The idea of witches taking on Nazis sounds like the kind of thing you would see in an impressive B-movie. According to IMDB, there is no movie called “Witches vs. Nazis” (yet!), but this story has already happened in real life.
In 1940, the situation in England was looking pretty grim. The British army had just been evacuated from continental Europe after the Battle of Dunkirk in June, leaving behind an incredible amount of war material —including vehicles, tanks, artillery, and guns. It would take the British army months to resupply. In the summer of 1940, The Nazis seemed terrifying and unstoppable.
It was in this environment that the magical community of Britain stepped up to lend a hand. August first of that year was Lammas day (also known as Lughnasadh), which is one of the eight major Sabbats in the pagan wheel of the year. Essentially, it was a powerful day for powerful magic.
In the woods of New Forest, the magical community of England gathered to put their support behind the war effort. Dubbed “Operation Cone of Power”, the witches gathered and cast a spell to plant a thought in the minds of Hitler and his generals. Basically, they told them to stay out of England and suggested they would be unable to cross the English Channel.
The cone of power is a practice from a number of different magical traditions where magic can be raised and directed through a group effort. The ritual was said to be so intense that reportedly two people died as part of the casting process.
Gerald Gardner. Image: Public Domain
The cone of power actually has quite the distinguished pedigree of saving England. It is rather like England’s secret weapon (much like Doctor Who for sci-fi fans). Gerald Gardner, called the father of modern witchcraft by some, claims that British covens summoned a cone of power to help defeat the Spanish Armada and prevent invasion from Napoleon. If he is right, that’s quite the handy tool to have hanging in the broom closet, in case of need.
Gardner himself said, “I am not saying that they stopped Hitler. All I say is that I saw a very interesting ceremony performed with the intention of putting a certain idea into his mind … and though all the invasion barges were ready, the fact was that Hitler never even tried to come.”
That said, we do need to take Gardner’s claims with a bit of a grain of salt. Gardner is the main source of all information about the cone of power and the New Forest Coven that helped cast it. Some historians dispute the existence of an ancient, pre-Christian pagan coven in England, while others admit it is possible (or at least not impossible), and still others believe that Gardner was right.
Whether or not his belief in the ancestry of British Witchcraft is correct, Gardner was a major influence in the Wiccan community and was the founder of the Gardnerian tradition of Wicca —a denomination or sect of witchcraft, much like the Lutheran or Anglican faiths belong to Christianity.
The benefits of Operation Cone of Power are not certain, and certainly not verifiable. You may or may not believe in magic, but here is something to chew on: during one of the darkest times of World War Two, the people of England reached out for hope wherever they could find it. Considering that the armies of Nazi Germany never did cross the channel, perhaps Operation Cone of Power was more than just a group of people chanting in a forest.
Gardner wrote about Operation Cone of Power in two books about witchcraft in the 1950s. But questions about his version of events arose in the 1970s, when they were challenged by Amado Crowley, a writer who claimed to be the son and magical heir of the famous British occultist and writer Aleister Crowley.
Amado Crowley wrote that the ritual described by Gardner was a fiction based on a real wartime ritual carried out by his father, which he had witnessed as a boy. He claimed that this ritual, dubbed Operation Mistletoe, had taken place in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex in early 1941, with a detachment of Canadian soldiers dressed in wizardly robes and a dummy in Nazi uniform seated on a throne.
(In yet another version of Operation Mistletoe, related by author Richard Spence in his 2008 book Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult, the British authorities only wanted the superstitious Nazi leaders to learn that they were being attacked by British magic—but after the plan was dropped, Crowley went ahead on his own.)
Amado Crowley claimed that one result of his father’s magical attack was the bizarre episode in 1941 when the Nazi deputy leader Rudolph Hess made an unexpected solo flight across the North Sea in a Messerschmitt fighter plane, before bailing out by parachute over Scotland because he had lost his way and run out of fuel. Hess made his journey in the misguided belief that he could single-handedly convince the British to make peace with Germany, but he ended up in prison until he died in 1987.
Heselton and the British historian Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, who has written extensively on the history of the neopagan movement, are dismissive of Amado Crowley’s claims.
Hutton’s research, described in his history of modern witchcraft, The Triumph of the Moon, has found that the very detailed diaries Aleister Crowley wrote throughout his life make no mention at all of his supposed son and trainee magician, and no mention of any wartime activities or rituals (although Aleister wrote to Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division in 1939, two weeks after the German invasion of Poland, he was never offered a job).
In fact, there’s no evidence that the writer Amado Crowley had any genuine connection to Aleister Crowley at all.
“Amado Crowley’s account of his previous life and his relations with [Aleister Crowley] is unproven in its entirety,” Hutton tells mental_floss.
Hutton says it is not possible to know if Operation Cone of Power took place the way that Gardner described it. But he notes that Gardner’s account of Operation Cone of Power at least provided an opportunity to show Gardner’s patriotism when he was writing about the ritual in the 1950s—a time when neopagan witchcraft was routinely associated in the British media with stories of Satanism and ritual murder.
“If it didn’t happen, then it was a wonderful way of trying to get people to regard Wiccans as being patriotic and fellow citizens, instead of being some kind of enemies of society,” he says.
“Gerald [Gardner] produced the story of Operation Cone of Power after he’d coped with a great deal of barracking from the media about witches being inherently evil and perverted people. So this was one very good way of explaining that they weren’t,” Hutton says.
Heselton believes that Operation Cone of Power probably did take place as Gardner describes, because such magical ceremonies would have been an important expression of belief for the community of witches who have come to be known as the New Forest Coven.
“I think it’s largely true. In fact, I turn the question on its head and reply that I think it extremely unlikely that something like this would not have happened,” Heselton tells mental_floss.
Heselton points out that the group that Gardner was involved with, the so-called New Forest Coven of witches, were mostly too old to join the armed military or civil defense forces.
“But they were motivated by the times to take part in the defense of their country, however it could be achieved, so they used what skills they believed they had, which were magical ones,” he says. “Operation Cone of Power was just the sort of thing they would have done.”