Document of the month: FO 898/323
Guy Woodward on PWE plans for a Christmas radio broadcast featuring Italian POWs
This time last year I examined at a plan developed in the run up to Christmas 1940, to use the festive season as a means of fomenting discord in Germany between civilians and officials. A memorandum written at the time by Richard Crossman, then head of Ministry of Economic Warfare’s German section, suggests that the festive season is a time when civilians and troops ‘will feel the absence of their families more strongly and will be most susceptible for this reason to certain lines of propaganda, particularly if that propaganda is made to appear as though it were not propaganda at all.’
Reflecting this view, the archive of the Political Warfare Executive features several other documents showing that British propagandists identified Christmas as a useful period in which to promote narratives which fostered resentment for the Axis governments, or presented Britain and the Allies in a favourable light. PWE’s Central Directive on Christmas Eve 1942, for example, states categorically that:
Throughout the war the PWE placed considerable emphasis in propaganda campaigns on the conditions enjoyed by Axis prisoners of war held in Allied POW camps: by suggesting that POWs were comfortably housed, well fed and treated with dignity the PWE hoped both to encourage enemy troops to surrender and to draw attention to privations and shortages on the German and Italian home fronts.
In late 1942 the PWE was also particularly concerned by an ongoing Italian ‘Hate England’ campaign – apparently personally initiated by Mussolini – alleging that Italian prisoners in British captivity were being maltreated by their captors. In response a plan was hatched to broadcast messages recorded by Italian POWs over the BBC’s Italian Service, as a means of showing that prisoners were well-treated and content.
File FO 898/323 features a script (in English) entitled ‘The Prisoner’s Christmas’ which seems to have been recorded in the run up to Christmas that year, at a POW camp in Gloucestershire. Somewhat ironically the broadcast opens with this announcement:
The announcer introduces a British inspector of the Italian POW camps, who tells listeners that the programme is being broadcast both in Italy and to Italian prisoners in England – suggesting that civilians and troops separated by war can be re-united over the airwaves. The inspector then leads us to ‘the little chapel near the camp’ where songs, prayers and greetings were recorded – a subtle detail indicating that prisoners are not confined within the camp. A second announcer sets the scene:
Religious hymns are played, before a greeting from ‘Sergeant Major Nardo Francesco’, leader of Italian prisoners at the camp:
The announcer then leads listeners back to the camp, stating that the POWs have their own ‘small orchestra’ featuring banjos, guitar, mandolin, violin and drums; he introduces songs from Northern Italy and Naples, before the ‘old refrain of the “Campagnola” (listen to it here). Strikingly, the script makes no direct mention of the living conditions of the prisoners – there are no references to meals or sleeping quarters, for example – but the emphasis on music produced by the POWs themselves nevertheless clearly promotes the impression that they are well-cared for and granted significant autonomy.
The programme concludes with a series of personal messages from named Italian service personnel in captivity to their families in Italy. These include:
The French theorist of propaganda Jacques Ellul wrote that ‘The propagandist cannot separate the general and specific effects. When he launches a radio campaign, he knows that the effects of his campaign and the effects of radio broadcasts in general will be combined.’ Like the naming of the priest and the prisoners’ leader, the use of specific names and addresses in this script appears designed to provide a guarantee of authenticity to the wider listenership beyond the specific recipients of the greetings.
It is unclear from file FO 898/323 whether ‘The Prisoner’s Christmas’ was ever broadcast. When the possibility of broadcasting a religious service from an Italian POW camp was raised in November 1942 Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden gave cautious approval, but counselled that the ‘shackling dispute’ between the Britain and Germany should be resolved first. Further correspondence in the file suggests that some officials had other reservations about broadcasting POW greetings, fearing that Italian propaganda would respond by claiming that these had been recorded under duress, or by compelling British prisoners in Italian captivity to record similar broadcasts.
The script clearly shows, however, that Christmas presented an ideal opportunity to weaponise the rhetoric of peace and goodwill for the purposes of propaganda.
All archival material is Crown Copyright and is held in The National Archives. Quotations which appear here have been transcribed by members of the project team.
 Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, (New York: Vintage Books, 1973; originally published 1962), p. 162.