Public Event: PWE research seminar, 27 June 2019

Readers in the North East of England (and further afield) are very welcome to attend our first research seminar, on Thursday 27 June 2019 in Durham

The Political Warfare Executive and British Culture

While ‘fake news’ is an urgent political topic at the moment, state-backed disinformation is a practice with a long and controversial history. During the Second World War, the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) was established by the British Government as a secret organisation with the mission of spreading propaganda to enemy and enemy-occupied countries. It conducted this propaganda through techniques such as rumour campaigns, broadcasts, leaflet and magazine drops, and forgeries.

To carry out its mission, the PWE recruited various well-known journalists, authors, intellectuals, artists, and actors, harnessing their publicly renowned talents towards these concealed propaganda campaigns.

In this seminar, members of ‘The Political Warfare Executive, Covert Propaganda, and British Culture’ project will discuss the research they have been conducting towards understanding the PWE’s little-known interactions with the cultural sphere.

  • James Smith will overview the structure of the PWE and its various forms of propaganda activity, and will discuss the roles some prominent authors and intellectuals came to play in the organisation.
  • Guy Woodward will discuss his research in the archives of the PWE, and look at examples of magazines, pamphlets, and rumours created by the PWE.
  • Beatriz Lopez will talk about her research on novelist and former PWE employee Muriel Spark, exploring Spark’s fascination with the use of PWE storytelling techniques to create deceptive yet plausible narratives in her novels.

The seminar is open to all and free to attend, and there will be a chance for Q&A and discussion. It is organised by Durham’s Centre for Modern Conflicts and Cultures. Contact: James.smith3@durham.ac.uk

Thursday 27 June 2019

5.15-6.45 PM

Durham University, Elvet Riverside, Room 157

‘The Political Warfare Executive, Covert Propaganda, and British Culture’ project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

John Betjeman’s Dublin whispers

Document of the month: FO 898/70/475-6

Guy Woodward investigates poet John Betjeman’s role in spreading rumours in neutral Ireland during the Second World War.

This comes from a short run of documents in the PWE archive, found in the innocuously-named file FO 898/70 ‘Procedure, General Correspondence And Reports’. It is a copy of a note intended for the poet John Betjeman, dated 20 July 1942. At this time Betjeman was serving as British press attaché in Dublin, capital of neutral Ireland, where he had arrived in January 1941. The post was cover for his work for the Ministry of Information – in Spying on Ireland (2008), historian Eunan O’Halpin describes Betjeman’s role as twofold: firstly, to cultivate the Irish press to foster sympathetic coverage of Britain’s progress in the war, and secondly to counter Axis propaganda in Ireland.[1] This second responsibility involved intelligence gathering, as Betjeman analysed news sheets produced and distributed by the German and Italian legations in Dublin for their content and provenance.

On arrival in Ireland Betjeman threw himself onto the Dublin social scene, cultivating friendships with journalists, civil servants, artists and writers, including Seán Ó Faoláin, Frank O’Connor and Patrick Kavanagh. In her cultural history of Ireland during the war, That Neutral Island (2007), Clair Wills writes that six months after his arrival Betjeman was ‘a well-known and popular figure, frequently encountered in the pub, and at house parties and literary functions.’[2]

In 1942 Betjeman became ‘PWE’s chosen instrument in Dublin’ when he agreed to assist in the spreading of ‘sibs’.[3] The word derives from the Latin ‘sibillare’, meaning to hiss or whisper – sibs were rumours invented and disseminated with the aim of deceiving the enemy, of undermining enemy morale, or of damaging perceptions of the enemy (read more about sibs here).

According to O’Halpin, as ‘an inveterate gossip’ Betjeman was ‘an obvious though perhaps too conspicuous choice for the clandestine task of whispering’.[4] Nevertheless, his use was approved by the controller of SOE; SIS and MI5 were also consulted.

This letter is headed ‘Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office’ at Bush House, Aldwych in London. The PID was a genuine research department in the Foreign Office, but was used as a cover name by the PWE even after the closure of the real PID in 1943 (this presents difficulties for historians and archivists – read more about the names used by PWE here).[5] Bush House was the home of the BBC European Service but also housed the secret headquarters of the PWE – handy for liaising with the BBC, although relations were sometimes fractious.

The letter is unsigned, but preceding documents in the file suggest it was written by John Rayner, a member of the Underground Propaganda Committee involved in the production of rumour, in response to a request from Betjeman to pass on ‘any interesting stories that were going about’. Rayner summarises six of these. One reads:

Another reads:

And another states:

These stories tap into public fascination with the Eastern front, following the entry of the Russians into the war on the side of the allies in 1941: at home in Britain many were elated by this, and in occupied Europe the new front presented a new point of emphasis for the propagandists. The macabre details of the second and third rumours are also significant – historian of British psychological warfare Charles Cruickshank writes of sibs that ‘Few ordinary people can resist the temptation to pass on bad news, a human weakness on which the whispering campaign relied for much of its success.’ For a rumour to be successful, he suggests, ‘it should be alarming enough to have to be passed on, and credible enough to conceal the fact that it was a fabrication.’[6] A note from Rayner to a Captain Wintle dated 6 October 1942 reflects this definition, suggesting that sibs for Ireland should be restricted to ‘“verities” or near-verities’.[7]

It is unclear whether Betjeman received the list of ‘stories’. Another note written from Rayner to Betjeman and dated four days later on 24 July expresses the hope of sending ‘a few beans to spill under separate cover in a few days’ but cites ‘unexpected difficulties which have prevented my doing so before’ – it is possible therefore that the note of 20 July was never sent.[8] Due to the destruction of many records in the PWE archive (one account suggests only one tenth of the material was retained) we are also missing records of the sibs that Betjeman himself was charged with spreading.[9]

We do know that he recruited George Furlong, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, as a vehicle for disseminating these, however. Usefully Furlong had strong social links with the Italian legation in Dublin and also visited London regularly on business, occasions on which sibs could be conveyed to him verbally.[10]

In August 1943 Betjeman returned to England, where he worked at a secret department of the Admiralty known as P branch in Bath.[11] Reporting his planned return on its front page on 14 June 1943, the Irish Times hailed Betjeman for seeing it his duty not only ‘to interpret England to the Irish, but also to interpret Ireland sympathetically to the English’.[12]

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

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] Eunan O’Halpin, Spying on Ireland: British Intelligence and Irish Neutrality During the Second World War, (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 138.

[2] Clair Wills, That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), p. 186.

[3] O’Halpin, p. 210.

[4] O’Halpin, p. 210.

[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. 1, p. 42.

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

[7] FO 898/70/469.

[8] FO 898/70/471.

[9] Howe, p. 7.

[10] O’Halpin, p. 212.

[11] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi-org.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/30815

[12] Quoted in Alex Runchman, ‘English perceptions of Irish culture, 1941-3: John Betjeman, Horizon, and The Bell’ in Irish Culture and Wartime Europe, 1938-1948, ed. by Dorothea Depner and Guy Woodward (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015), pp. 87-98 (pp. 87-8).

Poisoned sweetmeats: introducing #siboftheweek

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

[4] Garnett, p. 214.

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

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

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

[8] Garnett, p. 213.

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