James Smith finds disturbing echoes of a British wartime disinformation campaign in recent White House press conferences
In August 1941, British propagandists devised a sequence of disinformation rumours (known as ‘sibs’) for dissemination in Germany, with the aim of spreading “the fear of disease coming from the east, with the threefold intention of upsetting morale, of doing physical harm by the specious remedies suggested, and of making people use essential materials.”
The quotation is taken from sib ‘R/267, Germany, 22 August 1941’, and can be found in the searchable Sibnet database compiled by the historian Lee Richards, using the archives of the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), Special Operations Executive, Joint Intelligence Committee, Foreign Office and Cabinet Office: you can find it here on his invaluable online resource psywar.org.
The word ‘sib’ derives from the Latin ‘sibillare’, meaning to hiss or whisper – Sibs were rumours invented and disseminated by the PWE with the aim of deceiving the enemy, of undermining enemy morale, or of damaging perceptions of the enemy (read more about sibs here).
A remarkable example from this August 1941 sequence is ‘R/268’, which aimed to spread the lie that
The best way to keep off typhus is to take regular doses of quinine.
Quinine, of course, was a safe and effective anti-malarial drug but was ineffective (although sometimes promoted in the nineteenth century) against typhus – an often-fatal disease which saw significant outbreaks during the war. Promoting quinine’s use in this way not only increased the potential spread and fear of typhus, but also encouraged the diversion of quinine supplies away from treating malaria in other theatres of war.
The PWE used sibs of this kind to damage the war efforts of an enemy population. But to what extent, we might well ask, have Trump’s press conferences during the Covid-19 crisis unwittingly achieved these disinformation objectives against his own citizens?
“The Italian prisoners are gratified at the part played by the Partisans in the liberation of Northern Italy and derive from it hopes of a rebirth of Italian prestige. Many co-operators, who apparently failed to appreciate that their presence among crowds celebrating the Victory might not be welcome, resented not being allowed to mix with the public on VE-Day”
These lines appear in a May 1945 report by the PWE’s ‘Prisoners of War Directorate’ on the morale of Italian Prisoners of War (POWs) held in camps in Britain.
The PWE papers shows that rather than marking the end of the PWE’s role, VE Day raised new problems for branches of the agency tasked with the ‘re-education’ of POWs – even those who welcomed the Allied victory.
Like its First World War predecessor Crewe House, the PWE’s role in the production of propaganda for enemy and occupied Europe made it a natural choice for overseeing the re-education programme of captured enemy prisoners. During the war the PWE had made extensive use of surveys of POWs to assess the efficacy of various types of propaganda; the agency’s John Baker White suggested that ‘Prisoners were of the utmost importance in psychological warfare, being the mirror to the morale that P.W.E. and P.W.D. were seeking to destroy.’
Several POWs were also employed to voice radio broadcasts to their home countries: Agnes Bernelle, a refugee who performed as ‘Vicki’ on the black station Soldatensender West recalled that German POWs were brought to the studio blindfolded to read news reports.
Documents record that by May 1945 there were 154,513 Italian and 199,543 German and Austrian, POWs held in camps in Britain, and that numbers actually increased over the following year.
The PWE’s Prisoner of War Directorate monitored the ‘screening’ of prisoners into ‘white’, ‘grey’, or ‘black’ ideological categories, and/or into ‘co-operator’ and ‘non-co-operator’ groups. ‘White’ co-operators with needed qualifications were prioritised for repatriation to help in the rebuilding of their home countries, whereas ‘black’ POWs were moved to separate camps and attempted to be converted.
A range of books, newspapers, lectures, English lessons and other materials were organised to aid the re-education process. The PWE was particularly concerned to communicate to German POW’s what had happened in Nazi concentration camps: in June 1945 all German prisoners were obliged to attend a screening of a 20 minute film on the camps; audience monitoring surveys showed ‘that the film has made a profound impression on the prisoners and is accepted, with some negligible exceptions, as a genuine record of Nazi barbarity.’
The PWE recorded that a small number of German NCOs spread ‘the opinion that the film was faked’ however, and one report states that ‘a large minority of the prisoners – mainly of course, in the “Black” camps’ refused to believe the films as they ‘are still under the influence of Nazi propaganda and clinging obstinately to Nazi ideas’ – showing, perhaps, that the cry of ‘fake news!’ to dismiss unpalatable facts is far from new, and indicating that the effects of wartime propaganda would endure long after 8 May 1945.
The photos accompanying this piece were taken by a Ministry of Information photographer documenting daily life in a German POW camp in Britain in 1945 and are part of the collections of the Imperial War Museums.
 Sir Campbell Stuart, K.B.E., Secrets of Crewe House: The Story of a Famous Campaign (London, New York, Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920), p. 143.
 John Baker White, The Big Lie (London: Evans Brothers, 1955), p. 105.
 Agnes Bernelle, The Fun Palace (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1996), p. 95.
Guy Woodward finds echoes of PWE campaigns in Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin
One of the most ingenious and darkly humorous items I have found in the PWE papers is this postcard designed for distribution in Hungary in 1944. Circulating Allied propaganda was of course prohibited in Axis states, and punishments were severe, but the postcard attempted to circumvent and subvert the laws against this. It addresses itself to police officers, advising them that if they are enforcing the orders of the German-backed Hungarian government they are acting as ‘Enemies of the People’. The card advises anyone who finds it to send it to any ‘policeman or gendarme’ they knew, and features the reminder: ‘Don’t forget that you are acting in accordance with official instructions if you surrender all foreign leaflets to the competent authority.’ The card clearly aims to undermine the authority of the police, but was paradoxically perfectly legal to circulate.
I was reminded of this postcard when reading Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin, originally published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein in Germany in 1947 (Michael Hoffman’s celebrated English translation did not appear until 2009). The novel focuses on Otto and Anna Quangel, a working-class couple in Berlin in 1940, who are shaken from their plodding and acquiescent existence when their son Ottochen is killed fighting in France. After much thought, Otto Quangel decides to express his newfound resistance by producing anonymous postcards critical of the Nazi regime and dropping them in stairwells of buildings around the German capital. His wife Anna is initially unimpressed by the plan:
And what was he proposing? Nothing at all, something so ridiculously small, something so absolutely in his character, something discreet, out of the way, something that wouldn’t interfere with his peace and quiet. Postcards with slogans against the Führer and the Party, against the war, for the information of his fellow men, that was all.
For those interested in the material and affective qualities of wartime propaganda the novel features much of interest. Fallada describes Otto’s production of the initial postcard in considerable detail: he wears gloves to prevent giveaway fingerprints, and writes laboriously in a block capital ‘sign-writing style’ rather than cursive script more likely to betray his hand. Before dropping the card, which features the bleak opening line ‘Mother! The Führer has murdered my son’, Otto and Anna discuss what is likely to happen when it is discovered.
Anticipating that some cards will be handed in straight away to apartment block wardens or to the police, Otto remains upbeat:
‘…whether it’s shown to the Party or not, whether to an official or a policeman, they all will read the card, and it will have some effect on them. Even if the only effect is to remind them that there is still resistance out there that not everyone thinks like the Führer…’
The following chapter describes the nerve-shredding business of dropping the card – using gloved hands again, Otto deposits the card on the inner window sill of an office block. Attention then switches to the discovery of the card by film actor Max Harteisen; out-of-favour with Joseph Goebbels after contradicting the Reich Minister of Propaganda, Harteisen is thrown into total panic when he finds the card near the office of his attorney:
Sweat beaded on his brow, suddenly he understood that it wasn’t just the writer of the postcard, but also himself, who was in danger of his life, and perhaps he even more than the other! His hand itched: he wanted to put the card down, he wanted to take it away with him, he wanted to tear it to pieces, just where he was…
Otto’s postcards promote ideas familiar to historians of the PWE – the first card opens by accusing Hitler of murder but continues to advise readers to obstruct the German war effort through a quiet programme of non-compliance and malingering:
DON’T GIVE TO THE WINTER RELIEF FUND! – WORK AS SLOWLY AS YOU CAN! – PUT SAND IN THE MACHINES! – EVERY STROKE OF WORK NOT DONE WILL SHORTEN THE WAR!
These injunctions are strikingly similar to those emphasised in British propaganda campaigns: official historian David Garnett described the malingering booklet produced in various forms by the PWE’s Black Printing Unit as the agency’s ‘most important publication’, and the PWE would expend considerable energy in attempting to persuade German military personnel and labourers to feign injury or run covert go-slow campaigns in factories and mines.
Otto Quangel’s ambitions are grandiose; at the outset he tells Anna that ‘We will inundate Berlin with postcards, we will slow the machines, we will depose the Führer, end the war’. These dreams are doomed, however: very few of the several hundred cards produced pass into circulation, and we learn towards the novel’s end that almost all were immediately handed in to the authorities.
Much of the narrative follows Gestapo Inspector Escherich’s patient pursuit of the Quangels over several months, as he notes the locations in which the postcards are found on a map on his office wall. The culprits are eventually revealed when a card slips accidentally from Otto’s bag at the factory where he works (originally this produced furniture but now, chillingly, it has been turned over to the manufacture of coffins for the Eastern front). At this point Fallada drops a small but significant hint acknowledging the circulation of Allied propaganda in Germany at this early stage of the war, in the form of a rumour which immediately begins circulating on the shop floor: ‘What was that you were reading a moment ago, boss? Was it really a British propaganda leaflet?’
I can find no further reference connecting Fallada to British propaganda. Geoff Wilkes’s afterword to the Penguin edition of Alone in Berlin states that Fallada’s US publisher, Putnam, arranged transport to England for the author and his wife Anna in late 1938, but that at the last moment he decided he could not leave Germany; the couple spent the war on a smallholding in Carwitz, fifty miles north of Berlin.
However, the novel certainly suggests that in tone and style PWE campaigns reflected (and perhaps sought to mimic and inspire) those conducted within Germany – Alone in Berlin is based on the true story of Elise and Otto Hampel, a Berlin couple who conducted a three-year postcard propaganda campaign following the death of Elise’s brother in combat. And most notably, this suspenseful thriller provides a gripping imagined account of the risks and dangers involved in producing and circulating printed propaganda on the ground in enemy territory, a topic understandably often absent from historical records.
 David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945 (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), p. 191. There is an informative page on the malingering campaign on Lee Richards’s invaluable website: https://www.psywar.org/malingering.php
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.’ 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’.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.’
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.’ 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.’ 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).
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”.’ 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.
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. 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).
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.’ 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.
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.
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’. 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).
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
 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.
 James Knox, Cartoons & Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster (London: Francis Lincoln, 2008), p. 48.
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.
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’. 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.’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.’
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.’ 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’.
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.’ 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. 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.
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.
Seven decades earlier, Delmer’s clandestine radio station Gustav Siegfried Eins (GS1) began broadcasting to Germany on 23 May 1941. 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.
 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).
 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.
 Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda, pp. 35-6.
 Agnes Bernelle, The Fun Palace (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1996), p. 94.
 Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang:An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), p. 132.
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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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. Conversely, as Garnett recalls, ‘dwellers in lonely places’ were more likely to be able to pick up and circulate leaflets without being caught.
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.’ The leaflet was intended to undermine the police; paradoxically, however, it was perfectly legal to circulate.
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.
 David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945, (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), p. 30.
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.
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.’ 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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
 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.
 Ben Macintyre, For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), p. 27.
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. 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.
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.
 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.