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Whispers of War – The British World War II rumour campaign
By Lee Richards

26 January 2005

The humiliating defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France in the summer of 1940 was perhaps Britain's darkest hour of the Second World War. But the defeat was quickly and successfully spun into a heroic retreat after the miraculous evacuation of the greater part of the BEF from the beaches of Dunkirk. Britain was now fighting alone and facing a Nazi invasion. The new government under Churchill's inspiring and resolute leadership brought fresh impetus and resolve to fight to the bitter end.

Hitler's Last Appeal to Reason

Hitler's "Last Appeal to Reason" Reichstag speech was reproduced
in leaflet form and air-dropped over Britain in July 1940

During a speech to the German Reichstag on 19 July 1940, Hitler gave Britain one last chance to make peace. Sefton Delmer, the future head and mastermind of British black propaganda, was just about to make his debut broadcast to Germany on the BBC when he heard the Führer's "last appeal to reason". Spontaneously, without governmental approval, Delmer tersely rejected any notion of a compromise peace. "Herr Hitler," Delmer announced, "you have on occasion in the past consulted me as to the mood of the British public. So permit me to render your Excellency this little service once again tonight. Let me tell you what we here in Britain think of this appeal of yours to what you are pleased to call our reason and common sense. Herr Führer and Reichskanzler, we hurl it right back at you, right in your evil smelling teeth…"[1] The unofficial rejection upset a few Members of Parliament but Delmer's attitude was indicative of the new mindset in the country.

Sefton Delmer broadcasts to Germany

Sefton Delmer broadcasts to Germany
(Courtesy of the Delmer estate)

Britain's main priority now was preparation for the expected invasion. All and every means were explored to defend the country. Psychological warfare had an important role to play in exaggerating Britain's defence capabilities and to persuade the German invading force that they were undertaking an impossible and perilous task which would only result in their annihilation. The spreading of "inspired rumours" would be one method utilised to deceive and depress the enemy.

Rumours are a perfect medium for unacknowledgeable clandestine propaganda and deception. They are incredibly hard to trace and near impossible to prove their origin; they can spread like the proverbial wildfire. There is no one in the world who does not relish passing on gossip or a titbit of "inside" information. Even in today's news saturated world the populations of the Western democracies, who believe they are more enlightened and less gullible than ever before, still fall for the most ridiculous and often abhorrent conspiracy theories. Just examine those who sincerely believe JFK was assassinated by the CIA or, perhaps, the Mafia, that an Alien flying saucer crashed at Roswell in 1947, that the US moon landing was an elaborate hoax, and even more far-fetched and absurd stories like the CIA orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and that Princess Diana's death in a car wreck in Paris was not the result of a speeding drunk driver but an MI6 murder plot on Prince Charles' orders! Are these conspiracy theories just self-generating stories from the imaginative minds of a cynical public or are they propagated or assisted by hostile intelligence services? Who can ever know? But what it does illustrate is that when there is huge public interest in an event with strong emotional appeal and a lack of verifiable facts, the most fanciful stories can flourish and be given credence.

British homefront propaganda poster

British homefront propaganda poster
to prevent the spread of rumours

In the wartime world of 1940 with strictly controlled and curtailed news media, the rumour potentially was a very valuable and potent weapon in influencing public opinion. All warring nations impressed upon their own people not to pass on gossip and hearsay. Across Britain posters reinforced the message with such famous phrases as "Tittle-tattle lost the battle", "Keep mum, she's not so dumb", and "Careless talk costs lives". In Germany a poster illustrated how a "latrine rumour" passed onto one person at 2 p.m. would rapidly spread, so by 3:30 p.m. thousands of people had heard the scandalous story. The artist, Paul Weber's famous illustration, "the Rumour" showing an inquisitive snake smashing its way through an office block was also used to persuade the German Volk not to spread tales.

German Volk are warned about the dangers of the "latrine rumour"

German Volk are warned about the
dangers of the "latrine rumour"
(Courtesy of Dr. Klaus Kirchner)

In the summer of 1940, as the remnants of the BEF regrouped in England and began intensive construction of anti-invasion defences, Department EH established the Underground Propaganda Committee (UPC) to formulate, under the tightest secrecy, an anti-invasion whispering campaign.[2] The rumours they generated were codenamed "Sibs" – taken from the Latin word sibilare, meaning to hiss – partly for security reasons and partly for amusement.[3]

Before Dunkirk only a few sibs had been developed and on an entirely ad-hoc basis. The first rumour devised suggested that U-boat losses were much larger than the German government was prepared to admit with only two out of every three boats returning. The rumour was passed by Electra House to Colonel Vivian at Bletchley Park, aka Station X, for dissemination by undisclosed means on 10 December 1939. This was followed up in the following February with the story that there had been serious mishaps to U-boats undergoing trials at Wilhelmshaven, owing to sabotage in the Deschimag shipyard. The U-boat service would be a major recurrent target for British black propaganda throughout the rest of the war.

Another early rumour claimed that due to the ration situation in Germany, doctors had orders to do away with hospitalised old and permanently disabled patients. In the spring, three more fabricated stories were spread by Bletchley Park and by agents of SIS's Section D. The first was an economic warfare rumour which asserted that certain Germans who had made a habit of noting the serial numbers of banknotes had discovered two notes with the same numbers. The implication being that the Reichsbank was disguising massive economic inflation by printing twice as many banknotes and was attempting to hide the fact by repeating serial numbers. Another rumour suggested that the receipt of large food parcels from abroad by Germans was being taken by the Gestapo as proof that the recipients had money in a foreign country.[4]

As the Battle of Britain got underway the UPC's work became more organised and more urgent. Their brief was to mislead the German General Staff into thinking they have to take precautions against nonexistent weapons and to circulate news to the detriment of the morale of the German invasion force. The first anti-invasion rumours were prepared in mid-July, several of which claimed that Britain had new and decisive weapons waiting to be unleashed. One alleged weapon was a high-capacity light machine gun with a rapid rate of fire and special sights to give it great accuracy. It was particularly effective at shooting down dive-bombers, was the claim. When tested in France in one day it brought down twelve dive-bombers and the next day two more before breakfast. To help the story spread photographs of a modified BREN gun with mocked-up sights would be accidentally released to the press without comment.

A new deadly mine of terrific power specially designed for destroying several landing-craft at once was another of Britain's imaginary secret weapons. The UPC recommended that more flavour could be given to the story if photographs were released of soldiers lowering disguised manhole covers on ropes into the sea from small boats. This could be continually repeated along the coastline under Luftwaffe aerial observation. If any enemy troops were lucky enough to actually get ashore then other special mines on the beaches controlled by "secret rays" should finish them off. But if not, the trip wires armed with all sorts of lethal devices would. The "ultimate rumour" suggested that Britain had an immense number of armoured vehicles capable of charging down transport planes on the ground. The truth, however, was that there were practically no armoured vehicles of any kind. In the countryside a number of post boxes on the corner of road junctions were sealed off by the Post Office. A rumour to explain this was circulated. The post boxes have been filled with explosives and would be detonated if German troops were ever to pass through the junction. To deter parachutists, another sib contended that, overhead telegraph wires included a high-tension cable designed to electrocute any descending paratroopers unlucky enough to get caught up in them. One of the more realistic tales revealed that huge imports of Thompson submachine guns were arriving at British ports and were being despatched rapidly across the country. What these anti-invasion rumours painfully illustrate is how under-equipped and ill prepared for war the British army was in the summer of 1940.[5]

At the Underground Propaganda Committee meeting on Friday, 27 September 1940 probably the most famous and wide reaching rumour of the war was submitted. The essence of the rumour was that Britain had a secret weapon which could set the sea on fire, engulfing enemy invading barges on their cross Channel trip. The text of the actual rumour is more explicit:

The British have a new weapon. It is a mine to be dropped from aircraft. In distinction from other mines, however, it does not explode, but spreads a very thin film of highly inflammable and volatile liquid over the surface of the water for an enormous area. The mine's further action then ignites this liquid provoking a terrible flame.[6]

According to John Baker White in his autobiography of his wartime career, The Big Lie, he submitted this rumour to the UPC after a visit to St. Margaret's Bay, near Dover, on the southeast coast of England.[7] He witnessed a demonstration of a genuine anti-invasion weapon installed across the beaches. Pipes had been buried under the beach down to the low water mark and where designed like a wheat field irrigation system but instead of spraying water onto crops their purpose was to shower invading enemy troops with burning gasoline. The demonstration was highly impressive with enormous flames shooting out across the beaches with masses of billowing black acrid smoke. In reality the under-the-beach flame-thrower may have been a lame duck being easily put out of action with a few mortar rounds. But Baker White noticed the psychological effect upon the under-strength troops defending the area; it certainly boosted their morale. What if there was a weapon capable of actually igniting a wide expanse of sea, he conjectured. There was no such weapon but if the Germans could be persuaded to believe there was, it could have a real adverse effect on the morale of the invasion force and additionally sustain the morale of the defending British troops and civilians on the home front.

The rumour he submitted to the UPC was sent for clearance to the Inter-Services Security Board (ISSB). This board was responsible for clearing rumours and had power of veto over any of a military nature which might inadvertently be a real security risk. The rumours would then be scrutinised by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). Rumours of a purely propaganda nature had to be submitted to the Foreign Office instead. This long-winded vetting procedure was a constant headache for the UPC and they unsuccessfully requested on several occasions for it to be dropped. Very many of the rumours suggested by the UPC were blocked either by the ISSB or Foreign Office and probably, considering their often outlandish nature, quite rightly so. But Baker White's "setting the sea on fire" rumour was given the go-ahead albeit with the unenthusiastic comment, "No objection, but we think it a pretty poor effort."

At first the story did not make much of an impact. Then, according to Baker White, came "two wonderful strokes of luck". The RAF was bombing the German invasion barges in Calais with incendiaries and on one occasion was "fortunate" to hit a battalion of soldiers conducting a practice invasion exercise. The incendiaries inflicted terrible burns on many of the soldiers. The second piece of good luck was that the wounded soldiers were sent to Paris for specialised medical treatment. The rumour had already been disseminated in Paris. The arrival of the badly burnt soldiers fuelled the flames, so to speak! Burnt corpses also washed ashore in Northern France. Afterwards, Baker White says, the French resistance would amuse themselves by pretending to warm their hands on German soldiers sitting next to them in cafes and restaurants.

In Britain as well there were numerous stories circulating of burnt bodies in German Army uniforms being washed up along the English southeast coast.[8] These stories were almost certainly triggered by a UPC supporting rumour which claimed that the Germans had attempted several small-scale invasions, all of which had been beaten off with devastating losses to them. "In fact none are alive to tell. Thousands of floating German corpses have been washed ashore," the rumour concluded.[9] Rumours of abortive German invasions became so pervasive that several concerned members of the British public enquired of the Ministry of Information what they were intending to do to counter such dangerous gossip. For example, the Ministry received the following letter as late as January 1942:

Throughout England and Wales there is a story being told of how Germany tried to invade us nearly two years ago. They were defeated by the RAF and the Fleet. Oil was thrown on the briny, and was set alight and the barges were all burnt. Thousands of scorched bodies of the enemy drifted ashore and were buried on the South coast. When it is pointed out that your Ministry could use this defeat for propaganda purposes, it is then pointed out that its announcement would increase the complacency of the British public. I suggest that an authoritative denial should be made of the story.[10]

The Ministry of Information replied that they did not think the rumour was very widespread and that an authoritative denial would have the undesirable effect of increasing its prevalence. Perhaps that was the wrong decision as the story of burnt German soldiers washing ashore after an abortive invasion attempt of England is a rumour that is still believed by some to this very day.

The first evidence obtained that stories of Britain's new fiery secret weapon were circulating amongst German troops came from a shot-down Luftwaffe pilot. During interrogation he admitted that it was common knowledge amongst his squadron that the English had burning sea defences.

Delmer claims the rumour was also planted on Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence organisation.[11] It seems the German High Command were taken-in as experiments were conducted to flameproof their invasion fleet using sheets of asbestos. When a flame-proofed barge, laden with troops, was tested by sailing it into a burning pool of gasoline, all on board were incinerated. This further added to the credibility of the rumour and gave additional supporting evidence as more charred bodies washed ashore.

EH.453, Gutschein berechtigt zur einmaligen Fahrt nach Engelland

EH.453, Gutschein berechtigt zur einmaligen Fahrt nach Engelland
fake travel ticket for a one-way trip to England, air-dropped on German troops.

The CBS correspondent William L Shirer comments on rumours of Britain's burning sea defences in his book, Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941. His diary entry for 18th September 1940 records a story circulating in Geneva saying that Britain has a new type of wireless-directed torpedo capable of spreading flaming oil across water. The intriguing part is this variation of the rumour was supposedly in circulation over a week before the rumour was actually concocted by the UPC. Nonetheless, it is not inconceivable that the UPC later supplied certain rumours to Shirer as filler for his book.

To give the burning sea story further publicity more open forms of propaganda were also utilised. Baker White mentions that fake German leave passes were parodied offering a one-way trip to England and dropped over France. He is probably referring to propaganda leaflet EH.453, Gutschein berechtigt zur einmaligen Fahrt nach Engelland ("Voucher – good for a single journey to England"). This was produced in the style of a travel ticket. All German troops were invited to make use of the ticket for a single trip to England and were promised "a most cordial reception, with music. Fireworks, free swims, steam baths, and many other entirely novel forms of entertainment are provided. Visitors will find their welcome so overwhelming that few are expected ever to return home." It was stamped in red, "Valid for next Summer!" The ticket was disseminated by the RAF's 'M' Balloon Unit between 16 to 31 December 1940 with the intended targets being Holland, Dijon, and the coastlines of North-western France and Belgium.

In a famous BBC broadcast by Sefton Delmer, made before he joined the Government's black propaganda department, he mocked the Germans about their chances of launching a successful invasion. He recounts the broadcast in Black Boomerang:

"We English, as you know, are notoriously bad at languages," said I, talking my most impeccable German, "and so it will be best, meine Herren Engellandfahrer, 11 if you learn a few useful English phrases before visiting us.

"For your first lesson we will take:

"Die Kanalüberfahrt… the Channel crossing, the Chan-nel cros-sing."

"Now just repeat after me:

"Das Boot sinkt... the boat is sinking, the boat is sin-king;

"Das Wasser ist kalt… the water is cold. Sehr kalt… very cold."

"Now, I will give you a verb that should come in useful. Again please repeat after me:

"Ich brenne… I burn;

"Du brennst… you burn;

"Er brennt… he burns;

"Wir brennen… we burn;

"Ihr brennt… you are burning."

"Yes, meine Herren, in English, a rather practical language, we use the same word 'you' for both the singular and the plural:

"Ihr brennt... you are burning;

"Sie brennen… they burn."

"And if I may be allowed to suggest a phrase: 'Der SS-Sturmführer brennt auch ganz schön...' The SS Captain is also burning quite nicely, the SS Captain is al-so bur-ning quite nice-ly!" [12]

This amusing dialogue was later adapted for use as an aerial propaganda leaflet, (EH.473), titled Wir fahren gegen Engelland, taken from the popular Nazi war song "We Journey against England".[13] The leaflet was subtitled "the little invasion phrasebook" and listed phrases, translated into French and Dutch, which the German invasion fleet might find useful. The leaflet also promises an English pocket phrasebook, handed out free of charge to every German traveller to England on his arrival in an English prison camp. The first list gives phrases helpful before the invasion, including such demoralising sentences as:

The sea is big, cold, stormy.

Can you lend me a safety-jacket – a life belt?

What do you charge for swimming lessons?

How many invasion trips do I need to win the Iron Cross 1st Class?

Next useful phrases for the actual invasion are given and include:

We are seasick. Where is the basin?

Is that a bomb, a torpedo, a shell, a mine?

Our ship is capsizing, sinking, burning, exploding!

Our section, platoon, company, battalion, regiment, is drowning!

…and to further the burning sea rumour:

The sea here has such a smell of oil.

Here even the water is burning!

See how beautiful the Captain is burning.

Charles – Willie – Fred – John – Abraham is burnt to ashes – drowned, minced-up by the ship's propeller.

We must turn back!

We journey against England!

The leaflet finishes with phrases suitable for after the abortive invasion, ending with:

We journeyed against England.

We want to go home!

Nearly a million copies of the leaflet were dropped by RAF aircraft and balloons across the French and Belgian coastlines, across Northern Holland, in Paris, the port of Brest, and in several German cities as well.

Wir fahren gegen Engelland

Aerial propaganda leaflet EH.473, Wir fahren gegen Engelland,
taken from the popular Nazi war song "We Journey Against England".

In the end the expected invasion never materialised, the Battle of Britain was fought out in the skies over Kent and Sussex and not in the English Channel. The Luftwaffe could not gain air superiority over the RAF's Fighter Command and resorted to area bombing of Britain's big cities. The Blitz had begun and the morale of the British people was now the target. Hitler postponed Operation Sealion permanently.

Once the threat of invasion had passed the UPC concentrated more on propaganda rather than deception rumours. High-level deception operations and rumours would come under the control of the prosaically named London Controlling Section (LCS). Many of the UPC's sibs were directed towards influencing attitudes in the occupied countries. In France, for instance, their aims were to discredit the Vichy government, to stir up resistance to Germany, and to increase the impression of Britain's own strength. As an example, in November 1940 a rumour was disseminated in France to create hostility towards the Germans, it claimed that the Germans were about to requisition copper and rubber including tyres from automobiles. Another was spread saying the Eiffel Tower was going to be disassembled so that the metal could be used for munitions. In Belgium it was put about that, "the Germans have a British bomber on Nivelles aerodrome which flies. They have used it to bomb Brussels in an attempt to cause ill-feeling among the Belgians against England."

Another aim was to cause friction between the Axis partners. Italy was constantly portrayed as weak and militarily inadequate. One rumour targeted for the British press said, "there is evidence that some of the Italian planes in Greece and Palestine are piloted by Germans. This is because the Italian raids were so ineffective that the Germans complained." Another claimed, "three German transport aircraft carrying troops and supplies for Africa were shot down by Italian flak near Naples when Italian spotters reported them as British planes."

But the main attack of the whispering campaign was the morale of the German Armed Forces and civilians. The corruption of Nazi bosses, the immorality of the SS, collapse of the German economy, the spread of disease from the East, poor diet, fear of air raids, the increasing inferiority of military equipment, the failure of the U-boat war, and the new, unlimited weaponry of the Allies were themes constantly expressed and exaggerated through rumour. Some of the rumours were of a technical nature, a few brilliant, others amusing, some highly pornographic or ghoulish, and many more were "feeble and often childish".[14] A number of the rumours were actually true, others contained a lie wrapped within the truth, and the rest were downright fabrications. Churchill is reputed to have said, "There are a terrible lot of lies going around the world, and the worst of it is half of them are true", perhaps he was thinking of the sib war?

Typical directives for the UPC included such things as:

Give widest publicity to all stories emphasising the horror of the winter campaign in Russia. Themes should be wolves [preying on dead and wounded soldiers], impossibility of treating wounded, disease, intense cold, and fresh armies training for the spring offensive in Eastern Russia…

Increase in Germany the fear of epidemics spreading from the east. Fleck typhus should be main theme with some emphasis on trichina and bronchial pneumonia. Germans should be urged to boil or bake all pork in order to avoid trichina, Breslau should be hinted as the worst hit centre…

Suggest that the efficiency and morale of the U-boat service is deteriorating rapidly owing to inexperienced crews, new British depth charge, new American detecting device, efficiency of Atlantic Patrol, Communist elements among crews…

Foreign workers should not go to Germany because they are transferred to occupied Poland or blitzed districts, gassed if unfit, sterilised, cheated of their wages, or liable to be treated as hostages. (For all occupied countries but do not use hostage theme for France).[15]

David Garnett, a former member of the Political Warfare Executive and its official historian, described the key to a successful rumour.

The really good sib is a poisoned sweetmeat – it is sugar-coated and the deadly dose is not immediately evident. It will be remembered that early in the war, the Ark Royal was bombed and a German Air Force pilot was later decorated for sinking the ship which had, however, only been damaged. Considerably later the Ark Royal was actually sunk. This placed the German Propaganda Ministry in the dilemma of having to repeat its claim or ignore a success. A perfect example of the ideal poisoned sweetmeat sib was then put out by PWE to the effect that both the first and second claims to have sunk the Ark Royal were true, the explanation being that Britain had broken the Anglo-German Naval convention by building a duplicate of the Ark Royal before the war.

The chocolate offered to the enemy was that he had won two victories and that all his claims were trustworthy in spite of appearances. The poison was the reflection that if there were two Ark Royals there might be two of each of Britain's other capital ships still afloat.[16]

An example of one of the really bad rumours concocted by the UPC and which was severely ridiculed by the Air Ministry said that in a Messerschmitt fighter brought down recently, some of the rivets were found to be made of wood! It seems the UPC had a preoccupation with wooden planes, suggested in January 1941, another of their rumours joked:

The Germans built a dummy aerodrome in Normandy with wooden planes. Next night the RAF bombed it – with wooden bombs! [17]

The sib was not approved for dissemination, since the ISSB considered it liable to compromise intelligence sources. The joke, however, did appear in print a few months later in Shirer's Berlin Diary. Under the entry for 27 November 1940, Shirer claims he heard it from a mysterious source referred to only as "X" but this time the location of the dummy aerodrome was near Amsterdam. Since the war the rumour has become an urban legend in various guises.

What must be one of the most ridiculous sibs ended up being scathingly criticised by the Daily Mail journalist Wilson Broadbent, he wrote:

I am told that some of the broadcasts designed to convert Germans to the well-meaning intentions of Britain must make even a German laugh. Are the Germans being told of Britain's determination to fight to the end, or are they being soothed by Socialism sent out in the name of the Government?

One perfect example of propaganda for German consumption on another plane… was to this effect: 'The British Government have ordered 26 sharks from the Australian Government for immediate delivery in the English Channel, and woe betide any German soldier who tries to cross that stretch of water'.[18]

Actually the real sib specified 200 sharks but that is not important. This was not the type of publicity the UPC was hoping for.[19]

Ralph Murrary

Ralph Murray, one time member of the Underground Propaganda Committee,
and later would become head of the Information Research Department
(Courtesy of the Murray estate)

In January 1941 the UPC comprised of Ralph Murray (later Sir),[20] John Rayner,[21] Leslie Sheridan or his representative, and Sir Hanns Vischer. To bring better organisation for the production of sibs Rayner, a former features editor with the Daily Express, was appointed the rumour rapporteur, or the "Sibster" as he would become known. He was responsible for formulating rumours and obtaining ideas from PWE's regional heads which he then submitted to the Committee for consideration. Once the rumour had been successfully vetted it could then be disseminated.

Initially SIS was the primary disseminator of rumours but because of their lack of available agents operating in occupied Europe they happily passed the responsibility onto Department D/Q of SOE for the duration of the war.

Department D/Q was originally established under Section D. To this day its official title is a state secret and redacted in official documents. Later, however, it was known as the "Press Propaganda Department". Despite the bulk of SOE's surviving archives being released for public inspection the major part of Department D/Q's work remains classified. As well as having an integral role in the development of black propaganda campaigns, it was also responsible for the dissemination of rumours. The rumour-mongering went as far as telling anti-Axis jokes and amusing stories. One joke mocking the Italian's military performance which D/Q arranged to be told in various neutral countries went:

The Italians have invented a new tank with one forward gear and three reverse gears.[22]

But the section's main function was "secret journalism" to manipulate the world's press. The department founded a number of international news agencies. D/Q's main agency was named Britanova and operated in Eastern Europe, the Americas and the Middle East. An early SOE progress report from April 1941 described Britanova's origins and activities:

This is an undertaking formed by the old organisation [Section D of SIS], which has, however, been allowed to continue to function. Ostensibly it is a commercial company operating a news agency similar to, though of course on a very much smaller scale than, Reuters or the Exchange Telegraph, with branches in Budapest, Bucharest, Belgrade, Istanbul, Ankara, Cairo, and Lisbon. In fact, however, the company is controlled by S.O.2. The concern has been the means of getting many thousands of pro-Ally news items into the local newspapers, which would otherwise never have been published in the local press. Incidentally, it has provided cover for S.O.2 agents, and for the printing of subversive propaganda, and has been used frequently as a channel for the distribution of rumours. Its activities have, however, been seriously curtailed since the German occupation of Hungary, Roumania and Jugoslavia.

Other SOE news agencies included the Arab News Agency (ANA) in Cairo and the Globe News Agency in Calcutta. Britanova would continue operating until 1965.

When faced with a hostile press in Turkey, the department even created and financed its own newspaper, the French language La Turquie. The department also had a hand in Britain's legendary strategic deception operations.

D/Q was mainly staffed with journalists and originally headed by Colonel Leslie Sheridan.[23] Prior to the war he was the night editor of the Daily Mirror newspaper. The Communist spy and former Times correspondent Kim Philby reflects in his autobiography My Silent War that he received a telephone call from Sheridan inviting him for the interview which led to his employment with SOE.[24] Philby taught propaganda at an SOE agent training school before joining Section V of SIS. Possibly this explains why Sheridan was the person recruiting him. Sheridan's first wife Doris, a fellow Mirror journalist, spent most of the war in New York working for his Britanova news agency.[25] Sheridan, or "Sherry" to his friends, later moved up the chain of command and his position as head of Department D/Q was taken over by Lionel Hale in July 1942.[26]

Lionel Hale was a dramatist, broadcaster and journalist. He wrote a number of plays including the comedy Gilt and Gingerbread and was a presenter on BBC radio and later television. He was the first host of the long-running Radio 4 Round Britain Quiz which is currently hosted by his godson. His SOE personal file records that he was,

…altogether a most efficient and attractive man whose sense of fun and humour enhances and is partially responsible for his exceptional capability in many branches of journalism.[27]

Hale's deputy was Major Colin Wintle.[28] Wintle was the liaison officer between PWE and SOE. He often acted as head of D/Q and was one of SOE's representatives on the strategic deception committee. He worked closely with Delmer's staff and was essentially a surrogate member of the German section of SOE. He played an important role in the formulation and dissemination of black propaganda literature and sibs. The son of a Bristol GP, Wintle had a passion for the outdoors life and for British history. After graduating from Clifton College he eventually found himself working as a hack on a local Bristol newspaper. He then went on to Fleet Street as a correspondent on the Daily Mirror and the News Chronicle. After the war, in partnership with Sheridan, he set up a London-based public relations firm. Sheridan also remained in the psychological warfare business as a leading member of the Foreign Office's new secret Information Research Department (IRD), headed by Sir Ralph Murray. IRD acted as a foil to counter Soviet Communist propaganda throughout the Cold War.

Alec Peterson was another influential member of D/Q.[29] Although a schoolmaster and not a journalist, he was recruited by Hale in December 1940. Initially he was principally concerned with sib work but was also earmarked for a special role in case of an invasion. If Germany ever succeeded in crossing the English Channel, Peterson was expected to operate an underground radio news service. Hiding out in the loft of a remote country house near Cirencester, his news bulletins would be broadcast by a nearby military transmitting station. He had no idea how he was supposed to gather news and expected to last no longer than twelve hours before being discovered. "Quite the maddest thing I ever got involved in," he later recalled. In February 1942, Peterson was posted to SOE India. There he set up rumour networks, stay-behind parties in event of a Japanese invasion and, with George Steer, formed the Indian Field Broadcasting Units (IFBUs).

Department D/Q remained a small but seemly effective section of SOE. The full history of its spin doctoring would make compelling, if a little unnerving, reading.

They were certainly imaginative in their means of rumour dissemination. They set-up various whispering networks around the world and carefully selected which were to be used for any particular rumour. Using all networks at once to spread the same rumour would obviously be disastrous and would reveal the deception. SOE agents in the field in both occupied and neutral countries were utilised as well as agents in Britain who perhaps operated at a port or airport and could talk to passengers and seamen about to embark for a foreign country. The ports particularly targeted included Avonmouth, Glasgow, Liverpool, and Fleetwood and the airports of Poole and Whitchurch. The pilots employed on the Whitchurch to Lisbon air route were Dutchmen and suspected of communicating with their home country. Other agents made contact with neutral seamen at their hostels and clubs, particularly the Norwegian Seamen's Hostel in London and the Danish Pool in Newcastle. Communists and others suspected of being in communication with the enemy were planted with sibs. Indiscrete letters written by people in England to friends abroad were allowed by special arrangement to pass unedited through the censorship.

Neutral journalists and diplomatic missions in London were fed stories and reports were introduced into the British and American press. UPC rumours regularly appeared in the bulletins of the Overseas News Agency which were then swallowed up willingly by newspapers like the New York Post. There was also a separate whispering organisation in New York but it ceased operations when America entered the war and Donovan's new Office of Strategic Services (OSS) began handling sibbing in America. British Embassy and Legation staff abroad had their whisper officers who received their sib lists, called "Venom" telegrams, via Foreign Office ciphers.

SOE's whispering network in Turkey was a typical example of how the machinery for spreading rumours worked. A Chief Whisperer was appointed who then recruited ten Sub-whisperers, each of whom was chosen because they had specially good contact with certain classes of people from politicians and Army officers to waiters and barbers, for example. Each Sub-whisperer was conscious of the fact that he, or she, was working for SOE, but although they knew the Chief Whisperer, they did not know the identities of any of the other Sub-whisperers. Each Sub-whisperer then recruited ten to twenty unconscious agents to whom they passed on rumours.[30]

In Tangier rumours were spread amongst the small French bourgeoisie and Jewish trading community there, amongst the lower class of Arabs through story-tellers and the Arab trading class, as well as general dissemination in cafes, bars, dancing halls, and brothels. SOE were also in contact in Casablanca with a Jew and a French insurance agent who both regularly travelled to and from Vichy France and would take back rumours for passing into Occupied France.[31]

Luftwaffe General Ernst Udet was one of Germany’s greatest First World War fighter pilots

Luftwaffe General Ernst Udet was
one of Germany's greatest First World War
fighter pilots

The UPC scored another small propaganda victory when it put out a brief rumour that simply said, "Udet has committed suicide". Luftwaffe General Ernst Udet was one of Germany's greatest First World War fighter pilots; he flew in the same squadron as the famous Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen and with the future commander of the Third Reich's Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering. Udet scored 62 victories, second only to Richthofen himself, and was awarded the distinguished Pour le MĂ©rite order. Between the wars Udet had a successful career as an aerobatic stunt pilot travelling the world giving impressive flying displays dressed up in the costume of a top hat, long beard, and frock coat. He flew stunts in a number of movies, most notably The White Hell of Pitz Palu. According to the Udet legend he was very reluctantly persuaded by his old WWI flying comrade Goering to join the new Luftwaffe and soon became the Chief of Armaments Procurement, a position he was sorely inappropriate for. As war approached, Udet was instrumental in the development of the Ju.87 Stuka dive-bomber.

The UPC in July 1941 wanted to create the appearance of disharmony and confusion over direction of the war in the German High Command. The rumour that Udet had taken his own life was part of this scheme.[32] No doubt assisted by the Britanova news agency the story appeared in the US press and was front-page news in Britain in both the Daily Telegraph and Daily Sketch newspapers on 30 July. The Daily Telegraph reported from their New York correspondent that, "Ernst Udet, General of the Nazi Luftwaffe, and one of Marshal Goering's closest associates, has committed suicide while under protective arrest by Himmler's Black Guards. He was detained after making vehement protests against Hitler's folly in invading Russia." The newspaper claims the report had been smuggled out of Germany via Holland by opponents of Hitler's regime. "The greatest importance and credence is attached to it by Allied official circles", the newspaper believed.

To quash this rumour, the next day Goebbels arranged for foreign correspondents to interview Udet, to prove he was very much alive. Udet joked about his apparent premature death. Encouraged by the controversy caused, the UPC followed-up with another rumour which said Udet's life had been saved at the last minute by the direct intervention of Goering, but only after the reports of his suicide had been put out.[33]

In what must be one of the most extraordinary coincidences of the war, three months later it seems Udet really did kill himself. According to eyewitness testimony, Udet melodramatically shot himself with a Colt revolver whilst talking to his mistress, Inge Bleyle, on the telephone. Because of the failure of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, controversy over the Russian campaign, the intriguing of fellow officers, and not being able to cope with his high position, so the story goes, Udet had become increasingly depressed and drank heavily. On 17 November 1941, this hero of WWI and reluctant Nazi, had had enough and took his own life.[34]

Especially because of the previous rumours of Udet's suicide, it was impossible for Goebbels to announce that Udet had killed himself. The official German communiqué claimed that he had been killed in a flying accident testing a new aircraft, he was to be given a full state funeral, and Jagdgeschwader 3 squadron would be named in his honour. On his journey to attend Udet's funeral the Luftwaffe's current top fighter ace and newly appointed General of Fighters, Werner Mölders was killed in a plane crash. The circumstances of Mölder's death were also manipulated for psychological warfare purposes. Sefton Delmer, in what must have been one of his first black leaflet operations since joining the Political Warfare Executive, concocted a fake letter apparently written by Mölders, a practising Roman Catholic, to a non-existent Probst Johst of Stettin which denounced the anti-religious attitudes of the Nazis. The letter, which Delmer says was printed on forged pages of a Luftwaffe signals pad, was dropped by aircraft over Germany. The implication was that Mölders' pilot comrades had reproduced and distributed the letter, as they believed his death had not been an accident. The letter circulated quickly in Germany causing some controversy.

In June 1943 the UPC also sibbed that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, had committed suicide.[35] If they had put out the rumour a year later they would have been right again, when Rommel also took his own life.

As the war progressed new opportunities arose for successful covert anti-Nazi propaganda with the German setbacks in Russia, America's entry into the war, Rommel's defeat in North Africa, the increasing failure of the U-boat blockade, and Italy's surrender. But as time went on the Underground Propaganda Committee's role declined. The UPC was a pale reflection of the work being done by Delmer's clandestine radio stations. Delmer was never a member of the Committee but was on the distribution list for the Committee's weekly minutes, to make sure they were not contradicting his own psychological warfare and to supply extra rumours which could be broadcast via his stations. Radio was far more effective at circulating rumours than the UPC's mechanism but the oral rumour had the advantage of being practically untraceable, so allowing greater latitude for spreading more contentious and outlandish stories.

The last recorded meeting of the Committee was on 13 April 1945 and included the sib that, "the gold found by the Allies in the salt mine near Eisenach was not the Reich's bank gold (which has already been deposited abroad) but gold looted by the Party bigwigs." [36] By the end of the war the UPC had concocted almost 8,000 different rumours, not including those formulated for a short time in New York and others in Cairo. Its work was always controversial and some of the myths it perpetrated persist to this very day, which shows they must have been successful to a certain extent.

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UNDERGROUND PROPAGANDA RUMOUR-MONGERING IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR

A collection of over 1,500 of the most noteworthy, provocative and amusing subversive rumours concocted by the British Government’s Underground Propaganda Committee throughout the Second World War.

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NOTES

[1] Delmer, S. (1962). Black Boomerang. An autobiography, Vol. 2. London: Secker & Warburg, pp 16-17.

[2] Department EH (Electra House) was the secret government organisation charged with conducting psychological warfare. In July 1940 it was merged into the newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) as section SO1 with Reginald Leeper taking over command from Sir Campbell Stuart. Subversion and psychological warfare proved an unhappy marriage which resulted in SO1 being split from SOE in the autumn of 1941 into a new independent organisation named Political Warfare Executive (PWE). PWE was controlled by a tri-ministerial committee representing the Foreign Office, Ministry of Economic Warfare, and the Ministry of Information with Robert Bruce Lockhart as its Director-General.

[3] The National Archives, (TNA), Kew, FO 898/70, Letter to the Minister of Economic Warfare from Reginald Leeper, 30 September 1940.

[4] TNA, FO 898/70, letter to RAD Brooks from Valentine Williams, 7 July 1940.

[5] TNA, FO 898/70, Department EH – "Inspired Rumours" – Weekly Report, week ending 13 July 1940.

[6] TNA, FO 898/70, Memo, UP Committee, Friday, 27 September 1940.

[7] White, J. B. (1955). The Big Lie. London: Evans Brothers Ltd, pp 15-22.

[8] See Herb Friedman's article Deception and Disinformation: www.psywarrior.com/DeceptionH.html (retrieved July 2003).

[9] TNA, FO 898/70, Department EH, "Inspired Rumours" Weekly Report, No. 12, Week ending 28th September 1940.

[10] TNA, INF 1/267, Anti-Invasion Rumours. Letter from Captain J M Owen, dated 14 January 1942.

[11] Black Boomerang, p. 21

[12] Black Boomerang, pp 20-21.

[13] A pun on the Hitler war song Wir fahren gegen Engelland.

[14] Garnett, D. (2002), The Secret History of PWE, London: St. Ermin's Press, p. 214.

[15] TNA, FO 898/70, Letter from Alec Peterson (SOE D/Q) to UPC members, 1 December 1941.

[16] The Secret History of PWE, p. 214.

[17] Rumour S/116 submitted on 17 January 1941.

[18] Daily Mail, Wednesday, 30 April 1941.

[19] Rumour S/169 put out on 31 January 1941.

[20] Sir (Francis) Ralph Hay Murray (1908-1983). Ralph Murray had a long and distinguished civil service and psychological warfare career. He was an old EH hand and member of the Underground Propaganda Committee. Later he became the PWE Balkans Regional Director. He was sometime post-war head of the Information Research Department and was the Political Adviser during the 1956 Suez Crisis.

[21] William John Rayner, (1908-1990).

[22] TNA HS 3/255, Turkey: Propaganda and Press.

[23] Leslie Frederick Sheridan (1898-1964). [SOE symbols D/Q, AD/A.1 and AD/4].

[24] Harold Adrian Russell (Kim) Philby (1912-1988). See Philby, K. (1968). My Silent War. London: Macgibbon & Kee, p.2.

[25] SOE personnel file of Doris Bushell Sheridan.

[26] Lionel Ramsay Hale (1909-1977). [SOE symbols D/Q and D/Q.8].

[27] TNA HS 9/645/4, SOE personal file of Lionel Ramsay Hale.

[28] Colin Colston Wintle (1906-1986). [SOE symbol D/Q.10].

[29] Alexander Duncan Campbell Peterson (1908-1988). [SOE symbol D/Q.9]. During the Malayan Emergency, Peterson returned to the psychological warfare field when he was appointed Director General of the information service.

[30] TNA, FO 898/70, Memo titled "Whispers", 6 February 1941.

[31] TNA, HS 3/215, Memo titled "Rumours in Tangier", 11 February 1941.

[32] Rumour S/1096, circulated on 23 July 1941.

[33] Rumour R/202, submitted to the UPC on 8 August 1941.

[34] For biographies of Udet's life see: Herlin , H. (1958). Udet – A Man's Life. London: Macdonald & Co Ltd. and Ishoven, A. v. (1977). The Fall of an Eagle – The Life of Fighter Ace Ernst Udet. London: William Kimber & Co Ltd, 1977.

[35] Rumour L/634, submitted to the UPC on 11 June 1943.

[36] Rumour J/791, submitted to the UPC on 13 April 1945.

This article was originally published in Falling Leaf magazine, No. 183, January 2005
(c) Lee Richards, 2003

 

 

 
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