Voici l’ordre nouveau!: pop up propaganda

Document of the month: FO 898/514

Guy Woodward

This leaflet appears in the file ‘PWE French leaflets and booklets’ – produced for occupied France in 1941, it is a striking and unusual example of three-dimensional printed propaganda.

The leaflet is made of card and is small – 12 ½ by 10 cm – it is enclosed within a pale brown envelope bearing the message ‘Voici l’ordre nouveau!’ in red, translating as ‘Here is the new order!’ The V of ‘Voici’ is elongated and centred, aligning this propaganda with the ‘V’ campaign which spread across France, Belgium and the Netherlands in 1941. This was initiated by Victor de Laveleye, exiled Belgian Minister of Justice, who suggested in a January 1941 radio broadcast that Belgians could use the letter ‘V’ – standing for ‘victoire’ in French and ‘vrijheid’ in Flemish – as a sign to symbolise defiance to the German occupiers and faith in eventual liberation.

PWE’s John Baker White recalled that the ‘V’ sign – later indelibly associated in Britain with Winston Churchill, of course – could soon be found scrawled on walls, painted on the side of ships and locomotives, and even chalked on the backs of German soldiers in cinemas and crowds. On washing days, he writes ‘country women would lay out the sheets and clothes in Vs on the fields as messages to the R.A.F.’[1]

The front of the card shows a woman sitting at her dining table, watching helplessly as a red-faced cartoon figure of Hitler reaches in through the window to remove a full plate of food and a bottle of wine, leaving the table almost bare. A small child looks on. The caption repeats the words on the envelope – ‘Voici l’ordre nouveau!’ – but it is now clear that these are heavily ironic.

When the card is opened the figure of Hitler flips round, and appears to walk away from the open window towards a corpulent German soldier who emerges from a barn grinning and with outstretched arms, ready to receive the food and wine. The woman and her daughter look on disconsolate.

The online resource Psywar.org states that just 1200 copies of the card were produced by PWE’s predecessor organisations E.H. and S.O.1; it was dropped on one occasion only, the night of 30 September-1 October 1941. Another version was produced in Flemish for Belgium and the Netherlands (a copy of this can be found in the PWE archive in file 898/507) – there was also apparently a version in Arabic.

It is not clear how many similar leaflets may have been produced, but historian of wartime propaganda Charles Cruickshank mentions the production of ‘ingenious trick folders which when opened showed an animated Hitler in unflattering situations.’[2]

The aesthetic may appear broadly familiar to British viewers – the incongruous intrusion of a caricatured Hitler into a quotidian everyday scene also featured in Home Front propaganda at this time, as shown by Fougasse’s 1940 ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ posters, in which Hitler and Goering eavesdrop on gossiping travellers on public transport.

Although comic on first glance, the card makes a serious point – that occupying German forces are consuming local resources to the extent that the French population is going hungry. The reverse of the card expands on this, claiming that the occupiers are extracting goods to the value of 400,000,000 francs per day, causing inflation and ruining French finances. Using statistics, the text here details German seizures of potatoes and corn, and laments the move by German beer-drinking soldiers to become consumers of French wine. ‘Le boche mange – le français regarde – Voici l’ordre nouveau!’ it concludes – ‘The Boche eat – the French watch – here is the new order!’

The intricate nature of the design and the use of colour perhaps conveys a further hidden message, however – historian Tim Brooks has described how the use of high quality materials, colour and design in printed propaganda was an important means of demonstrating that the Allies were well-resourced at a time of extreme scarcity.[3] Recipients might reason that if the Allies could spare quality paper and ink for leaflets, they were also likely to possess the material resources required to win the war.

Images by kind permission of The National Archives

Notes

[1] John Baker White, The Big Lie (London: Evans Brothers, 1955), p. 89.

[2] Charles Cruickshank, The Fourth Arm: Psychological Warfare 1938-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 97.

[3] Tim Brooks, British Propaganda to France, 1940-1944: Machinery, Method and Message (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 113.

 

‘Show it only to your intimate friends’: circulating propaganda behind enemy lines

Document of the month: FO 898/449/259

Guy Woodward on the reception of propaganda leaflets in enemy and occupied Europe

Most of our research so far in this project has focused on the production of propaganda, and specifically on the writers and artists involved in the work of the Political Warfare Executive. Accounts of PWE service by Sefton Delmer, David Garnett and Ellic Howe describe the preparation of leaflets, booklets and other publications which were printed in England before being dropped by the Royal Air Force over enemy and occupied Europe.

The files in the National Archives at Kew contain many examples of printed propaganda, including leaflets, magazines and newspapers – you can also view many of these online on the invaluable website psywar.org.

But what of the readers of these publications? It is hard enough trying to piece together the activities of a covert branch of the British state, even with the benefit of archival records and collections, and autobiographical recollections of the time. It is even harder, and often impossible, to trace what happened to propaganda publications once they had fallen to the ground in Germany, France, Belgium or Bulgaria. This month’s document offers some clues, however.

A draft of a letter dated 2 September 1940, it is addressed ‘To an Unknown Fellow-Countryman’ and was intended to accompany newspapers for circulation in the Netherlands – it appears towards the end of file FO 898/449, ‘Leaflets For Netherlands: Correspondence’. It addresses the recipient ‘Dear Friend’, and states that

The letter continues to request that the recipient distribute these newspapers to persons known and unknown, and makes ten suggestions for how this might be done:

Somewhat patronisingly, the letter continues to advise that ‘We know that every Dutchman can think out a dozen more methods, and we expect you to do your duty in the interest of our common cause’, and cryptically suggests that the second edition of the newspaper ‘will reach you in quite a different way. Look out for it.’ The letter, signed ‘The Friends’, concludes with cheers for Queen Wilhelmina and for the ‘Free Netherlands’.

It is striking how the letter seeks to appeal to the vanity of the Dutch recipient, flattering their ingenuity and assuring them that in passing on the newspapers they will be courageously performing an important service. We do not know if the letter was sent in this exact form, but the draft certainly gives some insight into how propaganda materials might have been disseminated once they had been dropped from the air.

Propagandists were clearly concerned to establish how British propaganda was being distributed and received: there are several files in the archive which report reactions to leaflets in enemy and occupied zones. Reports were often gathered from intelligence sources in the field, such as Special Operations Executive agents. One report in March 1940 claimed that a newly trodden path had been discovered in a forest in Germany, leading to a tree on which a leaflet had been pinned.[1]

Reports from Belgium in 1943, meanwhile, claimed that leaflets dropped by aeroplane ‘had a tremendous effect on the morale of the people and were greatly appreciated’; in France a man found a packet behind his factory during his lunch hour and distributed them to his workmates; in the Netherlands several complaints had been voiced that not enough printed materials were being sent and a thriving black market in British magazines had developed, with copies changing hands for as much as £2. 10s – in some areas ‘those who have been lucky enough to get hold of a few hire them out to those less fortunate.’[2]

As noted in earlier posts, the RAF was sceptical regarding the value of airborne propaganda and often reluctant to risk aircrews and aeroplanes to deliver leaflets. Observations from the field were also sometimes negative and discouraging: one SOE agent reported from France in April 1943 that in the course of extensive travels they had not seen any British leaflets, and did not believe that the French were willing to face prison for being found with a propaganda leaflet in possession. Leaflets were, the agent stated, a ‘sheer waste of paper, time and money.’[3]

Prisoners of War were also valuable sources of information regarding reactions to propaganda: during interrogations many were questioned on their exposure to British propaganda newspapers or radio broadcasts. In late December 1944, for example, 2350 German POWs were surveyed to establish how many had encountered the PWE newspaper Nachrichten für die Truppe while in combat – it was discovered that 96 had seen the newspaper and of these all but six had read its contents. It was also discovered that, contrary to German regulations, very few of the newspapers were turned in or destroyed once found – over 70% of POWs who had read the newspaper passed it on to another soldier. The PWE estimated that each copy of reached over three German soldiers.[4]

Over the course of the war methods of dropping printed materials from the air were refined, but inevitably many were wasted. Towns and cities were problematic: many leaflets ended up on roofs where they were inaccessible, or dropped in streets where citizens, fearful of punishment, were reluctant to pick them up: mindful of this, a 1943 PWE directive suggests that leaflets for enemy territory must convey their meaning at first glance, so they could be understood immediately and would not even need to be picked up.[5] Conversely, as Garnett recalls, ‘dwellers in lonely places’ were more likely to be able to pick up and circulate leaflets without being caught.[6]

One leaflet intended for Hungary in 1944 made an ingenious attempt to circumvent laws designed to prevent the circulation of Allied propaganda. This was a postcard addressed to police officers, advising them that if they were enforcing the orders of the German-backed Hungarian government they were acting as ‘Enemies of the People’. The card advised anyone who found it to send it to any ‘policeman or gendarme’ they knew, and featured the reminder: ‘Don’t forget that you are acting in accordance with official instructions if you surrender all foreign leaflets to the competent authority.’[7] The leaflet was intended to undermine the police; paradoxically, however, it was perfectly legal to circulate.

Notes

[1] David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945, (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), p. 30.

[2] FO 898/437.

[3] FO 898/435.

[4] FO 898/452.

[5] FO 898/458.

[6] Garnett, p. 190.

[7] FO 898/123.

Brexit and the wartime ‘Projection of Britain’

Document of the month: FO 898/413

Guy Woodward finds echoes of current political debates in the PWE archive

Since the referendum of 2016, Britain’s reputation in European centres of power has undoubtedly suffered. The painful progress of Brexit negotiations and the inability of the British government to marshal support for the withdrawal agreement in the febrile and fractious House of Commons has baffled many senior European politicians. ‘Pathetic’, ‘distressing’ and ‘unrealistic’ are some of the kinder terms that have been used; one German MP remarked recently that where once Britain had been held up as ‘a model of good diplomacy, of pragmatism and of self-restraint, now ‘No one would sign up to that view.’ These essentialist impressions of practicality, resilience and good humour may of course never have been accurate – but where did they originate? And how did these now-threatened perceptions take hold in other European countries?

One possible source can be found during the Second World War, when British government propagandists sought to promote such national characteristics over the airwaves and in print, through leaflets, magazines and newspapers dropped by air. As the literary critic Mark Wollaeger has written, ‘effective propaganda tends to rely on the deployment of stereotypes, not on their overturning’.[1] In the early years of the war, much propaganda to enemy and occupied Europe sought to foment resistance to the Axis forces or to undermine their authority. Following the battle of El Alamein in November 1942, when eventual Allied victory in Europe appeared almost certain, preparations were made for the post-war reconstruction of the continent. Now propaganda was directed instead to help secure an influential role for Britain in this new era.

Ivone Kirkpatrick

A report produced at the end of 1942 by Ivone Kirkpatrick, wartime controller of the BBC’s European Services, makes startling reading in 2019. Kirkpatrick’s report, which appears in the PWE archive, begins by assessing current European perceptions of Britain, in terms that make for bracing reading today. The average European, he writes in an accompanying note, has a ‘rough and ready perception of the Englishman’ who is among other things ‘inclined to lecture other people for not doing things as Englishmen would do them, although quite ignorant of the reasons why others act differently from us.’ Europeans also perceive a country that cannot be depended on ‘because we won’t say what we really want or what we are going to do’.

Against this Anglocentric background (he makes no distinction between Britishness and Englishness), Kirkpatrick proposes a new course of political warfare to convince the European audience that ‘Britain has a big part to play’ in shaping the post-war European social and political order. Entitled ‘The Projection of Britain’, the report advocates a campaign of indirect propaganda which articulated the British national character and achievements in the fields of science and culture. One trait to be emphasised was ‘progress by agreement’ – described as ‘the most essential characteristic of British civilisation’ – which allows political institutions to be ‘modified to suit changed conditions with amazing speed and smoothness.’ Kirkpatrick’s note added that Britain could be distinguished from other countries by its faithfulness to ‘practical methods’.

Significantly, this exceptionalism was tempered by the proposal that propaganda should stress Britain’s status ‘as a European civilization’. Here Kirkpatrick argues that historical oddities – he cites ‘Ann Hathaway’s Cottage, Newton and the apple, the Old Curiosity Shop’ – must be put to one side. Instead ‘We must show British intellectual life as a matter of free and equal interchange with the intellectual life of Europe, and the British tradition as one aspect of the European tradition.’

The campaign began immediately, and involved the production of postcards, cartoons, pamphlets, news and special feature broadcasts, books, newsreels, feature films and documentaries, which as historian Robert Cole has observed ‘emphasised Britain as the moral and cultural bulwark of European civilization.’[2] Some material was esoteric or highbrow: British and American propagandists sought to dispel a cultural and intellectual continental blackout by producing miniature literary periodicals featuring translations of writings by prominent writers including T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Rebecca West and Virginia Woolf. Other publications directly promoted the stability of British political institutions – one booklet produced for distribution after D-Day described the workings of the Houses of Parliament in wartime.

The efficacy of the vast exercise in soft power which followed Kirkpatrick’s report was questioned by many at the time – the Royal Air Force were consistently and understandably reluctant to risk service personnel and aeroplanes on missions to drop propaganda material – but echoes of his proposals for promoting the British character can be heard in some of the stereotypes currently being hastily revised across Europe.

Kirkpatrick’s diagnosis of continental perceptions of Britain raises a spectre painfully familiar from current European political discourse, of an untrustworthy and indecisive entity, nevertheless intent on lecturing others. His prescription is less familiar: of course, the notion of fostering a favourable image of Britain through government production of large quantities of printed and broadcast propaganda is neither practical nor desirable today, but Kirkpatrick’s plans – and his ability to place himself in the position of a European audience – present a stark contrast with today’s post-referendum British entropy.

A version of this post was first published on The Conversation.

Notes

[1] Mark Wollaeger, Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative From 1900 to 1945 (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 246.

[2] Robert Cole, Britain and the War of Words in Neutral Europe, 1939-45 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990), p. 124-5.

 

International Women’s Day 2019

Today is International Women’s Day – at @PWEpropagandist we highlighted nine women who contributed to the work of the PWE at home and abroad during the Second World War.

 

‘The celestial city is as real as any swamp’: Freya Stark in the Middle East

Document of the month: FO 898/114

Guy Woodward traces Freya Stark’s involvement in wartime propaganda

This memorandum appears in file FO 898/114, Special Operations Executive Activities. It is dated 15 July 1940 and records a meeting in Cairo between Freya Stark, the Assistant Information Officer to the Governorate of Aden (today part of Yemen), and Colonel Cudbert Thornhill, a veteran British intelligence officer who had served as military attaché in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, where he had been involved in fomenting resistance to the Bolsheviks. Thornhill’s role in Cairo was to draft and disseminate propaganda to Italian-occupied North Africa and to Italian prisoners of war – he had been sent to Egypt in May 1940 by Department E.H. (this department preceded the SOE and PWE, and had primary responsibility for clandestine propaganda in the early months of the war).[1]

As a writer and explorer, Freya Stark was much celebrated for her travels in the Middle East during the 1920s and 30s. Her accounts of these were published to considerable success, but Stark’s adventures had also led to involvement with British intelligence – the War Office ‘made maps from her observations’ following her journeys to Lorestan and Mazandaran in Persia, and while working as a journalist in Baghdad she was given intelligence briefings on the Kurdish uprising of 1931-2 by a friendly British diplomat, which she published in The Times.[2] Her biographer Molly Izzard argues that Stark’s wartime career was a ‘logical continuation of her activities in the 1930s’.[3]

As war drew closer in August 1939, Stark travelled from her home in northern Italy to offer her services to the British state – she was employed by the Ministry of Information, first in London as an expert in southern Arabia. Later that year Stewart Perowne, public information officer in Aden, requested her transfer to work there on an Arabic programme of news broadcasts (Perowne and Stark later married, in 1947).

In East is West (1945) published at the end of the war, Stark describes this work in idealistic terms:

If one has a cause, and believes in it, one need not model oneself on Dr. Goebbels; the twelve apostles were more inspiring and more successful; and why should one’s voice waver merely from telling the truth? [We] wrote our bulletins believing in our news; and as it got worse and worse from April 1940 onward, we stressed the celestial city in the distance and pointed out with stronger emphasis the temporary nature of those swamps and thickets that lay in its immediate path. Luckily the celestial city is as real as any swamp.[4]

Stark was also involved in other white propaganda activities, including accompanying a travelling cinema which showed Ministry of Information films such as ‘Sheep Farming in Yorkshire’ and ‘Ordinary Life in Edinburgh’, in addition to newsreels depicting British military strength.[5] She also seems to have engaged in some unofficial covert propaganda activities: observing that the head of the Fascist mission in San’a resembled a pig, she spread insults about him among the harems of the city.[6]

Stark’s fluent Italian proved useful following the Italian entry into the war – she claims in East as West that her translations of documents taken from a captured Italian submarine enabled further successful anti-submarine operations. She also conducted interrogations of Italian prisoners, breaking regulations by allowing the men to write letters home before questioning, in the belief that this produced more valuable intelligence.[7]

Stark travelled to Cairo in summer 1940, and embarked upon her best-known wartime propaganda campaign, establishing a group of young Arab men called the Brotherhood of Freedom, which attempted to foster support for British war aims through meetings and publications proclaiming democratic ideals. Her claims regarding the success of the Brotherhood campaign were bold: she argued that it had fostered democratic feeling of ‘genuine quality’, and justified its existence by maintaining pro-British sentiment in the months before the battle of El Alamein, when Axis forces menaced Alexandria and Cairo.[8]

As this document shows, however, Stark also contributed to the development of anti-Italian propaganda activities. It records that ‘Miss Stark, who has lived many years in Northern Italy, said that she had very definite views on this subject, believing that the objective should be approached with subtlety and by the use of cumulative effects.’ Stark and Thornhill also discussed newspaper propaganda, and plans to circulate a pro-Allied publication Giornale d’Orient in Italian North and Eastern Africa, before moving on to the question of prisoners, upon which Stark ‘expressed her own theory’:

 

Referring to her experiences of interrogating prisoners in Aden, Stark argued that the Italian armed forces contained relatively few hardcore fascists (in East is West she suggests only one third were fascist, and that another third were hostile to Mussolini). However, she feared that imprisoning pro and anti-fascist Italians together under harsh conditions would threaten what she interpreted as ‘the friendly disposition’ of the anti-fascists towards the British authorities.

Accordingly Stark advocated a radical plan, of imprisoning non-fascists separately, treating them ‘with the greatest courtesy and consideration’, and exposing them over a long period to pro-British propaganda:

The meeting, which concluded after some discussion of leaflet propaganda, is recorded as a ‘very satisfactory preliminary conference’. Indeed, the following month Stark and Thornhill co-authored a joint printed memorandum on anti-Italian propaganda (FO 898/113) which reflects this discussion and expressed hopes that by quarantining committed fascist POWs, other Italians could be turned against Mussolini’s regime and made into a Fifth column to spread pro-British ideas and even to act as ‘agents’.

If this plan seems over-ambitious, that is because it was. The discussions recorded here are likely to have fed into the abortive campaign known as Operation Yak, developed between Thornhill and MI (R)’s Peter Fleming (brother of Ian) with enthusiastic encouragement from Hugh Dalton, the minister in charge of SOE, and which aimed to screen Italian POWs in North Africa and recruit them into SOE to run missions, but failed when not a single Italian volunteered for service.[9] As with many tales of special operations in the early stages of the war, this was fated to be a cautionary tale of enthusiastic amateurism.

While compelling and dramatic, Stark’s wartime career is illustrative and representative of a contradiction central to any study of British deployment of covert propaganda. This can be observed in the palpable tension, both in her published memoirs and in this particular document, between Stark’s professed and often-proclaimed faith in idealistic and nebulous concepts such as British values or Western democracy (eg ‘the celestial city in the distance’ or the ‘civilised life of the British Empire’) and the shady and deceptive means used to promote these abstractions.

Notes

[1] Nigel West, Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence (Lanham etc.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), p. 655. For Thornhill’s role in Egypt see FO 898/116. Thanks to psywar.org for pointing this out.

[2] Peter H. Hansen, ‘Stark, Dame Freya Madeline’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (https://doi-org.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/38280).

[3] Molly Izzard, Freya Stark: A Biography (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), p. 133

[4] Freya Stark, East is West (London: John Murray, 1945), pp. 13-14.

[5] Stark, East is West, p. 33.

[6] Stark, East is West, p. 32.

[7] Stark, East is West, p. 45-6.

[8] Stark, East is West, p. 92.

[9] West, Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, p. 655; see also Roderick Bailey, Target: Italy: The Secret War Against Mussolini 1940–1943 (London: Faber and Faber, 2014). MI (R) refers to Military Intelligence (Research), created in 1938 as a War Office unit ‘dedicated to the study of unorthodox or irregular tactics’ (West, Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, p. 391).

Masters of Deceit: Introducing #SparkQuoteoftheWeek

Beatriz Lopez introduces a new series exploring Muriel Spark’s fictions of deception

Most critics have identified The Hothouse by the East River (1973) as the novel which most closely depicts Muriel Spark’s work for the Political Warfare Executive – its central character Elsa, like Spark, works for the organisation, transcribing military intelligence and taking Prisoners Of War for walks in her free time. However, activities associated with black propaganda – including forgery, blackmail, technological surveillance and postal censorship – permeate many of her other twenty-two novels as well, in subtle and highly original ways. Starting today we’ll be posting a Spark quote every Tuesday on @PWEpropagandist to highlight some of the ways in which Spark’s fictions echo the storytelling techniques deployed by the PWE.

Spark is particularly concerned with the threshold between truth and lies, as well as the historical contingency of truth, particularly in wartime. Her characters are masters of deceit, crafting plausible narratives which often become naturalized as dangerous myths (ahistorical ideologies promulgating  totalitarian understandings of the world); Jean Brodie (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), Abbess Alexandra (The Abbess of Crewe) and Hubert Mallindaine (The Takeover) are just some examples of Spark’s mythologisers. More broadly, Spark’s fictions are repeatedly animated by the uncanny power of the media (wireless, telephone and cinema) and the supernatural (disembodied voices, demonic beings and the evil eye) which propagate misleading representations of reality. These deceptions do not simply go unchecked, and are often confronted and exposed in Spark’s investigations of how far characters can go to justify the morality of their actions.

Follow us at @PWEpropagandist for #SparkQuoteoftheWeek, where we’ll be posting some of the best deceptive writing from Spark’s literary oeuvre.

Muriel Spark and plausibility

Beatriz Lopez finds traces of Spark’s wartime service in the PWE in two novels deeply concerned with the appearance of truth

Muriel Spark’s interest in plausible truths owes much to her experience of black propaganda work. In her autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992), she describes her role in the Political Warfare Executive which involved writing down intelligence provided by recently returned aircrews – ‘the details of the bombing, the number of planes that had gone out and those (not always all) that had returned’ – for black propaganda boss Sefton Delmer.[1] Propaganda is usually understood as biased or misleading information, but Spark’s intelligence gathering here shows that it was often based on truth (or, as I will go on to argue, the appearance of truth).

PWE agents studied German newspapers carefully to find the names and addresses of real people, building up a ‘file of personalities’ to provide the ‘characters’ to populate deceptive stories.[2] The propagandists then took pains to highlight only those details needed to infuse a deceitful story with plausible detail. Muriel Spark similarly carried out meticulous research of the historical backgrounds to her novels, and also managed to evoke plausible plots and characters with a minimal amount of detail. Both The Comforters (1957) and Loitering with Intent (1981), two novels concerning the process of novel-writing, provide a good starting point to investigate Spark’s interest in the appearance of truth.

In The Comforters, Caroline Rose hears voices and the sound of a typewriter, which leads her to believe that she is a character in a novel. She regards the ‘Typing Ghost’ as predetermination, and rebels against it in order to take over control of the narrative: ‘The narrative says we went by car; all right, we must go by train. […] It’s a matter of asserting free will.’[3] In her refusal to be subjected to this ‘phoney plot’, Caroline ridicules the novel’s bizarre mixture of literary genres and the failure of Laurence’s grandmother, Louisa Jepp, and Mrs. Hogg to adhere to their character types,  thereby questioning the plausibility of the narrative created by the disembodied author:

‘“Your grandmother being a gangster, it’s taking things too far. She’s an implausible character, don’t you see? […] So is Mrs Hogg. Is it likely that the pious old cow is a black-mailer?”’[4]

Once Louisa confesses that she is indeed the leader of a diamond gang and we learn the gang’s method of smuggling (dressing up as pilgrims intending to visit religious shrines, hiding the diamonds in plaster figures and rosary beads so as to get through customs), she notes that she ‘made Mervyn and Andrew visit the shrines properly, in case they were watched.’[5] This scene shows the importance of backing up deceptions with ‘evidence’, a common procedure in black propaganda.

For example, Delmer describes sending food packages to the families of German POWs who had been portrayed as earning high salaries in the US and Canada in order to ‘prove’ their newly-acquired wealth: ‘Enemy propaganda? Nonsense, look at the splendid parcel young Schöller had just sent his parents!’[6]

The autobiographical Loitering with Intent emphasises the novelist Fleur’s artistic ability to maintain plausibility by transforming lifeless data into a colourful narrative. In her first novel Warrender Chase, ‘she managed to make [Warrender’s war record in Burma] really credible even although [she] filled in the war bit with a few strokes, knowing in fact, so little about the war in Burma.’[7]

A plausible story, however, must go beyond stereotypes in order to be believed. As Taylor Stoehr argues, ‘the most plausible story need not seem very lifelike; that which is trivial or mundane will hardly be trusted as faithful to experience, for reality cannot be so drab as all that.’[8] This creative principle is fully embraced by Fleur in Loitering with Intent when describing the creation of a character:

‘…to make a character ring true it needs must be in some way contradictory, somewhere a paradox. […] where the self-portraits of Sir Quentin’s ten testifiers were going all wrong, where they sounded stiff and false, occurred at points where they strained themselves into a constancy and steadiness that they evidently wished to possess but didn’t. And I had thrown in my own bits of invented patchwork to cheer things up rather than make each character coherent in itself.’[9]

Fleur incorporates aspects of the French noveau roman of the 1950s into her work, and her concept of verisimilitude aligns closely with that of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who claimed that ‘[t]he little detail which “makes you think it’s true” is no longer of any interest to the novelist […] [t]he thing that strikes him […] is more likely, on the contrary, to be the little detail that strikes a false note.’[10]

Delmer’s interest in the false note is evident in his strategies for distorting information. In Black Boomerang, he refers to this when he describes incorporating ‘real’ Nazi news items the PWE received via a Hellschreiber teleprinter into the ‘black’ broadcasts:

‘Some items we used as cover to give ourselves authenticity as a German station purveying official news. To others we gave a subversive twist so that when listeners heard them on the German radio later, they quite unconsciously read our tendentious distortion as the truth “hidden between the lines”.[11]

Notes

[1] Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009; originally published 1992), p. 152.

[2] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), p. 67.

[3] Muriel Spark, The Comforters (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018; originally published 1957), p. 101.

[4] Ibid., p. 108.

[5] Ibid., p. 187.

[6] Delmer, Black Boomerang, p. 141.

[7] Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018; originally published 1981), p. 60.

[8] Taylor Stoehr, ‘Realism and Verisimilitude’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 11.3 (1969), 1269-1288 (p. 1280).

[9] Spark, Loitering with Intent, p. 27.

[10] Alain Robbe-Grillet, ‘From Realism to Reality’, in For a New Novel: essays on fiction, translated by Richard Howard (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1965), 157-168 (p. 163).

[11] Delmer, Black Boomerang, p. 90.

Letters in bottles and leaky U-boats: Ian Fleming’s ideas factory

Document of the month: FO 898/6/64-5

Guy Woodward traces the involvement of the creator of 007 in covert wartime propaganda

This is a memo dated 18 January 1940 – it reports on a recent meeting of the ‘Consultative Committee’ of the Department of Publicity in Enemy Countries. This department was part of Electra House, a secret body under the control of the Foreign Office, responsible for clandestine propaganda in the early stages of the war – before the foundation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in July 1940 and the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) in September 1941.

The meeting discussed a number of ‘sibs’ – rumours invented to spread misinformation – but also makes a series of references to Lieutenant Ian Fleming, later creator of James Bond, then serving in the British Naval Intelligence Department (NID).

We read first about a mysterious plan involving a ‘letter from a U-Boat Commander in a bottle’:

It is unclear what the first plan involved – there are no other references in the archive to letters in bottles – but we can speculate that moves were afoot to produce a fake letter from a U-boat commander to be thrown into the sea, which would mislead its intended German recipients (the cross marked beside the proposal suggests that this was never enacted anyway). The second plan is more straightforward, involving the dissemination of propaganda material to Germany via containers dropped at sea. Ian Fleming’s assertion that sailors on naval patrol ‘will like’ doing this is striking however, an expression of adventurousness and derring-do at odds with the cold formality of many of these departmental records – and indicative of the approach he took to his own role.[1]

Indeed, the plans cited here are very much milder than some of the schemes which Fleming hatched in the early stages of the war. In For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond (2008) Ben Macintyre writes that ‘Some of Fleming’s ideas were run-of-the-mill, some were fantastical and impractical, and some, in the opinion of his colleagues, were simply mad.’[2] These included:

scuttling cement barges in the Danube at its most narrow point in order to block the waterway for German shipping; forging Reichsmarks to disrupt the German economy; dropping an observer (possibly Fleming himself) on the island of Heligoland to monitor the shipping outside Kiel; luring German secret agents to Monte Carlo and capturing them; and floating a radio ship in the North Sea to broadcast depressing and/or irritating propaganda to the Germans.[3]

Although Fleming would later dismiss such plans as ‘nonsense’ and ‘romantic Red Indian daydreams’, the fact that they were considered indicates the operational leeway afforded naval intelligence, before the foundation of SOE and before the fall of France and consequent Battle of the Atlantic dictated other naval priorities. Through Fleming, NID continued to be involved in the formulation of propaganda, however.

Fleming had been recruited in May 1939 by Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence and widely credited as inspiration for ‘M’ in the James Bond novels. Working from the ‘ideas factory’ – room 39 in the Admiralty – Fleming developed his schemes and liaised officially and unofficially with a wide circle of military personnel, agents and propagandists.[4]

The PWE’s Sefton Delmer had known Fleming as a journalist before the war, and recalls in his memoir Black Boomerang, being introduced by his friend to Godfrey, who was excited by the potential of ‘black’ radio stations as a means of attacking the morale of U-boat crews. Both Godfrey and Fleming proved enthusiastic supporters of Delmer’s methods.

Delmer explains this naval enthusiasm (as opposed to the frequent hostility of the army and RAF to propaganda activities) with reference to the fact that the Royal Navy had been engaged in all-out war from the beginning of the conflict in 1939, when army and air force remained engaged in the phoney war. He notes that the navy were also unique among the services in having direct contact with the enemy from the beginning of the war, as they captured German prisoners at sea. Interrogations of these prisoners provided valuable intelligence material, later used by Delmer’s propagandists in crafting black propaganda such as the Soldatensender Calais radio station, intended to undermine the morale of U-boat crews.[5]

Fleming’s linguistic skills even enabled him to make direct contributions to such outlets, voicing commentaries on special programmes aimed at sailors of the Kriegsmarine broadcast by the BBC German Service and telling a friend ‘You may have heard my austere tones […] telling the Germans that all their U-boats leak.’[6]

Many connections can of course be drawn between Fleming’s wartime activities and his later creation of British secret agent 007 – the ability to conceive a compelling scenario and a predilection for imaginative and unorthodox methods are certainly clear assets in the fields of propaganda and of popular fiction. Delmer, whose name appears in a passing reference in Fleming’s Diamonds are Forever (1956) certainly suggested that his friend had drawn on his involvement with the PWE, writing that:

I sometimes wonder whether he did not pick up something for his thriller writing from our ‘black’ propaganda technique in return. For our first clandestine radio ‘Gustav Siegfried Eins’ and later our counterfeit German soldiers radio ‘Soldatensender Calais’ we used the most meticulous minutiae, taking care to get them exactly right , street numbers, technical terms, nicknames, and what have you, so that the deception itself would gain acceptance through their accuracy.[7]

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] The RAF were notably sceptical about the value of dropping propaganda leaflets from the air and were often reluctant to facilitate drops over enemy territory. 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.

[2] Ben Macintyre, For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), p. 27.

[3] Macintyre, p. 28.

[4] Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995), p. 102.

[5] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), p. 70.

[6] Lycett, p. 133.

[7] See  https://www.psywar.org/delmer/2030/1001.

“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).