Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once

Guy Woodward finds echoes of PWE campaigns in a classic sitcom

After two years researching the Political Warfare Executive, I am beginning to find echoes of the agency and its work in all sorts of unexpected places. Watching some episodes of the venerable BBC sitcom Allo, Allo! the other day, for instance, I noticed a subplot involving the establishment of a French resistance radio station with covert British assistance, in which several elements recall the PWE’s wartime activities.

The subplot occurs in series eight, broadcast on BBC One from January-March 1992; in episode one, ‘Arousing Suspicions’, resistance agent Michelle Dubois (Kirsten Cooke – ‘Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once’) announces to café proprietor René Artois (Gorden Kaye) and his wife Edith (Carmen Silvera), that Free French leader Charles de Gaulle has ordered the resistance cell in the northern French town of Nouvion to launch a radio station:

We will broadcast the truth about the war, undermining German morale and rousing the brave French people to arms in preparation for the invasion.

These twin aims accord perfectly with the PWE’s propaganda strategy from 1941-45, of undermining the enemy’s will to fight and emboldening resistance movements.

‘But surely’, worries Edith, ‘the Germans will track down the radio station?’ Michelle explains that the cell will have to move the transmission equipment around the countryside to evade discovery. As a further precaution, broadcasts are to be pre-recorded on wax cylinders, to prevent the Germans apprehending members of the resistance during a live transmission; the wax cylinders and ‘Edison recording machine’ will shortly be airdropped by the British.

The typically convoluted plotting of writers Jeremy Lloyd and Paul Adam here establishes the grounds for the comic mishaps to come, but the scenario appears far-fetched. Histories of the resistance certainly acknowledge the importance of radio as a means of communication and of popularizing the cause: De Gaulle’s own broadcasts from London on the BBC’s Radio Londres service were hugely significant in this respect.[1] I can find no instance of the British supporting local stations in France, but the PWE did establish a range of ‘Freedom Stations’ during the war, which were intended to sound as if local resistance groups were broadcasting from inside occupied territories. The agency’s official historian David Garnett recalled that

As an instrument of subversive propaganda secret broadcasting of this kind is a most potent weapon. So long as the audience believes that the station is operating secretly in its midst, its existence is a symbol of resistance.[2]

Wary and weary of Michelle’s schemes, René says that he wants no part in the plan. ‘Too late’, says Michelle, producing a draft schedule from the pocket of her raincoat. Under his resistance codename ‘Nighthawk’, René is to broadcast on Wednesdays following Michelle’s own breakfast-time chat show – she suggests that ‘People cannot listen to propaganda all the time – they need some light relief.’

Michelle’s perceptive observation echoes the PWE’s approach to programming on many of its wartime radio stations, where propaganda messaging was carefully integrated into a schedule overtly geared towards entertainment, providing sports news or playing the latest popular music: PWE’s Sefton Delmer characterised this approach as

Cover, dirt, cover, cover, dirt, cover, dirt […] “dirt” being what we called the items which we hoped would make our listeners think and act on lines displeasing to their Führer.[3]

Delmer records the pains taken to ensure that the musical numbers would appeal to German listeners, flying the latest German dance records in from Stockholm, and even producing recordings from scratch using a captured German band.[4]

Back in Nouvion, when Edith brightly suggests – to René’s consternation – that she might record a song for broadcast on the resistance station to boost morale, Michelle refuses, noting that her voice is too recognisable and would ‘give the game away.’ Again, Michelle’s approach reflects that of the PWE, which took great care to ensure that voices heard on its black stations were not familiar from other contexts.

Michelle Dubois’s plan begins to unravel when the wax cylinders are dropped in error down the chimney of the nearby château, which has been commandeered by the hated Major-General Erich von Klinkerhoffen (Hilary Minster) and his occupying forces. To retrieve the cylinders Michelle, René, Edith and other members of the cell disguise themselves as a flamenco troupe visiting from Franco’s Spain, who have been engaged to perform for the German officers. Dressed in full ruffled and layered traje de flamenca, René eventually manages to smuggle the cylinders out of the château hidden in his fake bosom.

In the following episode, ‘A Woman Never Lies’, the café staff and resistance members assemble to record the first broadcast, a radio play in which undercover spy Officer Crabtree (Arthur Bostrom – ‘Good Moaning’) provides sound effects as dubious as his command of French, using coconuts to mimic horses’ hooves and slowing opening some rusty pliers to simulate the creaking of a door.

Michelle reveals that the recordings will be broadcast from a transmitter hidden in the hearse of Belgian undertaker Monsieur Alfonse (Carry On veteran Kenneth Connor); Alfonse’s whip will serve to disguise an aerial. As the hearse drives away however, members of the cell are gripped by panic when they realise that the wrong cylinder has been placed in the transmitter: instead of the resistance programming, Alfonse is set to broadcast a personal message recorded by de Gaulle for René, threatening to blow the cover of the whole cell.

The resistance radio station plays little part in the remaining episodes of the series, which are largely concerned with the ongoing tussle between various German factions over the ownership of the valuable painting ‘The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies’.

Allo, Allo! clearly demonstrates the comic possibilities of propaganda production, however – indeed, it is not hard to imagine a sitcom scripted by David Croft, Jimmy Perry or Jeremy Lloyd which focused on the activities of the PWE. The linguistic and imaginative contortions required in order to establish a successful Freedom Station might well be exploited for comic effect. As if outlining the setting for such a series, the printer and typographer Ellic Howe described the environment at the requisitioned Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire – centre for the production of black propaganda during the war – as ‘sometimes more akin to surrealism than reality’:

The formula for a ‘mad’ atmosphere was ready made. Plant an ill-assorted collection of journalists etc. in and around the purlieus of a ducal mansion and more or less isolate them from the outside world – during the first fortnight of the war they were confined to the Riding School and stables area – and there is the perfect recipe for a black comedy.[5]

Notes

[1] Olivier Wieviorka, The French Resistance, trans. by Jane Marie Todd (Harvard University Press, 2016).

[2] David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945 (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), pp. 32-3.

[3] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang:An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), p. 91.

[4] Ibid., p. 84.

[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. 44.

Cartoons and propaganda: Osbert Lancaster at the PWE

Document of the month: FO 898/507

Guy Woodward investigates the involvement of Daily Express cartoonist Osbert Lancaster in wartime propaganda

This booklet entitled Moffes-Spiegel measures 10.5 x 13 cm and appears in file 898/507 ‘Dutch Leaflets and Booklets’. Produced for the Netherlands, it contains a series of cartoons ridiculing the Nazi high command and other German officials, all of which were originally drawn for the Daily Express by Osbert Lancaster (1908-86).

‘Mof’ is a derogatory slang term for ‘German’, and ‘Spiegel’ is ‘mirror’: the title has been translated by the invaluable online resource psywar.org as ‘The Image of the Hun.’[1] A message on the opening page signed by ‘The RAF’ crediting Lancaster as artist promises that the cartoons present the Herrenvolk ‘as they really are’.[2] Psywar notes that 66,100 copies of the booklet were dropped over the Netherlands in seven separate missions in mid-September and early October 1942, and then again in early March 1943.

Several cartoons in the booklet address the subject of propaganda – the first in the booklet (above) shows a German military figure asking a civilian: ‘Surely the English couldn’t be so deceitful as to mean what they say?’ Facing this, a cartoon under the heading ‘Propaganda’ depicts a portly SS officer sententiously admonishing a malnourished Dutch civilian, telling him ‘Remember if the kind Führer hadn’t rescued you from the brutal British blockade you’d be starving by now.’[3]

In other cartoons Lancaster addresses the gluttony of senior Nazis more directly – this was a popular theme in British propaganda to occupied Europe, as I explored in a post last May. The cartoon on the left page above shows two men tucking into a feast, with the caption ‘Just think, dear colleague, of all those poor French children starving because of the brutal British blockade.’[4] The cartoon facing this attacks the Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring, whose obese form and famed vanity made him a popular target of British wartime satire. Under the heading ‘The Fattest of Teutons’, we see Göring in full Highland dress, as Hitler admonishes him: ‘But, Hermann, I told you distinctly that we are not liberating Scotland until 1941.’[5] Other cartoons seek to emphasise the brutality and deceitful nature of German military campaigns – under the ironic heading ‘Blitzkrieg’ we see a Luftwaffe bomber firing on a pram at close range as one airman says to another ‘Well, we can always say we thought it was a tank’ (below, right).[6]

Lancaster’s attacks were informed by direct observation: like many who worked in British wartime propaganda departments, Lancaster had first-hand experience of the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany. In 1933 he took a skiing holiday with his future wife Karen in Bavaria; he recalled in his memoir arriving at the colourful Alpine town of Mittenwald, and feeling uneasy when he saw an immense banner reading ‘Hitler wird Kanzler sein’. That night the couple observed a torchlit procession from their hotel balcony, and heard the ‘booming of the village band punctuated by throaty “Sieg Heils”.’[7] Visiting Munich a few years later, the couple were shocked when they discovered that German friends of Karen had become confirmed supporters of the Nazi party.[8]

Lancaster began contributing a daily pocket cartoon to the Daily Express on 1 January 1939; remarkably these appeared until his retirement in 1981. He recalled in his memoir that he was taken on by the newspaper after he approached the features editor John Rayner and volunteered his services as a cartoonist.[9] The connection with Rayner is significant: an expert on typeface and design who had revolutionised the appearance of the Express in the 1930s, Rayner worked for the PWE during the war in a number of areas, including printed propaganda, radio broadcasting, and the LINK! production of sibs (rumours intended to deceive or demoralise the enemy).[10]

The exact nature of Lancaster’s own wartime activities in this field are unclear: frustratingly his memoir With an Eye to the Future (1967) ends with the declaration of war. According to his biographer James Knox, a few months after this in late 1939 Lancaster was employed by the Ministry of Information (MOI), and worked at Senate House, Bloomsbury (left), in a ‘department responsible for the release of overseas news to the British press and, as part of the propaganda war, to enemy, neutral and allied nations.’[11] In 1941 Lancaster was transferred to the Foreign Office ‘News Department’, but remained at Senate House and continued to brief journalists; he also worked shifts monitoring German radio broadcasts.[12]

A garrulous and sociable figure who loved gossip, Lancaster was certainly busy during the war: in addition to his work at Senate House, he continued producing daily cartoons for the Express, worked as art critic for the Observer and book reviewer for the Spectator, and frequently appeared as a panel member on radio discussion programmes.[13]

Cartoons, it is clear, are a particularly useful form of transnational propaganda, since ridicule through caricature can be easily understood across borders and cultures: like his fellow cartoonists Carl Giles and David Low, Lancaster’s works were frequently reprinted in PWE leaflets and periodicals during the war: However, fragments in biographies of Lancaster and in the memoirs of those who knew him suggest that earlier in the war he also worked directly for the organisation as an artist, at its Country headquarters at Woburn Abbey (below). His friend Peter Quennell, who had a tedious job as press censor at the MOI in the early years of the war, recalled his envy of Lancaster’s attachment to Woburn and involvement in ‘secret campaigns’.[14] Another biographer Richard Boston notes that Lancaster and Karen for a time rented a cottage with fellow Express cartoonist and PWE artist Walter Goetz and his wife Toni in Aldworth, Berkshire (Boston suggests this was ideally located for Woburn, which does not really make sense – even today it is around 1hr 45 m drive away).[15]

Lancaster’s exact role at Woburn remains unclear, but his social and professional connections with PWE figures were notably extensive. In December 1944 he was sent by the FO from London to Greece, where he served as press attaché to the British Embassy and GHQ in Athens, managing a propaganda campaign against the communist insurgency under Ambassador Rex Leeper – executive head of the PWE from 1941-43. And in addition to his friendship with Rayner (to whom his 1941 collection New Pocket Cartoons was dedicated), Lancaster also knew Freya Stark, whose role in wartime propaganda I examined in a previous blog post: he apparently decorated the bathroom at her house in Asolo, northern Italy, shortly after the war.[16]

The connections can be traced over two decades: as a student at Oxford in the late 1920s, Lancaster had encountered several figures who would later play prominent roles in the British wartime propaganda campaign. A fellow student at Lincoln College (right) was Sefton Delmer, another Express man who became PWE’s black propaganda supremo two decades later. Delmer attempted without success to instruct him in rowing, but Lancaster was more interested in aesthetic and cultural pursuits: he describes taking part in a production of King Lear in which several figures later associated with propaganda and secret work were cast.[17] Lear was played by Harman Grisewood, Assistant Controller of the BBC’s European Service during the Second World War and therefore heavily involved in PWE planning. John Betjeman, later ‘PWE’s chosen instrument in Dublin’ during the war (I wrote about this in November 2018), had been cast as the Fool, but was ejected from the production when the Betjeman-edited Cherwell magazine printed satirical photographs of rehearsals of the play.[18] Meanwhile the Duke of Cornwall was played by Peter Fleming, whose wartime roles in British intelligence and irregular warfare were many and various, and included ‘head of deception’ in India from 1942-45.[19]

At first glance such anecdotes may appear trivial, but Lancaster’s wartime career surely indicates the extent to which recruitment to the PWE and other associated British propaganda organisations was determined by a relatively narrow and interconnected series of social and professional networks.

Images by kind permission of The National Archives

Notes

[1] Translation provided by psywar.org: https://www.psywar.org/product_1942H019.php

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Osbert Lancaster, With an Eye to the Future (London: John Murray, 1967), p. 117.

[8] Ibid., p. 140.

[9] Ibid., p. 149.

[10] Artemis Cooper, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure (London: John Murray, 2012), p. 199; Simon Fenwick, Joan: Beauty, Rebel, Muse: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor, (London: Pan Macmillan, 2017), chapter 6 (unpaginated); Eunan O’Halpin, Spying on Ireland: British Intelligence and Irish Neutrality During the Second World War, (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 211.

[11] James Knox, Cartoons & Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster (London: Francis Lincoln, 2008), p. 48.

[12] Ibid., p. 49.

[13] Richard Boston, Osbert: A portrait of Osbert Lancaster (London: Collins, 1989), p. 126.

[14] Peter Quennell, The Wanton Chase: An Autobiography from 1939 (London: Collins, 1980), p. 14.

[15] Boston, p. 122.

[16] Maurice Cardiff, Friends Abroad (London, New York: The Radcliffe Press, 1997), p. 87.

[17] Lancaster, With an Eye to the Future, p. 66.

[18] O’Halpin, p. 210.

[19] Rupert Hart-Davis, ‘Fleming, (Robert) Peter’ (2004), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi-org.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/31114.

‘No Christmas truce in political warfare’: festive wartime propaganda – part 2

Document of the month: FO 898/323

Guy Woodward on PWE plans for a Christmas radio broadcast featuring Italian POWs

This time last year I examined at a plan developed in the run up to Christmas 1940, to use the festive season as a means of fomenting discord in Germany between civilians and officials. A memorandum written at the time by Richard Crossman, then head of Ministry of Economic Warfare’s German section, suggests that the festive season is a time when civilians and troops ‘will feel the absence of their families more strongly and will be most susceptible for this reason to certain lines of propaganda, particularly if that propaganda is made to appear as though it were not propaganda at all.’

Reflecting this view, the archive of the Political Warfare Executive features several other documents showing that British propagandists identified Christmas as a useful period in which to promote narratives which fostered resentment for the Axis governments, or presented Britain and the Allies in a favourable light. PWE’s Central Directive on Christmas Eve 1942, for example, states categorically that:

Throughout the war the PWE placed considerable emphasis in propaganda campaigns on the conditions enjoyed by Axis prisoners of war held in Allied POW camps: by suggesting that POWs were comfortably housed, well fed and treated with dignity the PWE hoped both to encourage enemy troops to surrender and to draw attention to privations and shortages on the German and Italian home fronts.

In late 1942 the PWE was also particularly concerned by an ongoing Italian ‘Hate England’ campaign – apparently personally initiated by Mussolini – alleging that Italian prisoners in British captivity were being maltreated by their captors. In response a plan was hatched to broadcast messages recorded by Italian POWs over the BBC’s Italian Service, as a means of showing that prisoners were well-treated and content.

File FO 898/323 features a script (in English) entitled ‘The Prisoner’s Christmas’ which seems to have been recorded in the run up to Christmas that year, at a POW camp in Gloucestershire. Somewhat ironically the broadcast opens with this announcement:

The announcer introduces a British inspector of the Italian POW camps, who tells listeners that the programme is being broadcast both in Italy and to Italian prisoners in England – suggesting that civilians and troops separated by war can be re-united over the airwaves. The inspector then leads us to ‘the little chapel near the camp’ where songs, prayers and greetings were recorded – a subtle detail indicating that prisoners are not confined within the camp. A second announcer sets the scene:

Religious hymns are played, before a greeting from ‘Sergeant Major Nardo Francesco’, leader of Italian prisoners at the camp:

The announcer then leads listeners back to the camp, stating that the POWs have their own ‘small orchestra’ featuring banjos, guitar, mandolin, violin and drums; he introduces songs from Northern Italy and Naples, before the ‘old refrain of the “Campagnola” (listen to it here). Strikingly, the script makes no direct mention of the living conditions of the prisoners – there are no references to meals or sleeping quarters, for example – but the emphasis on music produced by the POWs themselves nevertheless clearly promotes the impression that they are well-cared for and granted significant autonomy.

The programme concludes with a series of personal messages from named Italian service personnel in captivity to their families in Italy. These include:

And:

The French theorist of propaganda Jacques Ellul wrote that ‘The propagandist cannot separate the general and specific effects. When he launches a radio campaign, he knows that the effects of his campaign and the effects of radio broadcasts in general will be combined.’[1] Like the naming of the priest and the prisoners’ leader, the use of specific names and addresses in this script appears designed to provide a guarantee of authenticity to the wider listenership beyond the specific recipients of the greetings.

It is unclear from file FO 898/323 whether ‘The Prisoner’s Christmas’ was ever broadcast. When the possibility of broadcasting a religious service from an Italian POW camp was raised in November 1942 Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden gave cautious approval, but counselled that the ‘shackling dispute’ between the Britain and Germany should be resolved first. Further correspondence in the file suggests that some officials had other reservations about broadcasting POW greetings, fearing that Italian propaganda would respond by claiming that these had been recorded under duress, or by compelling British prisoners in Italian captivity to record similar broadcasts.

The script clearly shows, however, that Christmas presented an ideal opportunity to weaponise the rhetoric of peace and goodwill for the purposes of propaganda.

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] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, (New York: Vintage Books, 1973; originally published 1962), p. 162.

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.

Brexit and the wartime ‘Projection of Britain’

Document of the month: FO 898/413

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

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

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

Ivone Kirkpatrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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