‘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

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] 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).

Poisoned sweetmeats: introducing #siboftheweek

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

All archival material is Crown Copyright and is held in The National Archives. Quotations which appear here have been transcribed by members of the project team.

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

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

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

[4] Garnett, p. 214.

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

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

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

[8] Garnett, p. 213.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note

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