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A Survey of Leaflet Propaganda, 1939-1945

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It may be unnecessary to stress the dual nature of propaganda leaflets during the past five years, yet it should be remembered that from the moment that the Germans over-ran and occupied the neutral countries and the Allied states, leaflets began to serve a twofold purpose. Propaganda for Germany was designed to overthrow the Nazi party, to depress the population, to sap the determination of the armed forces and to sow the seeds of suspicion and distrust in every possible manner, whereas an exactly opposite intention formed the basis of propaganda destined for all the occupied countries. For these unfortunate countries, suffering from every form of enemy control, indignities, persecution and eventually, in certain cases, starvation, it was necessary to keep up morale, to give guidance, to provide reliable news, and, as little by little the various needs of each country became more clearly discernible, to supply the correct stimulus to achieve those aims.

In the early days of the war propaganda leaflets were—judging by more recent standards—crude and lacking in subtlety, but it must be remembered that the leaflets of that date were only considered as ancillary to broadcasting, since no serious embargo had been put on wireless sets. Yet even during the first months of the war, certain leaflets already pointed to the lines along which propaganda was to develop. Every doubt that might occur to the German public was stressed. As early as 1940, hints—even statements—were insinuated into leaflets that there might be a shortage of oil, coal or anything that could affect the successful prosecution of the war. Statements made by Hitler in Mein Kampf were used in such a manner that a note of doubt or even ridicule was struck. Even though the war appeared to be going extremely well for the Germans, especially after the fall of France, it was essential to instil doubt and uncertainty into the minds of the Germans. Was all the news they received accurate? Were they getting a square deal? Were not the Nazi officials having too good a time at the expense of the rest of the population?

With the fall of France and the occupation of first a large portion of the country and finally of the whole, the German authorities began to exercise what eventually became a complete control of official news. This, too, was achieved in the other occupied countries. The newspapers published German-inspired communiqués and new films were “made in Germany.” Perhaps the severest trial was the ban—enforced as far as possible—on listening to broadcasts other than the official German transmissions.

The Radio from London continued to function unceasingly, but the difficulties and more especially the dangers of listening-in increased with the augmented threats of severe punishment made by the Germans. Thus leaflets became more and more essential for conveying news and special information to the occupied countries.

EH.151, Achtung! Deutsche! Vergeßt nicht!


Unassisted by any appeal to the eye, a leaflet dropped over Germany after the opening of the Polish campaign tells Germans of the blood which had been shed in Poland (in fact German casualties in Poland were relatively small) and warns them that the Blitzkrieg cannot be decisive, that the German frontier has been crossed (in the early days of the war the French army made a shallow penetration into the Saar), that the blockade will deprive Germany of many essential war materials, and that the then weak R.A.F. was showing its power in penetrations into Germany. Not unnaturally this frank revelation of the illusion, under which the Allies laboured during the first months of the war evoked no perceptible response among the German people.

PWE G-series leaflets from 1942


With the deployment of Allied strength in 1942, leaflet propaganda almost for the first time had concrete successes to record. Three of these leaflets refer to the 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne on the 30th May, 1942, contrasting German ruthlessness in 1940 and 1941 with the R.A.F.’s reply, and warning the German people that what they had experienced was only the beginning of the R.A.F. offensive. The claims of these leaflets were more than substantiated by subsequent events. Below is a leaflet distributed after the disastrous winter campaign in Russia, in which Hitler is shown smilingly surveying the corpses of his soldiers lying in the snow. From now on the Fuehrer was to prove an increasingly vulnerable target for opprobrium and ridicule.

The ideal form of leaflet for sending news to France was achieved by the Courrier de l’Air, supplemented by the Revue de la Presse Libre. If it had ever been practicable, a daily paper in miniature would have been the most satisfactory form of conveying the news, but owing to operational difficulties such as lack of aircraft and even more from spells of unfavourable weather, this ideal could never be reached. Instead, a weekly paper, the Courrier de l’Air and the reprint of extracts from papers in free countries, the Revue de la Presse Libre (also a weekly) were sent on every possible occasion over as many targets as could be covered. These regular weeklies were supplemented by very large quantities of leaflets dealing with the important events of the war. Later in the war when the sad necessity of bombing targets in France arose, detailed warnings of proposed attacks were given by leaflets to the population in the danger zones.

At the beginning of the leaflet campaign reactions were eagerly awaited, for there was no other method of discovering what effect propaganda was having. The difficulties of obtaining this information were not inconsiderable, as at first all information came through clandestine channels.

G.7, Stalingrad Mythos und Wahrheit


Lest the full implication of the German disaster at Stalingrad should escape the gullible and well- drilled German people, this leaflet was disseminated over Germany to press the moral home.

G.32, Tunis: Über 150 000 Gefangene in einer Woche


May, 1943, brings with it the surrender of the German Army in North Africa. In this leaflet some of the 150,000 prisoners taken in a single week are shown walking disconsolately towards captivity.

It was easier to get reactions from the occupied countries than from Germany, and it was not until public announcements were made in the latter country that it was possible to assess the anxiety the German authorities were feeling about the dangers of Allied propaganda.

News reached this country more rapidly from the occupied countries, and in spite of a certain amount of criticism of individual leaflets, the regular cry was for more and still more “tracts.”

Early in 1942, a certain number of reports were received from France giving convincing details of leaflets being read in places where no aircraft had operated. There was a possibility that wind currents had obligingly helped in the distribution of leaflets, and this may have been the cause in certain cases, but further information confirmed the fact that the circulation of leaflets was being increased by travellers who made a point of taking leaflets about the country with them and handing them on to the mayor or some reliable person in small towns and villages. Although this additional method of increasing the circulation of leaflets was gratifying, it added to the difficulties of preparing propaganda. Whereas until then the targets for propaganda leaflets had been chiefly large towns where the recipients would be more highly educated, the new class of readers complained that the leaflets were too highbrow. Thus the propagandist found himself obliged to steer a difficult course between the Scylla of the highbrow and the Charybdis of the lowbrow. Actually the Corrier de l’Air, being to all intents and purposes an ordinary newspaper illustrated with topical photographs, fulfilled the needs of the majority of readers, and a report was received of an elderly and practically illiterate French peasant puzzling over a copy of the Courrier under the nose of a German soldier, who was entirely unaware of the nature of the paper. A widespread circulation of this weekly news leaflet was thus obtained throughout the whole of France by actual disseminations from the air and by a hand to hand distribution. Reports of any important event were also sent by leaflet and were given the widest possible spread.



Amid renewed demands for total mobilisation of the German people, the spring of 1944 witnessed a sequence of heavy and effective attacks upon the German capital. A well-known quotation from Goethe’s “Faust” heightens the effect of the photograph of devastated Berlin.

F.96, Les plus lourds bombardements de 1940 à ce jour


A leaflet designed for dissemination over France shows in the form of a comparative graph the relative tonnage dropped in major R.A.F. and G.A.F. attacks. At a time when the Germans were doing all they could to conceal from the people of occupied territories in the West the gravity of the Allied air threat to German towns and industry, such leaflets as this restored the belief of France and other countries that at least the end was in sight.

It was decided at the end of 1942, that a more serious monthly magazine was also needed, and by the beginning of 1943, a miniature magazine, Le Monde Libre was issued and continued to be published once a month until the liberation of France. This magazine, the equivalent of the Spectator or the Cornhill, received almost immediate tributes. Every endeavour was made to drop Le Monde Libre over Paris and important towns, and early in its career a very favourable reaction was seen in the chief Rouen paper, which quoted at length from articles contained in the leaflet magazine. In order to show the French what their compatriots were producing in England, from time to time an edition of France Libre—that highly successful monthly paper—was reproduced in miniature and dropped in France. Extracts from Fontaine, then published in Algiers, were also used in leaflets and thus members of the French intelligentsia in France were kept in touch with their exiled compatriots.

One of the most significant reactions to British leaflets dropped over the occupied countries, possibly even the most important of all, was the use of information and news contained in the leaflets by the numerous clandestine papers which sprang up in the occupied countries. Few people in any of those countries paid any attention to the official newspapers, but relied on the clandestine press and thus to a large extent on leaflets for their news.

As in France so was it in the other occupied countries. For Holland a regular magazine De Wervelwind was produced; for Belgium the Messager de la Liberté; for Norway Det Frie Norge; and for Denmark Vi Vil Vinde, and the numerous clandestine papers of those countries availed themselves of every opportunity to put these leaflet magazines to the best use.

But the main effort of leaflet propaganda was directed against the enemy, always with the intention of undermining civilian and military morale in Germany and among German forces in the occupied territories. The task of the propagandist became progressively easier as the aspect of the war changed. At the beginning of the war every attempt had to be made to lessen the importance of the German successes and at the same time never to underestimate the losses incurred by the Allies. While the German information bureau was pouring out wild, hysterical and grossly exaggerated accounts of Allied losses, British leaflets fluttered down over Germany stating the true facts and never making any rash claims. As early as 1941, Germans were openly asking whether it was possible that the fantastic stories of Allied losses told them were reliable and they were beginning to compare the true Allied facts with their own fiction.

After the successful landings in North Africa and the subsequent attacks on the “soft underbelly of the Axis” a more definite note of optimism was struck. Leaflets demonstrating the advances of the Allies were dropped over Germany and every victory was factually reported, while the implications of these victories were insinuated into these reports. The North African landings were also the occasion of one of the largest leaflet operations over France, when 17½ million leaflets were dropped to give immediate news to the French population throughout the country.

As the strength of the Allied Air Forces progressively increased, the Germans were kept regularly informed of this progress and the menace to the Reich implied in this increasing strength was constantly underlined. Although the German home propagandists announced at intervals that the towns in Great Britain were gradually disappearing under the weight of the German attacks, this must have seemed poor consolation to the German public whose towns were in actual fact and not in propagandist fiction being subjected to attacks of increasing severity.

As the Allied attacks increased the fact was stressed by leaflets giving simple comparisons between the past weight of attacks, the present and hints of an unpleasant increase in the future.

Although a decree forbidding listening to Allied broadcasts and reading Allied leaflets was enforced early in the war both in Germany and in the occupied countries, this, although implemented by threats of punishment should it be infringed, was not given excessive publicity. But as the war progressed and the Allied propaganda campaign was pressed forward with increasing vigour more and more official attention was paid in Germany to the danger of British propaganda. It soon became dangerous in Germany and the occupied countries to read or keep a leaflet dropped by British aircraft. The Germans organised a service of leaflet collection which was put into force as soon as a raid had occurred, even school children were pressed into this service, as being considered presumably too young to be corrupted by the dangerous documents which they collected.

G.11, 7 Tage Luftkrieg - Damals und heute


A leaflet designed for the consumption of the German civil population contrasts the tonnage dropped in single weeks in 1942, 1943 and 1944, and vindicates the prophecies made by the Prime Minister in 1941, 1942 and 1943. The leaflet contrasts the vague threats of retaliatory action put forward by Hitler and Goebbels with the realities of air attack.

F.70, ACCORD, No. 7


One of the most valuable and most eagerly prized types of leaflet consisted of miniature booklets embodying many of the features of a normal magazine. This booklet, with a cover showing the meeting of General de Gaulle and Field Marshal Montgomery in Normandy, was distributed over occupied France during the period of apparent inactivity between the Allied landing in Normandy and the break-out from the bridgehead.

Official decrees, however, did not suffice to counteract the menace of Allied leaflets. It became necessary to attempt to refute the statements made and to endeavour to ridicule the contents of “these plutocratic, capitalist, Jewish documents, inspired by Anglo-American big business.” Thus, for instance, at intervals Das Schwarze Korps would answer statements made in the Luftpost, a leaflet newspaper sent regularly to Germany. “This victory will cost us many sacrifices which you Jews cannot understand. But it will create respect for the law which you have so criminally marshalled against us; the earth is not for cowardly nations. The earth will not even have room for your graves, but for us there will be the space which a big, free nation, the most gallant of all, needs for its life.”

F.177, chansons de la BBC


Propaganda leaflets disseminated in the West were not always factual in character, and this attractive booklet of resistant songs put out by the B.B.C. made a useful contribution to reinforcing French morale during the seemingly interminable period of waiting for the Allied landing.

Gradually notices appeared in the German newspapers announcing that fines and sentences of imprisonment, varying in degrees of severity, had been imposed on people who had been caught with leaflets in their possession. But in spite of such punishments the German public continued to read leaflets, and, as was discovered by the censorship of letters to P/W camps in England and Canada, these leaflets were freely commented on and even sent by post.

It became clear by the end of the fourth year of the war that the German authorities were more and more sensitive about the dangerous effect of leaflets on the population. They pondered on “the effete and vanished world of 1918,” yet several talks on the German Home Service wireless programmes were entirely devoted to recalling the dangers of 1918. Karl Heinz Siegbold, a favourite broadcaster, in analysing Allied leaflet propaganda, dwelt at some length on the methods used in 1918 by Lord Northcliffe—“an unscrupulous old fox”—and compared the propaganda of that period with the products of the present day.

Dietmar, one of the chief German propagandists, devoted many of his wireless talks to refuting leaflets, but even he showed that fundamental weakness of the German race—an inability to comprehend the English point of view, for the rigid German mind seems incapable of understanding the more frivolous and certainly more elastic character of the English.

It is not yet possible to assess completely the effect of leaflet propaganda in Germany, although its success in the occupied countries has been abundantly proved, but when further reports have been received and official documents carefully examined more evidence will be forthcoming. It can, however, be reasonably considered that, owing to the continued and increasing violence with which propaganda leaflets were attacked, as well as the decrees issued forbidding their collection and the penalties inflicted for infringement of those laws, the cumulative effect of leaflets influenced the German population to no little degree and greatly disturbed the authorities of the Reich.

[Source: AIR MINISTRY WEEKLY INTELLIGENCE SUMMARY, No. 301, 9th June 1945, transcribed by]



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