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.

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.

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.

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.

 

‘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).

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.