A recent video on the YouTube Lindybeige channel relates the story of Operation Creek in WWII in which irregular British forces invaded a German ship off Goa (now in India), March 1943. He cites James Leasor's book Boarding Party (full version of the book on archive.org) as his primary source for the whole story. (At least once or twice he suggests that the book is highly dramatized.)

Part of the story is that the German sailors prepared for an attack by procuring and spraying kerosene all over the deck of the ship, and then lighting it on fire. This comes up at several points in the video:

However, my prior understanding is that kerosene has a flashpoint high enough that a pool of it can't just generally ignite by applying flame. The Wikipedia article says the flashpoint is 100-150° F (37-65° C). Goa weather in March averages 82° F, with an expected high of 91° F per this site. So I don't see how a deck covered in kerosene could erupt in flame like that.

At a tiny scale, I've previously tested trying to get a small pool of kerosene to ignite with a match, and as expected per that flashpoint data, it utterly failed (link).

So I'm left trying to resolve the story of Germans spraying kerosene around and igniting it as a weapon, versus the data and tests that seem to say this isn't possible. Did the targets in Operation Creek really do that? Would there be some additive involved (like petrol) that one would use to weaponize kerosene, unstated in the story? Or is there some other element that I'm overlooking?

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    Flash point and flammability are not as closely related as you think. Flash point is the temperature where the vapour can be ignited not where the liquid can be combusted. Clearly kerosene can burn in the right circumstances at lower temperatures as kerosene lamps would not work a room temperature otherwise.
    – matt_black
    Sep 25 '20 at 11:18
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    Aside: igniting a pool of petrol (gasoline) by dropping a lit cigarette can only happen in a movie. Sep 25 '20 at 11:51
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    Try tossing a flare or a small amount of gasoline into the kerosene. The heat from the 'initiator' will vaporize the kerosene and ignite it. The burning kerosene will not explode into flames like gasoline but the flames will spread...
    – BobT
    Sep 25 '20 at 15:52
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    @Oddthinking The recent title edit is tricky. Do we want to ascertain 'what did really happen' (historical) or 'is that a realistic plot' (fiction/theory, basic science plus: aparently OP's real interest]). Or is this 'how accurate is that book/movie and finally YT-video made from all of that?' (All three questions answered in one post will tire readers with length?) Sep 25 '20 at 19:13
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    All the physics aside, have you ever served on a ship? Fire is the enemy. Nothing gets drilled as vigorously as firefigthing, because a fire on a ship can get out of control very quickly, and you end up with a complete loss of the ship. The very last thing you want as a sailor is lighting your own ship on fire...
    – DevSolar
    Sep 29 '20 at 11:50

Pools of kerosene burn in a self-sustaining manner as reported in Combustion Properties of Large Liquid Pool Fires Fire Technology volume 25, pages 241–255(August 1989).

This reference compiles kerosene pool fire data from 6 sources and spans the size range of 0.25 to 50 meter diameter pools. Quantitative data for burn rate in millimeters of depth per minute, radiation output in kilowatts per square meter, flame temperature and flame height are provided.

One counter example is provided by the reference:

It is believed the largest tests were conducted during the kerosene pool fire discussed in Reference 7. In this series of tests, an 80 m diameter pool fire test was also conducted, but due to strong winds, the fuel did not spread over the entire pool surface, so the test was not a success.

So overall, unless there is strong wind, pools of kerosene will burn.

According to Oil Pool Fire Experiment. Fire Safety Science 1: 911-918 (1986):


Due to the reasons that kerosene with a higher ignition point was used as fuel and it was necessary to cause the ignited fire to grow into a complete conflagration within as short a time as possible, small amounts of naphtha were made to flow out of several points on the oil surface and ignited electrically using ignition balls.

  1. Ignition position
    Since the thickness of kerosene was 20 mm and thin, it was necessary to wholly burn kerosene for a short time after ignition so that the whole burning time would be made long.
    After pre-test results, it was found that liquid surface falling speed was about 2.1 mm/min and fire propagation speed was 3 to 4 m/min.
    The fire became a conflagration in 3 minutes after ignition.
    Kerosene consumption until then was thought to be about 2 mm on the average for all tanks. Kerosene of 18 mm or above was consumed when a conflagration occurs.
    Since fire propagation speed was 3 to 4 m/m, it was assumed that fire would expand to 9 to 12 m in 3 minutes.
    The position and number of ignition points were determined, so that any parts of the tank can be within about 10 m from the ignition position. As a result, it was determined that 50 m tank should ignite at 4 points and 80 m tank would ignite at 11 points. It was determined that the 30 m tank should ignite at central 1 point in order to measure the fire propagation speed.
  1. Ignition facilities
    Since it was difficult to ignite directly to kerosene, it was determined that ignition should be made by a small quantity of naphtha and ignition balls to the extent of which influence would not given to the burning properties of kerosene. The head tank of ignition naphtha was installed at the place 5 to 10 m away from the edge of each tank. The pre-test was made so that the naphtha quantity, which flowed out of respective outlets, would be about 500 ml/min. The height of the head tank was set so that its bottom would be 1 m higher from the outlet. Outlets, to which naphtha would flow from the head tank, were installed to the ignition equipment. They were connected with the PVC tube. Outlets were set facing upward direction at about 5 cm above the liquid.
    The circumference of outlets was covered with cotton cloth hung from above. When the stop valve opened, which had been installed to the head tank containing naphtha, naphtha flowed out of outlets. Part of naphtha was impregnated into cotton cloth and remaining naphtha was mixed with kerosene in the tank. Ignition balls were set into cotton cloth so that naphtha would not be directly placed. The switch of ignition balls was installed at D/4 outside the tank and ignition balls of respective tanks were designed to be operated by setting one switch. Naphtha of 2500 ml per outlet was placed into the head tank so that naphtha of 500 ml for each minute per outlet would flow for 5 minutes.
    The number of head tanks was 30. One head tank each was installed for 50 m tank and 2 head tanks were installed for 80 m tank.
  1. Ignition procedures
    PVC tubes were made full of naphtha beforehand so that naphtha would flow out from outlets at the same time when the valve was opened. The valve of the head tank was opened 1 minute before ignition. One minute after naphtha was discharged, the switch of ignition balls was turned ON and ignition balls were caused to generate.
    According to this operation, ignition balls would be ignited, naphtha, which was impregnated into cotton cloth, would burn, kerosene mixed with naphtha would be lit and, further, fire would propagate to kerosene of the whole tank.
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    @DanielR.Collins I accessed full text, but it’s drawing mostly from other references, doesn’t have ingnition method. I looked at other references, one said “handheld igniter”, one “electronic igniter”. One other had a detailed description. I’ll try to find again and add more by tomorrow. At son’s baseball game now.
    – DavePhD
    Sep 27 '20 at 13:49
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    @DanielR.Collins this is the one that says "handheld igniter": sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016236119322069 ; this says "electronic igniter": link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11630-020-1335-x ; and this iafss.org/publications/fss/1/911/view/fss_1-911.pdf has a very elaborate method of ignition because "kerosene with a higher ignition point was used".
    – DavePhD
    Sep 27 '20 at 18:31
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    @DanielR.Collins ok, I added the whole ignition section of IAFSS reference.
    – DavePhD
    Sep 28 '20 at 13:11
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    @DanielR.Collins This reference doi.org/10.1007/s11434-010-3014-x says that a small amount of heptane was used to ignite kerosene, and that kerosene having a flashpoint of 66 degrees C was used.
    – DavePhD
    Sep 28 '20 at 20:00
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    @DanielR.Collins The book you cite in the question archive.org/details/boardingparty00leas has details about how the kerosene was intended to be lit. Page 70 "signalling pistol"; Page 144 "burning torches"; Page 181 "rolled-up newspapers".
    – DavePhD
    Sep 29 '20 at 13:04

If you're looking for a historical answer, I don't have that, but if you're asking about the scientific side of it, the temperature of the weather is irrelevant to whether a fire could be sustained; the fire will produce heat that will raise the temperature above the flashpoint. The flashpoint of wood is 300 degrees Celsius, and clearly it can burn when the weather is a significantly colder temperature. Kerosene has a latent heat of vaporization of 251 J/g and a specific energy of 46.2 kJ/g. That means that burning kerosene releases enough energy to vaporize 184 times as much kerosene. Looking at the heat capacity (2.01 J/(gK)), burning kerosene gives enough energy to vaporize an equal amount of kerosene, and raise its temperature 22 thousand degrees Celsius. Once a kerosene fire gets going, it provides plenty of energy to be self-sustaining.

  • Try the hist-angle as well, starting not on WP but here: heraldgoa.in/m/details.php?n_id=128016 maddy06.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-story-of-ehrenfels-at-goa.html Sep 26 '20 at 8:59
  • See the comments above about quenching a flame with kerosene; there must be something else required (Wicking?)
    – Oddthinking
    Sep 26 '20 at 13:15
  • Consider the following page: "Wood does not really burn". In brief, the heterogeneous nature of wood has some parts wicking, and other parts releasing gases that vaporize and burn (pyrolysis). Wood doesn't ignite altogether in a flash; and kerosene lacks that heterogeneous quality. The rest of the answer here is conditional on the assumption that "burning kerosene" is a thing at low environmental temperature, which is precisely what needs proving. So: This answer probably won't be selected in its current state. Sep 26 '20 at 13:58
  • @Oddthinking Fire needs fuel, oxygen, and heat. Fire can be doused by giving it too much fuel, leaving no oxygen. Also, if the additional fuel has enough thermal mass, it can absorb enough heat to make combustion impossible. Sep 26 '20 at 19:30
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    So, we are agreed there are many factors. Now which category does a ship's deck wet with fuel fall into?
    – Oddthinking
    Sep 27 '20 at 0:57

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