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The Development of the Leaflet, 1939–43

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A Political Warfare Executive memorandum charting the development and improvement of British air-dropped leaflet propaganda to Europe from the start of the war until 1943.

The people of Occupied Europe pick up propaganda leaflets dropped by the Royal Air Force

31 March 1943

Not for broadcasting
Not for publication






The Development of the Leaflet, 1939–43

The new extension of the BBC services makes it opportune to give some account of the advantages which have taken place concurrently in the technique and distribution of the leaflet from the night of September 3rd, 1939, when the first Whitleys and Wellingtons set off with their first load of “white bombs” – A Warning to the German People, followed by a message from Mr Chamberlain on the Declaration of War.

“Leaflet”, in fact, is no longer quite the word for it. The production of today is as remote from the leaflet which bore Mr Chamberlain’s words, as Lancasters, Halifaxes or Stirlings are remote from their Whitley and Wellington prototypes.

A few facts and figures:

In the winter of 1939, three or four leaflets a month were produced in one language – German – only.

In 1943, as many as fifty or sixty different publications may go out each month, by aircraft or other means, in ten or more languages.

The leaflet of 1939 was a half-page of the London Telephone Directory:  in black letterpress on coarse newsprint.

The “leaflet” of 1943 may contain 48 pages or more and be printed in five-colour rotogravure on a specially-evolved thin paper which is the lightest ever run on rotary machines.

In 1940 the distribution overnight of a million leaflets was a noteworthy event.

In November 1942, as was announced in the press, some 44 tons of printed matter (representing 23,000,000 leaflets) were dropped on France in two nights, to “cover” the Allied landings in North Africa. Sixteen carefully chosen areas were visited, texts and quantities of leaflets being allocated according to the political value and population of each target.

In 1942, 312,000,000 “pieces” – preponderantly, of course, leaflets, but including also folders, “novelties”, booklets, full-length periodicals – were taken to Europe by the RAF alone. With the American Air Force mustering in England in growing strength, this total will be increased proportionately.

Simultaneously with the great expansion in distribution, not only the physical but also the editorial character of the leaflet has advanced and is advancing.

Size (restricted in any case by operational factors) was for long a limitation. Not more than a few hundred words could conveniently be accommodated on the earliest leaflet. Any increase in overall size endangers the life of the recipient, and facilitates removal of leaflets by the police before they can be collected by the public.

To this problem, the camera provided a solution. Texts were “reduced” photographically to the smallest legible size (about half the size of the smallest type to be found in a newspaper) with illustrations to scale. A full page of the Telephone Directory has the proportions of a newspaper. Four sheets of Directory size, folded, trimmed and stapled together gives a miniature magazine of thirty-two pages.

These simple devices proved to be the most important single factor in the evolution not only of the form but also of the contents, range and effectiveness of our printed material.

Not only was it possible to vary the character of leaflets proper, but it also became possible, with high quality reproduction, to provide texts 20–40,000 words in length, with 20–30 photographs, drawings and cartoons: that is to say, the equivalent in words of a full number of the Spectator, rather more than one-third of the average novel, or a substantial portion of an illustrated magazine such as Time, in a miniature volume, under one-sixteenth of an inch in thickness, which the finder can slip easily into his waistcoat pocket.

One of the inherent and obvious weaknesses of the leaflet vis-à-vis broadcasting – limitation of volume – was thus instantly reduced: and the advantages of print over speech – permanence and the visual element – immeasurably reinforced.

Physical restrictions having to this extent been removed, the leaflet was now ready for exploitation to full effect in those fields which are peculiarly its own.

Tactics naturally differ, according to whether the target is Enemy or Occupied Territory, and may conveniently be summarised as follows:

LEAFLETS TO ENEMY TERRITORY must generally combine at once the function of a poster (in that the purport of the message must be conveyed instantly; for example, from a glance at a leaflet lying in the street, when it may be dangerous for the passer-by to pick it up) and the function of a brochure or news sheet (in so far as a considerable number of people – among them, incidentally, important classes of officials – have occasion to study them at leisure).

Leaflets to Germany and Italy, therefore, profit to a greater extent from improvements effected in the display of type and illustration than from the technique of the miniature, although it has been found that occasional doses of sober print, in magazine or broadsheet form, produce notable effect. But the objectives generally demand “shock” methods – productions of immediate impact value, memorable visually and verbally, with text and picture in forceful combination.

The same broad categories of output – News, Comment and Features – obtain as in broadcasting, but the first target of the leaflet for enemy territory is generally the eye; and the expansion of the text favours facts, figures or complexities which the listening ear cannot assimilate.

This dual function has been served with much ingenuity in some recent productions and these may well be judged in retrospect to constitute a revolution in the art of political pamphleteering.

The following is an analysis of characteristic German productions:

Blow by Blow

1. BLOW AFTER BLOW. Photographs and text describe successive German disasters in the east, the west (the attack on Essen) and in the south (Tunisia).

Air Raid Leaflet, 1 Air Raid Leaflet, 2

2. AIR RAID LEAFLET. Comparing the greatest success of the Luftwaffe (Rotterdam) with the greatest success to date of the RAF (Krupps works at Essen) in text and photographs; and nailing the guilt for terror-bombing on Germany.

Horror Photographs, 1 Horror Photographs, 2

3. HORROR PHOTOGRAPHS, and maps, showing at a glance the German front in March 1942, and the Russia front at the beginning of March 1943. Pictures of Flying Fortresses and tanks suggest the blows that are still to come from America and the British Empire. Details of German Army units surrendered or annihilated, latest figures of casualties and lost equipment.

What is Germany Fighting For?

4. Textual leaflet – WHAT IS GERMANY FIGHTING FOR? The differing and fraudulent reasons given by the leaders of Germany.

Hitler leaflet

5. False promises of HITLER displayed with supporting photographs, with a quotation from Goebbels superimposed – “I ask you – do you trust the Führer?”

Stalingrad booklet, 1 Stalingrad booklet, 2

6. 32-page booklet STALINGRAD: THE MYTH AND THE TRUTH, giving the real history of the Stalingrad campaign in words and pictures.

Tripoli and Stalingrad, (Obverse) Tripoli and Stalingrad, (Reverse)

7. Leaflet on TRIPOLI and STALINGRAD. Tripoli stands for “unconditional surrender”. Stalingrad stands for “no capitulation”.

War on Three Fronts

8. WAR ON THREE FRONTS. A map leaflet, emphasising the military encirclement of Germany.

Archbishop of Canterbury

9. Textual leaflet, the sermon of the ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY, on the occasion of Niemöller’s birthday.

The People's Car, (Obverse) The People's Car, (Reverse)

10. Pictorial leaflet, THE PEOPLE’S CAR – as Hitler pretended that the Germans would enjoy it, and as it is in fact – the wreckage of a military vehicle in the Western Desert.

Illustrated History of Two World Wars, 1 Illustrated History of Two World Wars, 2

11. 40-page pictorial booklet ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF TWO WORLD WARS, showing the striking similarity between the history of the last war and of this.

Die Andere Seite, 1 Die Andere Seite, 2

12. DIE ANDERE SEITE: A 30-40,000 word magazine, produced in response to the known demand, particularly among soldiers returned from the Fronts, for information on the fundamental issues of the war.


LEAFLETS TO OCCUPIED TERRITORY reflect the greater tolerance of the market. After prime political needs are satisfied by means differing little from those employed against enemy territory, propaganda to our friends and allies becomes an extension of publishing.

Technique varies with the character of the country addressed, and the opportunities of distribution offered. At one end of the scale is a large country such as France – a priority political target, with a widely dispersed population, and frequent coverage by the RAF. To France the whole gamut of leaflet production is employed.

At the other end of the scale are smaller countries, such as Holland, Belgium and Denmark; countries with very small leaflet distribution and a more closely-packed population, amongst whom any document received is known to circulate very rapidly, and which accordingly are served for the most part by a single, concentrated medium, the magazine.

Here is a typical leaflet programme to France;

PWE French Weekly Publications


Le Courrier de l’Air: News-sheet for general distribution.

Le Courrier Illustré: Pictorial supplement to the above.

La Revue de la Press Libre: Clippings from the world press, for the more serious-minded reader, and for use by the clandestine press.


Le Courrier Illustré (monthly): A round-up of the month’s most striking photographs, a “news-reel” in print.

La Revue du Monde Libre: A 48-page, 40,000 word magazine-digest and review of “broad-brow” level.

PWE French Leaflets

3. “AD HOC” LEAFLETS: Single subject leaflets or booklets of topical interest, such as the full text of the Prime Minister’s speeches, the story of the 8th Army, etc.

4. “IMPACT” LEAFLETS: Leaflets dealing in a popular, striking manner with a simple, striking idea.

5. “OPERATIONAL” LEAFLETS: e.g. official statements, warnings and instructions prepared in conjunction with the Services, etc.

6. “TIMELESS” LEAFLETS: Developments of big subjects, such as the War at Sea, etc.

For countries not receiving the regular and sustained distribution which large-scale operations over France and Germany make possible, the magazine is a “portmanteau” for all but the strictly operational aspects of the leaflet.

Here are the contents of a typical miniature magazine:


Approximate number of words

Cover: Design or photograph with caption and/or slogan


Personality portrait: in Photo and text


General political leader


Latest war photographs


Strategic summary: with maps and illustrations


Two or three national leaders and features


War narratives

1,000 – 2,000

Resistance in other territory


Operational and “class” messages: (Administration, workers, seamen, etc.)


In London now: Projection of Britain


Inside Germany


Reconstruction and relief

1,500 – 2,000

American news


Historical articles


Clandestine press: tributes, comment, photos, of examples received in England


News of nationals abroad


Government decrees


“Shorts”, verse, humour, cartoons


Reprints of leading radio features


Timetable of BBC and Allied Services


Hints on reception, etc.



Upwards of 20,000 words


It is interesting to note that a single issue of a magazine may represent in volume some 40–50 five-minute broadcast features, or 3–4 hours’ continuous transmission.

Such developments of the leaflet, in extent and variety of content, has called for large-scale editorial expansion. For each production, or series of productions, there is an editorial board, on which representatives of the BBC sometimes serve. There is also a central, inter-regional body, to provide “features”, which can properly be syndicated in the languages concerned – including, for the first time in the history of the British leaflet – signed and original contributions from private individuals.

In short, the combination RAF–PWE has become a considerable international publishing service. It constitutes the free press of Europe, with a “list” comprising, on the one hand leaflets, news-sheets, booklets, and on the other periodicals and reviews designed in some sort to replace those suppressed or debauched by the invader.

The effect of leaflets in the last war has been acknowledged by Ludendorff (Meine Kriegserinnerungen):

“We boggled at the enemy propaganda as a rabbit stares transfixed at a snake... The Army was drenched with leaflets... We could not prevent them from poisoning the hearts of our soldiers.”

Since then, propaganda has acquired the powerful instrument of radio but leaflets, too, have advanced. The techniques of production have improved out of all recognition; the range, volume and capacity of aircraft have increased the opportunities for sustaining our friends and disrupting our enemies, by tangible evidence that we are in contact with them.

Leaflets and broadcasting are separate but complementary. They are two of the arms of Political Warfare.

[Source: TNA FO 898/458, transcribed by]



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