World War Two 'Decoys'

CIRCLES OF LIGHT

PREFACE

My Name is Peter Watts and during the years 1936-1944 I lived with my parents and siblings in North Benfleet.  Our family had moved there from London.  Initially we lived in a small cottage in Cranfield Park Road and thence to No. 4 Hall Cottages, Pound Lane, North Benfleet during 1937/8.  We finally left in July 1944 and moved to Kingswear, South Devon, away from the ‘Doodle-Bugs’ and V2 Rockets.

Now being retired, in my early eighties, living in Queensland, Australia, and enjoying all that the internet has to offer, I find it fascinating to note the dramatic physical and social changes that have taken place in England since we emigrated in the early 1950s and in North Benfleet in particular.

In the early 1930s North Benfleet might well be described as a hamlet.  There were few cars in those days, most people lived a frugal existence and it was normal for many schoolchildren to have insufficient clothing and suffer from inadequate nourishment, necessitating ‘free’ malt, cod-liver oil, shoes and wellington boots being provided for those in real need.

Unemployment was rife and Social Security as we know it today was non-existent.  I well recall queues of unemployed men having to travel to Rayleigh by foot, bicycle or, in some cases, pony and trap, every Wednesday to draw their ‘Dole money’, the queue outside the ‘Unemployment Bureau’ usually  being three deep and a quarter of a mile long.  The total scene was depressing, undignified and soul destroying, especially for men with large families.  The outbreak of war in 1939 quickly changed all that.  Men once again found gainful employment and the ‘War Effort’ created a massive variety of jobs.  The downside of it all was the constant air-raids, disruption of  family life and devastating effect on children’s education.  (I feel that the children of those days were the ‘Forgotten Few’ and the oft-used quotation of “Children should be seen and not heard” was indeed a fact of life).

This, then, was the North Benfleet as I knew it.  On the positive side there was much  excitement watching the many ‘Dog-Fights’ during the ‘Battle of Britain’, watching the various types of defences being constructed, viz, numerous Pill-boxes and ‘Tank-traps’, the formation of the A.R.P. and Home Guard  and the frequent army manoeuvres taking place.

One event however has been indelibly printed on my mind; it was the construction of what has, in recent years, become known as a ‘Circle of Light’, being erected directly opposite our home.  The following reveals the atmosphere of secrecy that prevailed in those days, and illustrates, perhaps, how the average person was, (forgive the pun), ‘Kept in the dark’!

CIRCLES OF LIGHT

I recently read and listened to with great interest Mr Bertie Bardell’s stories in the ‘People’ section  of the’ Benfleet Community Archive’ (Bertie Bardell’s  Memories of Benfleet), and was particularly interested in his recorded account of what he describes as a huge form of searchlight being constructed in the South Benfleet area  – “Top of Birches Road” – very early during WW2. To this day Mr Bardell still wonders about the real purpose of the unusual looking ‘searchlight’.  He describes it as “being like a huge green circular greenhouse and an enormous flood light!”  (Bertie is of the opinion that the huge floodlight was possibly a device to illuminate German parachutists descending at night).

This subject is of particular interest to me as on the 15th January 2002 in the Essex Weekly News a Mr Charles Stock of 74 Longstomps Avenue put a plea in the Chelmsford Weekly News to find out more about the mysterious WW2 “Circles of Light!”  His appeal resulted in a flood of responses with most people replying that they thought the “Circles of Light” were designed to “Dazzle enemy Pilots”, were “Death Ray” devices, “Searchlights to highlight German parachutists” etc.  It seems that to date neither the Defence Department or nor anyone else has been able to say precisely what these “Circles of Light” were.

It so happens that some years later, in 2009, a Mr John Archer wrote a follow-up story in the ECHO newspaper and told of his own experiences of what he also described as “Circle of Lights”.

Mr Archer sent the ‘Echo’ photos of a relic of one of the subject devices located in the Kitts Hill area of North Fambridge showing what was left of one of them.  In response to a letter I wrote to Mr Archer at that time he said he had received seventy-five letters but not one of the respondents had any idea of the true function of these ‘Circles of Light”.

In the past three years I have twice been in contact with Mr Archer and we have shared correspondence about this most interesting subject.  We have both discovered that in spite of intensive enquiries, neither of us has been able to discover the true reason for these devices.  My own story and considered opinion is as follows.

As previously stated, from 1939 until 1944 I lived at 4 Hall Cottages, at the intersection of Hall Road and Pound Lane, North Benfleet.  I attended the North Benfleet Primary School.

In late 1939/early 40, on my way home from school, I observed numerous lorries depositing large amounts of corrugated iron into a field directly opposite our home. Shortly afterwards the corrugated iron sheets were erected to form a large circle, approximately 150 feet in diameter and nine feet high.  The sides of the structure were vertical but the completely mirrored angled interior was concave, similar to the inside of a basin.  The top of the structure was not covered.  A few days later I saw more lorries delivering hundreds of boxes of extremely large ‘OSRAM’ light globes, such as are used in today’s warehouses.  A sentry was on duty the whole time and on one occasion promptly told us to “Clear off”.

Shortly afterwards I saw other such structures being built, two of them in an unmade road called ‘The Wick’ near Wickford.  Rumours as to what these structures were for were exactly the same as those cited by both Mr Charles Stock and John Archer.

I cannot give a precise date, but after the ‘Circle of Light’ was completed in the large field opposite our home it was switched on very late one night and bathed the whole district with sufficient light as to permit one to easily read a newspaper.  It remained on for about half an hour and was then switched off.  A short time afterwards the area was subjected to quite heavy bombing.

This happened on at least four times over a period of weeks, until one day the lorries returned, dismantled all the ‘Circles of Light’ in the area and took them away!

In the past few years I have made exhaustive enquiries about these devices, especially by use of the internet, but can find no information other than that numerous forms of ‘Decoys’ were used during the early part of WW2 and quite a number of them on the outskirts of London.

My own conclusions are that these devices were simply another form of ‘Decoy’, whereby approaching enemy aircraft would, through normally low cloud cover during autumn and winter, (and with poor navigational devices in use those days), perceive the region below them to be only briefly illuminated, and then, because of the people below becoming aware of enemy aircraft overhead, the area was suddenly ‘blacked out!’  This caused the navigators to think they were over London itself.  They therefore dropped their bombs and returned home.

Undoubtedly, German intelligence would later realize that ‘Decoys’ were being used, hence the subsequent removal of the ‘Circles of Light’.  If, indeed, that is the correct situation, whereby people were being bombed in a rural zone because of ‘Decoys’ being used, then the fact that nothing has been recorded or admitted by Government Departments tends to suggest my conclusions to be correct.  I’m afraid that, if needs be, and in times of war, people’s lives are expendable.

See this page for photos.

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  • Could it be that this was one of a whole regular array of floodlights a regular distance apart stretching down through Essex to the coast? In about 2005, I worked as part of an Ages Amateur Archaeological Association project with Fred Nash, Military Archaeologist for Essex County Council, trying to trace similar sites in Daws Heath and Thundersley. I understand that this was an unsuccessful World War 2 defence plan with them all intending to be lit at once when German aircraft were coming over. They were all built and tested, but although the test lit the sky beautifully, it also bounced back off the clouds and lit the ground providing what would have been clear targets for the Germans. Hence the plan was immediately abandoned and most of the top reflecting frames were subsequently removed, but some of the circular concrete bases remained in place for many years. I believe that a number can be picked out on 1945 RAF aerial photographs, but few can be found on the ground today.

    By Terry Barclay (29/07/2013)

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