How We Duped the Nazi Postal Service into Sending Stamps Bearing Hitler's Skull

How We Duped the Nazi Postal Service into Sending Stamps Bearing Hitler's Skull

Image: US Government

It was 5 February 1945 and the war was in its endgame. In the skies over the Reich, planes dropped their bombs on a mail train bound for Linz, before a second wave of more insidiously incendiary cargo was released. Mailbags filled with around 3800 propaganda letters – some containing sinister stamps of Hitler wearing a grinning skull – were dropped into the wreckage, ready to be recovered and delivered to the Germans by the postal service. It was the first mission of Operation Cornflakes.

Operation Cornflakes was a WWII Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Psychological Operations campaign designed to dupe the German postal service into inadvertently distributing propaganda through the mail. Nearly 100,000 properly addressed envelopes were stuffed with anti-Nazi subversive material like the Allies’ German language propaganda leaflet, with the aim of it ultimately landing on the breakfast tables of German households each morning – cue the Kellogs-inspired code name.

Das Neue Deutschland, the Allies’ German language propaganda news sheet
Image via Psywarrior

Adding subliminal insult to psychological injury, forged postage stamps were enclosed subtly designed to resemble the standard stamp bearing Adolf Hitler’s face – except that close inspection would reveal his face had been manipulated to look like an exposed skull, or similarly unbecoming imagery. Furthermore, the country-identifying text along the bottom of the stamp was changed from ‘Deutsches Reich’ (German Empire) to read ‘Futsches Reich’ (Collapsed or Lost Empire).

Members of the Cornflakes group load leaflet bombs
Image via Psywarrior

The operation involved planes airdropping false mail sacks in amongst the debris and confusion of mail trains halted by bombing and strafing fire. During the clean-up of the wreck, postal service agents would, with luck, confuse the fake sacks for the real thing and deliver them as normal, presuming they had come from the damaged train. Special bombs were designed to carry several mailbags and explode 50 ft above the ground, thus allowing the cargo to reach its target intact.

Artist rendering of a P-38 plane attacking a train
Image via Psywarrior

The final official total for Cornflakes is 20 missions over three months, with 320 fake German mail bags dropped, each containing 300 letters. Yet the questions is whether a) this most famous of OSS black ops was successful and b) it was ever detected on the ground. The answer to the second part of the question is: yes. Much of the mail was stamped with pseudo-legitimate business return addresses, among the best known – and most critical – ‘Wiener Giro – und Cassenverein.’

A Cornflakes envelope that originated from a mail bag dropped in Bavaria
Image via Psywarrior

‘Cassenverein’ was the first OSS item to be identified as a forgery by the German authorities. After an air raid on 16 March 1945 near St. Poelten, German security police found and opened a mailbag containing letters addressed to citizens in the Cologne area. As the mail was about to be forwarded, a keen-eyed clerk noticed the misspelling: Cassenverein’ should have read ‘Kassenverein’. The Nazis became suspicious, the envelopes were opened, and the propaganda was discovered.

The Cassenverein cover
Image via Psywarrior

The game was up; but was Cornflakes a success? A CIA report states that the OSS “objectives were to weaken further the will of the German people to fight, to increase confusion in the communication and transport services, and to convince the German people that there was an anti-Nazi underground in Germany especially active in business and banking circles.” Yet in truth it is hard to gauge how much influence those of the 96,000 dropped letters delivered had, particularly on people’s thinking.

The Hitler Skull forgery sheet
Image via Psywarrior

Still, whether or not the message Cornflakes sought to impart and the disruption it strived to create had any impact, there seems something intriguingly both crude and sophisticated about the campaign. Despite the initially destructive means of ensuring the subversive material was disseminated, disseminated it was – and according to a pretty creative plan – especially in view of the Hitler “death’s-head stamp” that would have beamed back at recipients of the letters.

The ‘Futsches Reich’ stamp printed for Operation Cornflakes
Image: US Government

Perhaps it is the grisly parody of Hitler wearing a death’s head mask – the Fuhrer represented by the propagandists as “the personification of death” – that still strikes a sensational chord with us today. It has certainly given rise to a whole series of Hitler skull facsimiles and reproductions made by later forgers and fakers. The other fascination of course is that this was PSYOP operation, and humankind is always likely to be enthralled by such attempts at control. As the saying goes: “Capture their minds and their hearts and souls will follow”.

For a much fuller account of Operation Cornflakes, go to Psywarrior. Extra source: 1