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.

‘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.

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.