Poisoned sweetmeats: introducing #siboftheweek

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

[4] Garnett, p. 214.

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

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

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

[8] Garnett, p. 213.

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