“Jangling caterwauls”: Muriel Spark and the scrambler telephone

Beatriz Lopez explores Spark’s wartime use of a secure telephone and considers the device’s later disturbing reappearance in her novel The Hothouse by the East River (1973)

Successful wartime propaganda depended on a constant supply of reliable and up-to-date intelligence, information which – to guarantee security – British propagandists often received via a scrambler telephone. The Political Warfare Executive (PWE) most likely used a Secraphone or A-3 Scrambler (above), a green painted telephone which used ‘Frequency Domain Scrambling’ – a technique which inverted the frequency of telephone signals – in order to conceal the speakers’ voices.[1] The PWE’s black propaganda supremo Sefton Delmer trusted the scrambler to allow conversation ‘in complete confidence of secrecy, knowing that anyone trying to listen in would hear nothing but a meaningless jumble.’[2] Listen to the scrambler telephone here:

However, the instrument relied on outdated technology and could not guarantee secure speech. Unaware to the Allies, the Germans had already managed ‘to eavesdrop on A-3 using a site on the Dutch coast, and by 1940 had begun to intercept calls between Roosevelt and Churchill that used this system.’[3] Simultaneously, the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing was collaborating with Bell Telephone Laboratories to create Sigsaly, the first digitally-encrypted scrambler; unfortunately Sigsaly was only made available to high command, and most government officials continued using Secraphones or A-3 Scramblers during and after the war.[4]

Muriel Spark worked as a Duty Secretary for the PWE from May to October 1944, a role which required use of the scrambler. In her memoir Curriculum Vitae (1992), she describes how its ‘continual jangling noise made interception difficult’, forcing one ‘to listen “through” the jangle.’[5] Spark operated the scrambler to collect nightly information from returning Allied bombers – ‘the details of the bombing, the number of planes that had gone out and those (not always all) that had returned’ – which she would then pass on to her boss Sefton Delmer. Aided by photographs, maps and local knowledge, Delmer’s team would use this information to build a realistic reconstruction of damage, which could then be used to fabricate plausible stories.

Spark was also in charge of picking up another nightly call from the newsroom of the Foreign Office, which provided ‘general news not yet released for the next day’s newspapers’.[7] While the armed forces call remained businesslike, the Foreign Office call ‘would often lapse into the personal’ and soon led to Spark’s friendship with her interlocutor, Colin Methven. Spark’s PWE work arguably triggered what she described as her ‘addiction to the telephone’, and representations of this medium would subsequently loom large in her novels.[8]

While Spark’s fictional treatment of media technologies reflects the modernist preoccupation with the relationship between individuals and machines, representations of the telephone in her fiction are also historically contingent, pointing to anxieties about secure speech and electronic surveillance emerging from Second World War intelligence, Cold War surveillance and the Watergate scandal (1972-4).[9]

Unlike modernist fiction, which ‘highlighted the malfunction of telephone as medium’, Spark’s ‘scrambler novels’ of the 1970s draw attention to the ways in which ‘the human factor’ hinders direct voice communication.[10] The Hothouse by the East River (1973), for example, presents telephone scrambling as an intelligible activity deployed to satirise the illusory nature of her characters’ hold on reality.

The Hothouse by the East River is the novel which most closely depicts Spark’s work for the PWE. Its central character Elsa works alongside her husband Paul for a secret propaganda organisation during the Second World War; like Spark, Elsa is tasked with transcribing military intelligence, using ‘a special green telephone […] whose connection [was] heavily jammed with jangling caterwauls to protect the conversation against eavesdropping’.[11]

The novel moves between realistic sections describing the couple’s wartime experiences in England and hallucinatory passages describing their ghostly and unreal lives in post-war New York. Elsa, whose shadow points in the wrong direction, is described as a cunning schizophrenic, whose thinking and behaviour must be policed by her husband and her psychiatrist Garven.

In a twist towards the end of the novel, however, we learn that Paul and Elsa both died during an air raid in 1944, and that their children therefore never existed. Paul’s attempts to negate such a reality have led to their present purgatorial nightmare, which Elsa continuously attempts to disrupt – aided and abetted by a telephone. On the phone to his son Pierre, for example,

Paul’s attention is meanwhile eared to the voice at the other end and his free hand stretches forth with a helpless flutter to hush Elsa’s talk, like the hand of that King Canute who forbade the sea to advance in order merely to illustrate the futility of the attempt. “I can’t hear what you say,” says Paul into the mouthpiece. “Your mother’s talking.”[12]

Elsa here conforms to Avital Ronell’s characterization of the schizophrenic as a scrambled telephone line, which allows her to escape from ‘the puerile, reactionary dragnet of psychiatric wisdom’ through ‘structures of disconnection’.[13] By scrambling Paul’s conversation to his imaginary son, Elsa’s voice severs Paul’s fatherhood and forces him to confront the delusory nature of their New York existence. Her seemingly unintelligible speech, rendered as scrambler noise, exposes the artifactual nature of Paul’s myth-making and gives a voice to Elsa’s previously silenced perspective.

The Hothouse by the East River depicts scrambling as a call for reality in a hallucinatory world, which allows the expression of Elsa’s previously suppressed perspective. While the PWE used telephone scrambling as passive noise to support the secure communication of information, Spark adopts it as a fictional method with radical potential for inverting power relations and challenging the status quo in tightly controlled environments.

Beatriz Lopez discusses Spark’s use of the scrambler telephone further at the  Crossed Lines Telepoetics symposium (27 May 2020) – register for online attendance and listen to a podcast of her talk here

Thanks to the Crypto Museum for permission to reproduce the image and sound of the scrambler telephone.


[1] Sheila Mair, ‘Scrambled Phones’, Science Museum Blog, 8th December 2019. https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/scrambled-phones/ (accessed 18/05/2020).

[2] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), 81.

[3] Robert Aldrich, ‘Whitehall Wiring: The Communications-Electronics Security Group and the Struggle for Secure Speech’, Public Policy and Administration 28.2 (2012): 178–95, 185.

[4] Aldrich, ‘Whitehall Wiring’, 185-6.

[5] Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009), 152.

[6] Martin Stannard, Muriel Spark: The Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009), 65.

[7] Spark, Curriculum Vitae, 153.

[8] Spark, Curriculum Vitae, 163.

[9] Amy Woodbury Tease, ‘Call and Answer: Muriel Spark and Media Culture’, Modern Fiction Studies 62.1 (2016): 70-91, 72.

[10] David Trotter, Literature in the First Media Age: Britain between the Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 46.

[11] Spark, The Hothouse by the East River (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 50.

[12] Spark, The Hothouse, 46.

[13] Avital Ronnell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 110.

Anti-malarial disinformation

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.

It is difficult to overlook the parallels between the quinine rumour and the current high-profile advocacy by US President Donald Trump for hydroxychloroquine, another anti-malarial drug, touted and being tested as a potential coronavirus cure but which – to this point – has ‘not been shown to be safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19’.

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?

VE Day: the PWE and the POWs

Document of the Month: FO 898/330

James Smith and Guy Woodward on the PWE’s re-education of POWs 

“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.[1] 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.’[2]

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.[3]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] John Baker White, The Big Lie (London: Evans Brothers, 1955), p. 105.

[3] Agnes Bernelle, The Fun Palace (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1996), p. 95.

Postcard propaganda: Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin

Document of the month: FO 898/123

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.’[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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…’[4]

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…[5]

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:


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.[7]

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’.[8] 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?’[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] 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.

Images by kind permission of The National Archives


[1] FO 898/123.

[2] Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin, trans. by Michael Hoffman (London: Penguin, 2009; orig. pub. 1947), p. 139

[3] Ibid., p. 141.

[4] Ibid., p. 144.

[5] Ibid., p. 157.

[6] Ibid., pp. 156-57.

[7] 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

[8] Fallada, p. 144.

[9] Ibid., p. 396.

[10] Geoff Wilkes, ‘Afterword’ to Fallada, p. 575.

[11] Fallada, n.p.

Books in disguise: what to do during the Allied invasion

Document of the month: FO 898/484

Guy Woodward finds an invasion manual disguised as a novel

A few months ago I wrote about a miniature edition of John Steinbeck’s novel The Moon is Down (1942) produced for distribution in occupied France. The copy which I found in the PWE papers at the National Archives does not credit Steinbeck as author and its verso title page is blank, carrying none of the usual information regarding publication date or place. These omissions were surely designed to avoid arousing the suspicions of enemy agents, and thereby to aid clandestine circulation of the book.

This booklet, which appears in file 898/484, ‘Basic Manuals For Natives Of Occupied Countries: Correspondence’, aims more explicitly to deceive. The outside cover suggests a cheap edition of a historical novel entitled Godefroid de Bouillon, by a writer named ‘Von Bissing’ and subtitled ‘Un roman historique de la Belgique du onzième siècle’. The publisher is given as E. Guyot, with an address of S.A. Rue Pacheés, Brussels.

As one of the leaders of the First Crusade in the eleventh century, and briefly ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem from 1099-1100, Godfrey of Bouillon’s story is certainly ripe for fictional exploitation, and yet it seems this novel never actually existed. Were an incurious Gestapo officer to glance at the cover of the booklet he might simply assume that it was a novel, but when the booklet is opened, the message which greets the reader on the title page makes the true nature of its contents clear.

The booklet now announces itself as ‘a manual for the use of our Belgian allies, to help and advise them during future operations’. Below the Belgian coat of arms the publisher is identified as the ‘Allied High Command’. The manual is divided into two sections, ‘How you can prepare for the arrival of the United Nations forces’ and then ‘What to do on the day that the United Nations forces arrive’.

With the aid of several illustrations the booklet provides guidance on sealing doors and windows against gas attack…

…on fashioning bandages and tourniquets…

…on how to drag someone who has fallen unconscious from a room…

…on how to orientate oneself using landmarks and, at night, constellations of stars…

…and on how to conduct sabotage, here showing how a road block can be fashioned using boulders and trees.

Designed to be dropped by aeroplane, the manual is small (10.5 x 13 cm) and lightweight. It was prepared in early 1944 as plans for the Allied invasion gathered pace, and was designed to advise Belgian civilians on how to behave during the coming conflict between the Allies and the German occupiers. It tells civilians ‘to be vague and stupid’ when questioned by German forces, but to provide directions and assistance when requested by Allied troops. A joint PWE/SOE publication, by 31 March 1944 two million copies of the manual had been printed and were in storage ready to be dropped, but the file does not confirm whether the manual was distributed as planned.[1]

The manual was published under at least two other disguises – Imprenable, by ‘Jean Doute’, and, startlingly, Un nouveau plan pour la collaboration, by Leon Degrelle – Degrelle was leader of the far-right Rexist party and a prominent Belgian collaborator with the Nazis.  Like most printed propaganda for Belgium the manual was produced in both French and Flemish editions – on the cover of the Flemish editions ‘Jean Doute’ became ‘Jan Scepticus’ and Leon Degrelle became ‘Staf Leclercq’. Apart from Degrelle, none of the other writers seem to have existed and, like ‘Von Bissing’, were likely invented for the purposes of deception.

Images by kind permission of The National Archives


[1] The file suggests that similar manuals were prepared for Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

SOE’s ‘virtual reality’ resistance movement

Document of the month: FO 898/28

Guy Woodward investigates a fictional Balkan resistance movement, and ponders the parallels between propaganda work and writing fiction

There’s an intriguing paragraph in Bickham Sweet-Escott’s SOE memoir Baker Street Irregular (1965) in which he recalls that around 1942 ‘though no resistance movement existed in Rumania, we and P.W.E. […] invented a Rumanian Mihailović called Vlaicu, whose exploits were broadcast on the radio to Rumania, and we had evidence that our invention caused confusion and concern in Bucharest.’[1]

General Mihailović was leader of the royalist Chetnik guerrilla resistance forces in occupied Yugoslavia, whose exploits had been amplified by Allied propaganda across the globe: he appeared on the cover of Time magazine (left) and featured as the hero of swashbuckling Hollywood films (in 1943 Britain switched support from Mihailović to Tito’s Communist Partisans). As Sweet-Escott observes, no comparable movement could be found in Axis-aligned Romania – Dennis Deletant suggests that reluctance in Romania to organise resistance against autocratic leader Marshal Antonescu or his German allies is explained in part by the threat posed by the Soviet Union at this time: Romania and Germany were fighting together on the Eastern Front and had successfully recaptured Romanian territories occupied by the USSR in 1940.[2]

The Balkan state was certainly the focus of several clandestine British operations in the early stages of the war; various plans were hatched to block the Danube in the north west of the country, thereby preventing the export of oil and agricultural products on which, it was correctly predicted, Germany would depend.[3] British propagandists were also keen to destabilise the country, but as Ioannis Stefanidis notes, SO1 and PWE found that ‘British objectives were undercut by a powerful Russophobia’.[4]

Sweet-Escott does not elaborate on the Vlaicu campaign, but Stefanidis’s compelling book Substitute for Power: Wartime British Propaganda to the Balkans, 1939–44 (2012) features a fascinating account of its genesis. In June 1942 SOE’s Alfred de Chastelain and Edward Masterson decided to try to turn black propaganda into ‘a self-fulfilling prophecy’, by establishing a fictitious Romanian resistance movement over the airwaves, creating the impression of membership and activities through a campaign of coordinated broadcasts and stories planted in the press of neutral countries.[5] The pair optimistically hoped that after two months conditions would be established to set up a real organisation on the ground. Quoting from SOE documents, Stefanidis notes that:

SOE London objected that, even if Romanians were convinced of the group’s existence, they would not know ‘what to do or where to go’. The proponents of the scheme countered that if such ‘an efficient and active organisation’ existed, ‘it would not be necessary for us to create imaginary movements and leaders.’[6]

The radio station of the ‘Liberation Struggle’ began broadcasting from Jerusalem on 27 July 1942, and claimed to be the voice of a network of anti-German resistance groups, led by an imaginary figure named ‘Vlaicu’ – Stefanidis suggests that he was named after Vladislav 1 (right), a revered fourteenth-century ruler of Wallachia in present-day Romania (Aurel Vlaicu, the pioneering early-twentieth-century aviator and Romanian national hero, is another possible source for the name).[7] Broadcasts criticised Romanian support for Germany but also gave ‘instructions’ to imaginary resistance cells in the country.

Stories about ‘Vlaicu’ were planted in newspapers in Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland, and by October 1942 references to movement had appeared on the BBC and in the London Times.[8] One hundred thousand leaflets were dropped on Romania addressed to the fictional movement and promising support. Although these interventions apparently prompted the Romanian security services into conducting a search for the non-existent organisation, SOE’s initial optimism was not reflected on the ground, and by August 1943 a report confirmed that Vlaicu remained a ‘virtual reality’.[9]

Deletant adds to the story, identifying the station’s ‘most vigorous contributors’ as George Beza and Petru Vulpescu.[10] Beza had founded a small peasant group in Romania in 1936-7 to break up meetings of the fascist Iron Guard (above); he and Vulpescu had volunteered their services to SOE in Bucharest and were sent to Palestine to man the radio station.[11] Deletant’s account also extends the story to 1944: he suggests that the Vlaicu operation caused ‘embarrassment’ to the Antonescu regime, and led to ‘the arrest of several collaborators by the Romanian authorities in July 1944.’[12]

Documents in the PWE papers show that PWE and SOE coordinated the broadcast of Vlaicu in line with wider propaganda objectives; PWE also appear to have granted SOE the space to transmit broadcasts from Palestine.[13] A report produced for PWE’s Director General R. H. Bruce Lockhart and dated 30 November 1942 described the station as

The report notes that a proportion of the scripts for the station were written in Cairo by an SOE operational officer.[14] At a meeting to discuss SOE-PWE coordination a few days later it was established that the Vlaicu project would continue either ‘until it had achieved its object or until S.O.E. had formed a genuine party of collaborators inside Rumania’ – in which case the station would rally to them and become their mouthpiece.[15]

The extent to which the station was a credible fake can be gauged from a report by the Istanbul Monitoring Unit dated 23 October 1943, which suggests that it sounds ‘as if it comes from Russia’, however ‘The news it gives is not recent, & thus it can be deducted that the station must be somewhere out of Roumania.’[16] As happened on several occasions during the war, one arm of the British state succeeded in fooling another arm.

Maintaining the pretence of broadcasting from inside an occupied territory was extremely difficult, as PWE’s official historian (and later novelist) David Garnett emphasises in his account of the establishment of so-called ‘Freedom Stations’:

Almost inevitably mistakes are made and suspicion begins to be aroused that the broadcasts are not what they appear. As an instrument of subversive propaganda secret broadcasting of this kind is a most potent weapon. So long as the audience believes that the station is operating secretly in its midst, its existence is a symbol of resistance. The Freedom Station is a subject about which thrilling speculations and rumours are perpetually rife; its listeners tend to regard themselves as initiates; to be indulgent and uncritical and they are likely to identify themselves with the views expressed, for Resistance is psychologically infectious.[17]

Sadly the PWE papers contain no further details of how Vlaicu was brought to fruition, or of how the mythical figure, his movement and its activities were imagined and represented over the airwaves. For our project however, which examines the relationship between the PWE, covert propaganda and British culture, the Vlaicu campaign raises important questions regarding the parallels and connections between propaganda work and the practice of writing.

This is not a new topic: Mark Wollaeger suggests that propagandists and modernist writers both strove ‘to make meaning effective through ambiguity’; Gayatri Spivak meanwhile makes the chilling observation that literature makes good propaganda because it ‘buys your assent in an almost clandestine way’.[18] The parallels and connections may explain why so many writers were employed for propaganda work during the war (we might think of Noel Coward, Graham Greene, or Freya Stark); or indeed why others who had worked in the field became writers (Muriel Spark, for example). More specifically however, SOE’s invention here of a movement under the leadership of an invented leader, yet within a heavily defined geographical and political environment, clearly invites comparisons with the practice of writing realist fiction – of devising plot lines and creating characters, within the constraints of needing to ensure the faithful representation of actually existing locations or credible modes of behaviour.

As Tim Brooks has observed, wartime propagandists were by no means free agents – their output had to correlate with British and later Allied war aims and policy, and they were required to liaise with other bodies to ensure that this was adhered to, as shown here by the coordination between PWE and SOE.[19] This requirement to coordinate, and to work within an overall plan, was eloquently outlined by the first executive head of PWE, Rex Leeper, in a report on black propaganda written in July 1942 which – with a few adjustments – could surely be applied to the business of plotting and constructing a novel.[20]

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] Bickham Sweet-Escott, Baker Street Irregular (London: Methuen, 1965), pp. 194-5.

[2] Dennis Deletant, British Clandestine Activities in Romania during the Second World War (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 76.

[3] See, among other accounts: Hugh Dalton, The Fateful Years: Memoirs 1931-1945 (London: Frederick Mueller Ltd, 1957), p. 375; Merlin Minshall, Guilt-Edged (London: Bachman & Turner, 1975), p. 76; Basil Davidson, Special Operations Europe: Scenes from the Anti-Nazi War (London: Grafton Books, 1987; orig. pub. 1980), p. 79; Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995), p. 108;

[4] Ioannis Stefanidis, Substitute for Power: Wartime British Propaganda to the Balkans, 1939-44 (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012), p. 51.

[5] Stefanidis, p. 154.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Stefanidis, p. 155.

[10] Deletant, p. 98.

[11] Deletant, p. 207.

[12] Deletant, p. 98.

[13] FO 898/28.

[14] Ibid.

[15] FO 898/28.

[16] FO 898/52.

[17] David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945 (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), pp. 32-3.

[18] Mark Wollaeger, Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative From 1900 to 1945 (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), x; cited Wollaeger, p. 112.

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

[20] FO 898/63.

Muriel Spark and the Ethics of Deception: a didactic approach to black propaganda

Beatriz Lopez finds traces of wartime moral dilemmas in Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Following the closure of the PWE radio station Soldatensender in April 1945, Director of Special Operations Sefton Delmer retreated to his bathroom and performed a purification ritual to mark the end of black propaganda:

I removed my beard. […] After my razor shaved the soap sodden whiskers from my face I gazed into the mirror with all the horror of Dorian Grey [sic], confronting his tell-tale portrait. There, staring at me, was the pallid, flabby-mouthed face of a crook. Was this, I asked myself, what four years of ‘black’ had done to Denis Sefton Delmer?[1]

Despite his jocose and unsentimental tone when recollecting the harmful pranks played on enemy civilians as part of PWE campaigns, Delmer’s perceived resemblance to the depraved literary character Dorian Gray points to the existence of moral qualms about the nature of his wartime work. By contrast Spark’s account of her ‘wonderfully interesting’[2] intelligence role at the PWE does not present any pangs of conscience. While she notes that ‘[t]he methods of Delmer’s M.B unit horrified a few cabinet ministers’ – possibly referring to Stafford Cripps’s criticism of the occasional use of pornography in PWE propaganda to Germany – Spark acknowledges that her boss was the subject of much admiration (including her own).[3]

The question of whether the PWE’s ethically dubious methods were morally justified was the subject of much debate within the organization, as archival documents demonstrate. In a 1943 PWE lecture entitled ‘Political Warfare’, Col. Sedgwick adopts consequentialism – the belief that the rightness or wrongness of an action is to be determined by its intended consequences – in order to morally justify the use of black propaganda:

[A]s far as covert propaganda is concerned I will venture the purely personal opinion that it would be absurd to be squeamish. If by hitting the Germans below the belt we can shorten the war, and perhaps save a million lives I hope we shall be prepared to hit them below the belt every time…[4]

However, not all propagandists were of the same mind. In a 1962 review of Delmer’s Black Boomerang, Richard Crossman described black propaganda as ‘nihilistic in purpose and solely destructive in effect’ and expressed serious misgivings regarding ‘whether this decision to plunge far below the Nazis’ own level of lying, half-lying and news perversion was justified’.[5] This remark stems from Crossman’s belief that black propaganda was of little use when compared with the merits of BBC white propaganda.

Even among those who appreciated its value, there were still disagreements regarding the use of ‘the moral approach’ in PWE broadcasts. Noel Newsome, BBC Director of European Broadcasting, reacted against ‘those of our propagandists who urge us to […] eschew history, philosophy and religion in our broadcasts’ because ‘any propaganda which is not essentially moral must be colourless and empty’.[6] Others, such as PWE propagandist Robert Walsmley, were reluctant to blend the Allied cause with Christian ethics because they felt it ‘would nauseate listeners with our hypocrisy [and] would only produce the impression that we wanted to appear religious’.[7] Delmer eventually created a religious radio station, ‘Christ the King’, in which ‘Father Andreas’ (a pseudonym of genuine Austrian priest Father Elmar Eisenberger) attacked the anti-Christian values and the moral corruption of the Nazi regime.[8] Such involvement of a Catholic priest in black propaganda appears unconventional given the Christian commitment to natural law, which emphasises the duty of unconditional truthfulness.

Muriel Spark arguably found herself in a similar predicament given the discrepancy between her spiritual commitments, particularly in the light of her later conversion to Catholicism, and the consequentialist nature of PWE work. How did she reconcile the Christian view that ‘there are certain things forbidden whatever consequences threaten’ with the wartime need to weight the morality of actions according to their expected results?[9] And how can we reconcile often-proclaimed British values of freedom and democracy with the morally dubious methods of black propaganda?

Crossman’s 1952 address to the Royal United Service Institution (RUSI) offers an attempt to answer this question. Contrary to the traditional distinction between propaganda and education – ‘propaganda tells people what to think whereas education teaches people how to think’[10] – Crossman argues that successful propaganda exhibits a commitment to education:

The job of propaganda is […] to stimulate in people of the country thought for themselves, to make them begin to be, not cogs in a machine or units of a collective organization, but individuals. Individualism is the first act of disloyalty to a totalitarian government, and every individual who begins to feel he has a right to have a view is already committing an act of disloyalty…[11]

Reflecting on his WWII experience, Crossman suggests that totalitarian propaganda and democratic propaganda have divergent aims. While the former attempts to indoctrinate citizens into a set of beliefs, the latter aims to seep through the cracks of such discourse in order to cultivate doubt. Democratic propaganda may therefore fulfil a didactic role insofar as it is capable of eliciting distrust. Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), a novel deeply concerned with the nature of education, illustrates Crossman’s claim. Through the figure of school pupil Sandy Stranger, Spark allows the reader to partake in the structural movement from unwavering loyalty to outright suspicion of Miss Brodie. Sandy’s initial belief that Miss Brodie’s behaviour was ‘outside the context of right and wrong’ is questioned both by her unapologetic encouragement of a student to fight for Franco and her insistence in involving Rose, one of her students, as a proxy for herself in an affair with the art master.[12]

Moreover, Miss Brodie’s imposition of her imaginary fancies onto the girls backfires when Sandy takes Rose’s place in the affair, thus leading Sandy to question her previously taken-for-granted role as ‘the God of Calvin [who] sees the beginning and the end.’[13] Spark’s novelistic method thus resembles that of PWE propagandists, since her introduction of disruptive events leads Sandy to suspect, and ultimately betray, her teacher on the grounds that she is teaching fascism. In doing so, Sandy escapes the authoritarian influence of Miss Brodie and prompts her teacher’s dismissal from the school, but whether Sandy’s betrayal stems from moral duty or personal self-interest remains unclear.

Sandy later embraces Catholicism, a religion ‘in whose ranks she had found quite a number of Fascists much less agreeable than Miss Brodie’, and becomes Sister Helena of the Transfiguration.[14] At this stage, Sandy shows an apologetic attitude towards Miss Brodie, who she describes as ‘quite an innocent in her way’, and her own representation as ‘clutching the bars of the grille’ insinuates a certain degree of regret about her less than altruistic betrayal of Miss Brodie.[15] Did Sandy betray Miss Brodie out of moral duty or envy? Spark never goes in for motives, but in exposing a lively and charismatic teacher as a source of evil, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie testifies to Spark’s fascination with the ethics of deception.

Follow Beatriz Lopez at @bealoplop


[1] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), 217-8.

[2] Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009; originally published 1992), 147.

[3] Spark, Curriculum Vitae, 148.

[4]FO 898/99.

[5] R. H. S. Crossman, ‘Black Prima Donna’ (Review of D. Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang), New Statesman, 9 November 1962, 676–7, 677.

[6] FO 898/181.

[7] FO 898/177.

[8] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang, 121-3. Lee Richards, The Black Art: British Clandestine Psychological Warfare against the Third Reich (Peacehaven: Psywar, 2010), 210.

[9] G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, Philosophy 33.124 (1958): 1-19, 10.

[10] Philip M. Taylor, Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Day (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 14.

[11] Richard Crossman, ‘The Creed of a Modern Propagandist’, in A Psychological Warfare Casebook (ed. William Daugherty) (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1958), 35-47, 40.

[12] Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 85.

[13] Ibid., 121.

[14] Ibid., 126.

[15] Ibid., 128.

Cartoons and propaganda: Osbert Lancaster at the PWE

Document of the month: FO 898/507

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.’[1] 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’.[2] 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.’[3]

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.’[4] 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.’[5] 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).[6]

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”.’[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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).[10]

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.’[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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’.[14] 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).[15]

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.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]

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.

Images by kind permission of The National Archives


[1] Translation provided by psywar.org: https://www.psywar.org/product_1942H019.php

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Osbert Lancaster, With an Eye to the Future (London: John Murray, 1967), p. 117.

[8] Ibid., p. 140.

[9] Ibid., p. 149.

[10] 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.

[11] James Knox, Cartoons & Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster (London: Francis Lincoln, 2008), p. 48.

[12] Ibid., p. 49.

[13] Richard Boston, Osbert: A portrait of Osbert Lancaster (London: Collins, 1989), p. 126.

[14] Peter Quennell, The Wanton Chase: An Autobiography from 1939 (London: Collins, 1980), p. 14.

[15] Boston, p. 122.

[16] Maurice Cardiff, Friends Abroad (London, New York: The Radcliffe Press, 1997), p. 87.

[17] Lancaster, With an Eye to the Future, p. 66.

[18] O’Halpin, p. 210.

[19] Rupert Hart-Davis, ‘Fleming, (Robert) Peter’ (2004), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi-org.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/31114.

Clandestine fiction: John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down

Document of the month: FO 898/523

Guy Woodward finds a miniature novel in the PWE papers

This tiny book appears in file 898/523 of the PWE collection in the National Archives, which bears the unpromising title ‘Various French Pamphlets’. It measures 10.5 x 6.5 cm. The cover and title page feature no reference to any author; the title, Nuit Sans Lune, translates directly as ‘Moonless Night’, but the text confirms that this is in fact a French edition of John Steinbeck’s 1942 novel, The Moon is Down.

As it happens The Moon is Down was written explicitly for the purposes of propaganda, by a novelist who served in several US government intelligence and information agencies between 1940-42.[1] As Donald Coers explains, in summer 1941 Steinbeck was attached to the Officer of Coordinator of Information (COI), and discussed with the organisation’s head, Colonel ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, the possibility of writing a work of propaganda.[2] At the same time Steinbeck’s work at the COI brought him into contact with a range of refugees from recently invaded European nations, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway; their stories of underground resistance to Nazi rule impressed and intrigued him.[3]

The short novel Steinbeck wrote over 1941-42 is set in an unnamed coastal town of an unnamed northern European country, under occupation by a military force whose commitment to timekeeping and fidelity to a singular ‘Leader’ is unambiguously indicative of Nazi Germany. It shows how the invaders’ attempts to maintain a pretence of civility are doomed in the face of deteriorating relations with the townspeople, who begin to resist the occupation, first passively and then actively. Toward the end of the novel they begin to receive military assistance from Britain, as packages containing sticks of dynamite and chocolate are dropped by aeroplane.

The narrative is grim and often claustrophobic, but offers hope in its emphatic conviction that the occupation is doomed to failure, articulated in the potent paradoxical metaphor of flies ‘conquering’ the flypaper they have become stuck to. The prospect of Allied assistance, meanwhile, gestures optimistically towards a future shift in the progress of the war. The novel also offers several practical suggestions of how an occupation can be opposed passively, by working slowly and sabotaging machinery and equipment.

The novel was enormously popular on the home front; stage and screen adaptations appeared quickly on both sides of the Atlantic. In late spring 1942 Winston Churchill was so enthused by The Moon is Down that he passed on the novel to his Minister of Economic Warfare, requesting him to explore the possibility of mass producing small incendiary devices to be provided to resistance movements in occupied Europe.[4]

Some in the United States believed that Steinbeck had been too soft on the German occupiers, who appear prone to uncertainty and anxiety rather than unremittingly cruel and evil. As Coers explains however, The Moon is Down was extraordinarily popular in countries which had experienced Nazi invasion, and was read avidly during the war behind enemy lines – he describes how translations printed on ‘tissue-thin paper’ were smuggled from Sweden into Norway where they were circulated by the resistance.[5] In Denmark and the Netherlands underground presses printed thousands of copies; in these countries and in France sales of illegal editions helped fund resistance activities.[6]

The PWE seem to have become aware of the novel’s potent propaganda value soon after its publication in 1942, and the archive features several references to its production and distribution, suggesting that some of these activities were aided and directed by the Allied propaganda organisations. A secret PWE memorandum dated August 1942 discussing the coordination of broadcast and printed propaganda for Denmark mentions that The Moon is Down has been translated and is already in print.[7] Minutes of a meeting in January 1943 record a PWE discussion regarding the circulation of an Italian edition.[8] And a note dated February 1943 records a request by the Ministry of Information for sample copies of the PWE’s ‘French leaflet edition’ of the novel.[9]

It is not clear whether the copy pictured above is the ‘leaflet edition’ mentioned here. Its small size suggests that it may well have been intended for clandestine circulation, however; the absence of Steinbeck’s distinctive and Anglophone name on the cover or inside the novel, and the lack of any publisher’s name or illustrations further suggests that this was a book designed to pass unnoticed by hostile surveillance.

Steinbeck’s narrative also lent itself to clandestine circulation – the lack of any overt references to Germans, Nazis, Hitler, or to a specific location in the text meant that a curious Gestapo officer leafing through the text might well fail to detect the novel’s propagandist ambitions and political leanings. Were that officer to settle down to read the novel, however, it is possible they might find the fatalism of Steinbeck’s occupying commander Colonel Lanser and the defiance of Mayor Orden as he faces execution more than a little unsettling:

You see sir, nothing can change it. You will be destroyed and driven out […] The people don’t like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars. You will find that is so, sir.[10]

Images by kind permission of The National Archives. 


[1] Donald V. Coers, ‘Afterword’ to John Steinbeck, The Moon is Down (London: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 113.

[2] Ibid., pp. 113-4.

[3] Ibid., p. 114.

[4] For more on Churchill, SOE, PWE and Operation Braddock see the invaluable resource psywar.org: https://www.psywar.org/content/braddock

[5] Coers, ‘Afterword’, p. 120.

[6] Ibid., p. 125.

[7] FO 898/245.

[8] FO 898/168.

[9] FO 898/445.

[10] Steinbeck, The Moon is Down, p. 111.

DON’T drink yourself silly in public: the PWE’s pocket guide to France

Document of the month: FO 898/478

Guy Woodward on the PWE’s pocket guides for service personnel

This small 64-page booklet measures 10.5 x 13.5 cm. Its blue and white cover features a picture of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the single word title ‘France’. On first glance it appears to be a tourist guide, but the booklet was in fact produced by the PWE for Allied service personnel deployed to France following the D-Day landings of June 1944.

The PWE’s primary function was to produce propaganda for enemy and occupied Europe, a role which required substantial and intensive intelligence work to ensure that broadcasts, leaflets and publications were targeted at specific countries, regions and localities. The expertise and knowledge thereby gathered, however, meant that the PWE was ideally placed to produce pocket guides such as these, introducing servicemen to French history, culture, customs and conventions – and teaching them some basic phrases in French, with phonetic pronunciation guides (‘Seal vous play, mairsee’).[1]

In addition to France, the PWE collection in the National Archives contains drafts or printed copies of pocket guides for Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, and Yugoslavia. Other documents show that guides to Albania, Greece and Hungary were also drafted or planned. Some were presumably never printed or distributed: in the cases of Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia, for example, the advance of the Soviet Union meant that British troops never entered these countries in significant numbers.

The archive shows that editions varied slightly depending on the intended readership. As the maple leaf on the cover suggests, the pocket guide to France pictured above is addressed to Canadian troops – the draft version of the guide in the same file shows that only perfunctory changes were made to adapt the text however, as in most cases ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ is simply replaced by ‘Canada’ and ‘Canadian’.

The text is addressed to an individual reader throughout, seemingly in an attempt to emphasise the importance of personal responsibility. The opening paragraph reads:

A new B.E.F. [British Expeditionary Force], which includes you, is going to France. You are to assist personally in pushing the Germans out of France and back where they belong. In the process, you will meet the French, maybe not for the first time. You will also, almost certainly for the first time, be seeing a country which has been subjected to German occupation for several years. This is a point worth fixing in your mind. You will learn what it means.[2]

After a hasty canter through French history from the Roman invasion to the present day, the booklet poses the question ‘What are the French People Like?’, observing that despite a palpable ‘strong national feeling’ regional identities and characteristics remain important and that ‘it would be difficult to point to a “typical” Frenchman.’[3]

The guides are heavily dependent on generalisation and essentialist descriptions of national characteristics, and perpetuate some troubling stereotypes. The guide naturally assumes an exclusively male readership, and the misogyny of some sections makes for uncomfortable reading today. Under the heading ‘Not Like Montmartre’, the guide advises that ‘it is as well to drop any ideas about French women based on stories of Montmartre and nude cabaret shows’, and that ‘If you should happen to imagine that the first pretty French girl who smiles at you intends to dance the can-can or take you to bed, you will risk stirring up a lot of trouble for yourself – and for our relations with the French.’[4]

The guide repeatedly pleads with readers to consider themselves as representatives of their country and to behave with sensitivity, suggesting that ‘The good guest retains his welcome by making himself as little trouble as possible and doing all he can to help his hosts’; with reference to the recent German occupation it advises that ‘if you’re too boisterous and noisy it will be rather like doing a step-dance in front of a man who has just had his legs off.’[5] Discussions on the subjects of religion and politics are strongly discouraged, and alcohol is repeatedly raised as a possible source of conflict and tension:

DON’T drink yourself silly in public. If you get the chance to drink wine, learn to “take it.” The failure of some British troops to do so was the one point made against our men in France in 1939-40 and again in North Africa.[6]

The second half of the guide features phrases and vocabulary intended to help service personnel communicate with local people. It observes:

The French are politer than most of us. Remember to call them “Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle,” not just “Oy!” And don’t forget “S’il vous plaît” (please) and “Merci” (thank you).[7]

In 2005 the Bodleian Library republished the guide under the title Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944. Appearing between stiff, olive green covers, with the new title printed on the cover in austere sans serif capitals, it has a more strikingly military appearance than the printed copy in The National Archives pictured above. The reprint dispenses with most of the French words and phrases, and also omits the illustrations which are scattered through the wartime edition.

A preface by the historian and archivist Mary Clapinson states that the guide was discovered in the papers of its author, the journalist Herbert David Ziman, which were donated to the Bodleian in 1995; Ziman was on secondment to the PWE from the Intelligence Corps in 1943 when he wrote the booklet.[8]

The Bodleian reprint has proved highly popular and is widely available from bookshops and museums as a stocking filler for military history enthusiasts. Perhaps unexpectedly, the guide also found a readership in France: in 2006 a French translation of the guide was published by the small Parisian house Les Quatre Chemins and reportedly sold well.[9] Quand Vous Serez En France featured an introduction by the journalist Pierre Assouline, expressing fascinated bemusement at the ‘battledress paperback’ produced with ‘a consummate sense of understatement’ and which helps explain the continuing attraction of France for the British.[10] Turning to the final section of the guide, he suggests that in phonetically transcribed phrases such as ‘Bonjewer, commont-aalay-voo?’, French readers will find ‘an original form of poetry.’[11]

This is the first post in an occasional series – subsequent posts will address pocket guides to other countries.

Images by kind permission of The National Archives. 


[1] ‘Draft Soldiers’ Guide to France’, FO 898/478, p. 31.

[2] Ibid., p. 2.

[3] Ibid., p. 14.

[4] Ibid., p. 17.

[5] Ibid., p. 26, p. 28.

[6] Ibid., p. 29.

[7] Ibid., p. 28.

[8] Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944. (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2005), n.p.

[9] Noam Cohen, ‘For British Troops, Help Crossing the Channel’, The New York Times, 2 July 2006: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/02/weekinreview/02word.html

[10] Quand Vous Serez En France (Paris: Quatre Chemins), p. 11, p. 16.

[11] Ibid., p. 17.