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How Carrot Vitamin A Changed Battles in World War 2
Using the Carrot to Hide AIR
There is nothing exceptionally impressive about a carrot. It does not have the shiny plastic-like texture, vibrant hue or taste bud assaulting fire of the chili pepper. Nor does it grow up to three feet in length and hang upon climbing twelve foot vines as do blood red Chinese noodle beans.
The carrot does not develop protruding spikes, branch out in clusters amid silver-green foliage, or develop bright, edible blossoms as does the artichoke.
Instead, carrots are dug out of the ground and emerge covered in hairs and dirt.
Yet, this dusty root is the vegetable that helped defeat one of the most notorious, human-rights-violating villains in history: Adolf Hitler.
Airborne Interception Radar
The power of the carrot first came into play with the installation of airborne interception radar (AIR) in planes of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II. Before the use of AIR, the British were being dealt a heavy blow by German nighttime raids (1).
However, radar gave RAF pilots a distinct advantage in the darkness, allowing them to use radio waves to determine the position of enemy forces, and as a consequence, turning the tides of airborne battle (1, 2).
This tactical superiority was only guaranteed as long as the new technology remained undiscovered by the Germans.
To conceal the power of radar, British Intelligence developed a convincing propaganda campaign attributing their pilot’s impressive nighttime performance to the power of a high-carrot diet (1). This propaganda was so convincing, in fact, that a majority of Britain’s own populace was fooled as well.
Newspaper articles were published quoting Royal Air Force Officer John Cunningham, soon to be nicknamed “Cats Eyes”, as he confessed his and the other RAF pilots’ love of carrots (1).
Not only did Cats Eyes claim to have improved eyesight; he credited his vegetable binges with providing him and the rest of the Royal Air Force with the actual ability to see in the dark (1).
Reading this, Germans were not the only ones soon modifying their diets. British citizens gobbled the roots down as well in hopes of improving their vision; rolling blackouts were very common at the time, and they believed that having the ability to see at night would prove quite useful (3).
Because it may seem implausible that a man such as Hitler could be duped in so seemingly absurd a fashion, it is important to view the situation from a cultural perspective.
Common German folktales had already perpetuated the link between carrots and excellent eyesight long before the British published their fictitious reports; it was believable carrots would improve vision because it was something the German people already believed (2). However, John Cats Eyes Cunningham took this concept to a whole new level.
The Ministry of Agriculture
The population’s interest in the carrot not only benefitted the British Intelligence in their deception of the Germans but also benefitted the Ministry of Agriculture in their mission to keep the British population fed and reduce a surplus in carrots (a far from common staple in the British diet) while compensating for shortages in most other vegetables and fruits (4).
Over seven hundred thousand tons of imported food was being sunk before making it to British shores and the populace was headed for starvation unless they developed alternative food sources (4).
Dr. Carrot and Potato Pete
To motivate the public to help themselves, the Ministry used the cartoon characters of Dr. Carrot and Potato Pete in a campaign entitled Dig for Victory that promoted home gardening and advertised new and unique recipes with vegetables, such as carrots, as main ingredients (4).
Public parks, lawns, and vacant land were used to plant cabbages, carrots, beans and potatoes; even the Kennsington Gardens replaced flower beds with crops (4). Recipes were published using these vegetables and those with carrots added them to such things as curry, jam, fudge, toffee, pie, pudding, and even to rutabaga juice to create a drink named “Carrolade” (4).
Carrots as a healthy "candy"
To further guide and inspire the public, cooking demonstrations were given in stores and movies on cooking were screened in cinemas (4). BBC radio even broadcast its own food preparation programs, such as "Kitchen Front" (4).
With sugar in short supply and rationed at eight ounces per week, carrots were touted as a good substitute; children were soon licking carrots stuck to sticks in place of lollipops! (4).
By highlighting the health and versatility of the vegetable as well as its sight-enhancing abilities, the Minister of Food was able to declare the Dig for Victory campaign a success in February of 1941: consumption had increased and supplies remained plentiful (4). In fact, by January of 1942 there were one hundred thousand tons of surplus carrots that needed to be gotten rid of and were given to farmers for feed at a discount price (4).
Thanking the carrot
The carrot had proved a true war-time hero: it had functioned as an excellent diversion to inquisitive enemy forces as well as providing an easy and nutritious crop for the English population to grow and eat during a time when most other foods were scarce.
But don't carrots actually help vision?
Carrots contain beta carotene, converted to vitamin A in the body, which is essential for eye health but will not actually improve vision unless an individual is suffering from a deficiency in the nutrient. In fact, a lack of vitamin A can lead to blindness.
- Lint Center for National Security Studies: PSYOP WWII -- Propagating Carrot Propaganda. Tue Apr 03, 2012. Accessed at http://www.lintcenter.info/blog/entry/3053573/psyop-wwii-%E2%80%93-propagating-carrot-propaganda
ABC Science: Carrots & Night Vision. Accessed at http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2005/10/26/1392430.htm
TLC Family: Are carrots really http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/family/carrots-eyesight.htm
World Carrot Muesum accessed at http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/history4.html