to the fabric and textiles company Courtaulds. Her grandfather was Mayor of Coventry in the 1920s.