‘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.

‘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).

Masters of Deceit: Introducing #SparkQuoteoftheWeek

Beatriz Lopez introduces a new series exploring Muriel Spark’s fictions of deception

Most critics have identified The Hothouse by the East River (1973) as the novel which most closely depicts Muriel Spark’s work for the Political Warfare Executive – its central character Elsa, like Spark, works for the organisation, transcribing military intelligence and taking Prisoners Of War for walks in her free time. However, activities associated with black propaganda – including forgery, blackmail, technological surveillance and postal censorship – permeate many of her other twenty-two novels as well, in subtle and highly original ways. Starting today we’ll be posting a Spark quote every Tuesday on @PWEpropagandist to highlight some of the ways in which Spark’s fictions echo the storytelling techniques deployed by the PWE.

Spark is particularly concerned with the threshold between truth and lies, as well as the historical contingency of truth, particularly in wartime. Her characters are masters of deceit, crafting plausible narratives which often become naturalized as dangerous myths (ahistorical ideologies promulgating  totalitarian understandings of the world); Jean Brodie (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), Abbess Alexandra (The Abbess of Crewe) and Hubert Mallindaine (The Takeover) are just some examples of Spark’s mythologisers. More broadly, Spark’s fictions are repeatedly animated by the uncanny power of the media (wireless, telephone and cinema) and the supernatural (disembodied voices, demonic beings and the evil eye) which propagate misleading representations of reality. These deceptions do not simply go unchecked, and are often confronted and exposed in Spark’s investigations of how far characters can go to justify the morality of their actions.

Follow us at @PWEpropagandist for #SparkQuoteoftheWeek, where we’ll be posting some of the best deceptive writing from Spark’s literary oeuvre.

Muriel Spark and plausibility

Beatriz Lopez finds traces of Spark’s wartime service in the PWE in two novels deeply concerned with the appearance of truth

Muriel Spark’s interest in plausible truths owes much to her experience of black propaganda work. In her autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992), she describes her role in the Political Warfare Executive which involved writing down intelligence provided by recently returned aircrews – ‘the details of the bombing, the number of planes that had gone out and those (not always all) that had returned’ – for black propaganda boss Sefton Delmer.[1] Propaganda is usually understood as biased or misleading information, but Spark’s intelligence gathering here shows that it was often based on truth (or, as I will go on to argue, the appearance of truth).

PWE agents studied German newspapers carefully to find the names and addresses of real people, building up a ‘file of personalities’ to provide the ‘characters’ to populate deceptive stories.[2] The propagandists then took pains to highlight only those details needed to infuse a deceitful story with plausible detail. Muriel Spark similarly carried out meticulous research of the historical backgrounds to her novels, and also managed to evoke plausible plots and characters with a minimal amount of detail. Both The Comforters (1957) and Loitering with Intent (1981), two novels concerning the process of novel-writing, provide a good starting point to investigate Spark’s interest in the appearance of truth.

In The Comforters, Caroline Rose hears voices and the sound of a typewriter, which leads her to believe that she is a character in a novel. She regards the ‘Typing Ghost’ as predetermination, and rebels against it in order to take over control of the narrative: ‘The narrative says we went by car; all right, we must go by train. […] It’s a matter of asserting free will.’[3] In her refusal to be subjected to this ‘phoney plot’, Caroline ridicules the novel’s bizarre mixture of literary genres and the failure of Laurence’s grandmother, Louisa Jepp, and Mrs. Hogg to adhere to their character types,  thereby questioning the plausibility of the narrative created by the disembodied author:

‘“Your grandmother being a gangster, it’s taking things too far. She’s an implausible character, don’t you see? […] So is Mrs Hogg. Is it likely that the pious old cow is a black-mailer?”’[4]

Once Louisa confesses that she is indeed the leader of a diamond gang and we learn the gang’s method of smuggling (dressing up as pilgrims intending to visit religious shrines, hiding the diamonds in plaster figures and rosary beads so as to get through customs), she notes that she ‘made Mervyn and Andrew visit the shrines properly, in case they were watched.’[5] This scene shows the importance of backing up deceptions with ‘evidence’, a common procedure in black propaganda.

For example, Delmer describes sending food packages to the families of German POWs who had been portrayed as earning high salaries in the US and Canada in order to ‘prove’ their newly-acquired wealth: ‘Enemy propaganda? Nonsense, look at the splendid parcel young Schöller had just sent his parents!’[6]

The autobiographical Loitering with Intent emphasises the novelist Fleur’s artistic ability to maintain plausibility by transforming lifeless data into a colourful narrative. In her first novel Warrender Chase, ‘she managed to make [Warrender’s war record in Burma] really credible even although [she] filled in the war bit with a few strokes, knowing in fact, so little about the war in Burma.’[7]

A plausible story, however, must go beyond stereotypes in order to be believed. As Taylor Stoehr argues, ‘the most plausible story need not seem very lifelike; that which is trivial or mundane will hardly be trusted as faithful to experience, for reality cannot be so drab as all that.’[8] This creative principle is fully embraced by Fleur in Loitering with Intent when describing the creation of a character:

‘…to make a character ring true it needs must be in some way contradictory, somewhere a paradox. […] where the self-portraits of Sir Quentin’s ten testifiers were going all wrong, where they sounded stiff and false, occurred at points where they strained themselves into a constancy and steadiness that they evidently wished to possess but didn’t. And I had thrown in my own bits of invented patchwork to cheer things up rather than make each character coherent in itself.’[9]

Fleur incorporates aspects of the French noveau roman of the 1950s into her work, and her concept of verisimilitude aligns closely with that of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who claimed that ‘[t]he little detail which “makes you think it’s true” is no longer of any interest to the novelist […] [t]he thing that strikes him […] is more likely, on the contrary, to be the little detail that strikes a false note.’[10]

Delmer’s interest in the false note is evident in his strategies for distorting information. In Black Boomerang, he refers to this when he describes incorporating ‘real’ Nazi news items the PWE received via a Hellschreiber teleprinter into the ‘black’ broadcasts:

‘Some items we used as cover to give ourselves authenticity as a German station purveying official news. To others we gave a subversive twist so that when listeners heard them on the German radio later, they quite unconsciously read our tendentious distortion as the truth “hidden between the lines”.[11]

Notes

[1] Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009; originally published 1992), p. 152.

[2] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), p. 67.

[3] Muriel Spark, The Comforters (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018; originally published 1957), p. 101.

[4] Ibid., p. 108.

[5] Ibid., p. 187.

[6] Delmer, Black Boomerang, p. 141.

[7] Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018; originally published 1981), p. 60.

[8] Taylor Stoehr, ‘Realism and Verisimilitude’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 11.3 (1969), 1269-1288 (p. 1280).

[9] Spark, Loitering with Intent, p. 27.

[10] Alain Robbe-Grillet, ‘From Realism to Reality’, in For a New Novel: essays on fiction, translated by Richard Howard (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1965), 157-168 (p. 163).

[11] Delmer, Black Boomerang, p. 90.