Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once

Guy Woodward finds echoes of PWE campaigns in a classic sitcom

After two years researching the Political Warfare Executive, I am beginning to find echoes of the agency and its work in all sorts of unexpected places. Watching some episodes of the venerable BBC sitcom Allo, Allo! the other day, for instance, I noticed a subplot involving the establishment of a French resistance radio station with covert British assistance, in which several elements recall the PWE’s wartime activities.

The subplot occurs in series eight, broadcast on BBC One from January-March 1992; in episode one, ‘Arousing Suspicions’, resistance agent Michelle Dubois (Kirsten Cooke – ‘Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once’) announces to café proprietor René Artois (Gorden Kaye) and his wife Edith (Carmen Silvera), that Free French leader Charles de Gaulle has ordered the resistance cell in the northern French town of Nouvion to launch a radio station:

We will broadcast the truth about the war, undermining German morale and rousing the brave French people to arms in preparation for the invasion.

These twin aims accord perfectly with the PWE’s propaganda strategy from 1941-45, of undermining the enemy’s will to fight and emboldening resistance movements.

‘But surely’, worries Edith, ‘the Germans will track down the radio station?’ Michelle explains that the cell will have to move the transmission equipment around the countryside to evade discovery. As a further precaution, broadcasts are to be pre-recorded on wax cylinders, to prevent the Germans apprehending members of the resistance during a live transmission; the wax cylinders and ‘Edison recording machine’ will shortly be airdropped by the British.

The typically convoluted plotting of writers Jeremy Lloyd and Paul Adam here establishes the grounds for the comic mishaps to come, but the scenario appears far-fetched. Histories of the resistance certainly acknowledge the importance of radio as a means of communication and of popularizing the cause: De Gaulle’s own broadcasts from London on the BBC’s Radio Londres service were hugely significant in this respect.[1] I can find no instance of the British supporting local stations in France, but the PWE did establish a range of ‘Freedom Stations’ during the war, which were intended to sound as if local resistance groups were broadcasting from inside occupied territories. The agency’s official historian David Garnett recalled that

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.[2]

Wary and weary of Michelle’s schemes, René says that he wants no part in the plan. ‘Too late’, says Michelle, producing a draft schedule from the pocket of her raincoat. Under his resistance codename ‘Nighthawk’, René is to broadcast on Wednesdays following Michelle’s own breakfast-time chat show – she suggests that ‘People cannot listen to propaganda all the time – they need some light relief.’

Michelle’s perceptive observation echoes the PWE’s approach to programming on many of its wartime radio stations, where propaganda messaging was carefully integrated into a schedule overtly geared towards entertainment, providing sports news or playing the latest popular music: PWE’s Sefton Delmer characterised this approach as

Cover, dirt, cover, cover, dirt, cover, dirt […] “dirt” being what we called the items which we hoped would make our listeners think and act on lines displeasing to their Führer.[3]

Delmer records the pains taken to ensure that the musical numbers would appeal to German listeners, flying the latest German dance records in from Stockholm, and even producing recordings from scratch using a captured German band.[4]

Back in Nouvion, when Edith brightly suggests – to René’s consternation – that she might record a song for broadcast on the resistance station to boost morale, Michelle refuses, noting that her voice is too recognisable and would ‘give the game away.’ Again, Michelle’s approach reflects that of the PWE, which took great care to ensure that voices heard on its black stations were not familiar from other contexts.

Michelle Dubois’s plan begins to unravel when the wax cylinders are dropped in error down the chimney of the nearby château, which has been commandeered by the hated Major-General Erich von Klinkerhoffen (Hilary Minster) and his occupying forces. To retrieve the cylinders Michelle, René, Edith and other members of the cell disguise themselves as a flamenco troupe visiting from Franco’s Spain, who have been engaged to perform for the German officers. Dressed in full ruffled and layered traje de flamenca, René eventually manages to smuggle the cylinders out of the château hidden in his fake bosom.

In the following episode, ‘A Woman Never Lies’, the café staff and resistance members assemble to record the first broadcast, a radio play in which undercover spy Officer Crabtree (Arthur Bostrom – ‘Good Moaning’) provides sound effects as dubious as his command of French, using coconuts to mimic horses’ hooves and slowing opening some rusty pliers to simulate the creaking of a door.

Michelle reveals that the recordings will be broadcast from a transmitter hidden in the hearse of Belgian undertaker Monsieur Alfonse (Carry On veteran Kenneth Connor); Alfonse’s whip will serve to disguise an aerial. As the hearse drives away however, members of the cell are gripped by panic when they realise that the wrong cylinder has been placed in the transmitter: instead of the resistance programming, Alfonse is set to broadcast a personal message recorded by de Gaulle for René, threatening to blow the cover of the whole cell.

The resistance radio station plays little part in the remaining episodes of the series, which are largely concerned with the ongoing tussle between various German factions over the ownership of the valuable painting ‘The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies’.

Allo, Allo! clearly demonstrates the comic possibilities of propaganda production, however – indeed, it is not hard to imagine a sitcom scripted by David Croft, Jimmy Perry or Jeremy Lloyd which focused on the activities of the PWE. The linguistic and imaginative contortions required in order to establish a successful Freedom Station might well be exploited for comic effect. As if outlining the setting for such a series, the printer and typographer Ellic Howe described the environment at the requisitioned Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire – centre for the production of black propaganda during the war – as ‘sometimes more akin to surrealism than reality’:

The formula for a ‘mad’ atmosphere was ready made. Plant an ill-assorted collection of journalists etc. in and around the purlieus of a ducal mansion and more or less isolate them from the outside world – during the first fortnight of the war they were confined to the Riding School and stables area – and there is the perfect recipe for a black comedy.[5]

Notes

[1] Olivier Wieviorka, The French Resistance, trans. by Jane Marie Todd (Harvard University Press, 2016).

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

[3] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang:An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), p. 91.

[4] Ibid., p. 84.

[5] Ellic Howe, The Black Game: British Subversive Operations Against the Germans During the Second World War (London: Queen Anne/Futura, 1988; orig pub 1982), p. 44.

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.

Notes

[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.

‘No Christmas truce in political warfare’: festive wartime propaganda – part 2

Document of the month: FO 898/323

Guy Woodward on PWE plans for a Christmas radio broadcast featuring Italian POWs

This time last year I examined at a plan developed in the run up to Christmas 1940, to use the festive season as a means of fomenting discord in Germany between civilians and officials. A memorandum written at the time by Richard Crossman, then head of Ministry of Economic Warfare’s German section, suggests that the festive season is a time when civilians and troops ‘will feel the absence of their families more strongly and will be most susceptible for this reason to certain lines of propaganda, particularly if that propaganda is made to appear as though it were not propaganda at all.’

Reflecting this view, the archive of the Political Warfare Executive features several other documents showing that British propagandists identified Christmas as a useful period in which to promote narratives which fostered resentment for the Axis governments, or presented Britain and the Allies in a favourable light. PWE’s Central Directive on Christmas Eve 1942, for example, states categorically that:

Throughout the war the PWE placed considerable emphasis in propaganda campaigns on the conditions enjoyed by Axis prisoners of war held in Allied POW camps: by suggesting that POWs were comfortably housed, well fed and treated with dignity the PWE hoped both to encourage enemy troops to surrender and to draw attention to privations and shortages on the German and Italian home fronts.

In late 1942 the PWE was also particularly concerned by an ongoing Italian ‘Hate England’ campaign – apparently personally initiated by Mussolini – alleging that Italian prisoners in British captivity were being maltreated by their captors. In response a plan was hatched to broadcast messages recorded by Italian POWs over the BBC’s Italian Service, as a means of showing that prisoners were well-treated and content.

File FO 898/323 features a script (in English) entitled ‘The Prisoner’s Christmas’ which seems to have been recorded in the run up to Christmas that year, at a POW camp in Gloucestershire. Somewhat ironically the broadcast opens with this announcement:

The announcer introduces a British inspector of the Italian POW camps, who tells listeners that the programme is being broadcast both in Italy and to Italian prisoners in England – suggesting that civilians and troops separated by war can be re-united over the airwaves. The inspector then leads us to ‘the little chapel near the camp’ where songs, prayers and greetings were recorded – a subtle detail indicating that prisoners are not confined within the camp. A second announcer sets the scene:

Religious hymns are played, before a greeting from ‘Sergeant Major Nardo Francesco’, leader of Italian prisoners at the camp:

The announcer then leads listeners back to the camp, stating that the POWs have their own ‘small orchestra’ featuring banjos, guitar, mandolin, violin and drums; he introduces songs from Northern Italy and Naples, before the ‘old refrain of the “Campagnola” (listen to it here). Strikingly, the script makes no direct mention of the living conditions of the prisoners – there are no references to meals or sleeping quarters, for example – but the emphasis on music produced by the POWs themselves nevertheless clearly promotes the impression that they are well-cared for and granted significant autonomy.

The programme concludes with a series of personal messages from named Italian service personnel in captivity to their families in Italy. These include:

And:

The French theorist of propaganda Jacques Ellul wrote that ‘The propagandist cannot separate the general and specific effects. When he launches a radio campaign, he knows that the effects of his campaign and the effects of radio broadcasts in general will be combined.’[1] Like the naming of the priest and the prisoners’ leader, the use of specific names and addresses in this script appears designed to provide a guarantee of authenticity to the wider listenership beyond the specific recipients of the greetings.

It is unclear from file FO 898/323 whether ‘The Prisoner’s Christmas’ was ever broadcast. When the possibility of broadcasting a religious service from an Italian POW camp was raised in November 1942 Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden gave cautious approval, but counselled that the ‘shackling dispute’ between the Britain and Germany should be resolved first. Further correspondence in the file suggests that some officials had other reservations about broadcasting POW greetings, fearing that Italian propaganda would respond by claiming that these had been recorded under duress, or by compelling British prisoners in Italian captivity to record similar broadcasts.

The script clearly shows, however, that Christmas presented an ideal opportunity to weaponise the rhetoric of peace and goodwill for the purposes of propaganda.

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] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, (New York: Vintage Books, 1973; originally published 1962), p. 162.