PEOPLE had different ideas about how we could repel the threatened invasion of Hitler's Nazi hordes.
Winston Churchill, heavy-jowled bulldog of the people, growled glorious words of defiance.
On the heaths and cliffs, bilious majors drilled the rheumaticky Home Guards, stabbing the air with broom handles while threatening to throw the Hun back into the sea. Back on the airstrips, the Brylcremed pilots revved the engines on their Spitfires and raised their eyebrows in nonchalant anticipation.
In a clearing in the New Forest, near the Rufus stone, Gerald Gardner and his chums were also anxious to do their bit for the old country in its hour of peril.
But what? Most of them had reached a ripe age, no longer taut enough in muscle, limb or mind for parachuting behind enemy lines.
They did, though, possess a secret weapon of such potency that it would chill the Fuehrer's marrow and have his Pantzers back-pedalling before you could whisper "Russian winter".
Gardner and his fellow witches, drawn from various covens, had what he called the Cone of Power. This, they claimed, had been responsible for half the Spanish Armada being wrecked before it could reach these shores and Napoleon's failure to mount an invasion of England.
Now, in the summer of 1940, the cone was needed again. But there was, as is so often the case on such occasions, a snag. Some hard-liners didn't think the cone would work at full blast unless there was a sacrifice. It was customary for one of the oldest and feeblest among the witches to volunteer for this honour.
He or she would remain "skyclad" and unfed while the others smeared themselves in weather-protective grease, as they chanted and pranced in a circle. In this way, a volunteer would be likely to catch a chill and die, even on a summer night like Lammas (August 1).
If this happened, their magic would gain in strength.
REPORTS suggested that two of the older witches did die soon after a series of rituals against an invasion conducted in the New Forest in the summer of 1940.
Although the details are a little sketchy, it seems that a large number of witches marked a circle of about nine feet between the trees into which was placed a large pile of brushwood with a lantern in the centre.
The magical power came from the people themselves. In some way, not fully explained, this force was formed into a cone, which could be directed at the mind of Adolf Hitler. Cynics will scoff, but history records that there was no invasion.
A short while afterwards, Gardner himself suffered from a return of his asthma, which is said to have a high incidence amongst occultists.
This man is now widely regarded as "the father" of modern witchcraft, a movement which draws heavily on the ancient pagan traditions, blended with folk-wisdom, a love of the land and all it offers, natural medicines, astrology and a hotch-potch of beliefs and superstitions.
He had been born into an affluent home, the Glen on The Serpentine, Blundellsands, Crosby, the son of Robert William Gardner, a partner in the firm of Joseph Gardner and Sons, founded in 1748, which advanced from block and mast making to become the world's largest importer of hardwood.
By the time of Gerald Brosseau Gardner's birth on June 13, 1884, the family fortune was well-established, making them part of that Victorian elite, who claimed Liverpool to be the second city of the British Empire.
They lived in a fine house near the sea, but the boy's poor health was a cause of concern to the family and, on the suggestion of their doctor, they decided to send him abroad to avoid the English winters.
So it was that the four-year-old Gerald and his nanny, Josephine McCombie ("Com"), began cruising the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands, financed by the family.
During this time he received no formal education, but it seems that he learned to read and write, cultivating an interest in weapons. He was also fascinated by native religions, particularly the notion of reincarnation.
People recognised something of the philosopher in this boy, who had deep and sincere spiritual leanings.
Com and Gardner were close and there has been some speculation about the nature of their relationship. She would have been responsible for disciplining a boy, separated from his family and normal schooling.
In later life, Gardner was an enthusiastic naturist who celebrated the human body and found nudity to be a liberating experience. This, of course, extended into the ceremonies of witchcraft, most of which are conducted in the nude.
In 1896, Com married a tea-planter in Ceylon and Gardner went to join them with the approval of his family. He worked on a plantation, learning about tea and Buddhism.
ALTHOUGH he lived the life of an exile, settling for periods in Ceylon, Borneo, Singapore and Malaya (where he worked in a rubber plantation), Gardner did make visits to the UK.
In 1916, he had hoped to enlist in the Army for service on the Western Front, but was rejected because of his poor health, though he did work for a while as a hospital orderly in Liverpool. A recurrence of malaria persuaded him to return to Malaya.
But in 1927, Gardner was back in England, studying Welsh folklore at the British Museum. There was a total eclipse of the sun on June 29, the only one in England during his lifetime, and the line of totality passed over his home in Blundellsands.
During this stay, he met Donna Rosedale, a nursing sister in a London hospital. They married and sailed to Singapore that Christmas Eve. From then, until her death in 1960, they would always be together, though there were rumours that Gardner could be tempted by the flesh, a generous spread of which he saw as a naturist and witch.
His life was one of discovery. He was certainly influenced by a cult which toiled under the name of The Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellow-ship and the Rite of Egyptian Mysteries. This was founded and led by George Alexander Sullivan, a Liverpudlian, who lived for a time in Tynemouth Street, Everton.
Rosicrucianism, founded in Germany in 1615, is based on pamphlets attributed to Christian Rosencreutz, who claimed occult and alchemical powers found in the East.
By 1936, Gardner and Donna were back in England, living in London. Shortly after the outbreak of war in September, 1939, he was initiated into the Craft, sometimes called Wicca after the old English for witch. By then he was living near the New Forest.
There is a temptation to think of Gardner as a crank and nothing more. He was, though, an acknowledged expert on weapons and a writer of talent and imagination, who never learned to spell properly because of his informal education.
His published novels were A Goddess Arrives (1939) and High Magic's Aid (1949). His non-fiction books include: Keris and Other Malay Weapons (1936), Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959).
Witchcraft Today was the book which gained him a high reputation and is today regarded as the Wiccan "bible".
BIZARRE as it may seem to us, Gardner would appear to have been genuine in his belief that the Cone of Power would save Britain from invasion by the the Germans.
In his own writing about how they countered the danger, he wrote: "That was done which may not be done except in great emergency. Mighty forces were used of which I may not speak. Now, to do this means using one's life-force."
Another writer on witchcraft noted: "The witches felt that it was essential that he (Hitler) should be deterred from invasion plans by a powerful ritual, the central point of which was to be the death of a volunteer sacrificial victim. The oldest and frailest member volunteered for sacrifice and left off his protective grease so that he might die of the effects of exposure."
Much of Gardner's life is given in two books by the Hull-based author Philip Heselton, Wiccan Roots and the newly published Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration.
"Gerald Gardner was absolutely vital in the development of modern witchcraft," says Heselton, 57, a father-of-two and a witch initiated into the Gardnerian tradition.
"A lot of people who wouldn't describe themselves as Gardnerian owe quite a lot to him," he says. "He was the one who publicised that witches still existed. The growth of witchcraft and paganism generally has come through from Gardner's writings (there are now estimated to be about 40,000 followers of Wicca in this country).
"People were very much interested in reincarnation and believed they had been witches in a previous lifetime, dating back hundreds of years. They began to think they were witches in this lifetime.
"In my view it would have been surprising if they hadn't tried to repel the threatened German invasion. They were all getting on and wanted to help. They felt, rightly or wrongly, they had certain magical powers - raising psychic energy which they believed was a real thing which could be sent off to achieve its purposes."
* WICCAN Roots and Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration are published by Cappall Bann Books.
HIS papal bull of 1484, Pope Innocent VIII called for severe measures against witches. In England, it was made a felony in 1542. By 1563, it carried the death penalty.
Matthew Hopkins, the witch-finder, had hundreds of women hanged or burned, but in 1647 he, too, was cast into a river where he floated. Thus, he was hanged as a wizard.
An acquaintance of Gardner was the infamous Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). "Not a very nice person who used his friends very badly," says the author Philip Heselton.
In 1941, Crowley and his crowd also held some sort of ceremony against the Germans in Ashdown Forest, Sussex. Gardner, buried in Tunis, was generally regarded as a benign figure. But Crowley, the black magician and self-billed "wickedest man in the world", was thrilled when his few friends called him the "the great beast".
At one point he had to flee Italy amid reports that babies had
been sacrificed in black rituals.