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British Black Propaganda - Operation Periwig
By Lee Richards

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Early on in World War II the German section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) realised the futility of attempting to organise an active anti-Nazi resistance movement within Germany itself. Even if willing German collaborators could be found, it was almost impossible for them to successfully operate in the tightly controlled country with an unsympathetic population. Establishing wireless communications was impractical as a radio operator had to keep on the move and required a new safe house to transmit from every few days, or be quickly uncovered by radio direction finding. There would be no safe houses in a hostile Germany and no bodyguard of friendly locals to shield him. The Secret Intelligence Serivice (aka MI6) discovered this to their peril when all their agents infiltrated into Germany were quickly picked-up by the German Security Service.

If the organisation of a genuine German resistance was unachievable, SOE reasoned, then the next best solution was to create the illusion of the existence of a well-equipped anti-Nazi movement preparing itself, with British assistance, for a coup d'état. It was on this basis that SOE formulated Operation Periwig in collaboration with PWE and SIS. "The basic idea of Periwig was to think of German resistance in much the same way as Voltaire thought of God; if German resistance did not exist, it was necessary to invent it", one commentator suggested. [1] Periwig's aspiration was to fool the German Security Service into fruitless activity in hunting down non-existent resistance groups with the resultant strain on their resources causing administrative chaos. Hopefully, once the wider German public got to hear of "active resistance" it would also encourage some to take a more active role in concluding the Nazi's rule and shorten the war. The aim was for fiction to become reality, all achieved through smoke and mirrors.

Much of the activities for Periwig are outside the scope of this article but an outline of the non-propaganda aspects of the operation are given to put PWE's contribution into context and because this is a fascinating and ingenious deception that deserves further elaboration.

In November 1944 the SOE Periwig Planning Section developed various hypothetical scenarios outlining the background of eight factions of anti-Nazi resistance in Germany. These factions included the Wehrmacht, Party and Police, Roman Catholic Church, Industrialists, Industrial and Mining Labour, Foreign Labour, Separatists, and Railway Workers.

For instance the notional story for the Wehrmacht faction supposedly has its headquarters in Berlin with cells in other cities like Danzig, Dresden, Hamburg, Nurnberg, and several others. The cells are linked together through regular army communications and personal contact. A committee of senior Wehrmacht offices in London, under British control, are in touch with the movement's Berlin HQ. With the cooperation of this officers committee, two organisers, chosen from prisoners of war, have been infiltrated into Germany. One is at present in Berlin and the other is touring the remaining cells. They utilise a variety of means to keep in contact with Britain. A German signals officer is able to make use of a W/T operator in the Danish resistance to communicate with London. A commercial traveller maintains contact between the British Legation in Sweden through cut-outs, and a Wehrmacht representative in Hamburg. German officers occasionally take important despatches to England by surrendering at the frontline or they occasionally take important despatches back to Germany by being taken prisoner for a few hours and then "escaping". And a neutral military attaché in Berlin uses the diplomatic bag to his own advantage to maintain contact between the British Embassy in that country and the nerve centre of the Wehrmacht in Berlin. The other factions were organised on similar lines, just as genuine resistance movements would be established in reality and all were coordinating their activities with London.

The Planning Section formulated ways how these notional stories could to be brought to life. In essence everything would be done as if a resistance organisation genuinely existed. Agents, selected from prisoners of war, would be trained and infiltrated into Germany with orders to make contact with members of the organisation. The agents would be unaware their mission was false and if caught and interrogated would actually assist with the deception. Air supply operations would be undertaken with special W/T equipment and containers of weapons, ammunition, supplies, and food being released over imaginary drop zones. For added publicity some stores would be "accidentally" dropped inside the Swedish border. Fake W/T traffic would be broadcast and codebooks allowed to fall into the hands of the German authorities. The BBC would broadcast instructional code phrases on the German language news service just as they had broadcast to the French resistance on the run up to D-day. Double agents would be fed false information and German travellers in neutral countries planted with incriminating documents suggesting contact with the resistance. Questions would be asked in the British Parliament. Rumours and an increase in dissemination of printed black propaganda would also be utilised.

In January 1945 Periwig was incorporated as one of the operations of the joint SOE/PWE plan on "Breaking the German Will to Resist" and a special Periwig joint committee was established made up of representatives of SOE, PWE, and SIS. But due to SIS objections Periwig was severely curtailed for the first six weeks. Fearing that the operation could endanger their own plans, SIS insisted that no attempt should be made to suggest the Allies were assisting the German resistance and no attempt to stimulate any form of Roman Catholic resistance should be undertaken because it might harm the real anti-Nazi church movement which they believed existed. It seems SIS preferred another one of Voltaire's witticisms, "There is a wide difference between speaking to deceive, and being silent to be impenetrable".

Within these strict limitations Periwig lost much of its bite and had to rely on rumour-mongering as its main modus operandi. But stories soon flourished in the press about the Allied sponsored anti-Nazi movements in Germany. At the end of January the Daily Telegraph reported that fear of revolt by foreign workers has spurred on the Gestapo to take further measures to control the civilian population. The authorities are convinced that arms and ammunition for such an uprising are being smuggled into the country or dropped from allied planes. At a luncheon of the Foreign Press Association in London on 15 February, Colin Wintle, a member of SOEs D/Q Press and Propaganda section, successfully planted a story on Dr. Egli, a Swiss journalist for Der Bund, about the extent of German resistance. At the same time SIS reluctantly lifted their embargo and at last Periwig could begin in earnest based on the original plan. [2]

The signals section of SOE, under the direction of the young and highly talented Leo Marks, started the W/T umbrella of fake transmissions. The absence of detectable return traffic was to be explained by allowing a fully working experimental "squirt" transmitter to fall into German hands. This mechanical transmitter automatically sent its signal in a short rapid burst that the Germans would not be able to intercept. Despite being a brilliant concept, the transmitter was never used operationally because SOE were also unable to receive the incoming signal. However, the German authorities would not know that. The W/T umbrella was supplemented by code phrases on the BBC and the "grey" Soldatensender clandestine radio station broadcast instructional Morse Code messages overlaid on the musical interludes.

The first air supply drops were made on 21 February. A German sergeant's uniform with documents, a map, and a radio receiver, (called an MCR), and batteries were dropped west of the town of Marburg. Elsewhere in the Giessen region of Germany a package of W/T material and spare parts were dropped including two MCRs, signals plan, and crystals. Three days later twelve containers of ammunition, sabotage material, incendiaries, and food were distributed northeast of Coblenz. The dropping of guns, either of British or German origin, had been vetoed. The fourth and final air supply drop was made on 13 March with the dropping of a container of incendiaries south of Homberg.

Also on the night of 12/13 March during a low-level Mosquito attack a German attaché case (Aktentasche) was dropped on a railway station between Holzminden and Stadtoldendorf. The case contained normal business documents, faked by PWE, including an incriminating paper evidently revealing the existence of a secret organisation in a large industrial firm.

From now onwards SHAEF banned any further air supply operations into Germany, as they were worried about the safety of Allied prisoners of war. A widely held belief was the fear that the Gestapo might conduct a wholesale massacre of prisoners and any weapons drops near POW camps just might give them a pretext to do it.

Finding willing German prisoners of war who were prepared to be trained as agents and be dropped into Germany proved more difficult than anticipated. Finally half a dozen low-grade prisoners were selected and enrolled on curtailed agent-training courses. Only the SOE conducting officer knew of Periwig, the agents, or Bonzos as they were called, were unaware their missions were bogus, even their SOE instructors believed they were genuine agents.

The first two Bonzos were despatched on the night of 2/3 April. Dressed in military uniform they were parachuted into the Bremen area. One agent, Gerhardt Bienecke, using the alias Breuer, was assigned the task of supplying codes and a signals plan to SS-Sturmbannführer Dr. Eggen in Berlin. The codes were disguised in a packet of coffee which had to passed on to Dr. Eggen using cut-outs or, as a last resort, by direct contact. The mission of the second agent, Leonhardt Kick, alias Kauffmann, was to act as a courier for a Bremen resistance cell. W/T equipment including the high-speed squirt transmitter was parachuted with him. Kick later reported that his W/T equipment was lost during the jump and probably ended up in the hands of the German authorities, just as SOE had hoped it would. He also claimed to have shot one of two Gestapo men who doubted the authenticity of his papers. After which he travelled to the town of Delmenhorst and awaited the arrival of Allied troops. Bienecke surfaced in the Russian zone in August 1945 and had by all accounts tried to fulfil his mission.

A second pair of agents was parachuted on the night of 18/19 April west of Chiem See. Otto Heinrich, alias Hoffmann, and Franz Lengnick, alias Lange, were dropped in Luftwaffe uniforms and tasked to contact a resistance organisation in the Bavarian mountains. They were to train them in the latest techniques of preparing landing operations for the exfiltration of important persons. They both survived the mission and alleged to have in fact contacted several small resistance groups and undertaken an unsuccessful sabotage operation. Of course their stories could not be substantiated.

A fifth Bonzo, named Kurt Tietiz, began training on 21 April but the war finished before he could be exploited.

Also part of the original Periwig plan was to arrange for the discovery by the German authorities of a dead agent, apparently either shot while attempting to infiltrate across the frontline or killed by a parachute failure. Initially the idea was dropped because of the SIS embargo but later reinstated. SOE signals officer, Leo Marks, suggests in his beautifully written, absorbing, and often amusing autobiography that the plan was actually carried out. [3] Marks says he was instructed by General Templer, the newly-appointed head of the SOE German Directorate, to brief a German prisoner called Schiller on the use of Periwig codebooks and signals plans. Templer elaborated that Schiller was a known double agent and had betrayed just as many British agents as Germans. "Jumping's a hazardous business, and Schiller might meet with a fatal accident before he's even touched the ground. In this unfortunate event the Huns would find your codebook on his body", he told Marks. Nervously Marks briefed the condemned prisoner on signals procedures. A week later Templer casually informed him that Schiller had now met with a fatal accident. Marks' testimony is the only evidence of the plan being carried out and no documentary evidence supporting his claim is known to have survived in the archives.

Various other operations like planting evidence on German travellers and officials, ("Periwigging"), and the spreading of rumours were planned, many of which were instigated and equally many more were vetoed by SIS. Others could not be completed before the end of hostilities. One rumour of note was spread with the assistance of Section V of SIS. Using the radio of a captured and turned German agent in England the story was sent that the Remagen Bridge had been saved as a result of sabotage by a British agent in the Wehrmacht. The story was also spread in neutral countries. The Remagen bridge had been captured by the US 9th Armoured Division on 7 March 1945 when the Germans were caught off guard trying to evacuate their troops and tanks across the Rhine river. Despite trying to blow it up, the bridge just survived the blast and it gave the Allied armies their first vital foothold on the eastern bank of the river. Hitler was incensed the bridge had been taken intact and was convinced it was the result of sabotage. He demanded the execution of five German officers including Captain Bratge, the German Infantry commander in charge of the bridge's defence. Bratge only survived because he was taken prisoner by the US Army, the other four officers were not so lucky. Hitler ordered that the bridge must be destroyed at all costs. It was unsuccessfully bombed both by aircraft and V2 missiles. An underwater commando team was sent in to demolish it but were spotted and surrendered. The bridge finally collapsed on its own account on 17 March due to the previously sustained damaged, killing around thirty engineers who were attempting to reinforce it.

PWE's contribution to Periwig was not as great as hoped due to the overloading of Howe's printing facilities and the operation being given low priority. From the first week of March Periwig's aims were modified, increasing the awareness of the German people was to be stressed rather than duping the German Security Service. This was more in tune with PWE's desires. Apart from their involvement in the Aktentasche operation and the superimposing of Morse Code on the Soldatensender broadcasts, PWE undertook several other black printing operations in support of Periwig.

The back page of the 7 February edition of Nachrichten für die Truppe illustrated a strange piece of graffiti in the form of a stylised prancing horse. According to the brief article accompanying the illustration this primitive picture had been seen in Berlin and many other cities around the country, drawn with chalk or rotel on numerous walls, stairwells, air-raid shelters, and doorways. The article also claimed that a number of Party officials had received threatening letters with the horse symbol in place of a signature. The Red Horse was in fact a new resistance organisation conceived for Periwig whose goal was to execute unpopular high-ranking Nazis. To further their cause a posting operation was planned to send threatening postcards to prominent Germans. Howe printed 1,500 of these postcards on 1 March (H.1321).

H.1321, Hanging Instructions postcard.

H.1321, Hanging Instructions postcard. This one is addressed to "Frau Edith Lenk, Falkenstein, Vogtld." Vogtland is an area in the easternmost part of Germany in Saxony / Sachsen

The text began, in a red typewriter font, "If you want to spare yourself unnecessary pains, pay attention to the following instructions". Seven numbered directions followed on how to successfully hang yourself and ended with "The more vigorously you jump, the more reliable is the break of the neck... Don't hesitate! The Horst Wessel Standard is calling! Heil Hitler!" The postcard was rubberstamped with the Red Horse symbol. The implication was that suicide was a more honourable death rather than being executed by the German resistance. SOE arranged the posting in Germany shortly afterwards. The 7 March edition of Nachrichten carried another article headlined "Special Bodyguard for Threatened Gau Leader" It continued:

Three additional armoured vehicles and twenty-four men were assigned to NSKK Major Ludwig Läubl as a bodyguard unit with which he is to protect the thirty-seven year old Gau Leader of Westphalia South, Albert Hoffmann.

This reinforcement of the Gau Leader bodyguard was considered necessary after many despised Party officials in the Rhine-Ruhr area were liquidated, some under cover of air raids, and it was believed that Gau Leader Hoffman could be next on the list of the Party's enemies.

There followed a list of Nazis who had already been liquidated and finished by saying, "Now the mayor of Bochum, Dr. Piclum, has disappeared without a trace after he received several anonymous threatening letters, which had only the familiar horse symbol as a signature". Herr Hoffmann's plight was also mentioned on that night's Soldatensender broadcast. On 10 April a further 1,000 postcards were printed with the same text but using a standard black typewriter font, (H.1380). It is unlikely these were ever sent. Nonetheless the story of high-ranking Nazis being murdered by the German resistance was successfully sowed and no doubt unsettled the nerves of many of the recipients of the postcards and other Nazi officials.

To help create the impression of anti-Nazi resistance in the Roman Catholic Church Delmer was asked by SOE to produce the text for a prayer booklet of scriptural verses, intended as action messages, which could be read from the pulpits by collaborating clergy. Along with the prayer booklet, a slip of paper was included giving cryptic definitions to the meaning of the verses, like "Hold yourself ready for the word", or "Do not heed the false prophets, await the true message". The material was sent to SOE Berne at the end of March for printing and infiltration into Southern Germany and Austria but the operation was not followed through.

Another plan was proposed to forge an issue of the German January 1945 charity stamps. They would be smuggled across the Swiss border disguised as normal goods, and found burst open near a railway station, not too deep into the frontier. The purpose was to give the impression that a Wehrmacht resistance movement was operating back into Germany from Swiss soil, and had good contacts inside for the distribution of material. However, the operation was not completed, owing to lack of time to finish the necessary preparations.

German prisoners of war were again exploited for Periwig when forged letters appearing to be sent from POWs in England to other prisoners held in camps in Canada and America were "mistakenly" forwarded to Germany instead. The letters would reveal the existence of organised resistance activity amongst the Wehrmacht. This kind of mistake resulting in misdirected post did actually happen from time to time so was believed to be a plausible scheme. A German prisoner, Oscar Jurgens, who was now working for Delmer was also going to be Periwigged. He would be interviewed by a senior officer of the so-called British Clandestine Services and asked to assist with arranging communications with the Wehrmacht and Abwehr resistance, using his contacts back in Germany. However this was yet another plan vetoed by SIS.

Of all the Periwig proposals, Delmer was particularly enthusiastic about the homing pigeon operation. In coordination with a large number of pigeons being dropped from aircraft over Germany, black radio broadcasts suggested that they were being utilised by the Allies to obtain intelligence information from helpful Germans. The pigeons, with small message capsules attached to their legs, were packaged in containers connected to parachutes. Included was food, a message pad, pencil, instructions for the use of the homing pigeon, and a questionnaire to be filled in and returned by the finder. The message pads, each page with a unique serial number, instruction leaflets, and questionnaires were printed by Howe's Unit, (H.1030).

H.1030, Operation Periwig pigeon distributed questionnaire and message pad

H.1030, Operation Periwig pigeon distributed questionnaire and message pad

The questionnaire asked for the names and addresses of Party leaders, Gestapo personnel, and Police officers in the area; locations, with details, of Gestapo barracks, Police stations, and Luftwaffe airfields; information about troop movements, their equipment, and vehicles; and also it asked about the extent of damage caused by air raids. It concluded, "Contribute your part to shortening the war! Your assistance in the fight against Hitler is recognized and recompensed!" It did not really matter whether or not any cooperative Germans actually assisted by sending the pigeons back with useful intelligence, the main thing was for it to appear there were willing German collaborators helping the Allied cause.

The RAFs Special Duties Squadron, based at Tempsford aerodrome, dropped the first batch of twenty pigeons on the night of 4/5 April. Six other stale birds were also dropped, which would not home and hopefully would be found by, or handed in to, the German authorities. They already had faked messages, written by PWE, attached to their legs, to provide evidence that the pigeons were being used for their intended purpose. The pigeon's dissemination was taken over by the Special Leaflet Squadron and continued until the night of 26/27 April. In total 330 birds were dropped, nine of which flew back to England and two others made it to France. Of these five of them carried real messages.

One message was in broken English, or what might more aptly be described as "pigeon English". The senders mockingly thanked the British for the pigeons and apologised for not returning two other birds as they were now in their stomachs. Please send more they requested.

Another message did contain real information, it read:

The pigeon was found at four o'clock in the morning in our village. There are no German military personnel in our village. The name of the village is Hellensen.

As far as I know, Ludenscheid will not be defended because there are many hospitals in the town. The Party swine have all cleared out. Kreisleiter Joust (or Poust) was seen in the town yesterday in civilian clothes.

I am also a pigeon fancier and send my greetings. Good flight.

The pigeon drops were the last activities for the deception. On the whole Operation Periwig has to be considered a failure. Due to the unacceptable and debilitating restrictions placed on it by SIS and SHAEF, combined with the lateness implementing the plans, it is unrealistic to expect the operation to have achieved any of its goals. With earlier planning, with the full cooperation of all the agencies involved, and given top priority, Periwig just might have played a significant and intriguing part in the collapse of the Third Reich.


1. HS 7/146, SOE X Section History, Part II – Operation Periwig, p.1. The rest of this section is based on the SOE X Section history, part II, HS 7/147, and the PWE files FO 898/354-356. See also The Secret History of SOE by MacKenzie pp. 708-9 and The Secret History of PWE by Garnett, pp.432-6. None of SOE's Periwig Planning Section files are available at the National Archives.

2. SOE D/Q Diary, HS 7/285, pp. 398-401.

3. Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 by Leo Marks, pub. Simon & Schuster, 1998.



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