“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However, the instrument relied on outdated technology and could not guarantee secure speech.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.

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.

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.

International Women’s Day 2019

Today is International Women’s Day – at @PWEpropagandist we highlighted nine women who contributed to the work of the PWE at home and abroad during the Second World War.


“Peace on earth, but only when Hitler is smashed”: Christmas wartime propaganda

Document of the month: FO 898/311/330-1

Guy Woodward on propaganda and the festive season

Supposedly a time of peace and goodwill, for the wartime propagandists Christmas was a time to exploit fears and encourage enemy divisions. A memorandum in the PWE archive, written in the run up to Christmas 1940, suggests that the festive season is a time when German 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.’

The writer is the future Labour cabinet minister Richard Crossman, then head of Ministry of Economic Warfare’s German section. He is writing to Rex Leeper, Head of SO1, the propaganda division of the Special Operations Executive and the immediate predecessor of the PWE; the document is one of a series in file FO 898/311, ‘Projects And Targets. Reports And Bulletins. Background Notes’ outlining plans for ‘Christmas Propaganda’.

Crossman writes that his team have developed a plan combining open and secret broadcasting with leaflet drops in the hope of ‘for exploiting Christmas Eve in order to demoralise German civilians and the German Armies of Occupation.’ He reports that the Air Ministry are refusing to cooperate, however, and have insisted that if a raid does take place on Christmas Eve, bombs rather than leaflets will be dropped. Crossman’s department are very concerned by this:

Crossman outlines his alternative plan, which he argues ‘will have a more potent effect than any air-raid’:

In this way Crossman hoped to foment discord between German officials insisting on a retreat to the shelters, and civilians wishing to continue with their Christmas celebrations. He believed this would ‘maximise friction between the people and the [Nazi] Party, and lay the onus for the disturbance of the Christmas festivities not upon us, but upon the Party machine.’ This was a manoeuvre often deployed by the PWE later in the war: many covert propaganda campaigns were designed to arouse resentment for officialdom by suggesting this was characterised by cruelty, corruption or incompetency. It is striking how the plan also seeks to exploit a perception that the BBC is more trustworthy than the German authorities.

The hostility of the Air Ministry to this sort of thing was characteristic: the RAF were notably sceptical about the value of dropping propaganda leaflets from the air and often reluctant to facilitate drops over enemy territory, thinking these wasteful and dangerous for aircrews.[1] The flavour of this hostility can be gauged from an acidic Air Ministry letter dated 26 November 1940 also found in this file, which observes that:

Crossman’s memo concludes with a request for Leeper to come down to ‘The Country’ (SO1’s base at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire) to discuss matters further. It seems unlikely that the leaflet raid (which Crossman anticipated would require ten aircraft) ever took place, but in the end the Air Ministry’s plans were also frustrated: in 1940 an unofficial two-day Christmas truce in the aerial war between Britain and Germany prevailed.


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] See Tim Brooks, British Propaganda to France, 1940-1944: Machinery, Method and Message, (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 37 and David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945, (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), p. 188.

The Political Warfare Executive – what’s in a (cover) name?

Principal Investigator James Smith on Whitehall secrecy and the names used to conceal PWE operations

One of the initial issues that this project faces is that, while a range of authors and intellectuals had some sort of connection to the Political Warfare Executive during the war, you would be hard pressed to find direct mention of the name ‘PWE’ in many of their memoirs or biographical accounts. Take, for example, the way that Muriel Spark’s autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992) describes her service:

I played a very small part, but as a fly on the wall I took in a whole world of method and intrigue in the dark field of Black Propaganda or Psychological Warfare, and the successful and purposeful deceit of the enemy. […] The Foreign Office secret intelligence service was MI6, of which our department was Political Intelligence.

We know that Spark worked for the PWE’s black broadcasting unit in Woburn under Sefton Delmer, but her account here shows just how convoluted later descriptions of the PWE can become. For one, MI6 and Delmer’s unit were quite separate organisations, so the lines of command she lists here are unclear – is Spark simply confused, repeating her genuine understanding, or hitching her obscure secret work on to the better-known status of MI6? And the reference to the Political Intelligence Department (PID) of the Foreign Office is one of the most common ways PWE employees characterised their roles, but this was the result of a deliberate policy of obscuring the true existence of the PWE as a dedicated covert propaganda apparatus.

As a secret note circulated across Whitehall upon the founding of the PWE specified, ‘Since PWE is a secret department, the cover will continue to be the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office’, with ‘all questions and communications’ with the outside world about its propaganda being routed through the cover address of ‘The Secretary, Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office, 2 Fitzmaurice Place, Berkeley Square, W1’.[1] This became entrenched, and many of the documents and references concerning the PWE automatically refer to the ‘PID’ – Spark’s repetition of this, decades after the war, suggests the extent to which this cover had become ingrained as the natural name for her employer.

And the same secrecy (not to mention the opaque and complex bureaucratic structures of wartime Britain) means that many of those temporary recruits involved in some aspect of the PWE’s work probably only had a tiny glimpse of the wider propaganda organ they were working within. Those authors working in the PWE’s Editorial Unit in London to develop magazines to send to liberated Europe, for example, probably had little sense of those working on the deception campaigns being developed in Woburn (‘the Country’, as it became mysteriously known to London staff), and in turn those doing broadcasts on the BBC’s European Service under PWE oversight probably had little idea about how their particular cog fitted into this broader machine.

So, untangling these different names, cover identities, and ambiguous affiliations will be a significant objective for the project – and one that will, we hope, leave us with a far clearer picture of the PWE’s cultural networks during the war.


[1] This note is in FO 898/10. Ellic Howe, The Black Game (Queen Anne Press, 1988), provides some broader details about this evolution of the PWE at this time and the relationship of the PWE to the ‘real’ PID – a department concerned with composing information summaries and offering ‘genteel employment’ to ex-ambassadors that suddenly found its names being used as cover for this separate operation. See pp. 41-53.