Clandestine fiction: John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down

Document of the month: FO 898/523

Guy Woodward finds a miniature novel in the PWE papers

This tiny book appears in file 898/523 of the PWE collection in the National Archives, which bears the unpromising title ‘Various French Pamphlets’. It measures 10.5 x 6.5 cm. The cover and title page feature no reference to any author; the title, Nuit Sans Lune, translates directly as ‘Moonless Night’, but the text confirms that this is in fact a French edition of John Steinbeck’s 1942 novel, The Moon is Down.

As it happens The Moon is Down was written explicitly for the purposes of propaganda, by a novelist who served in several US government intelligence and information agencies between 1940-42.[1] As Donald Coers explains, in summer 1941 Steinbeck was attached to the Officer of Coordinator of Information (COI), and discussed with the organisation’s head, Colonel ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, the possibility of writing a work of propaganda.[2] At the same time Steinbeck’s work at the COI brought him into contact with a range of refugees from recently invaded European nations, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway; their stories of underground resistance to Nazi rule impressed and intrigued him.[3]

The short novel Steinbeck wrote over 1941-42 is set in an unnamed coastal town of an unnamed northern European country, under occupation by a military force whose commitment to timekeeping and fidelity to a singular ‘Leader’ is unambiguously indicative of Nazi Germany. It shows how the invaders’ attempts to maintain a pretence of civility are doomed in the face of deteriorating relations with the townspeople, who begin to resist the occupation, first passively and then actively. Toward the end of the novel they begin to receive military assistance from Britain, as packages containing sticks of dynamite and chocolate are dropped by aeroplane.

The narrative is grim and often claustrophobic, but offers hope in its emphatic conviction that the occupation is doomed to failure, articulated in the potent paradoxical metaphor of flies ‘conquering’ the flypaper they have become stuck to. The prospect of Allied assistance, meanwhile, gestures optimistically towards a future shift in the progress of the war. The novel also offers several practical suggestions of how an occupation can be opposed passively, by working slowly and sabotaging machinery and equipment.

The novel was enormously popular on the home front; stage and screen adaptations appeared quickly on both sides of the Atlantic. In late spring 1942 Winston Churchill was so enthused by The Moon is Down that he passed on the novel to his Minister of Economic Warfare, requesting him to explore the possibility of mass producing small incendiary devices to be provided to resistance movements in occupied Europe.[4]

Some in the United States believed that Steinbeck had been too soft on the German occupiers, who appear prone to uncertainty and anxiety rather than unremittingly cruel and evil. As Coers explains however, The Moon is Down was extraordinarily popular in countries which had experienced Nazi invasion, and was read avidly during the war behind enemy lines – he describes how translations printed on ‘tissue-thin paper’ were smuggled from Sweden into Norway where they were circulated by the resistance.[5] In Denmark and the Netherlands underground presses printed thousands of copies; in these countries and in France sales of illegal editions helped fund resistance activities.[6]

The PWE seem to have become aware of the novel’s potent propaganda value soon after its publication in 1942, and the archive features several references to its production and distribution, suggesting that some of these activities were aided and directed by the Allied propaganda organisations. A secret PWE memorandum dated August 1942 discussing the coordination of broadcast and printed propaganda for Denmark mentions that The Moon is Down has been translated and is already in print.[7] Minutes of a meeting in January 1943 record a PWE discussion regarding the circulation of an Italian edition.[8] And a note dated February 1943 records a request by the Ministry of Information for sample copies of the PWE’s ‘French leaflet edition’ of the novel.[9]

It is not clear whether the copy pictured above is the ‘leaflet edition’ mentioned here. Its small size suggests that it may well have been intended for clandestine circulation, however; the absence of Steinbeck’s distinctive and Anglophone name on the cover or inside the novel, and the lack of any publisher’s name or illustrations further suggests that this was a book designed to pass unnoticed by hostile surveillance.

Steinbeck’s narrative also lent itself to clandestine circulation – the lack of any overt references to Germans, Nazis, Hitler, or to a specific location in the text meant that a curious Gestapo officer leafing through the text might well fail to detect the novel’s propagandist ambitions and political leanings. Were that officer to settle down to read the novel, however, it is possible they might find the fatalism of Steinbeck’s occupying commander Colonel Lanser and the defiance of Mayor Orden as he faces execution more than a little unsettling:

You see sir, nothing can change it. You will be destroyed and driven out […] The people don’t like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars. You will find that is so, sir.[10]

Images by kind permission of The National Archives. 

Notes

[1] Donald V. Coers, ‘Afterword’ to John Steinbeck, The Moon is Down (London: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 113.

[2] Ibid., pp. 113-4.

[3] Ibid., p. 114.

[4] For more on Churchill, SOE, PWE and Operation Braddock see the invaluable resource psywar.org: https://www.psywar.org/content/braddock

[5] Coers, ‘Afterword’, p. 120.

[6] Ibid., p. 125.

[7] FO 898/245.

[8] FO 898/168.

[9] FO 898/445.

[10] Steinbeck, The Moon is Down, p. 111.

DON’T drink yourself silly in public: the PWE’s pocket guide to France

Document of the month: FO 898/478

Guy Woodward on the PWE’s pocket guides for service personnel

This small 64-page booklet measures 10.5 x 13.5 cm. Its blue and white cover features a picture of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the single word title ‘France’. On first glance it appears to be a tourist guide, but the booklet was in fact produced by the PWE for Allied service personnel deployed to France following the D-Day landings of June 1944.

The PWE’s primary function was to produce propaganda for enemy and occupied Europe, a role which required substantial and intensive intelligence work to ensure that broadcasts, leaflets and publications were targeted at specific countries, regions and localities. The expertise and knowledge thereby gathered, however, meant that the PWE was ideally placed to produce pocket guides such as these, introducing servicemen to French history, culture, customs and conventions – and teaching them some basic phrases in French, with phonetic pronunciation guides (‘Seal vous play, mairsee’).[1]

In addition to France, the PWE collection in the National Archives contains drafts or printed copies of pocket guides for Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, and Yugoslavia. Other documents show that guides to Albania, Greece and Hungary were also drafted or planned. Some were presumably never printed or distributed: in the cases of Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia, for example, the advance of the Soviet Union meant that British troops never entered these countries in significant numbers.

The archive shows that editions varied slightly depending on the intended readership. As the maple leaf on the cover suggests, the pocket guide to France pictured above is addressed to Canadian troops – the draft version of the guide in the same file shows that only perfunctory changes were made to adapt the text however, as in most cases ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ is simply replaced by ‘Canada’ and ‘Canadian’.

The text is addressed to an individual reader throughout, seemingly in an attempt to emphasise the importance of personal responsibility. The opening paragraph reads:

A new B.E.F. [British Expeditionary Force], which includes you, is going to France. You are to assist personally in pushing the Germans out of France and back where they belong. In the process, you will meet the French, maybe not for the first time. You will also, almost certainly for the first time, be seeing a country which has been subjected to German occupation for several years. This is a point worth fixing in your mind. You will learn what it means.[2]

After a hasty canter through French history from the Roman invasion to the present day, the booklet poses the question ‘What are the French People Like?’, observing that despite a palpable ‘strong national feeling’ regional identities and characteristics remain important and that ‘it would be difficult to point to a “typical” Frenchman.’[3]

The guides are heavily dependent on generalisation and essentialist descriptions of national characteristics, and perpetuate some troubling stereotypes. The guide naturally assumes an exclusively male readership, and the misogyny of some sections makes for uncomfortable reading today. Under the heading ‘Not Like Montmartre’, the guide advises that ‘it is as well to drop any ideas about French women based on stories of Montmartre and nude cabaret shows’, and that ‘If you should happen to imagine that the first pretty French girl who smiles at you intends to dance the can-can or take you to bed, you will risk stirring up a lot of trouble for yourself – and for our relations with the French.’[4]

The guide repeatedly pleads with readers to consider themselves as representatives of their country and to behave with sensitivity, suggesting that ‘The good guest retains his welcome by making himself as little trouble as possible and doing all he can to help his hosts’; with reference to the recent German occupation it advises that ‘if you’re too boisterous and noisy it will be rather like doing a step-dance in front of a man who has just had his legs off.’[5] Discussions on the subjects of religion and politics are strongly discouraged, and alcohol is repeatedly raised as a possible source of conflict and tension:

DON’T drink yourself silly in public. If you get the chance to drink wine, learn to “take it.” The failure of some British troops to do so was the one point made against our men in France in 1939-40 and again in North Africa.[6]

The second half of the guide features phrases and vocabulary intended to help service personnel communicate with local people. It observes:

The French are politer than most of us. Remember to call them “Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle,” not just “Oy!” And don’t forget “S’il vous plaît” (please) and “Merci” (thank you).[7]

In 2005 the Bodleian Library republished the guide under the title Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944. Appearing between stiff, olive green covers, with the new title printed on the cover in austere sans serif capitals, it has a more strikingly military appearance than the printed copy in The National Archives pictured above. The reprint dispenses with most of the French words and phrases, and also omits the illustrations which are scattered through the wartime edition.

A preface by the historian and archivist Mary Clapinson states that the guide was discovered in the papers of its author, the journalist Herbert David Ziman, which were donated to the Bodleian in 1995; Ziman was on secondment to the PWE from the Intelligence Corps in 1943 when he wrote the booklet.[8]

The Bodleian reprint has proved highly popular and is widely available from bookshops and museums as a stocking filler for military history enthusiasts. Perhaps unexpectedly, the guide also found a readership in France: in 2006 a French translation of the guide was published by the small Parisian house Les Quatre Chemins and reportedly sold well.[9] Quand Vous Serez En France featured an introduction by the journalist Pierre Assouline, expressing fascinated bemusement at the ‘battledress paperback’ produced with ‘a consummate sense of understatement’ and which helps explain the continuing attraction of France for the British.[10] Turning to the final section of the guide, he suggests that in phonetically transcribed phrases such as ‘Bonjewer, commont-aalay-voo?’, French readers will find ‘an original form of poetry.’[11]

This is the first post in an occasional series – subsequent posts will address pocket guides to other countries.

Images by kind permission of The National Archives. 

Notes

[1] ‘Draft Soldiers’ Guide to France’, FO 898/478, p. 31.

[2] Ibid., p. 2.

[3] Ibid., p. 14.

[4] Ibid., p. 17.

[5] Ibid., p. 26, p. 28.

[6] Ibid., p. 29.

[7] Ibid., p. 28.

[8] Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944. (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2005), n.p.

[9] Noam Cohen, ‘For British Troops, Help Crossing the Channel’, The New York Times, 2 July 2006: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/02/weekinreview/02word.html

[10] Quand Vous Serez En France (Paris: Quatre Chemins), p. 11, p. 16.

[11] Ibid., p. 17.

From Woburn to the St. Petersburg troll factory

Reading Peter Pomerantsev’s new book This is Not Propaganda, Guy Woodward finds echoes of PWE’s wartime activities in contemporary disinformation campaigns

Having spent nearly a decade working as a producer in the super-charged dystopian world of Russian television, by 2010 Peter Pomerantsev was exhausted. He left a country ‘where spectacle had pushed out sense, which left gut feeling as the only means of finding one’s way through the fog of disinformation’, and returned to London, where he is now Senior Fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and develops plans to combat information manipulation.[1]

Part family memoir, part travelogue, his new book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality examines contemporary information warfare across the world: Pomerantsev reports from the Philippines, Serbia, Mexico, Syria and China, and focuses at length on Russia and Ukraine.

Born in 1977 in Kyiv, Pomerantsev left the Soviet Union with his parents in 1978, after his dissident father had been detained and interrogated by the KGB on charges of circulating ‘anti-Soviet fabrications of a defamatory nature’.[2] Igor Pomerantsev had distributed copies of banned books by Russian authors including Vladimir Nabokov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He subsequently found work at the BBC World Service, one of the stations he had listened to in secret in Soviet Ukraine. His son describes visiting the ‘wondrous island’ of Bush House as a child in the 1980s:

As soon as my father was locked in the aquarium-like glass case of the broadcasting studio, I was free to roam every floor. Down the wide stairs I went, around me every colour and ethnicity the world knows, all speaking, shouting English, but with different accents. All typing, smoking, sprinting between slamming doors to break the latest news. Every section of the vast building was another country or even continent.

Forty years prior to this, the vast building on the Strand served as London base of the Political Warfare Executive, which shared Bush House with the BBC: in his recent history of the corporation at war, Edward Stourton writes that ‘One lift in the building led to a world where truth was king, another to a world dedicated to deception and treachery.’[3] This Is Not Propaganda has almost nothing to say about the Second World War, but Pomerantsev’s investigations nevertheless suggest some intriguing echoes of the wartime activities of the PWE in today’s highly-networked disinformation campaigns.

In the book’s first chapter ‘Cities of Trolls’ for example, Pomerantsev interviews the Russian journalist Lyudmilla Savchuk, who infiltrated a troll farm in St Petersburg and revealed its inner workings. Savchuk was assigned a ‘special project’ involving the creation of an online personality known as ‘Cantadora’, a mystic healer and ‘expert in astrology, parapsychology and crystals’. Cantadora was designed to appeal to middle-class women with little interest in politics, and Savchuk’s job was ‘to drop in the odd bit of current affairs in between blog entries on star signs and romance.’[4]

This resembles the strategy pursued by the clandestine radio stations run by PWE during the Second World War, such as Soldatensender Calais (1943-45), devised by Sefton Delmer at PWE’s ‘Country’ HQ at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, and intended to resemble a genuine German station. Actor and singer Agnes Bernelle – who played the announcer Vicky on the station – recalled that the main attraction for German military listeners was the broadcast of jazz music, forbidden in Germany as ‘alien and decadent’. Between records, however, Bernelle would read ‘items of news and other subtly disguised pieces of propaganda’, so that the Germans ‘would invariably get the information we wanted them to have.’[5] Like the St Petersburg trolls, the PWE also weaponised astrology for the purposes of propaganda: Delmer describes the production of Zenith, a fake astrological magazine which featured ‘horoscopes for Germany’s leaders’ and ‘prognostications for U-boats and aircraft according to the date and hour of their launching and sortie’.[6]

Pomerantsev is particularly struck by the granular detail of some contemporary campaigns: ‘Two trolls would go on the comments section of small, provincial newspapers and start chatting about the street they lived in, the weather, then casually recommend a piece about the nefarious West attacking Russia.’[7] Several PWE campaigns likewise drew on detailed local knowledge: John Baker White recalls studying aerial photographs of bomb damage so that covert broadcasts could refer accurately to the destruction of individual properties, providing news which the German authorities were keen to keep secret.[8] Ewan Butler, meanwhile, describes spreading a rumour in Germany about the admission to hospital of a Gauleiter’s mother-in-law, as a means of showing how regional Nazi officials were obtaining preferential treatment.[9]

Pomerantsev also visits the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), which researches and formulates campaigns against extremism. Here he learns about guides posted by anonymous agitators on sites including 4chan and Reddit which offer a ‘crash course in online persuasion’ and provide ‘advice on how to use the values of your enemy against them’:

So if you are attacking a leftist politician, you should create a fake liberal persona for yourself online and point out how politicians are part of the financial elite, or how their ‘white privilege’ has allowed them to rise to the top and avoid arrest.[10]

Seven decades earlier, Delmer’s clandestine radio station Gustav Siegfried Eins (GS1) began broadcasting to Germany on 23 May 1941.[11] GS1 carried furious diatribes by the invented character ‘der Chef’ (‘The Boss’) – a title by which Delmer had heard members of Hitler’s entourage refer to their leader, although this der Chef was hostile to the Nazi Party. A veteran Prussian officer, the intensely patriotic character ranted for two years against the weakness, incompetence and venality of Nazis who were letting down the proud German nation: in broadcasting these sentiments Delmer hoped to drive a wedge between the German people and their leaders.

There’s no evidence that any of the contemporary practitioners of online disinformation and subversion were directly influenced by the PWE’s campaigns, but it is striking and troubling to see similar tactics at work. A clear distinction can be drawn, however, between the PWE’s aim of bringing the war to a swifter conclusion by contributing to the defeat of the Axis regimes, and the desire on the part of Pomerantsev’s subjects to prosecute a multidimensional, ever-shifting and perpetual form of information warfare. In eastern Ukraine he reflects that whereas war had previously involved ‘capturing territory and planting flags […] something different was at play out here’:

Moscow needed to create a narrative about how pro-democracy revolutions like the Maidan led to chaos and civil war. Kiev needed to show that separatism leads to misery. What actually happened on the ground was almost irrelevant; the two governments just needed enough footage to back their respective stories. Propaganda has always accompanied war, usually as a handmaiden to the actual fighting. But the information age means that this equation has been flipped: military operations are now handmaidens to the more important information effect.[12]

Peter Pomerantsev is appearing at the Durham Book Festival on Sunday 6 October 2019

Notes

[1] Peter Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (Faber and Faber, 2019), p. 218. Pomerantsev describes his experiences in Moscow in the 2000s in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (2015).

[2] Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda, p. 55.

[3] Edward Stourton, Auntie’s War: The BBC During the Second World War (London: Penguin, 2018), p. 353. Although the PWE was certainly responsible for producing covert or ‘black’ propaganda, it should be acknowledged that many of the campaigns of ‘deception and treachery’ originated from the organisation’s ‘Country’ headquarters at Woburn, Bedfordshire.

[4] Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda, pp. 35-6.

[5] Agnes Bernelle, The Fun Palace (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1996), p. 94.

[6] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang:An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), p. 132.

[7] Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda, p. 36.

[8] John Baker White, The Big Lie (London: Evans Brothers, 1955), p. 67.

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

[10] Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda, p. 203.

[11] Ellic Howe, The Black Game: British Subversive Operations Against the Germans During the Second World War (London: Queen Anne/Futura, 1988), p.106.

[12] Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda, p. 140.

Adolf and His Donkey Benito

Document of the month: FO 898/128

Guy Woodward on Kem’s cartoons for North Africa

‘Adolf and His Donkey Benito’ is an Arabic-language cartoon booklet produced by PWE for distribution in North Africa in 1942 – it appears in file FO 898/128, ‘Propaganda Activities, Leaflet Translations (Arabic)’. Satirising the relationship between the German and Italian dictators, the booklet depicts the Führer as an unkempt and increasingly deranged figure, exasperated and frustrated in his attempts to train a recalcitrant donkey – whose face bears a strong resemblance to that of Mussolini. In line with many other examples of Allied propaganda attacking Mussolini, the donkey is portrayed as cowardly, incompetent and hapless – the animal is shown suffering a range of injuries.

The file features English translations of the Arabic text and captions. The introduction states that the story’s protagonist ‘used to be a housepainter, who worked his way up the ladder until he reached the position of Dictator of Germany. This was done by means which it would not be decent to print in this book.’ It continues to recall that as a housepainter Adolf ‘could not afford more than one shirt’ and ‘had to stay in bed whilst his only shirt was being washed.’ However, once he became dictator ‘he bought a shirt for everyone who accepted him as leader. He chose the colour brown for the shirt in order that dirt would not show quickly and bloodstains would be less apparent.’ In due course, the introduction concludes, Adolf met the donkey Benito. The two ‘set out to conquer the world, and in the following pages you will see some of their adventures.’

In some frames other Nazi and Axis figures appear. On the front cover a monkey wearing a military cap adorned with the Japanese rising sun helps Hitler prevent the donkey tumbling into a river. When a grotesquely obese Hermann Göring – whose tattered black wings are a mocking reference to Göring’s role as Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe – attempts to sit on the donkey, the beast collapses to the floor.

Later Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, dressed in mortar board and gown, attempts without success to train the donkey to sing into a microphone.

The booklet consists of eighteen cartoons, all in black and white apart from the outside covers which also feature red – the colour scheme resembles that of the pop-up cartoon Hitler leaflet examined in a previous post. Both publications demonstrate the important role played by cartoons in transnational propaganda: caricatures of immediately recognisable figures as Hitler and Mussolini had an unparalleled ability to transcend borders and cultures.

The artwork for both publications is by Kimon Evan Marengo (KEM), a Cairo-born Anglo-Greek cartoonist and journalist who produced large quantities of visual propaganda for the Ministry of Information and PWE for North and West Africa and the Middle East during the war. He drew several versions of ‘Adolf and His Donkey Benito’, and even produced an animated film featuring the popular caricatures: storyboard sketches for this are displayed in a fascinating exhibition of wartime cartoons currently showing at the University of Kent’s Templeman Gallery. Kem’s papers can be found in the British Cartoon Archive at Kent.

The file in the PWE papers features an intriguing detail regarding the circulation of the leaflet. A memo dated 18 July 1942 sent by PWE’s Sylvain Mangeot to Hracia Paniguian of the French Section outlines a recent meeting with a ‘Mr Quennell’, who reported that:

Kem’s booklet with Hitler and his donkey, Mussolini, was in the bags which were blown up by the German bomb on the quay at Tangier. The leaflets were scattered and the local inhabitants snatched them and they are now on sale, and Mr. Kem’s caricatures seem to have taken very well indeed.

This anecdote hints at the significance of distribution methods for the credibility and appeal of printed propaganda. We can infer that material which circulated on a commercial or illicit quasi-commercial basis appeared more detached from the official Allied propaganda machine, and thus appeared more authentic. The PWE do seem to have understood this: as the war turned in the Allies’ favour the organisation began producing publications for liberated territories, and arranged for cultural and indirect propaganda – such as the French literary digest Choix – to be distributed through commercial venues such as bookshops and kiosks.

Images by kind permission of The National Archives

The exhibition Keep Smiling Through: British Humour and the Second World War explores the use of humour in cartoons, letters, books, ephemera and artefacts from the First and Second World Wars. It complements the symposium of the same title held at the University of Kent on 12–13 September 2019 and was curated with the assistance of Special Collections & Archives’ inaugural exhibition interns.

PWE and the Durham miners

Document of the month: FO 898/514/49-50

Guy Woodward on the deployment of the Durham miners in wartime propaganda – and the role of a Durham MP in the PWE

This leaflet appears in a file of leaflets and booklets produced for distribution in France. It is dated 28 December 1940 and is addressed from ‘des mineurs du basin de Durham, l’une des plus puissantes fédérations syndicales des mineurs britanniques’ / ‘the miners of the Durham coalfield, one of the most powerful associations of British miners’ to ‘mineurs actuellement sous le joug des Nazis’ / ‘miners currently under the yoke of the Nazis’.

The leaflet is a single sheet and features on the front an image of two miners, stripped to the waist, mining underground using pickaxes, stressing the physical strength and bravery required. The reverse shows a swastika hanging from a gallows at sunrise, with the caption ‘Le jour approche…’, suggesting that the vanquishing (and crucially the punishment) of the Nazis is in sight – an expression of extreme optimism in December 1940, seven months after the Dunkirk evacuation and with the Blitz at its height.

The leaflet indicates the fame of the Durham miners among industrial and trades union communities in Europe at this time. Addressing the French miners as ‘camarades’ / ‘comrades’, the leaflet promotes solidarity between workers in Britain and in occupied France. It decries the ‘crimes’ and ‘barbarous treatment’ meted out by the Nazi occupiers, and also seeks to refute ‘the attempts being made in each of your countries by these people of a depraved species, now known as Quislings, who would have you believe that England will not be able to last long.’ Without specifying the leaflet continues to assure the French readership that ‘the events of the last six months, and what happens every day under our eyes, show how false this is.’

Sending greetings for the coming year ‘from each mining village, from the home of each miner in Durham and Britain’, certainty is expressed that ‘the reign of the Nazi bandits is coming to an end’ and that despite the darkness ‘the ray of light that illuminates our path will also appear to you and give you the strength to shake off the yoke of tyranny, despotism and cruelty.’

The leaflet makes no attempt to encourage sabotage or subversion, but simply seeks to extend a hand of friendship, to foster a sense of solidarity and to encourage fortitude against the occupier – a similar leaflet offers greetings from ‘les ouvriers de Coventry’. In the field of black propaganda, however, attempts were made to foment resistance to the German occupation using trades union rhetoric or channels of communication. And, perhaps not coincidentally, the foremost advocate of this approach in the British government in the early years of the war was Hugh Dalton, the Minister for Economic Warfare and Labour MP for Bishop Auckland.

Dalton had lost his seat in the 1931 election, catastrophic for Labour, but had been determined to return as MP in 1935: ‘My heart was in Bishop Auckland and in County Durham, and especially with the miners.’[1] In his autobiography he writes of his pride at being featured on the banner of the New Shildon Lodge – Dalton also appeared on the banner of the Whitworth Park Lodge seen above.[2] Strongly anti-appeasement in the late 1930s, Dalton was appointed to the cabinet in Churchill’s coalition government and asked to take charge of the new Special Operations Executive, formed to conduct irregular warfare in occupied Europe. On 16 July 1940 Churchill ordered Dalton to ‘set Europe ablaze’, and described his department as the ‘MUW – Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.’[3] In this spirit Dalton referred to this period as ‘my Black life’, and told his cabinet colleagues on 17 August 1940 that ‘we must learn, for the duration of this war at least, to shed many inhibitions and to act on the assumption that the end justifies the means… We must beat the Nazis at their own game.’[4]

Dalton’s plans involved the mobilisation of socialist parties and trades unions in Europe as a means of creating fifth columns and causing ‘explosions, chaos and revolution.’[5] He hoped for strikes, boycotts and sabotage, and advocated the formation of movements comparable to Sinn Féin, to Chinese guerrilla fighters, or to Spanish irregulars in Wellington’s campaign during the Peninsular War of the early nineteenth century.[6] These plans never bore fruition, and the historian David Stafford has observed that Dalton’s vision of Europe in permanent revolution, with the Germans plagued by constant military and civil unrest, rested on over-ambitious assumptions about the willingness of European socialist parties and trades unions to want to pursue such activities and to do so at the behest of the British government.[7]

At home meanwhile, many in government and the military believed that a German invasion of Britain was imminent, and preparations were being made to plan for resistance activities in the event of Nazi occupation. Also held in the PWE archive, minutes of a meeting held on 17 November 1940 to discuss ‘Policy to France’ record Dalton’s comments to senior officials that:

if the Germans were in occupation of Great Britain, and he was trying to organise a movement against them, he would choose people like his own constituents, the Durham Miners, and he would sent to them, not a bank clerk or commercial traveller, but one of their own men, in whom they would have confidence. Similarly, in training Agents for work in France, we should send to the industrial workers men who understood them and whom they trusted.[8]

Dalton’s sense of commonalities between the Durham miners and the French industrial workers is reflected in the leaflet dated just over a month later. Had a German invasion of Britain taken place, Dalton wrote in his autobiography that he would have wanted to travel north to Durham – he recalled Winston Churchill’s plan in the event of a German invasion to deploy the slogan ‘You can always take one with you’ to encourage hand-to-hand combat, and writes that ‘Nowhere would that slogan have echoed louder than in the County of the Faithful Durhams.’[9]

Images by kind permission of The National Archives and Beamish, the Living Museum of the North

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] Hugh Dalton, The Fateful Years: Memoirs 1931-1945, (London: Frederick Mueller Ltd, 1957), p. 21.

[2] Dalton, p. 137.

[3] Dalton, p. 366.

[4] Stafford 29

[5] Dalton, p. 367.

[6] Dalton, p. 368.

[7] David Stafford, Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945: A Survey of the Special Operations Executive, with Documents, (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1983), p. 30; When the PWE was formed in September 1941, Dalton originally served on the tripartite ministerial committee established to supervise its activities, but was angry that PWE had taken responsibility for covert propaganda from SOE. Due in part to irreconcilable conflicts with his colleagues at the Ministry of Information he was moved to the Board of Trade in February 1942.

[8] ‘Policy to France: Short Record of a Meeting held on Sunday, 17th November 1940’, FO 898/9/49.

[9] Dalton, p. 337. Dalton’s reference to the ‘Durhams’ here is to the Durham Light Infantry, whose service in the Second World War he also hails.

Discarding history for mythology: Muriel Spark’s mythologizers

Beatriz Lopez explores how Muriel Spark’s foremost mythologizers employ WWII myth-making techniques to impose their delusional understandings of the world on reality.

Sefton Delmer’s second volume of autobiography Black Boomerang (1962) begins in a Frankfurt cinema in 1960. Delmer is watching a wartime thriller which shows the German army arduously fighting both the Allies and the Nazi party, implying that most Germans were really against Hitler. This myth of ‘the good upright patriotic Germans of the Wehrmacht being the bitter enemies of the Nazi Party and the Gestapo’, concocted by the PWE during the Second World War, continued to haunt post-war Germany.[1] Originally designed to destroy Hitler, the myth had been ironically transformed into a vindication of German righteousness, showing the perilous ‘boomerang’ effect resulting from plausible narratives becoming naturalized and accepted as absolute truths.

PWE’s Sefton Delmer

Although myth-making is a practice most often associated with totalitarian regimes, Delmer’s cinematic anecdote demonstrates that this was by no means the case. In fact, the PWE was instrumental in the creation of myths to further the Allied cause, some of which became enacted or tested in reality. The PWE’s black radio station Soldatensender Calais, for example, exploited the feelings of those German officers’ corps leaders who were becoming disenchanted with Hitler’s thirst for war and longed for the establishment of peace with the West: ‘We had been seeking to suggest to them that all they had to do was to overthrow Hitler for us to be ready to start peace negotiations’.[2] To Delmer’s surprise, this offer was taken up by the officers in what became known as the ‘Peace Putsch’, an unsuccessful revolt against Hitler which cost them their lives.[3] Otto John, a survivor of the operation who was later employed by Delmer, reported ‘that [their] broadcasts had indeed been heard by the conspirators, and interpreted in precisely the sense [Delmer] had hoped.’[4]

Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark was part of a generation of post-war novelists who explored the magnetic influence of myth-makers and the ways in which they can lead others to enact dangerous myths in reality. Iris Murdoch’s The Flight from the Enchanter (1956) and John Fowles’ The Magus (1965) exemplify this trend. Yet Spark’s PWE experience informs the myth-making techniques that pervades her oeuvre, particularly in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), The Abbess of Crewe (1974) and The Takeover (1976).

In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, charismatic teacher Miss Brodie embraces an aesthetic understanding of the world, illustrated by her belief that ‘Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first [than Safety]’ and that ‘Art comes first and then science.’[5] Her mythological method of ‘making patterns with facts’[6] resembles that of totalitarian leaders who ‘choose[s] those elements from existing ideologies which are best fitted to become the fundaments of another, entirely fictitious world.’[7] For example, Miss Brodie first introduces her ex-lover as a Robert Burns-like poet before endowing him with the attributes of her new love interests, the art teacher Mr. Lloyd and the music teacher Mr. Lowther: ‘Sometimes Hugh would sing, he had a rich tenor voice. At other times he fell silent and would set up his easel and paint.’[8] Miss Brodie has elected herself to grace as ‘the God of Calvin’ who ‘sees the beginning and the end’[9] and therefore pays no attention to morals when exercising her sense of predestination. Yet Sandy Stranger soon recognizes the failures of her omniscience and the problematic nature of her myth-making.

For instance, Miss Brodie’s plot of Rose sleeping with Mr. Lloyd backfires when Sandy becomes Mr. Lloyd’s lover, leading Sandy to feel ‘more affection for her in her later years […] when she thought upon Miss Brodie as silly.’[10] Miss Brodie also imposes dangerous ‘heroic futures’ on her students; trying ‘to inspire Eunice to become at least a pioneer missionary in some deadly and dangerous zone of the earth’, encouraging Rose to become Mr. Lloyd’s lover on her behalf, and, most alarmingly, ‘urging young Joyce Emily to go to Spain to fight for Franco’ with deadly consequences.[11] On realizing that the end result of Miss Brodie’s plotting is the enactment of the imagination upon reality, Sandy ends up reporting Miss Brodie’s fascism to the headmistress, thereby ‘putting a stop to Miss Brodie.’[12]

Another of Spark’s mythologizers, Sister Alexandra in The Abbess of Crewe, believes that her destiny is to become Abbess. In her attempts to persuade her fellow nuns to support her claim, she propagandistically discards history for mythology:

Here, in the Abbey of Crewe, we have discarded history. We have entered the sphere, dear Sisters, of mythology. My nuns love it. Who doesn’t yearn to be part of a myth at whatever the price in comfort? The monastic system is in revolt throughout the rest of the world, thanks to historical development. Here, within the ambience of mythology, we have consummate satisfaction, we have peace.[13]

In this mythological realm, truth is no longer subject to referential claims. In order to get elected as Abbess and direct attention away from the scandal of Sister Felicity sleeping with a Jesuit, Abbess Alexandra selects those ‘facts’ which are relevant to her point of view in order to craft plausible narratives to suit the occasion. Like Miss Brodie, Abbess Alexandra is a myth-maker who imposes her imagination on others. For example, she forces Sister Gertrude to cope with the story of her having been sent on a mission by the Abbey because ‘[s]he fits the rhetoric of the occasion’[14] and nastily misrepresents Sister Felicity’s ideas of freedom and love when arguing that Felicity ‘wants an open audit of all the dowries and she advocates indiscreet sex.’[15] In doing so, Abbess Alexandra embraces an aesthetic understanding of faith which clashes with Felicity’s down-to-each approach: ‘Felicity will never see the point of faith unless it visible benefits mankind.’[16] Her inability to face reality eventually leads to her potential excommunication by Rome. As Sister Gertrude warns her, mythological garble may suit the media, but ‘[i]n Rome, they deal with realities.’[17] In a final flight from history, Abbess Alexandra is aesthetically rendered as a tape of her selected transcripts, entitled The Abbess of Crewe. She has become ‘an object of art, the end of which is to give pleasure.’[18]

The Takeover opens with Hubert Mallindaine living in a beautiful house by Lake Nemi, property of wealthy American Maggie Radcliffe. In order to gain prestige and power, Hubert has unproblematically accepted his eccentric aunts’ claim that they are in fact the descendants of Goddess Diana of Nemi. Like Abbess Alexandra, Hubert’s belief in the subjectivity of reality leads him to manufacture it for his benefit. Reacting against the ontological realism of the Jesuit priests he encounters, Hubert claims that absolute truths do not exist and therefore ‘[a]ppearances are reality’.[19] Following this principle, Hubert uses his ancestral claim to create a religious cult of Diana and establish himself as high priest. However, when his secretary Pauline inopportunely unearths ‘evidence that his aunts, infatuated by Sir James Frazer and his Golden Bough […] had been in correspondence with the quack genealogist [and] instructed him in the plainest terms to establish their descent from the goddess Diana’, Hubert tenaciously evades this documentary evidence. In doing so, he emphasises the importance of self-confidence in the practice of deception because ‘it frequently over-rides with an orgulous scorn any small blatant contradictory facts which might lead a simple mind to feel a reasonable perplexity and a sharp mind to feel definite suspicion.’[20]

This belief mirrors Hitler’s idea of the ‘big lie’, a falsity so colossal that the masses ‘will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous effrontery and infamous misrepresentation in others.’[21] Hubert’s mythological lineage is blatantly fake, yet it has such aesthetic power that it enchants not only his neighbours, many of which become members of the flock, but the myth-maker himself:

‘[H]e had got into a habit of false assumptions by the imperceptible encroachment of his new cult; so ardently had he been preaching the efficacy of prayer that he now, without thinking, silently invoked the name of Diana for every desire that passed through his head, wildly believing that her will not only existed but would certainly come to pass.’[22]

Notes

[1] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), 11.

[2] Ibid., 120.

[3] Ibid., 121.

[4] Ibid., 121.

[5] Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 7; 22.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, 1958), 361-2.

[8] Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 71.

[9] Ibid., 121.

[10] Ibid., 112.

[11] Ibid., 61; 124.

[12] Ibid., 125.

[13] Muriel Spark, The Abbess of Crewe (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 9.

[14] Ibid., 19.

[15] Ibid., 33.

[16] Ibid., 26.

[17] Ibid., 86.

[18] Ibid., 86.

[19]Muriel Spark, The Takeover (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 90.

[20] Ibid., 131-2.

[21] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf [My Struggle] (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943), 231-2.

[22] Spark, The Takeover, 182-3.

Public Event: PWE research seminar, 27 June 2019

Readers in the North East of England (and further afield) are very welcome to attend our first research seminar, on Thursday 27 June 2019 in Durham

The Political Warfare Executive and British Culture

While ‘fake news’ is an urgent political topic at the moment, state-backed disinformation is a practice with a long and controversial history. During the Second World War, the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) was established by the British Government as a secret organisation with the mission of spreading propaganda to enemy and enemy-occupied countries. It conducted this propaganda through techniques such as rumour campaigns, broadcasts, leaflet and magazine drops, and forgeries.

To carry out its mission, the PWE recruited various well-known journalists, authors, intellectuals, artists, and actors, harnessing their publicly renowned talents towards these concealed propaganda campaigns.

In this seminar, members of ‘The Political Warfare Executive, Covert Propaganda, and British Culture’ project will discuss the research they have been conducting towards understanding the PWE’s little-known interactions with the cultural sphere.

  • James Smith will overview the structure of the PWE and its various forms of propaganda activity, and will discuss the roles some prominent authors and intellectuals came to play in the organisation.
  • Guy Woodward will discuss his research in the archives of the PWE, and look at examples of magazines, pamphlets, and rumours created by the PWE.
  • Beatriz Lopez will talk about her research on novelist and former PWE employee Muriel Spark, exploring Spark’s fascination with the use of PWE storytelling techniques to create deceptive yet plausible narratives in her novels.

The seminar is open to all and free to attend, and there will be a chance for Q&A and discussion. It is organised by Durham’s Centre for Modern Conflicts and Cultures. Contact: James.smith3@durham.ac.uk

Thursday 27 June 2019

5.15-6.45 PM

Durham University, Elvet Riverside, Room 157

‘The Political Warfare Executive, Covert Propaganda, and British Culture’ project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

‘L’Entente Cordiale’: D-Day and the literary magazine

Documents of the month: FO 898/521 / FO 898/522

Guy Woodward

As many recollections aired this week have testified, the D-Day landings – which took place exactly seventy-five years ago today – required an enormously technically sophisticated military operation. Aside from the Mulberry Harbours and the Pluto Pipeline however, it is worth remembering that the Allied conquest of Northern France was accompanied and supported by a colossal propaganda campaign – many documents in the PWE archive refer to plans for D-Day and post D-Day propaganda. The archive also contains several examples of leaflets and other printed propaganda for distribution in France after liberation.

British and US propagandists worked closely together on the campaign, which was coordinated by the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) Psychological Warfare Division. According to Caroline Reed over nine million leaflets were dropped on France on 6-7 June 1944 – together with radio broadcasts these brought news of the landings to the occupied and the occupiers, and advised French civilians to leave towns and cities and seek safety in the countryside.

Aside from this operational propaganda however, the PWE and their US counterparts at the Office of War Information (OWI) were working busily on a supplementary programme of cultural publications, including a cluster of little magazines and literary digests intended to foster cultural connections between the Allies and the French.

The archive contains several copies of La Revue du Monde Libre, for example – a little magazine measuring just 11 x 14 cm, which was produced in 1943-44. This carried literary works, essays and reviews by a range of prominent British and French writers including T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, André Gide, Harold Nicolson, and Stephen Spender.

This edition from April 1943 features ‘Un Seule Pensée’, a poem by Paul Eluard, and an essay by Rebecca West on the attitude of the Nazis towards women. The cover features the legend ‘Apportée par la R.A.F.’ – ‘Brought by the RAF’.

By the time of D-Day the magazine had increased in size and the quality of the paper had improved – as mentioned in a previous post, 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. Here is La Revue du Monde Libre from July 1944:

This begins with an article reprinted from the British magazine The Economist describing the events of 6 June 1944 – it also features an essay by the Germanophobic diplomat, writer and propagandist Lord Vansittart entitled ‘L’Entente Cordiale’, clearly aimed at fostering friendly Anglo-French relations, and an essay by the historian Christopher Dawson promoting international collaboration to aid post-war reconstruction – this was originally published in the Dublin Review.

So successful was La Revue du Monde Libre that PWE and OWI moved to produce a series of like-minded review digests for European countries which had been liberated. The digest Choix was produced for France from 1944-45 – the cover of the first issue shows how serious-minded a publication it was, featuring a translation of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ by André Gide and other contributions by W.H. Auden, Ernest Hemingway and Federico Garcia Lorca.

As the official historian of the PWE David Garnett observed, these publications aimed to dispel an intellectual and cultural black out resulting from the occupation.[1] Harnessing the writings of some of the most prominent figures in mid-century modernism, La Revue du Monde Libre and Choix also appear to be designed to foster enthusiasm in France for British and American high culture – in this respect these publications perhaps prepared the ground for the later weaponisation of the literary magazine during the Cold War.[2]

Images by kind permission of The National Archives

Notes

[1] David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945, (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), p. 185.

[2] The scandal surrounding covert CIA funding of the literary magazine Encounter (initially edited by Stephen Spender) is addressed by Frances Stonor Saunders in Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 2000).

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

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] 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.