On February 5, 1945, near the end of WWII, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) began a widespread propaganda campaign in Germany with the unwitting help of the German postal service.
As a first step, Allied bombers derailed a German mail train, scattering its cargo in the process. A second wave of bombers followed and dropped eight mail bags, each filled with 800 properly stamped propaganda letters addressed to homes and businesses in the northern Austrian towns to which the train made deliveries. The idea was that when the postal service realized the train had been derailed, the Germans would collect whatever mail had survived the bombing, including the faked letters containing propaganda, and deliver it to German homes as regularly scheduled. In most cases, the delivery occurred at breakfast time, resulting in the code name Operation Cornflakes.
In preparation for the operation, OSS operatives collected samples of German mail, including stamps, cancellations, and envelopes, and compiled lists of German names and addresses from telephone directories. Propaganda that traveled through the German mail system included an OSS-produced newspaper that claimed to be the work of a growing German opposition party,* letters supposedly written by Nazi party leaders about Hitler’s ill health, and by generals who wanted to surrender. Together, the pieces were designed to create doubt in the minds of the civilian population and to weaken German morale.
Over the course of the operation, the allies dropped 20 loads of fake mail, with a total of 96,000 pieces of mail. A unit in Rome addressed 15,000 envelopes a week. Groups in Switzerland and England created the newspapers and letters and forged stamps.**
The operation eventually failed because of a typo. The return addresses on the envelopes were all those of legitimate German businesses. An OSS operative, perhaps with a cramping hand or aching eyes after hours of addressing envelopes, misspelled Kassenverein as Cassenverien on several envelopes. An alert postal clerk caught the error and brought it to the attention of his superiors. The envelopes were opened, and the propaganda discovered.
Did the operation have an effect on German morale? No one knows. But from a strategic perspective, Operation Cornflakes played a valuable role by putting additional strain on Germany’s communication and transport system.
*It is unlikely that any Germans would have believed this, given that the Nazi party had gained control of the German press at all levels within a year of taking power.
**Including stamps that weren’t standard. If you look closely, you’ll notice some creative changes that wouldn’t have passed by an alert censor.