Not already a member? Register a free account
Forgot your password?
To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence. Supreme excellence
consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.
Sun-tzu, Ping-fa ('The Art of War'), 4thC BC.
In almost all military conflicts, as well as a war of bombs and bullets there is a war of words. Words can be disseminated via a number of different media. They can be spoken, eg via radio, loudspeaker, or even by mouth-to-mouth communication as news and rumours, sometimes supplied by one's enemies as well as ones allies, are spread. Here in the 21st C the social media are coming to play a very important part in the spread of information. But in the 20th C the main medium was the printed word, and newspapers had a huge role to play.
This article is perhaps overambitious in that it aims to provide both a short introduction to the role of airdropped leaflets in war and conflict and within that to focus on news and airdropped newspapers in WW2. For reasons of space its emphasis will be mainly upon Western Europe, but it should be realised that news-based leaflets featured hugely in all theatres of WW2, from Europe to North Africa and then Russia through to the Middle East and to Asian countries, especially the countries of East Asia such as China and Japan, and in Southeast Asia such as Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaya, Indonesia and Papua and New Guinea.
Leaflets, flimsy pieces of paper, have fluttered down over almost every battleground and area of conflict during the 20th century. Their purpose? To plant seeds of doubt and play on fears in the minds of enemy soldiers and civilians, depressing their spirit and weakening their stomach for the fight whilst boosting the morale and keeping the support of friends and allies. According to some, their place in the modern arsenal of weaponry is vital and assured. According to the late Philip M. Taylor, the respected writer on propaganda subjects at the University of Leeds, The Second World War "witnessed the greatest propaganda battle in the history of warfare". "Fuelled by the advent of the aeroplane, leaflets were extensively dropped in WW1 but this was surpassed by the extent of leaflet dissemination during WW2". At the end of WW2 General Eisenhower stated, "I am convinced that the expenditure of men and money on wielding the spoken and written word was an important contributing factor in undermining the enemy's will to resist and supporting the fighting morale of our potential allies in the occupied countries". He went on, "Without doubt, psychological warfare has proved its right to a place of dignity in our military arsenal". But this is most certainly not a universal view. Of aerial leaflets Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris said, "My personal view is that the only thing achieved was largely to supply the Continent's requirements of toilet paper for the five long years of war". The historian A.J.P. Taylor was similarly scathing when offering his opinion that leaflet production's main use was to keep the intellectuals busy and out of the hair of the military!
The importance of the role of leaflets in the conflicts of the latter part of the last century has been consistently acknowledged. In spite of the increasingly technical sophistication of modern weaponry, the humble piece of paper was more certain of its place in warfare than ever before. The mightiest military machine of our time, the US fighting forces, rarely engaged in any military action without fully integrated psychological operations (PSYOPS, now known as MISO: Military Information Support and Operations) which, in the words of a US Army psywarrior, was "a non-lethal, yet psychological casualty producing weapons system that is an extraordinary force multiplier". And aerial propaganda leaflets, as they are often referred to, were almost invariably included.
From the very beginning of the WW2, enemy civilian populations were subjected to a barrage of propaganda leaflets covering a large range of topics. This continued for the duration of hostilities. Germany, of course, was the most important target in British operations. Even before September 3rd 1939, RAF Whitley III bombers were waiting on the runways loaded with leaflets. When Prime Minister Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany it was only a matter of hours before the aircraft were in the air heading for Hamburg, Bremen and the Ruhr. But the early leaflets, code named "nickels", attracted criticism from every quarter. In turgid blocks of text in old-fashioned Fraktur types, they tried to convince the German people they were misled and that Germany was virtually bankrupt and destined to lose the war. None of this, of course, was apparent to the mass of the German people who, given military victory after victory by their Nazi masters, were virtually psychologically unassailable. For some of the older people, however, the developments stirred painful memories of the First World War. They knew the price to be paid for a long war and the terrible consequences of defeat. The enemy, after all, was only a few thousand feet away. He might be dropping leaflets now but what would he drop next?
The physical presence of Allied leaflets was significant even if their content was usually not. Many ordinary people secretly collected and read the leaflets. To the thinking German who was restricted to an incessant diet of strictly censored and distorted news, the very fact that the leaflets existed and that there was another view of developments in Germany and its progress in the war was uplifting. Perhaps the tongue in cheek words on one of Britain's early leaflets, "Everything Good Comes from Above", had some resonance at that time!
However, from these shaky beginnings grew immense Britain based leaflet operations reaching almost the whole of Western and Southern Europe. Over the course of the war British aircraft alone delivered over 1.5 billion leaflets to eleven different European countries, mostly to Germany. Through 1941 and into 1942 Britain's Political Warfare Executive gained access to stocks of the best quality paper which led to a marked improvement in the leaflets' appearance and style. Much clearer illustrations and, eventually, colour could be used to produce leaflets to fuel what was now a more respectable propaganda campaign. The leaflet writers now had setbacks in the German war effort to work with. German civilians were reminded of the growing food shortages, the destructive bombing of German cities, the blunders and broken promises of the Nazi leadership and the worsening situation of the German armies. All this was grist to the propagandists' mill. Some leaflets reproduced anti-Nazi pronouncements from within Germany, for example the sermons of Clemens August Graf von Galen, the Archbishop of Munster, preached in July 1941, and the manifesto of "The White Rose", a Munich University student group, whose young leaders were guillotined in February 1943 after being caught spreading anti-Nazi literature. Their manifesto was reproduced in Allied leaflets and dropped over Germany in 1943. Other leaflets did not allow the German people to remain in ignorance of the inhuman behaviour of their soldiers in the occupied countries. Once the tide of war had turned against the Third Reich every opportunity was taken to describe and quantify the growing losses of fathers, husbands and sons in North Africa, Russia, Italy and then, after June 1944, in France. In the later stages of the war Allied propagandists had to do little more than let the war news, which was invariably bad for Germany, do their work for them.
News was the basis of many leaflets and, of course, newspapers, whole series of which were used in nearly of all theatres of the war. In recent conflicts such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then Libya, journalists were embedded in the front line and could send a constant stream of news to the media back home. But in WW2, both civilians and especially troops were often starved of news. The propagandists saw in this craving for news an opportunity to get across their version of what was happening, one that supported their war aims and objectives. But it was realised, and came to be generally accepted by the more enlightened psywarriors, that the best propaganda was based on truth. When Sir John Reith (1889-1971), the former director general of the BBC, was appointed Minister of Information in 1940, he stated that "news is the shock troops of propaganda". But he did qualify it a little when adding that it should be "as near as possible, the whole truth." And he had an unexpected ally in this in the person of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, who stated that propaganda should be as accurate as possible.
To turn now to leaflet/newspapers, it is possible to classify propaganda newspapers according to their target readership, namely:
Newspapers to one's own civilians are not normally thought of as propaganda although governments, mindful of maintaining the morale of their people, will favour an emphasis on the successes of its military endeavours rather than its setbacks. But they are not air-dropped and thus not the subject of this article.
Similarly, leaflet/newspapers to a governments' armed forces are not usually considered to be propaganda but on rare occasions when they are air-dropped they could then attract the attention of the enemy's propaganda specialists. The German Skorpion propaganda organisation, as well as having responsibility for propaganda to the enemy, also produced morale-boosting newspapers for the Wehrmacht. In 1945 in NW Europe, groups of German forces often became cut off from the main forces and had to be supplied with the regular leaflet/newspaper "Willst Du die Wahrheit wissen, Kamerad, frage den "Skorpion!" (If you want to know the truth, Comrade, ask the "Skorpion"!) (Fig. 1) by air.
Each leaflet posed questions that the typical landser was asking, eg about the state of the war and future prospects, and then answer them. Soldiers were invited to raise issues concerning them and send their questions to a fieldpost address. Now, if the enemy is airdropping newspapers to its own forces it presents a tempting opportunity to forge some issues and drop them along side the genuine ones. They would, of course, be designed to subvert the enemy's attempts to generate optimism, and the willingness to fight, among its soldiers. When Sefton Delmer, Britain's arch-black-propagandist, discovered what the Germans were doing, he decided to set his forgers to work. They produced 6 issues that were dropped alongside the 9 issues produced by the Skorpion organisation.
According to interrogation reports of captured Skorpion personnel some of the soldiers who read the forged editions were taken in by them and were therefore exposed to subversive British propaganda. The forged issue no. 11 (Fig. 2) caused particular excitement when it suggested that soldiers could shoot their superior officers if they believed they were acting against the interests of the German people. On learning what was happening, the German General Model was so incensed that he gave instructions to put an end to the Skorpion news sheets. In humiliation, the Germans issued a Scorpion leaflet headed "Der Feind setzt giftige Skorpione aus!" (The enemy is putting out poisonous Skorpions.) which admitted fully the enemy deception and advised that only those Skorpions which were passed from hand to hand were to be considered genuine. Any found lying on the ground were to be regarded as "enemy poison". It is believed that no more were produced, thus denting the Germans' efforts to sustain the morale of their troops.
In the European theatre, Allied leaflet operations to the occupied countries are regarded by some as the most effective of the various leaflet campaigns. Along side the single-sheet "timeless" leaflets, were news based tracts including newspapers and magazines. The largest number of leaflets was disseminated over France, simply because the country was large with a widely dispersed population. Once British forces had been withdrawn from France it became obvious that the Germans were exerting strict control of the news. If any spirit of resistance was to be kept alive, the French had to receive news and encouragement from Britain and her Allies. Great work was done by the BBC via its radio network but the likely confiscation of radio receivers by the Germans meant that some other way had to found to penetrate the Nazi propaganda wall. The ideal would have been a daily air-disseminated newspaper but this was impracticable due to a shortage of available aircraft and the unpredictability of the weather. It was decided, therefore, to institute a newspaper named Le Courrier de L'air (Fig. 3) to be dropped at weekly intervals. The first issue was dropped in December 1940 and by the time France was liberated close on 200 editions had been printed.
The first issues were 4 pages of the standard leaflet size, 13 x 8 cm, printed on poor quality paper, but then the size was doubled and, before long the photogravure method of printing was adopted. This, combined with the use of better quality paper, permitted a first class production with numerous maps, cartoons and topical photographs. But mistakes were very occasionally made and corrected editions were produced (Fig. 4).
A supplement to the "Courrier", Revue de la Press Libre (Fig.5) was also dropped. It contained extracts from the leading British and American newspapers and in some cases cartoons from the London papers. At the end of 1942 the British decided that there was a need for a serious monthly magazine, and La Revue du Monde Libre (Fig.6) was born. It contained up to 48 pages of articles penned by some of the leading thinkers, politicians and world leaders and was produced in small format so that it could easily be concealed and passed around.
In October 1943, a still more ambitious and beautifully produced magazine, ACCORD (Fig. 7), was launched which contained 32 pages or more of articles and photographs.
In November 1942, the Americans designed a magazine similar to "Courrier" which was entitled L'Amerique en Guerre (Fig. 8) and was delivered by American planes until August 1944. Each of the around 100 editions stated "Brought to the French people by the U.S.A.A.F".
The population density of Holland, Belgium, Norway and Denmark, however, was higher and smaller numbers of each leaflet could be dropped. They were more easily spread by hand, ensuring a large readership. The Dutch enjoyed the greatest variety of propaganda as messages were printed on packets of cigarettes and sweets and even on the labels attached to small bags of Dutch East Indies tea. As with the French, the leaflet melange included a number of different newspapers and magazines. They included, DE LUCHTPOST (Airmail), De Wervelwind (The Whirlwind) (Fig. 9) and DE VLIEGENDE HOLLANDER (The Flying Dutchman).
As indicated above, the verdict on leaflets distributed to the occupied countries was generally favourable. This constant supply of war news, especially once Hitler had started to taste defeat, in a form that could be easily hidden, read and re-read and handed on, was morale lifting and sustaining. The imposition of penalties did not stop the finders of leaflets from passing them on. In 1943 a Dutchman made 5,000 copies of four issues of De Wervelwind , a dropped illustrated newspaper, which he then distributed. His newspaper came to be known affectionately as Het Wervelwindje, (The Little Whirlwind). In the same year the Paris Police was given the job of scouring the streets early each morning for Allied leaflets. Only a proportion was handed in to the German authorities as required. The rest was distributed, eg pushed into letter-boxes! The contents of many leaflets were reproduced in French underground newspapers such as Humanite.
Although the great majority of news-based publications was dropped over the occupied countries in the west, the civilians of virtually all the occupied countries, including those in Eastern and Southern Europe and the Balkans were not left out. For example, regular doses of news from the skies, courtesy of the R.A.F and the U.S.A.A.F.were supplied to Albania (Fig. 10), Hungary (Fig. 11), Jugoslavia (Fig. 12).
The leaflet campaign against Germany had barely begun before the propagandists turned out their first newspaper, Wolkiger Beobachter (Fig. 13). (The Observer from the Clouds). The first issue was dropped over Germany in late November 1939. Its title was a pun on the title of the well-known Nazi newspaper, Volkischer Beobachter (The People's Observer). The British effort was illustrated with cartoons and was regarded as an improvement on the much-criticised leaflets that had gone before.
It was June 1941 before the leaflet writers turned their attention once more to a newspaper, and the production of Luftpost (Fig. 14) was begun. Some 48 issues were dropped intermittently until the final issue in September 1944.
In July 1943, leaflet dissemination over Germany was bolstered by the American Office of War Information (OWI). Britain based U.S.A.A.F. planes delivered leaflets emphasising the growing might of America and its ability to take the air war to the heart of the Reich. A regular theme of the news sheet Sternenbanner (Star-Spangled Banner) (Fig. 15) was Germany's deteriorating war situation.
In the Summer of 1944 the Psychological Warfare Division of SHAEF, under General Eisenhower, took over the propaganda campaign against Germany. As the end of hostilities approached, and in the post-war aftermath, leaflets such as S.H.A.E.F. (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) The Daily Organ of Supreme Headquarters (Fig. 16), were dropped which offered news in four languages: English, Polish, French and German, and occasionally with Russian instead of English. It gave advice to civilians and displaced persons about survival and the establishment of the new order.
News of the war was often less accessible to troops on the front line than it was to civilian populations. In remote areas and particularly when the front was moving quickly, backwards or forwards, and especially when pockets of soldiers were cut off, they could be particularly starved of news about the state of battle, and the situation at home. Any news service that was accessible was avidly used even if it derived from the enemy, and many instances are recorded where soldiers were found to be absorbed in reading the enemy's newspapers.
Consider the situation in North West Europe after D-Day. From August 1944 to May 1945, the Allied 12th Army Group Newspaper, Frontpost (Fig 17) appeared every two or three days initially and then weekly, printed by its American production team in France and then in Luxembourg.
Each issue bore the motto "Der Starke braucht die Wahrheit nicht zu scheue" (The strong need not fear the truth) and the truth, the facts, were the basis of the content. Written like a newspaper, it was cleverly designed, with a varied content including maps, war pictures, sports news and a puzzle. This was to temper the depressing tone which news alone, mostly bad for the German soldier, might engender. Its readership was not subjected to preaching and during the German Ardennes offensive it did not waver from a starkly factual approach.
By November 1944, due to the closeness of the fighting and rapidly fluctuating front line it was decided to add to the Frontpost stable a smaller-sized single-sheet version, Feldpost (Fig. 18) to be shelled to front line troops. This could reach outlying units that airdrops could not. A small number of exact copies of Feldpost (Fig. 19), but in English, were produced to be handed out to artillery personnel to inform them of what they were disseminating and thus win their cooperation in propaganda operations.
Newspapers were also produced by other army groups. For example, the US 7th Army Group printed some 24 weekly issues of Frontbrief zur Kriegslage (Fig. 20) ("Front Line News-letter") from October 1944 to March 1945.
A joint British and American production, a newspaper headed Nachrichten fur die Truppe (News for the Troops) (Fig. 21), was produced virtually daily from April 1944 until the very end of the war. It was spread by the RAF but mainly by the USAAF . Production peaked at about two million in November 1944. It was "grey" in character, ie not openly acknowledged as an Allied production, and even some American troops in France thought it was a German effort!
Although most German soldiers had no doubts as to its origin they nevertheless found it informative and some were even known to complain when the Allied planes occasionally failed to deliver their daily edition! Largely a compilation of verifiable war news, which lent it credibility, the authors also slipped in gossipy stories about life in Germany and its leaders, invariably untrue but impossible to check and cleverly crafted to create anxiety in the minds of its readers and turn them against their masters. The very last issue, number 371 was dropped on the day that General Jodl signed the instrument of Germany's unconditional surrender, May 7th. 1945. As with the Skorpion leaflets described above, when the method of newspaper dissemination is air-dropping, others can take advantage of this and the Germans produced and dropped a few versions of Nachrichten fur die Truppe (Fig. 22) of their own. They, of course, purported to come from the Allies, ie were "black" publications. But whereas the British editions were supportive of the Allied advances, the German versions were gloomy and cast doubts upon Allied successes and the likelihood of an ultimate Allied victory in the war.
On the Eastern Front the Russians engaged in a massive leaflet campaign against German forces and a large number of different newspapers was included. Typical titles were Auslands Nachrichten ('News from Abroad'), Frontnachrichten ('News from the Front') (Fig. 23), and Was geht in Deutschland vor? ('What's Happening in Germany?'). Most were printed on paper which was of poor quality with badly reproduced and often "doctored" photographs.
The paper was frequently coloured, so they would be visible in the snow. But overall they were drab and uninviting to the reader. Stalin, aware of such criticism decided to produce a prestigious news-sheet, FRONT-ILLUSTRIERTE (Front Illustrated) (Fig. 24), to show Russian art, design and publishing at its best. Unlike her Allies, the Russians had a dedicated leaflet production and dissemination unit. Thus they were not dependent on the goodwill and cooperation of aircrew and artillery personnel for leaflet dissemination. Large low-flying aircraft, some with printing facilities on board, would traverse the vast length of the front line spreading issues of the large-size FRONT-ILLUSTRIERTE fairly sparingly. This was usually done at night as was the practice, when conditions allowed, of leafleteers walking warily towards German positions to leave copies on the ground where the Germans would find them.
The Axis powers, especially Germany, also produced leaflets and newspapers targeted on enemy soldiers. Consider again the situation in North West Europe after D-Day. The Germans executed an extensive and inventive leaflet campaign against the Allied forces as they fought their way across France and Belgium into Germany. Other than during the Ardennes Offensive they had relatively little news to exploit in their favour but certain themes had the potential to weaken the enemy soldier's morale, make him over-self-protective, and question his post-war prospects. Relative to the Allies' well-oiled newspaper publishing machine, the German's newspaper publishing efforts appeared to be sporadic and inconsistent. Unfortunately no records of German leaflet production have been found, so it cannot be known for certain how many different leaflets and newspapers were printed.
For example: just one edition of SWASTIKA TIMES, American Edition (Fig. 25), Nr. 1, Nov. 29 1944; just 3 editions of Facts Figures Faces, Condensed News for Servicemen (Fig. 26), nos. 2 (December 19 1944), 3, (December 29 1944), and 11 (March 28 1945); and 9 editions of Lightening News (Fig. 27) nos. 1 - 4 October 1944, 1 - 4 November 1944 and no. 3 January 1945 are known. A series of 6 issues of a newspaper The Other Side (Fig. 28) is of particular interest because these news leaflets are some of the very few known to have been delivered by V1 rocket.
Considering the above-mentioned newspaper Facts Figures Faces, it should not be assumed that because the last known issue is designated no.11 that all from nos. 1 to 10 exist. It was not unusual for the propagandists to leave out some issues just to confuse the enemy and cause him to waste resources looking for the missing ones. For example, Sefton Delmer deliberately started the Nachrichten newspaper at issue number 9 hoping to confuse any German intelligence officers who analysed Allied psychological warfare.
In any given theatre of war in WW2, it is unusual for newspapers not to be included in the mix of aerial propaganda leaflets that was disseminated. They have a firm place in the armoury of wordy weapons.
Any reader with further information and comments about, and corrections of, this article are warmly invited to contact the author here.
Black Boomerang, An Autobiography, Volume 2. Sefton Delmer. Secker and Warburg, London, 1962. (Tells the story of Nachrichten fur die Truppe and some black newspapers)
The Falling Leaf, The Journal of the Psywar Society. Publ. quarterly from 1958 to 2011. (throughout the issues of this magazine there are articles and news clippings referring to air-dropped newspapers and magazines).
A Psychological Warfare Casebook. W.E. Dougherty. The John Hopkins Press, Baltmore, 1958. (There are copious reference to war newspapers in the many articles but see, in particular "News Sheets as Weapons of War", pp 556-562.)