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Sibs: What they are and how they work


At the start of the year a number of new files were added to the Political Warfare Executive’s archive at the National Archives. The files mostly relate to the work of Arthur A Foss. The document below was discovered amongst some of these papers, mixed with miscellaneous others associated with the PWE Military Training Depot and School and Force 133 at Bari, Italy. The document is undated and unsigned but appears to be a transcript of a lecture given to the PWE School around the beginning of 1944. The author is undoubtedly John Baker White, a member of PWE military wing and sometime lecturer at the school, he later gave a similar account in his book “The Big Lie”. The document discusses the spread of rumours, known as Sibs, for political warfare and deception purposes with some examples given. Enemy rumour-mongering is also mentioned with examples of German attempts to malign Churchill as a drunkard and to claim that Polish General Sikorski had been murdered on Churchill’s orders. The original document is a rather faded, badly-typed, carbon copy on yellowed, brittle paper. Part of the text is difficult to read and there are numerous spelling mistakes; for readability these have been corrected and obviously missing words have been added here in square brackets.

PWE Training School and Depot when based at Mena, Cairo

PWE Training School and Depot when based at Mena, Cairo. (Used for illustrative purposes only)


Sibs or rumours are produced for a definite and specific strategic purpose, the deception of the enemy. They may be designed to make him move troops, to undermine the morale of his fighting forces, to destroy the faith of enemy peoples in their leaders, to lower the morale of civilian populations, to confuse and mislead neutrals friendly to the enemy. Properly used they are a potent weapon of subvert political warfare. I said in a previous lecture that the soundest foundation of overt political warfare was the truth. A sib – a rumour – may have a sub-stratum of truth – it very often has – but by the time it is put into circulation it is a good fat, deliberate lie.

Perhaps I can best illustrate what I mean by telling you the story of one of the most successful rumours of this war. I have a very close personal interest because I watched it grow from a little tiny baby half-truth into one of the biggest and most lusty lies of the whole war. During the Autumn of 1940 we were anxious to deter the German soldiers in the Low Countries from prospects of invasion. As one means of doing it we put out a short simple rumour. This is what is was: “The English have perfected a means of setting the sea on fire”. That is all, and it happens to be basically true, because if you use enough petrol anybody can set the sea on fire.

The rumour was put out through various channels. It quickly reached the German army. It became the talk of neutral capitals. It grew and grew. And then it started to come back in its various forms. We traced it back from seven different countries and in seven different forms. While on a visit to Portsmouth I was assured most solemnly by a senior naval officer that we had defeated an invasion attempt by setting the sea on fire and that he personally had seen the charred bodies of hundreds of Germans lying on Chesil beach. I have seen intercepted letters from German soldiers in France who said they had visited their comrades in hospital – and they actually gave their names – who had been burnt in an invasion attempt on England. But we achieved something much more than that. We must have made the German High Command believe that we had some means of setting the sea on fire because they actually had built and tested out in Normandy a number of fireproof invasion craft manned by crews wearing asbestos suits. Perhaps I should add a postscript to this story of one of the wars most successful rumours. We did set the sea on fire. At St. Margaret’s Bay, Dover, where we knew the Germans would be able to see it, and it took us about six months to square up the petrol account with the D.A.D.O.S. [Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Services].

2. The essentials of a rumour. Anybody with an ingenious mind can invent rumours, but the rumours with which we are concerned must be governed by certain essentials.

(i) First of all they must accord to a directive. They must be part of your plan, strategic or political, designed to achieve a certain result. An unrelated rumour will often do more harm than good.

(ii) They must be short and deliberate because the elaborate rumour loses much or all of its value from being passed on. Your rumour may start short. Do not be worried about that. If it is a good one it will always be elaborated.

(iii) If you are circulating rumours about enemy leaders don’t forget the value of salacious gossip.

(iv) Don’t try and cram too much into one rumour. Don’t in a burst of enthusiasm, try to get out too many and over burden your machinery of dissemination.

(v) Whenever possible direct your rumour towards a specific target. Remember that human nature being what it is the individual is always most interested in what effects himself. I will give you an example of that. At the present moment the German rumour machine is very busy in this part of the world with the rumour that a certain British division is going home. The object of that rumour is to raise false hopes, soon to be dashed, and make those troops bloody-minded. We played the same game many times, with considerable success, on German troops in various parts of Europe.

(vi) Always make absolutely certain that your rumour is alright from the point of view of security; that you are not giving away some military secret quite unwittingly. This applies particularly when you are putting out rumours about secret weapons. I can give you a personal example. I prepared a rumour in which I said that the British had now got fighters armed with 40mm cannon to use against tanks. I had absolutely no idea that we had such fighters for over [a] month and were using them with considerable success in the desert. [If I] had not had the rumour checked for security I might have given the Germans a very valuable piece of information. This security checking is very important and must never be overlooked even if you are preparing a lone rumour for short range use.

3. The categories of rumours. Political. Rumours about enemy leaders are designed to destroy peoples faith in [them]. I will give you examples of actual rumours put out by both sides:-

Hitler is mad and imagines he is Frederick the Great.

Winston Churchill has got D.Ts, and that is the real reason for his illness.

The Commander of the Spanish Blue Division on the Eastern Front was sent home suffering with the venereal disease.

General Sikorski was murdered on Churchill’s instructions.

These are what I call personal rumours and it is unlikely that you will have to concern yourselves with them very much, though the Army Commander, in order to deceive the enemy, may well ask front line units to put out rumours about his movements. (where is Hitler) (Marshal von Kluge). The type of rumour you will have to deal with mostly is purely military rumour designed either to undermine the morale of the German soldier or to make the German Command move troops into places where our Army Commander would like to have them. For example, you may be asked to put out a rumour that the British are preparing to attack in a certain place, whereas the attack is being staged somewhere quite different. This type of rumour is not nearly so easy to put out as would at first appear, because the enemy Intelligence is ready and waiting for them. You may have to ask for them to be given some sort of factual support.

Enemy morale is an easier, but not too easy, target. In your front line rumours you must be guided to a great extent by interrogation of prisoners. I will give you an example of what I mean. Stationed in the Balkans at the present time is an infantry division 999 of the German Army. It contains a high proportion of political offenders. That division is an obvious target.

Look out for troops that have been in the line for a long while or who have had heavy casualties.

Look out particularly for, and collect the names of unpopular officers, especially those in position of command and remember human nature being what it is, that the private soldier loves a bit of salacious scandal about unpopular officers. We succeeded in making a certain unpopular Staffel Captain of the Luftwaffe a laughing stock by putting out a rumour that he wore woman’s underclothes. We also succeeded in discrediting a Group Commander of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain by putting out persistent rumours that he was afraid to go up in an aeroplane. This rumour had a sub-stratum of truth and this is a point which should be remembered – that a rumour with a sub stratum of truth is very often the most effective. Considerable harm was done to the prestige of the Italian Ambassador in Berlin by the rumour that he had been found in Frau Goebbels bedroom.

With troops whose morale is in a doubtful state the disease rumour is always effective, but sometimes a boomerang. Typhus is always a good card to play, only don’t try to play it outside a typhus area or in the wrong season. The typhus season is November to March.

With German troops jaundice is also a good card to play because they have had a lot of it and are frightened of it. It is a good thing to suggest that something is wrong and with their rations.  E.g. they are being given ersatz fats made from chemical waste products.

4. The link between rumours and overt propaganda. While a rumour is a subvert underground method of Political Warfare it can be and often is linked with and backed up with overt propaganda. I will give you an example. I have told the story of setting the sea on fire. When we were perfectly certain that this rumour was well and truly circulated amongst German troops in the Low Countries, we put into circulation there a special anti-invasion leaflet. At first sight was a replica of a German soldiers leave pass, but it offered them a free trip to England and a promise of hot steam baths on arrival. Also such Autumn pastimes as diving through fire, the faked leave pass was over stamped “Valid for a single journey only”.

EH.453, Gutschein berechtigt zur einmaligen Fahrt nach Engelland

Parody ticket for a single trip to England which was airdropped on German invasion troops in 1940.

The chance capture of the crew of the flak ship off Boulogn by the Navy enabled us to do a very successful link up between rumours and open propaganda. We discovered that the gun crews were drawn from regiments in five different divisions and scattered at various points from midway up the Norwegian coast to Brittany. They were in point of fact C3 men withdrawn for this particular job. We quickly put into circulation a rumour that these divisions had been exterminated in an invasion attempt. As soon as the rumour had had time to have a fair run, we gave the names of these men and their regiments identification over the wireless in the BBC German service. We concluded with these words “These men were rescued from the sea in the English Channel. We do not know the fates of the rest of their regiments”. The Germans could not deny the suggestion or the rumour without disclosing to us the positions of certain divisions. The divisions themselves knew perfectly well that the rumour was not true, but how could all the rest of the divisions in the west know it was true or not?

These are examples of linking a rumour with overt propaganda.

5. Enemy Rumours. You should bear in mind all the time that the enemy is probably just as busy as you are putting out rumours. He is just as anxious to deceive our commanders in the field as we are his. Speaking in most general terms the chief disseminating centres for German rumours at the moment in order of precedence are Madrid coupled with Lisbon, Zurich, Stockholm, Istanbul and to a lesser degree through Swedish correspondents in Copenhagen. These are the kind of rumours that you see in the daily papers with the description “according to correspondent in Madrid”. The Egyptian Mail and Gazette are generally peppered with them. The lower class of Spanish paper contains little else. In point of fact these are unlikely to concern you very much in the field. What will concern you very intimately is the local rumour and it is your business to submit each rumour to the following analysis:

(i) Is the rumour true or untrue;

(ii) Has it any substratum of truth;

(iii) Is it of friendly or enemy origin. If the latter what would appear to be its purpose. Remember always that the army corps or Divisional Commander may be dependent upon you as trained political warfare officer to keep right over this sort of thing.

I am afraid I personally have rather a jaundiced view of German rumours. At the beginning of the war they were effective and imaginative but they seemed to have an eternal awful-sameness about them. You will remember the original Haw Haw rumour of the stopped Whitehall clock which was continually served up in different forms, e.g. when a bomb fell on Kings Cross Station, the rumour was that Haw Haw had announced three nights before that it was going to be bombed. I believe that this type of rumour persists to this day at home but of course no one has ever actually heard Haw Haw themselves make the remark for the very simple reason that he never did make it. This rumour is kept alive by the German Legation in Dublin. For a long time its chief distributor was a man who lived in Mornington Crescent by the name of Saxon who is now detained at his Majesty’s pleasure. To show you what I mean by the awful sameness of the German rumour, they continue to put up all over the world that the Prime Minister is drinking himself to death. The world public should be able to see by now that his death is long delayed. At the present moment the German rumour machine is devoting itself to fostering bad feeling between ourselves and the Americans. Again the rumours are not frightfully original. I noticed one the other day that was used by the Germans in Paris in 1938 to foster bad relations between the French and the Americans. But for all their sameness the German rumours can be and are a nuisance and it is one [of] your tasks in the field to detect them and counter them.

Two types of rumour they will use with unfailing regularity, one about the movements of German Commanders and the other designed to create bad feeling between Allied troops and the local population. The Germans have been longer at this game than we have. They made extensive and effective use of rumours from 1936 onwards and I have always been quite convinced that the stories that one used to here before the war as to the bad state of the German Army equipment – you will all remember the story of the wooden tank – and the stories about Hitler’s carpet biting activities were calculated manufactures of Goebbel’s department.


Now I finally make the following points:-

(i) The rumour is an effective weapon of political warfare. At times it can be very effective.

(ii) Remember that nine out of every ten people love to know and be able to pass on some spicy detail unknown to other people.

(iii) Remember that your rumour is part and parcel of a military operation. Don’t just create and disseminate rumours because it is rather fun.

(iv) Don’t over work your disseminating machinery. A channel that can [run] three rumours a week and really get them going is a very good channel indeed. Quality not quantity is the yards stick.

(v) Perhaps the best test of a rumour is would you believe it yourself if someone told it to you.

(vi) Always be clear about your target and this applies very particularly to the case of work in the field. It is a fair estimate to say that seven times out of ten your target will be enemy troops. If you have time start thinking out rumours now and try out one another’s credibility.


Channels of Dissemination

In discussion after the lecture one of the students asked for amplification of the point on channels of dissemination. The lecturer said that the PWE Officer in the field naturally would not have time to carry out dissemination personally. His task is to produce the rumour and see that it was guided to the end of the channel.

Various channels were discussed. The lecturer said that in North Africa a great deal was done by using friendly Arabs who would pass through the enemy lines in their flocks or carry food produce for sale. The same peasant channels would probably be used in other countries. The Lecturer also said that much could be done by cooperation with field security officers. They were always running in an active theatre of war suspect fifth columnists, lower grade spies and other suspects. Rumours could be planted amongst them whilst under detention and would circulate freely as soon as they were released. It would often be worthwhile releasing a low grade fifth columnist or spy if a rumour had been planted on him.

[Source: TNA FO 898/554, transcribed by]



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