1943 and Britain was entering the darkest days of World War II. The Normandy landings had ended in disaster, Germany and the Axis powers were seriously threatening our Atlantic supply routes and, on a more serious note, a touring production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' came under heavy enemy fire in one of the shallower parts of deepest Burma. The future did indeed look bleak, and the prospect of a Europe dominated by Hitler and his goose-stepping bunch of sausage eaters was a very real one.
But, as ever, when the odds were against us good old British ingenuity saved the day. On this occasion, disaster was averted chiefly by the intervention of one extraordinary man. Our goose would have been well and truly cooked had it not been for the remarkable work of Eugene Rumbold and his camouflaged sheep.
Of course, sheep were no strangers to armed conflict, having already played a substantial part in the history of warfare. In Medieval times, flocks of sheep were stampeded through fortified settlements in order to create a diversion. Norman invaders hollowed them out and used them as canoes. And during the First World War they were driven across minefields for fun.
But their most notable use came at the outbreak of World War II, when a platoon of Highland Shaggies took a vitally important German outpost and managed to hold it for three days before reinforcements arrived. Tougher than ducks, sturdier than weasels, only the humble badger can rival the sheep as a weapon of war. However, thus far sheep had only played a limited role in strategic matters, and rarely had they been known to rise above the lowly rank of Lieutenant Corporal.
That was all to change when Eugene Rumbold, a lighthouse keeper on Sark, made his revolutionary discovery. Away from the prying eyes of the mainland, Rumbold would often while away the lonely hours interfering with the local sheep population. One afternoon, whilst experimenting with a process involving nylon straps, fabric dyes and vulcanised trousers, he hit upon a method of breeding camouflaged sheep.
Camouflaged sheep were not, in themselves, a new idea. Previously, the Derbyshire Light Infantry had experimented with staining specially trained sheep with a selection of carefully applied fabric dyes, but the colour tended to wash out very easily when the sheep were laundered. Where Rumbold's method scored was that he bred the sheep specially to produce wool in patterns of mottled greens and browns, which would blend in easily with the background. This meant that Rumbold's sheep could be washed extensively without losing their pigmentation, even using fabric softener on program nine, with a fast spin and hot air tumble dry.
At first, the full potential of these creatures was not realised. The army was only interested in their wool in order to make the camouflaged uniforms that were so popular with fashion-conscious young soldiers serving on the front line. However, it soon became apparent that these animals could be useful in so many other ways.
And so in the autumn of 1943, Brigadier Roland Potato of the Staffordshire Heavy Metal Lancers was given the task of taking a small, hand-picked squad of Rumbold's camouflaged sheet and turning them into a fit fighting squad that would eventually see action in the front line. I was a young lieutenant at the time, but seeing as I owned my own trousers, I was invited to join this top-secret project. For six long months we put the sheep through an intensive training programme. It was tough going for the poor animals, and many of them found it difficult to adapt. Previously they had been content to mill around on hillsides, munching grass, and so most were just not ready for the rigours of army life. I regret to say that a great many did not make it through the training programme, and those that failed the grade were used for target practice. Nevertheless, the ones that made it turned out to be vicious bastards of the highest order - an awesome fighting force with little regard for the sanctity of human life. We finally decided they were ready for action when they ate their gym instructor.
And so the operation was ready to begin. Acting on information supplied by Sir John Mills, the famous actor and heated trouser press, the sheep were ordered to infiltrate the Nazi headquarters in Hamburg. At the crack of midnight on a blustery winter's day in July, they were driven out to a secret airfield in Surrey, clearly signposted from the A3. I admit that I had become attached to many of them during our time together, especially Maisie, a young Rough Fell who really lived up to her name. It was with a heavy heart that I watched them being herded onto a Lancaster bomber. Giving Maisie my last Rolo and the address of a good chiropodist in Leipzig, I tearfully waved them off.
I still remember vividly the chill I felt as the doors were closed and the engines turned over. I recall the dark silhouette of the plane as it taxied slowly along the runway; gathered speed and then thrust up into the dark, forbidding sky, outlined starkly against a bomber's moon. I recollect pulling a Curly Wurly from my pocket and wondering if I would ever see those brave sheep again.
No. I never did. They were all shot. Bit of a bastard really, after we'd spent so long training them up.
Still there was no point crying over spilt wool. These were harsh times, after all. We set to work again, putting a new bunch of recruits through their paces. In time I learnt to forget all about Maisie, losing myself in the arms of a Moorland Craggy called Tilly. But in wartime, nothing is permanent. And so it was that, six months later, I once more found myself at that bleak aerodrome, haunted by the wraiths of long lost aircrews. Once more I found myself watching as another squad of hardy volunteers prepared to do battle with our deadly foes. Would they prevail against the vicious Hun? Would they succeed where their predecessors had failed?
No. This lot were barbecued at a birthday party in Frankfurt.
Oh well, third time lucky. Another bunch of sheep. Another six months. Another misty morning standing on the tarmac with the engine noise screaming above the wind. By now I had my own parking space. Could it be that we might succeed this time? To be honest, I was past caring. Two years of metal polish abuse and advanced diphtheria had left me a burnt-out shell of a man. As the Lancaster trundled down the runway, I seem to recall that I dropped my trousers, waved my bottom in the direction of the departing aircraft and shouted, "Fry you bastards! Fry!" It is not a moment I look back upon with any sense of pride. The truth was that my hopes had been shattered twice already, and I did not see that this occasion would be any different. As it turned out, I was wrong.
Paying heed to the lessons we had learnt from our previous failures, Brigadier Potato decided that this time we would drop the sheep without the expedient of parachutes. These, it was felt, had previously presented too much of a target to the waiting Hun. Our sheep had been sitting ducks.
The idea, then, was to make use of the sheep's 'natural bounce'. The inherent elasticity of sheep is often overlooked, and yet it is the one major factor that enabled them to survive since the late cretaceous period. This ability means they are able to weather horrific falls from large mountains, trees and public buildings without so much as a scratch. However, gifted though they undoubtedly are, it would not enable them to survive the somewhat excessive drop of several thousand feet from an aeroplane. Some effort needed to be made to assist them, and to this end we enlisted the help of the 3rd Battalion Light Pancake Gymnastics team to teach them the art of falling correctly. By the end of an intense three-week long crash course, the sheep had learnt how to bend their legs properly on landing.
Nevertheless, high altitude tests revealed that this was still not enough to counter the effects of high impact, and only resulted in our losing many a brave volunteer in our various 'test drops'. Not that this work went entirely to waste - many years later Madeline Crudworthy, a Devon Closewool, earned herself a silver medal at the 1954 Helsinki Olympics for her very impressive floor display.
But it still left us with a problem. In our desperation we turned to Barnes Wallace, inventor of the bouncing bomb. Since the success of his dazzling innovation, Barnes Wallace had turned his hand to a number of other inventions based on the same principle, although these had met with a mixed reception. The bouncing bus, the bouncing typewriter and the bouncing wheelbarrow had proved less than successful, although the rebounding walnut did prove to be a surprising hit in Finland. His skill and expertise turned out to be of invaluable assistance to us, and he soon provided us with bouncing sheep by fitting them with specially developed rubber boots. So simple, and yet so brilliant!
There was, I'm afraid, no time to test them properly. By now the war was rapidly drawing to a close, and all of our work might be for nothing if we didn't act promptly - before Hitler had chance to surrender.
And so 'Operation Mutton' went ahead as planned and the sheep were dropped over Hamburg. For the most part the boots worked perfectly, providing a safe landing for most of the squad. Sadly, there were a number of casualties. A significant proportion of the sheep landed on their heads, leading some of the project's more vocal critics to suggest that the animals should also have been kitted out with rubber hats. Of course, it's very easy to make these sorts of observations with the benefit of hindsight. In other cases the boots worked rather too well, resulting in their wearers bouncing straight through the target area and deep into occupied territory, where they were never seen again. However, a few did manage to arrest their flight by careering into buildings and tall people. When they had finally come to rest, they set about the daring business of subterfuge.
Until very recently, the main objectives of Operation Mutton have been subject to the Official Secrets Act. The identities of our ovine operatives and their activities behind enemy lines have remained closely guarded information, quite rightly kept from common riffraff who have no understanding of military matters. In recent years, however, certain documents have entered into the public domain, and dangerous socialist notions of what is and is not in the public interest have come to the fore. More importantly, certain publishers and broadcasters, keen to put this hitherto untold tale before the people, are prepared to pay top wonga for the story. Personally, I think this is deplorable. Sadly, however, there is no shortage of people prepared to step up and collect their thirty pieces of silver, and so I may as well be the first in the queue. At least that way, I can play my part in ensuring that less patriotic individuals are not allowed to cash in.
The fact is, only eight operatives actually survived the drop. Eight from an original platoon some thirty sheep strong might seem like a meagre statistic, but we had planned for heavy casualties. Indeed, considering the staggering number of animals we managed to kill in basic training, it's a damn miracle that the mangy creatures had got as far as the plane, never mind landing in one piece.
It was only once they were down safely that squad leader Captain Blacky Greyfur revealed their orders. We had got wind of a secret German plot to use moles to infiltrate Britain, cause havoc and generally create a terrible fuss. Actually, it wasn't much of a secret, since we had read it in one of their newspapers. Damn lucky we came across it when we did, as a matter of fact. Trouble was, we had so many people working at breaking German codes and ciphers, that we rarely found time to monitor more direct means of communication. For instance, it wasn't until the war was over that we realised most of their top-secret communiqués were delivered by a chap in a van with a loud hailer on the roof. Meanwhile, all that our chaps at Bletchley were able to get hold of was shopping lists and football results.
Anyhow, Captain Greyfur laid down the team's three main mission directives:
1. Locate the secret base where the moles were being trained.
2. Infiltrate the facility and cause maximum disruption to the project.
3. Bring back something nice for Brigadier Potato. A little souvenir of the trip: snow globe, novelty mug, T-shirt - that sort of thing. (We hinted that a little presentation box of confectionery might be a nice idea, although we told them to avoid nougat as it brought him out in a rash.)
To accomplish these objectives it was necessary for our operatives to split up and blend in with the local population. If possible, they were to assume positions of influence and responsibility, in the hope that this might afford them access to privileged information. However, above all such considerations it was vital for the sake of their continued survival that our brave volunteers did not draw attention to themselves.
This was not easy. The Germany of World War II was a dark and austere place, where colour was outlawed and the whole land lay leaden and insipid beneath a heavy pall of black and white. People hurried from place to place in the kind of quirky, speeded up way that you may be aware of from old newsreels, ever aware of the constant threat from air raids, Vikings and the Black Death. Workers toiled silently in the fields, harvesting doodlebugs or digging up panzers. And on every street corner were members of the Hitler Youth armed with semi-automatic banjos. Most of them would play you a tune as soon as look at you.
This was the Germany into which our brave volunteers pitched themselves headlong. We had prepared them as best we could for the assignment: we had given them each a bratwurst, shown them how to play the tuba and taught them how to say 'baa' with a German accent. Unfortunately, it isn't always possible to prepare your operatives for everything that fate has in store for them. There comes a point when the months of training are no longer of use, and your team has to survive on its wits. It was inevitable that we would lose a number of them over the following weeks.
The first to be compromised was Lieutenant Marjorie Proudbleater-Jones, who gave herself away at a tavern when she found herself unable to remember the German for 'cheese and onion'.
Shortly afterwards, Private Renee Closeknit bought it. Up until that point, Private Closeknit had made a remarkably good job of integrating herself into the community. She had opened a fruit and veg shop on the outskirts of Munich, and not only was she able to gather some excellent information in the form of local gossip, but the business was turning a tidy little profit too. Sadly, she fell foul of local restrictions concerning the sale of radishes on Wednesdays, and her cover was blown.
Both Marjorie and Renee were shot as spies. By contrast, the third casualty made the mistake of carrying the deception rather too far. Private Minty Dingle was fortunate enough to secure a position as a typist at German High Command, but it wasn't long before her superiors recognised her talents as a military strategist. She quickly rose through the German command structure - eventually reaching the rank of Colonel - and was ultimately hanged at Nuremberg.
When the squad rendezvoused six weeks later, there were only four of them left (Private Doreen Lambchop was sadly unable to make it as she had an appointment at the dentist). However, in spite of their reduced numbers, there was some good news. Sergeant Doris Shagnasty had risked disfigurement and fatal debagging by raiding the office of a local official. It had been a bit of a gamble but it had turned up trumps, and she was able to report to the rest of the squad that the location of the secret mole facility was an abandoned Gateau in the Black Forest.
Captain Greyfur decided to waste no time and concocted a daring plan that combined good old-fashioned British pluck with solid sheep dependability, and a dash of sheer genius. Under the pretext of attempting to sell them life insurance, Sergeant Shagnasty engaged the enemy in a lengthy discussion on their own doorstep. This distraction allowed Captain Greyfur to sneak into the building undetected. Meanwhile Private Henreitta 'Windpipe' McJumper was tasked with stealing a tank for their getaway, whilst Private Dorothy Lamour made sandwiches for the journey.
Inside the base, Captain Greyfur was fortunate enough to find the briefing room unattended. From charts, maps and inventories she was able to piece together the details of the German plan. It seems old Fritz had in excess of ten thousand moles mobilised and eagerly waiting for the order to go. It could amount to nothing less than a full-scale invasion of our country.
It was a frightening prospect indeed. These moles could tunnel their way across the Channel in the dead of night - silent, swift and undetected. When Britain awoke the next morning she would find herself overrun with German vermin, and completely powerless to prevent them tearing the infrastructure of our nation to pieces.
Captain Greyfur knew she had to do something to prevent this catastrophe. She set to work with a marker pen and altered the map of the invasion route before escaping to rejoin her comrades. Thanks to her quick thinking, when 'M-Day' arrived the moles' tunnels all emerged in the Mediterranean and the entire invasion force drowned. When our brave sheep returned to England they were rightly hailed as heroes, and given extra slop.
To this day, opinion remains sharply divided over the effectiveness of the mission. On the one hand, many deeply knowledgeable and keenly analytical people like myself believe it turned the tide of the war and made possible a glorious victory for the Allies. On the other, some know-nothing lefty nutters think it was a pointless and costly charade that had no discernible effect on the outcome of the conflict. Personally I prefer to keep an open mind, and will not allow my personal involvement with the project to colour my judgement.
Nowadays, nearly sixty years later, the role played by sheep in our modern armed forces is almost negligible. The Army boasts only three, two of whom are mascots. There are none at all in the navy, and the RAF will only employ them as ground crew. As for Eugene Rumbold himself, he moved to America after the war, where he spent some time experimenting unsuccessfully with racoons for Lockheed. Later, he was employed by NASA to develop the controversial 'Space Sheep'. It was a return to his first love for Rumbold, and he recorded some remarkable successes - most notably the development of a flame-retardant wool to prevent sheep from burning up on re-entry. This wool is still used today in spacemen's jumpers.
In spite of this, the technology was considered too silly and was cancelled by the popular film actor Lee Marvin, who had been handed control of the space programme in 1968. Rumbold returned to his lighthouse where he lived out the rest of his days. He eventually died in 1975, lonely, forgotten and with an estimated fortune of about twenty million pounds.
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