Witchcraft and Crosswords in WWII

The sinking of the HMS Barham.

In 1941, medium Helen Duncan conducted a séance in which she revealed that the battleship HMS Barham had been sunk, which was true – it had been torpedoed by a U-boat earlier that year. The problem was that the public was not supposed to know about it. The British government had informed relatives of the deceased with a request for secrecy (the sinking, including the spectacular explosion shown above, was caught on film and his been used in the films The Guns of Navarone, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and others, which seems a little insensitive given that 841 men died).

Helen Duncan’s abilities became a cause for concern for the British military who feared she might reveal details of the D-Day plans, presumably because they thought she was either a spy (a very poor one) or a genuine psychic. Duncan was arrested and tried under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, one of the last times the Act was used before it was repealed in 1951. She spent nine months in prison.

The British Military must have been wondering if unseen forces were conspiring against them when another bizarre leak occurred in 1944. In May, a number of the answers to clues in the Daily Telegraph’s crosswords were identical to codenames for various aspects of the top-secret D-Day invasion plan, now  only one month away.

On May 3, Utah appeared, the codename for the westernmost beach of the invasion. On the 22nd, it was Omaha, codename for another beach on the Normandy coast. Overlord, the codename for the entire operation, appeared on the 27th, then Mulberry (an artificial harbour) and Neptune (the naval assault).

At this point MI5 decided to pay a visit to the compiler of the crosswords, a school headmaster by the name of Leonard Dawe. Dawe denied having any inside knowledge about Operation Overlord and MI5 concluded that the whole thing was a coincidence.

Forty years later, stories began to emerge from former pupils at the school where Dawe taught. Prior to the Normandy landings, some of the students mingled with the Canadian and American soldiers camped near the school where, apparently they learned many of the codewords.

Dawe encouraged his students to attempt to fill in blank clueless crossword grids as an exercise. Sometimes, he would use his students’ work as the answers for the Daily Telegraph crossword.

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2 Responses to Witchcraft and Crosswords in WWII

  1. David Navarre says:

    Interesting tidbits. I wonder how Helen Duncan had learned of the sinking of the HMS Barham.

    Her seance was in late 1941, after the ship had been sunk, but before the public was notified in late January of 1942. Her arrest and trail were in 1944. I found another WordPress blog that discusses it http://bshistorian.wordpress.com/2008/04/ and an article from World War II magazine http://www.webatomics.com/jason/barhamconspiracy.html

    I also checked out the HMS Barham Association http://www.hmsbarham.com/
    Thanks for sharing and leading me to hunt down more information!

    • Rhys says:

      Thanks for the links and clarification of the timing of events. I guess the most likely way Helen Duncan found out about the sinking was through relatives of the deceased who ignored the request for secrecy – apparently they were informed in December, the same month as her seance.

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