“Peace on earth, but only when Hitler is smashed”: Christmas wartime propaganda

Document of the month: FO 898/311/330-1

Guy Woodward on propaganda and the festive season

Supposedly a time of peace and goodwill, for the wartime propagandists Christmas was a time to exploit fears and encourage enemy divisions. A memorandum in the PWE archive, written in the run up to Christmas 1940, suggests that the festive season is a time when German 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.’

The writer is the future Labour cabinet minister Richard Crossman, then head of Ministry of Economic Warfare’s German section. He is writing to Rex Leeper, Head of SO1, the propaganda division of the Special Operations Executive and the immediate predecessor of the PWE; the document is one of a series in file FO 898/311, ‘Projects And Targets. Reports And Bulletins. Background Notes’ outlining plans for ‘Christmas Propaganda’.

Crossman writes that his team have developed a plan combining open and secret broadcasting with leaflet drops in the hope of ‘for exploiting Christmas Eve in order to demoralise German civilians and the German Armies of Occupation.’ He reports that the Air Ministry are refusing to cooperate, however, and have insisted that if a raid does take place on Christmas Eve, bombs rather than leaflets will be dropped. Crossman’s department are very concerned by this:

Crossman outlines his alternative plan, which he argues ‘will have a more potent effect than any air-raid’:

In this way Crossman hoped to foment discord between German officials insisting on a retreat to the shelters, and civilians wishing to continue with their Christmas celebrations. He believed this would ‘maximise friction between the people and the [Nazi] Party, and lay the onus for the disturbance of the Christmas festivities not upon us, but upon the Party machine.’ This was a manoeuvre often deployed by the PWE later in the war: many covert propaganda campaigns were designed to arouse resentment for officialdom by suggesting this was characterised by cruelty, corruption or incompetency. It is striking how the plan also seeks to exploit a perception that the BBC is more trustworthy than the German authorities.

The hostility of the Air Ministry to this sort of thing was characteristic: the RAF were notably sceptical about the value of dropping propaganda leaflets from the air and often reluctant to facilitate drops over enemy territory, thinking these wasteful and dangerous for aircrews.[1] The flavour of this hostility can be gauged from an acidic Air Ministry letter dated 26 November 1940 also found in this file, which observes that:

Crossman’s memo concludes with a request for Leeper to come down to ‘The Country’ (SO1’s base at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire) to discuss matters further. It seems unlikely that the leaflet raid (which Crossman anticipated would require ten aircraft) ever took place, but in the end the Air Ministry’s plans were also frustrated: in 1940 an unofficial two-day Christmas truce in the aerial war between Britain and Germany prevailed.

Notes

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.

[1] See Tim Brooks, British Propaganda to France, 1940-1944: Machinery, Method and Message, (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 37 and David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945, (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), p. 188.

John Betjeman’s Dublin whispers

Document of the month: FO 898/70/475-6

Guy Woodward investigates poet John Betjeman’s role in spreading rumours in neutral Ireland during the Second World War.

This comes from a short run of documents in the PWE archive, found in the innocuously-named file FO 898/70 ‘Procedure, General Correspondence And Reports’. It is a copy of a note intended for the poet John Betjeman, dated 20 July 1942. At this time Betjeman was serving as British press attaché in Dublin, capital of neutral Ireland, where he had arrived in January 1941. The post was cover for his work for the Ministry of Information – in Spying on Ireland (2008), historian Eunan O’Halpin describes Betjeman’s role as twofold: firstly, to cultivate the Irish press to foster sympathetic coverage of Britain’s progress in the war, and secondly to counter Axis propaganda in Ireland.[1] This second responsibility involved intelligence gathering, as Betjeman analysed news sheets produced and distributed by the German and Italian legations in Dublin for their content and provenance.

On arrival in Ireland Betjeman threw himself onto the Dublin social scene, cultivating friendships with journalists, civil servants, artists and writers, including Seán Ó Faoláin, Frank O’Connor and Patrick Kavanagh. In her cultural history of Ireland during the war, That Neutral Island (2007), Clair Wills writes that six months after his arrival Betjeman was ‘a well-known and popular figure, frequently encountered in the pub, and at house parties and literary functions.’[2]

In 1942 Betjeman became ‘PWE’s chosen instrument in Dublin’ when he agreed to assist in the spreading of ‘sibs’.[3] The word derives from the Latin ‘sibillare’, meaning to hiss or whisper – sibs were rumours invented and disseminated with the aim of deceiving the enemy, of undermining enemy morale, or of damaging perceptions of the enemy (read more about sibs here).

According to O’Halpin, as ‘an inveterate gossip’ Betjeman was ‘an obvious though perhaps too conspicuous choice for the clandestine task of whispering’.[4] Nevertheless, his use was approved by the controller of SOE; SIS and MI5 were also consulted.

This letter is headed ‘Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office’ at Bush House, Aldwych in London. The PID was a genuine research department in the Foreign Office, but was used as a cover name by the PWE even after the closure of the real PID in 1943 (this presents difficulties for historians and archivists – read more about the names used by PWE here).[5] Bush House was the home of the BBC European Service but also housed the secret headquarters of the PWE – handy for liaising with the BBC, although relations were sometimes fractious.

The letter is unsigned, but preceding documents in the file suggest it was written by John Rayner, a member of the Underground Propaganda Committee involved in the production of rumour, in response to a request from Betjeman to pass on ‘any interesting stories that were going about’. Rayner summarises six of these. One reads:

Another reads:

And another states:

These stories tap into public fascination with the Eastern front, following the entry of the Russians into the war on the side of the allies in 1941: at home in Britain many were elated by this, and in occupied Europe the new front presented a new point of emphasis for the propagandists. The macabre details of the second and third rumours are also significant – historian of British psychological warfare Charles Cruickshank writes of sibs that ‘Few ordinary people can resist the temptation to pass on bad news, a human weakness on which the whispering campaign relied for much of its success.’ For a rumour to be successful, he suggests, ‘it should be alarming enough to have to be passed on, and credible enough to conceal the fact that it was a fabrication.’[6] A note from Rayner to a Captain Wintle dated 6 October 1942 reflects this definition, suggesting that sibs for Ireland should be restricted to ‘“verities” or near-verities’.[7]

It is unclear whether Betjeman received the list of ‘stories’. Another note written from Rayner to Betjeman and dated four days later on 24 July expresses the hope of sending ‘a few beans to spill under separate cover in a few days’ but cites ‘unexpected difficulties which have prevented my doing so before’ – it is possible therefore that the note of 20 July was never sent.[8] Due to the destruction of many records in the PWE archive (one account suggests only one tenth of the material was retained) we are also missing records of the sibs that Betjeman himself was charged with spreading.[9]

We do know that he recruited George Furlong, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, as a vehicle for disseminating these, however. Usefully Furlong had strong social links with the Italian legation in Dublin and also visited London regularly on business, occasions on which sibs could be conveyed to him verbally.[10]

In August 1943 Betjeman returned to England, where he worked at a secret department of the Admiralty known as P branch in Bath.[11] Reporting his planned return on its front page on 14 June 1943, the Irish Times hailed Betjeman for seeing it his duty not only ‘to interpret England to the Irish, but also to interpret Ireland sympathetically to the English’.[12]

Follow us at @PWEpropagandist for #siboftheweek, where we’ll be posting some of the best ‘sibs’ from the PWE archive.

Notes

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.

[1] Eunan O’Halpin, Spying on Ireland: British Intelligence and Irish Neutrality During the Second World War, (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 138.

[2] Clair Wills, That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), p. 186.

[3] O’Halpin, p. 210.

[4] O’Halpin, p. 210.

[5] Ellic Howe, The Black Game: British Subversive Operations Against the Germans During the Second World War, (London: Queen Anne/Futura, 1988; orig pub 1982), p. 1, p. 42.

[6] Charles Cruickshank, The Fourth Arm: Psychological Warfare 1938-1945, (Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 108.

[7] FO 898/70/469.

[8] FO 898/70/471.

[9] Howe, p. 7.

[10] O’Halpin, p. 212.

[11] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi-org.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/30815

[12] Quoted in Alex Runchman, ‘English perceptions of Irish culture, 1941-3: John Betjeman, Horizon, and The Bell’ in Irish Culture and Wartime Europe, 1938-1948, ed. by Dorothea Depner and Guy Woodward (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015), pp. 87-98 (pp. 87-8).

Poisoned sweetmeats: introducing #siboftheweek

Guy Woodward on the PWE’s production of rumours during the Second World War

Imagine the scene: a bar in neutral Lisbon, autumn 1941. A stranger approaches and asks for a light. You fall into conversation – he’s a business figure of some kind, engaged in import and export, won’t go into specifics though. You talk about the war, and following some discussion of the German attack on Russia he leans towards you, lowers his voice and passes on a story that he has recently heard, that the Russians have rounded up wolves to release on the German troops during the coming months. You recall little else of the conversation, but you remember the wolves, and you pass on this story to several other people in the days that follow.

 

Starting today we’ll be posting a wartime ‘sib’ each week on @PWEpropagandist. Sibs were rumours invented and disseminated by British secret agents with the aim of deceiving the enemy, of undermining enemy morale, or of damaging perceptions of the enemy – the production of sibs was coordinated by the Political Warfare Executive. The word derives from the Latin ‘sibillare’, meaning to hiss or whisper, and the disruptive potential of rumours was evident from earlier conflicts: in his memoir of his career in black propaganda, Black Boomerang (1962), the PWE’s Sefton Delmer recalls hearing as a schoolboy in the early days of the First World War of rumours circulating in Germany that two cars driven by Russian officers were racing across Germany to bring captured French gold to the Tsar.

Every day cars were stopped and searched for the mythical gold and the mythical Russians. Thirty years later in the second war, when it was my job to mislead and deceive the Germans, I remembered this rumour and I put it to good use.[1]

As the historian Tim Brooks has described, some sibs were invented by PWE propagandists, but others were suggested by the military, the intelligence services or the Foreign Office. The sibs were collected by the PWE Underground Propaganda (UP) committee – military sibs were sent for approval by the Inter Service Security Board (ISSB) or Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC); non-military sibs were sent for approval by the Foreign Office.[2]

The PWE archive contains several records of weekly UP committee meetings, featuring lists of sibs for consideration – this is the source for #siboftheweek. After approval by the relevant authorities, sibs were disseminated across Europe, often by Special Operations Executive agents in neutral ports or cities where both Allied and Axis citizens and personnel moved and sometimes interacted, such as Dublin, Istanbul, or Lisbon.

 

In his official history of the PWE David Garnett writes that ‘The really good sib is a poisoned sweetmeat – it is sugarcoated and the deadly dose is not immediately evident.’[3] He cites the case of the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (above), which the Germans falsely claimed to have sunk after a bombing raid in the early months of the war. When the carrier really was sunk following a U-boat attack in the Mediterranean in November 1941, the Germans faced a dilemma as a result of their earlier deception, of whether to celebrate or conceal their actual success. PWE responded by circulating a sib suggesting that in fact both sinkings had happened – the original Ark Royal had been sunk in 1939 and a secret duplicate ship had then been sunk in 1941. The inviting chocolate coating here was the suggestion that German claims were true, but the poison at the heart of the PWE sib lay in the disturbing possibility that all British ships might have been duplicated, and that the Royal Navy could be double its reported size.[4]

In retrospect some sibs appear ridiculous – one rumour put into circulation claimed that the British had introduced man-eating sharks into the English Channel; another suggested that the Germans were planning to melt down the Eiffel Tower and use the metal to produce munitions.[5] For a rumour to be successful, suggests historian of British psychological warfare Charles Cruickshank, ‘it should be alarming enough to have to be passed on, and credible enough to conceal the fact that it was a fabrication.’ Cruickshank also observes that ‘Few ordinary people can resist the temptation to pass on bad news, a human weakness on which the whispering campaign relied for much of its success.’[6] Accordingly many sibs address sickness and death, featuring macabre details that linger long in the mind: sib R/669 from October 1941 reads:

Other sibs addressed specific targets. Serving with the SOE in neutral Stockholm during the war, the journalist Ewan Butler recalled spreading a tale of the admission of a named German gauleiter’s mother-in-law to hospital, as a means of showing how senior Nazis were receiving preferential treatment.[7] This kind of sib aimed to foment discontent at a local level.

It is hard to establish how sibs might have affected the course of the war. The spread of rumours was monitored at the time through studies of their reappearance in newspapers and radio broadcasts at home and abroad; in some cases it is likely that disruption was caused, but it is difficult to gauge their effect on enemy morale. Garnett argues that the collaborative and bureaucratic production of sibs hindered their efficacy, recalling that ‘sibbing suffered owing to its not having the attention of a wholetime specialist gifted with the rare combination of a scientific approach and a brilliant imagination. As a result it was a case of “too many cooks spoiling the broth.”’[8] SOE agent Bickham Sweet-Escott meanwhile observed that some sibs ‘bore the signs of having been thought up after a good lunch at the club’.[9] The sheer number of sibs produced – over 2,000 in 1941 alone – certainly suggest that their production was taken seriously, however.

Our project is investigating the role of the PWE in conducting rumour campaigns, but also seeks to understand how and why some rumour campaigns remain in public discourse while others fade, and will be tracing wartime rumours through post-war political and visual discourse. How did the rumours and ideas initiated by the PWE continue to mutate and spread in the decades after the organisation was disbanded?

Follow us at @PWEpropagandist for #siboftheweek, where we’ll be posting some of the best ‘sibs’ from the PWE archive.

For more on rumour in wartime listen to this podcast by project co-investigator Jo Fox from February 2018, ‘Sharks in the Channel and Lions on the Loose: Rumour and the Second World War’: https://soundcloud.com/warstudies/smhc-rumour

Notes

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.

[1] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), p. 27.

[2] Tim Brooks, British Propaganda to France, 1940-1944: Machinery, Method and Message, (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 150.

[3] David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945, (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), p. 214.

[4] Garnett, p. 214.

[5] Garnett, p. 215; Brooks, p. 150.

[6] Charles Cruickshank, The Fourth Arm: Psychological Warfare 1938-1945, (Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 108.

[7] Ewan Butler, Amateur Agent, (London: George G. Harrap, 1963), p. 166.

[8] Garnett, p. 213.

[9] Bickham Sweet-Escott, Baker Street Irregular, (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 98.

The Political Warfare Executive – what’s in a (cover) name?

Principal Investigator James Smith on Whitehall secrecy and the names used to conceal PWE operations

One of the initial issues that this project faces is that, while a range of authors and intellectuals had some sort of connection to the Political Warfare Executive during the war, you would be hard pressed to find direct mention of the name ‘PWE’ in many of their memoirs or biographical accounts. Take, for example, the way that Muriel Spark’s autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992) describes her service:

I played a very small part, but as a fly on the wall I took in a whole world of method and intrigue in the dark field of Black Propaganda or Psychological Warfare, and the successful and purposeful deceit of the enemy. […] The Foreign Office secret intelligence service was MI6, of which our department was Political Intelligence.

We know that Spark worked for the PWE’s black broadcasting unit in Woburn under Sefton Delmer, but her account here shows just how convoluted later descriptions of the PWE can become. For one, MI6 and Delmer’s unit were quite separate organisations, so the lines of command she lists here are unclear – is Spark simply confused, repeating her genuine understanding, or hitching her obscure secret work on to the better-known status of MI6? And the reference to the Political Intelligence Department (PID) of the Foreign Office is one of the most common ways PWE employees characterised their roles, but this was the result of a deliberate policy of obscuring the true existence of the PWE as a dedicated covert propaganda apparatus.

As a secret note circulated across Whitehall upon the founding of the PWE specified, ‘Since PWE is a secret department, the cover will continue to be the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office’, with ‘all questions and communications’ with the outside world about its propaganda being routed through the cover address of ‘The Secretary, Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office, 2 Fitzmaurice Place, Berkeley Square, W1’.[1] This became entrenched, and many of the documents and references concerning the PWE automatically refer to the ‘PID’ – Spark’s repetition of this, decades after the war, suggests the extent to which this cover had become ingrained as the natural name for her employer.

And the same secrecy (not to mention the opaque and complex bureaucratic structures of wartime Britain) means that many of those temporary recruits involved in some aspect of the PWE’s work probably only had a tiny glimpse of the wider propaganda organ they were working within. Those authors working in the PWE’s Editorial Unit in London to develop magazines to send to liberated Europe, for example, probably had little sense of those working on the deception campaigns being developed in Woburn (‘the Country’, as it became mysteriously known to London staff), and in turn those doing broadcasts on the BBC’s European Service under PWE oversight probably had little idea about how their particular cog fitted into this broader machine.

So, untangling these different names, cover identities, and ambiguous affiliations will be a significant objective for the project – and one that will, we hope, leave us with a far clearer picture of the PWE’s cultural networks during the war.

Note

[1] This note is in FO 898/10. Ellic Howe, The Black Game (Queen Anne Press, 1988), provides some broader details about this evolution of the PWE at this time and the relationship of the PWE to the ‘real’ PID – a department concerned with composing information summaries and offering ‘genteel employment’ to ex-ambassadors that suddenly found its names being used as cover for this separate operation. See pp. 41-53.