By Michael Cumming, Surbiton, England
Starkey was the invasion that never was. The
war years are littered with stories of deception designed to confuse
the enemy or to make then believe something that was no more than a
figment of the planners' imaginations! Systematic bombing of
selected targets over several weeks in late August and early September
1943 and an invasion armada of empty ships were the key elements.
It is hardly surprising that an ever-increasing amount of information has become public knowledge about the intention, planning and implementation of the invasion of France on 6 June 1944. It is certainly surprising, though, that even today the public has such scant awareness of events of the previous summer - the summer of 1943 - that began with a detailed and particularly ambitious plan to involve the British and Canadian Armies, the Royal Navy and the Air Forces of Britain and the United States in preparations described as 'consistent with an assault on
Popular among cross-Channel holidaymakers, Boulogne was among the most heavily-defended parts of the Pas de Calais region of Northern France. The scheme was that while this was to be a feint operation, every effort should be made for it to become an actuality 'should the circumstances become propitious' - which meant that if the enemy's hold over that part of the Continent showed signs of disintegrating, the opportunity would exist to turn play-acting into reality.
It was an momentous concept: British and Canadian troops, in their thousands, to be ready to go into the assembly areas; battleships to turn their massive guns against the German coastal batteries; some 15,000 fighter sorties, with 3,000 sorties by medium and heavy bombers in daylight and as many by night. The chosen beaches were those between Audresselles and
Ambleteuse, six miles north of Boulogne, and those between the River Brone and Hardelot, seven miles south of Boulogne, with subsidiary attacks by seaborne commandos, Royal Marines unit and paratroops. The seaside resort of Le Portel was targeted for a further landing by sea, this to thwart any enemy bid to destroy the port of Boulogne before its seizure by the invading forces.
However the ultimately named Operation Starkey was progressively watered down for various reasons, among them a lack of resources and the opposition voiced within the 'top brass' - 'Bomber' Harris calling it 'at best a piece of harmless play-acting'. While there would no longer be any commitment to an assault by land forces, the apparent threat to the enemy throughout that part of Northern France would be there in strength, intensified by actual naval and air operations and extensive troop movements in Southern England. The First Canadian Army moved into deployment areas in the Portsmouth/Southampton sector and the British Second Army into the
Dover/Folkestone/Newhaven sector, with landing craft assembled along the coast from Portsmouth to Dover.
In the Preliminary Phase, 16 to 24 August, some 680 USAAF and 156 RAF aircraft bombed airfields as well as transportation, industrial and other targets; in the Preparatory Phase, 25 August to 8 September, the bomber force swelled to 1,754 and 640 respectively, with the weight of the high explosives increasing from an overall 1,454 tons to 2,683 tons and the targets being broadened to include ammunition and fuel dumps concealed among the forests inland from
Boulogne. In the Culminating Phase, 8 and 9 September, the USAAF and RAF bombers switched their attention pointedly to gun sites. As these would be a clear threat to any seaborne invasion force, bombing them would surely heighten the enemy's expectations of an imminent landing in the Pas de Calais - the purpose still of Operation Starkey, despite its by now considerably reduced scale.
Daybreak on 9 September 1943 saw the English Channel busier than at any time since the Dunkirk evacuation. In a 355-strong mini-armada sailing towards France were self-propelled Thames barges, cross-Channel pleasure steamers and destroyers, ready to beat off an attack... but they carried no invading army! To cap the pretence, the entire mile-wide 'assault force' responded to the code word Backchat at 0900 hours by making a smart 180 degree turn and sailing back to their UK ports. It was the invasion that never was... an operation that attracted little interest among the enemy but one, unfortunately, that must have cost many French lives in the bombing attacks which were a key factor in this deception activity, a toll as high as 500 in Le Portel alone - for it nestled between two key gun sites targeted in the Culminating Phase of Operation Starkey.
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The Starkey Sacrifice: The Allied Bombing of Le Portel 1943
by Michael Cumming, Sutton Publishing, 1996.
Deception in World War II,
by Charles Cruickshank, OUP, 1981;
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