John Turner

“I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through.”

STANLEY BALDWIN 9th November 1932

In the 1930’s there was a general and well founded fear of aerial attack by enemy aircraft. Bombers had long replaced the battleship as the ultimate weapon of war as Churchill himself noted… “Bombers alone provide the means of victory.”

It was against this alarming vision of German bombs tumbling nonstop from the sky that in 1939, at the very beginning of WW 2, the Air Ministry set up a special unit to build decoy cities, towns and airfields as a way of drawing the bombs of the Luftwaffe. In charge of the project was civil engineer and pilot Colonel John Turner, (later Sir John Turner). Recognising the need for people with experience of creating fake buildings and streets Colonel Turner established his headquarters at Sound City Film Studios in Shepperton where realistic film sets were the order of the day. The motto of ‘Col. Turner’s Department’ as the unit was known was “Day and Night, Defend by Confusion.”

 dummy aircraft

This was their plan of construction:-

  • “K” sites:- Decoy airfields for day-time use with dummy aircraft, vehicles, buildings, bomb dumps and gun pits.
  • “Q” sites:- Decoy airfields for night-time use with dummy flare paths, ob landing lights and hangers with inadequate black-out.
  • “QL” sites:-Night-time decoy towns with assorted lights, buildings with inadequate black-out and moving vehicles.
  • Starfish:- Night-time decoy towns with cleverly designed fires to replicate an urban area targeted by bombs

In January 1941 a ’ Starfish’ site to deflect enemy bombing from London was set up in Richmond Park. Its code name was SF8A – the S. F standing for “Special Fire”. The SF8A site also included a heavy anti-aircraft battery and ditches dug to prevent enemy aircraft landing. Similar SF sites were established at Farleigh near Croydon, Rainham Marsh near Dagenham, Lambourne End in Essex and Lullingstone in Kent.

 fire basket

By day the SF sites resembled nothing more than chicken sheds, but they were equipped with specially designed boilers and fire baskets which, when ignited at night, resembled exploding bombs, burning incendiaries and buildings on fire. These dramatic effects could be made to last a number of hours. Trevor Denniff who trained with Colonel Turner at Shepperton later wrote…


“Pairs of one thousand gallon galvanised tanks were positioned on top of 20 foot high towers, one filled with water and the other with diesel or paraffin. Under each tank a simple control system like a WC flush released the liquids down pipes into 15 foot heavy cast iron troughs filled with coal or coke over a bed of fire lighter materials. Electrically wired flash bang detonators assured ignition by a switch in the dugout. The idea was that the coal would be lit when enemy bombers were in the area at night and after the cast iron trough was good and hot the diesel was released. This boiled and the vapours ignited. The water was then released onto the burning oil causing a virtual explosion of fire and steam. It was all very impressive.”

dummy airplane

By the end of the war there were approximately 630 Decoy Sites in the U.K consisting of 230 decoy airfields and 400 decoy towns which included railway marshalling yards, steelworks, foundry and factory complexes. Of these, the dummy airfields were bombed 443 times, and the decoy towns about 100 times, drawing some 5% of the bombs intended for real towns and cities. Official figures calculated that the sites saved an estimated 2,500 lives and prevented 3,000 injuries. By inviting the Luftwaffe to bomb the decoys the crews who manned these sites and the civilians living in the locality were putting their own lives at considerable risk. Happily, records show that only four civilians were killed during raids on decoy sites.

As for Starfish Bombing Decoy SF8A/Richmond Park on or around August 1944, with its work done, it would have received a signal very similar to the following…

Richmond Park

LD0469/44 Instructions on abandonment of sites

Director of Local Defence, 9 August 1944

  1. Sites should be de-requisitioned and cleared of obstructions quickly in order to hand the land back to agriculture etc., as soon as possible.
  2. Shelters should be disposed of (by sale if this is feasible) to the owners or tenants in order to avoid unnecessary work in dismantling structures which may be of use as they stand.
  3. It is understood that all oils will be removed by the Ministry of Fuel and Power with whom arrangements should be made locally.
  4. Metals and cables should be salved. Basket fires and other non-oil fires should be burned on the sites.
  5. Reserve stores should be disposed of by arrangements made in co-operation with the Air Ministry with whom they are held in common.

4th October 1944 [Ref.: ADM 1/18005]

Time has passed and the site has now reverted back to parkland. Aerial photography from 1971 does not show any surviving features of the decoy town… unless it is still there but so well camouflaged that we cannot see it!


“…An attempt was rumoured to have taken place, designed to dupe the German photographic reconnaissance into thinking there was a new, large industrial complex in the rural home counties. The entire estate was said to have been built of wood, and only a few feet high: but it was supposedly made to look like a fully fledged factory complex from the air. It was certain to attract the Luftwaffe away from densely populated areas, it was claimed. And the idea worked. For the Germans came in their droves and attacked the mock development. They poured out strings of bombs until the whole area was dotted with the remains. And yet there was one small drawback. The bombs that the Germans dropped were wooden, too…!”


— from Martyn Day