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An overview of British underground propaganda against Nazi Germany - transcript of a talk, with accompanying slides, given by Lee Richards, London, May 2014.
What is propaganda?
Propaganda is an emotive word. Today when we speak of propaganda we think of indoctrination, deceit and lies. It is sinister and is something conducted by our enemies. However, in the past the word propaganda hasn’t carried so much negative baggage. It was a more neutral word to describe the process of encouraging people to accept your beliefs or ideas, to convert them to your way of thinking. The word actually has its origins in the 17th century Catholic Church when Pope Gregory the 15th established a congregation for the propagation of the faith.
In the First World War, Britain formed a branch of Military Intelligence, known as MI7b, to undertake what was freely called “propaganda” and to drop from aircraft over German frontlines what were referred to as “aerial propaganda leaflets”.
It was during the latter 1930’s that the meaning of word became more tainted, with its association with the Third Reich’s insidious Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment ran by the odious Dr. Goebbels.
Still during the Second World War the word was in common currency to describe Allied information and influence activities but new euphemisms did appear including “political warfare” and, when America entered the war, “psychological warfare”.
I will be using the word propaganda throughout this talk but with its 1940’s context rather than the more negative modern definition.
White versus Black propaganda
Britain conducted two types of propaganda in the Second World War, one overt, the other covert. Overt propaganda was labelled as White; covert, clandestine or underground propaganda as Black.
White propaganda was the voice of the British Government. It was truthful, not necessarily the whole truth, but it certainly did not intentionally lie. It had the reputation of His Majesty’s Government and Britain to uphold. It included the BBC’s foreign language broadcasts to Europe and the millions of leaflets dropped by Royal Air Force aircraft over enemy and enemy occupied countries. Both the broadcasts and leaflets stated clearly who they were from and their purpose was obvious. Mostly the white propaganda consisted of reliable war news, statements and talks on our war aims and the speeches of Allied leaders. Throughout the war it built up a formidable reputation for trustworthiness and accuracy. But it is only human nature that people are loath to accept the propaganda of their enemy, no matter how good an international reputation it might enjoy.
Black propaganda was seen as a way of overcoming this stigma of being of enemy origin. Black propaganda appeared to be anything other than the voice of Britain. It was clandestine and falsely attributed and so was disavowable. It deliberately presented itself, or led the audience to deduce it to be something it was not, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. One definition put it this way:
The difference between white and black is the difference between a soldier fighting in the uniform of his country and an underground saboteur fighting the enemy from within the ranks of the enemy.1
Black propaganda did not have to protect its reputation; it was free to deceive and lie. That does not mean all black propaganda was lies. On the contrary, just as the best white propaganda is based on the truth, so the same applies for black. It is the truth, or partial truth, in a more palatable form.
A third definition also developed. Grey propaganda lies in the middle, it is either unattributed or has weak attribution. The deception regarding its true origin does not hold up under close examination.
How was Britain’s propaganda machine organised during the war? At the start of the Second World War, there existed in the British Government several organisations with overlapping and rival responsibilities for propaganda.
Organisation of propaganda departments
The most well known was the Ministry of Information. Its job was to present to the British public, the Government’s point of view and to inform and advise. It influenced news reporting through control of information and press censorship. It was also responsible for pro-British and anti-Axis propaganda to Allied and neutral nations.
Propaganda to the enemy was the responsibility of an organisation known as Electra House. It was headed by the Canadian Sir Campbell Stuart, who had previously been the Deputy Director of propaganda to enemy countries in the First World War under Lord Northcliffe. Later he was a managing director of The Times newspaper and as war approached Chairman of Cable and Wireless. The headquarters of Cable and Wireless were in Electra House, at the Temple on the Victoria Embankment. It is here Campbell Stuart set up his propaganda outfit.
Electra House received political intelligence from and liaised closely with the Foreign Office’s Political Intelligence Department.
Another organisation concerning itself with covert propaganda was a section of the Secret Intelligence Service which was simply known as Section D. Its job was to plan for and conduct sabotage and subversion including the production of underground propaganda. Even before the outbreak of the war they were working with anti-Nazi groups to spread leaflets inside Germany, they controlled a Joint Broadcasting Committee which arranged for pre-recorded radio features to made available to broadcasters in central and eastern Europe and Section D also owned a small news agency in which to supply reports to foreign newspapers.
Following the disaster of the fall of France, the Government re-evaluated how it might continue the fight against Germany. They concluded that the principal means of continuing the war included the aerial bombardment of Germany, subversion and propaganda. As a new Government was established with Churchill becoming Prime Minister, a shake up of the propaganda and sabotage organisations was undertaken. This resulted in the sacking of Campbell Stuart and the formation of the Special Operations Executive.
SOE was split into two sections; SO1 was responsible for propaganda and was staffed from both Electra House and the Political Intelligence Department. Reginald Rex Leeper, a PID man, became SO1’s head.
SO2 was responsible for sabotage and subversion. It was created from Section D and a War Office section, MI(R), which had been working along similar lines to it. SOE was under the direct control of the Minister of Economic Warfare.
As far as propaganda was concerned this arrangement did not satisfy either the Foreign Secretary or the Minister of Information. SO1 and SO2 did not work happily together either and never became fully integrated. Another reorganisation was undertaken in the summer of 1941 with SO1 being split from SOE into yet another new secret organisation called the Political Warfare Executive (PWE).
PWE was given responsibility for propaganda to enemy and now enemy-occupied countries. The committee controlling PWE consisted of the Foreign Sectary, Minister of Economic Warfare and the Minister of Information. The day-to-day running was through the Director-General Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart.
Propaganda media – Radio, Rumours, and Leaflets
Black propaganda essentially fell into three forms of media – radio, rumours and leaflets. Radio was by far the most important of the three as it had the furthest reach. Certainly in the Second World War radio was a very ephemeral medium. Few recordings of clandestine radio broadcasts remain, nearly all the original scripts have been destroyed and the only record of them available are desperately incomplete monitoring transcripts. Fortunately the leaflet or printed literature propaganda acts as documentary evidence for the type of underground propaganda being conducted on radio.
The rural Bedfordshire countryside surrounding Woburn Abbey was home to British clandestine radio broadcasting. Large houses in small villages in the area were taken over as bases for each of the several dozen freedom stations that supported resistance movements in occupied Europe and those black radio stations aimed at German troops and civilians. Most of the stations’ daily programmes were pre-recorded on wax discs and broadcast on close by shortwave transmitters operated by SIS. Shortwave was the wavelength of choice for these underground radio stations, albeit with one notable exception which I will come on to. Shortwave signals have the property of bouncing off the ionosphere and, depending on atmospheric conditions, can reach at least halfway around the world; ideal for clandestine radio.
Sefton Delmer biography
From May 1941 clandestine radio stations for Germans were run by the Daily Express foreign correspondent Sefton Delmer. Sefton Delmer is one of those rather singular people that war has a habit of throwing up. Born in Berlin, German was his native language. Growing up during the First World War, he lived life firsthand as an enemy alien in the patriotic and jingoist atmosphere of a militarist Germany. His Australian father, an English professor at Berlin University, was interned by the Kaiser’s Government until the entire Delmer family were later repatriated back to Britain. The young Delmer was taken under the wing of the press baron Lord Beaverbrook and would become the Express’s foreign correspondent in Germany. He reported on the rise of National Socialism and built personal relationships with many of the early senior Nazis, especially the thuggish leader of the SA Brown Shirt Ernst Röhm. Delmer accompanied Hitler on his 1933 electioneering campaign, flying in Hitler’s personal Ju.52 aircraft from German city to German city. He was one of the first on the scene of the Reichstag fire and toured the still burning interior with Hitler and Goering. Following the Night of the Long Knives purge and the murder of Röhm, Delmer was expelled from Germany for fully reporting on all those murdered by their fellow Nazis. Now that he was persona non grata in the Third Reich, Delmer moved to Paris and later covered the Spanish Civil War. Here he met several German Socialists who would later work for him in clandestine broadcasting. Delmer clearly knew German mentality intimately and knew how to get under the Nazi’s skin.
He was appointed joint head of the German section of SO1 in May 1941, sharing overall control of the section with Labour MP Richard Crossman. Delmer was specifically given responsibility for black propaganda to Germans with his initial task to be the setting up a new right wing radio station in the style of Lord Haw-Haw. This new station was known as Gustav Siegfried Eins or GS1.
Gustav Siegfried Eins
(G.3, End of May 1941 to mid-November 1943)
Gustav Siegfried Eins can justifiably be called the most infamous radio station of the war due to its use of vulgar language and, initially at least, rather salty tales of the sexual exploits of Nazi Party leaders and unpopular Wehrmacht officers. The pornography was intended purely as a vehicle to create notoriety to help quickly build a large audience. It succeeded and the scandalous stories were soon dropped.
The main speaker on GS1 appeared to be a traditional, tough, patriotic but rather cynical German officer known as the Chief – der Chef. Der Chef hated the British and Soviets with a passion, but even more so he detested the clique of corrupt Nazi officials and certain Wehrmacht officers who were conducting the war purely in their own self interest, to further their careers, their wealth and to bolster their own egos. These he referred to as the Bolshevik Commune.
The part of der Chef was voiced by a German émigré named Peter Seckelmann, he was a journalist and writer of detective stories. As a Corporal in the Pioneer Corps he defused bombs during the London Blitz and later volunteered for parachute training with SOE, and that’s how he found his way to becoming der Chef.
Sefton Delmer’s base and GS1’s production office was in a house called “The Rookery", in the sleepy village of Aspley Guise, a few miles north west of Woburn Abbey.
I will now leave it to Sefton Delmer himself to explain more about Gustav Siegfried Eins.
[Play recording of Delmer]
[Folksong by Ludwig Holty as played on the carillon of the Potsdam garrison chapel. “Always practise troth and probity… until your cool, cool grave.”]
That recording was taken from a presentation delivered to King George VI when he visited Woburn Abbey to meet those behind our clandestine propaganda war.
Christ the King
(G.7, September 1942 to end April 1945)
Gustav Siegfried Eins was the most infamous of the radio stations but the longest running station was aimed at German Christians.
Nazism was a godless religion. Traditional Christian belief was tolerated within the Third Reich but not encouraged. It was obvious that Nazism and Christianity were incompatible ideologies. The estimated 40 million German Catholics, therefore, were potentially a powerful force which could be mobilised to subvert the Nazi regime. Catholics were considered such a significant target for black propaganda that a black Christian radio station was established in September 1942.
The only broadcaster on the “Christ the King” station was a real young Austrian priest named Father Elmar Eisenberger. The Father wrote and preached his own scripts and many had an Austrian or Bavarian separatist flavour.
To create some publicity, Delmer says, he instructed a rumour should be spread claiming the station was secretly operated by the Vatican.
Father Eisenberger broadcast five or six times a week. Each broadcast began with organ music or a Gregorian chant followed by a Bible quotation and then a six to nine minute sermon. The broadcast ended with a hymn and the Father signed-off with “Christ the King lives.”
Using current events the sermons illustrated the essential opposition of Nazism to Christianity. It contrasted the allegiance which the Führer claimed for himself with the allegiance which the Catholic owed to God, as well as opposing the false community spirit of Nazism with the true Catholic community spirit. Some of the father’s sermons were also issued as leaflets. A small sticker with the station’s frequencies and broadcast times was also disseminated as can be seen on the slide.
(G.9 March 1943 to end April 1945)
What began life as Shortwave Sender Atlantik would become the most ambitious radio station. Originally it was formed in collaboration with the Naval Intelligence Department to attack the morale of German U-boat crews operating in the North Atlantic. The first broadcast went out in March 1943. Its remit soon expanded to appeal to the whole German Wehrmacht with special programmes for the Luftwaffe and Army added later. Unlike other clandestine radio stations it was broadcast live. Extensive use of dance music was used to provide popular entertainment with news flashes and sports news interleaved. The music came courtesy of the Royal Marines Band, captured German records and Jazz specially recorded in New York by the US Office of Strategic Services. Many popular American dance tracks were remastered with German, French and Italian lyrics. The sports and other news was picked up from the German’s own DNB news service. Much of the background information to provide social comment came from gossip extracted from international mail, which had been intercepted by the postal censors, and also from overheard, bugged conversations of German Prisoners of War. Indeed several anti-Nazi German POWs were co-opted to broadcast on the station.
Before the end of the year the station was also being relayed on medium-wave as Soldatensender Calais. It was the first time that medium wave had been used and meant a much larger audience could be reached. This was possible due to the purchase of an extremely powerful 500 kW transmitter from the Radio Corporation of America, which was then installed in a purpose built bunker near Crowborough, East Sussex. The transmitter was codenamed “Aspidistra” after the then current Gracie Fields rendition of “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World”. Delmer’s team by this time had moved into a purpose built recording studio and production office on the edges of the Woburn Estate nestled next to the village of Milton Bryan. The broadcasts were sent directly by telegraph lines from there to the Aspidistra transmitter. It was on the air without intermission from 6:30 p.m. until 8.00 a.m. the next morning.
The Soldatensender also played a valuable part in the Operation Overlord deception campaign. Its reward was the scoop of war; German troops in Western Europe received their first news of the Normandy landings from the Soldatensender. Following D-day and the Allied advance through France, the medium-wave broadcasts were renamed Soldatensender West and continued until 1st May 1945. Here’s a short recording from that last day’s broadcast.
[Play recording of Soldatensender West]
The second media for black propaganda was the word of mouth rumour. Rumours are perfect for unacknowledgeable clandestine propaganda and deception. They are incredibly hard to trace and they can spread like the proverbial wildfire. Who does not relish passing on gossip or a tidbit of "inside" information?
Underground Propaganda Committee
In the summer of 1940, as the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force regrouped in England and began intensive construction of anti-invasion defences, Electra House established the Underground Propaganda Committee (UPC) to formulate, under the tightest secrecy, an anti-invasion whispering campaign. The rumours they generated were codenamed "Sibs" – taken from the Latin word sibilare, meaning to hiss.
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.
The rumour-mongering even went as far as telling anti-Axis jokes and amusing stories. One joke mocking the Italian's military performance which was spread in various neutral countries went:
The Italians have invented a new tank with one forward gear and three reverse gears.
SOE D/Q section - Press Propaganda
SOE’s D/Q section was tasked with disseminating rumours. D/Q was originally established under Section D. Its main function was "secret journalism" to manipulate the world's press. The section founded a number of international news agencies and established or purchased several newspapers.
D/Q was mostly staffed with journalists and originally headed by Colonel Leslie Sheridan. Prior to the war he was the night editor of the Daily Mirror newspaper. The section was later headed by Lionel Hale, 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.
Hale's deputy was Major Colin Wintle, another Fleet Street journalist, who acted as the liaison officer between PWE and SOE. He worked closely with Delmer's staff and was essentially a surrogate member of the German section of SOE.
Neutral journalists and diplomatic missions in London were fed stories and reports which were then introduced into the British and American press. UPC rumours regularly appeared in the bulletins of the Overseas News Agency and subsequently were swallowed up willingly by newspapers like the New York Post. Indiscrete letters written by people in England to friends abroad were also allowed by special arrangement to pass unedited through the censorship.
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. Each Sub-whisperer was conscious of the fact that he, or she, was working for SOE. Each Sub-whisperer then recruited ten to twenty unconscious agents to whom they passed on rumours. 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 Jewish businessman and a French insurance agent who both regularly travelled to and from Vichy France and would take back rumours for passing into Occupied France.
In late 1940 most UPC rumours covered an anti-invasion theme. Their brief was to mislead the German General Staff into taking 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. To help the story spread photographs of a modified BREN gun with mocked-up sights would be accidentally released to the press without comment.
Another rumour told that enormous quantities of Tommy guns were being imported from the US. 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 September 1940 probably the most famous and wide reaching rumour of the war was released. 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 rumour really caught on and spread rapidly across the continent. It is said the French resistance would amuse themselves by pretending to warm their hands on German soldiers sitting next to them in cafes and restaurants.
Yet another rumour contended 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. Rumours of abortive German invasions became so pervasive that they even persist to this day.
“Udet is dead”
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.
According to the Udet legend he was very reluctantly persuaded by his old WWI flying comrade Goering to join the new Luftwaffe and was instrumental in the development of the 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. The story was soon front page news in New York and London.
To counteract the false stories of Udet’s premature death, Goering hastily arranged a press conference to show he was very much still alive. In one of the stranger coincidences of the war Udet did actually die a few months later. The Nazi news agencies announced he had been killed testing a new aircraft but the rumour he committed suicide continued to be commonly believed.
During its existence the Underground Propaganda Committee concocted in excess of 8,000 rumours, some of which endure in popular myth today.
A multitude of leaflets, pamphlets, newspapers, stickers, small posters, postcards and even postage stamps were produced in London and smuggled into Europe and North Africa intended to damage German morale and prompt them to act in a self-interest way which would help to undermine the German war effort.
In November 1941, PWE set up a new print and forgery unit for the production of black propaganda leaflets and documents. Based on the sixth floor of the BBC’s Bush House, initially the small unit consisted of its manager Ellic Howe and a single graphic designer, the petite Jewish refugee Elizabeth Friedlander.
Ellic Howe was the son of Russian immigrants. Howe’s grandfather was the co-proprietor of the notable and highly successful cigarette brand of De Reszke. On his grandfather’s death the young Howe inherited a more than sufficient personal wealth. With independent means, Howe spent most of his early life rather aimlessly travelling around Europe, especially in Berlin and Paris. These travels enabled him to become fluent in both German and French. He also picked up some Italian along the way.
Howe’s life gained direction following a meeting with James Shand, the then managing director of the Shenval Press. A passion for the history of typography and printing was instantly fired up in him. In the summer of 1934, Howe convinced Shand to take him on as a printing apprentice. Part of his training was at the Monotype Corporation where he learnt the techniques of hot metal casting and typesetting.
With the coming of war Howe enlisted in an Anti-aircraft artillery unit. But Sergeant Major Howe was hoping to use his talents in a more constructive manner to help the war effort. After writing and submitting to the Foreign Office several memoranda on the possibilities of underground propaganda, Howe was recruited to PWE.
His graphic designer Miss Friedlander had studied typography and calligraphy at the Berlin Academy. In 1928, she had the unusual honour for a woman at the time, of designing a typeface for a renowned font foundry. The typeface was originally to be called “Friedländer-Antiqua” but as Friedlander was a recognisably Jewish name, it was named simply “Elizabeth” instead. In 1935, she received notification from the Nazi authorities that being a “non-Aryan” she could no longer work in Germany. She left for Milan to work for the Mondadori publishing house designing Christmas cards and book jackets. This time the Italian Fascist racial laws caught up with her. Friedlander then reached England and spent the remainder of the war forging against the Third Reich in Howe’s unit.
In February 1944, a second graphic designer, the elegant Marion McFadyean, joined the unit for a short period. Marion, like Elizabeth, was a Jewish émigré from Nazi Germany.
In three and a half years Howe’s Unit produced over 1,400 print orders.
SOE X Section
Most of the propaganda documents created by Howe’s unit were distributed through SOE’s German and Austrian section, or X section as it was known.
The section was headed by Lt Colonel Ronald Thornley, who took a keen interest in the potentiality of black propaganda and was often the driving force for new items, especially in regard to forged ration coupons and malingering booklets, which I will expand on shortly.
Most black propaganda was distributed by means of SOE agents in Occupied Europe and beyond. Whenever a mission received supply containers dropped from Britain, any spare crevice in the container was usually crammed with propaganda material. Resistance helpers would distribute the literature in any discrete way that could devise. Posters were stuck to public notice boards, stickers adhered to lamp posts or walls in public lavatories or any other suitable place, leaflets were left on train seats or on tables in cafes frequented by German soldiers. Other propaganda was slipped into the pockets of soldiers’ great coats left in cloakrooms. One resourceful agent wrapped up leaflets in small tight bundles and catapulted them through the open windows of German barracks.
X section also maintained several representatives in neutral countries to assist with the production and dissemination of leaflets. The X section representative in Stockholm was Ewan Butler. He arranged for propaganda to be sent into occupied Norway and Denmark using trawler man who plied that trade across Scandinavia. Trains transiting through Sweden into Germany were also convenient conveyors for smuggled propaganda. Butler with his female assistant Janet Gow, also operated a printing press in the basement of the Stockholm Legation producing such things a regular newspaper for German troops in the north.
Thornley’s X section was particularly interested in what it called Administrative Sabotage. The idea was to make life in Germany as uncomfortable as possible by putting a strain on Government resources. One way of achieving this was to bomb Germany with tens of thousands of forged rationing documents. The idea was not so much to endanger German food supplies but to cause chaos in the administration of the rationing system. Every time new forgeries of ration coupons were dropped by the RAF, the German authorities would be forced to either change their procedures or recall and reissue new documents.
The first unspectacular attempt was made in July 1941 when yellow men’s clothing coupons were rather poorly faked. At this time Howe’s unit hadn’t been established and X section relied on SIS to produce the forgery. The rubber stamp even contained a spelling mistake. It fooled nobody. Despite this the Germans reacted angrily to the forgeries and imprisoned a number of civilians who attempted to use them.
This spurned X section on and for the remainder of the war increasing better forgeries of the latest issues of ration coupons were dropped.
Astrology / Louis de Wohl
In summer of 1940, elements of the British secret services were taking a keen interest, perhaps an unhealthy interest, in the black art of astrology. This obsession focused on a professional astrologer and author named Louis de Wohl, who styled himself as “The Modern Nostradamus”. At various times, at least from the beginning of the war, he was in the employ of the Security Service (MI5), Military Intelligence, Naval Intelligence, SOE and PWE.
De Wohl was an intriguing individual and, based on the wildly conflicting opinions of his character, an enigma. His mother was part German, part Austrian. His father came from a region of Hungary which was incorporated into Czechoslovakia following the First World War. De Wohl maintained that his father was a minor member of the nobility and a cavalry officer. De Wohl himself was born in Berlin but took Hungarian citizenship, not that he ever lived there or could speak a word of the language. He was raised in Berlin and Bavaria, where he was known as Ludwig von Wohl. After the Nazis came to power, he was accused of being part-Jewish so decided it was an opportunistic time to make a new life for himself in Britain.
There exists a large MI5 file on Louis de Wohl full of diametrically opposing opinions on him. His many detractors countered that he, in fact, was a well known Nazi and had published in the German press favourable horoscopes of the Nazi leadership in order to court their favour. Furthermore, his detractors widely considered him to be a charlatan and fake. One described him as “a complete scoundrel”. Another claimed he was a womaniser whilst others speculated he was an effeminate homosexual and transvestite, yet devoted to his wife. Despite this MI5 considered him a valuable asset and an “extremely clever man with multifarious connections and a very singular background.” He was, they added, a man with “great gifts as a psychologist and excellent insight into the Continental mind.”
In 1941, SOE sent de Wohl to North America on a lecture tour to cast Hitler’s horoscope and foretell the Third Reich’s imminent downfall. Meanwhile D/Q section made sure his American visit received generous publicity in the world’s press. And to bolster his reputation D/Q planted news stories apparently confirming some of his astrological predictions.
Later he was passed onto Delmer to produce various astrological publications. He edited several numbers of an astrological magazine called “Der Zenit”. The ornate cover was designed by Elizabeth Friedlander. The magazines, based on high level intelligence provided through Ian Fleming, predicted the fate of numerous U-boats and their captains before it was public knowledge. The magazines were successfully disseminated in the U-boat bases and ports in northern France.
De Wohl’s most impressive work was a new edition of Nostradamus prophesies produced as a miniature booklet printed on bible page. It contained over 100 pages of Nostradamus quatrains, each with a German translation and analysis. One quatrain predicts what is in store for Hitler (referred to as “Hister” in the text):
Jupiter in Cancer – The great pocket will weep to have elected him.
Hister’s ruin approaches.
From the heavens approaches an army so fearsome, that Augsburg, Frankfurt and Berlin grow pale.
By the beginning of 1943, the intelligence services had lost their interest in astrology and no more propaganda of this type was produced.
Health and Disease
Medical doctor H Bauer of Berlin complained in an article in a leading German medical journal that as part of Britain’s “war of nerves” against the German people, the enemy had tried to create unjustified anxiety and confusion among the people through the distribution of leaflets about health issues and measures against epidemics.
The public’s health concerns were a ready target for black propaganda. Attention was drawn to such things as the increase in communicable diseases and epidemics as a result of the dislocation caused by war, especially the spread of life-threatening infections like plague (Pest) and spotted fever from Eastern foreign workers and soldiers returning from the front. Industrial accidents caused by overwork in munitions factories, the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases amongst German women, poor sanitation resulting from bomb damage to cities’ infrastructure and health issues caused by the meagre war diet were other anxieties exploited in propaganda.
Dr Bauer was complaining about the forged Plague instructional booklet shown on the left of the slide. It was one of PWE’s most subtle and clever examples of taking a real German document and twisting it for psychological warfare purposes.
The fake public health poster shown on the right is one of the more ghoulish items showing bloated drowned corpses floating in a reservoir. German housewives are reminded to always boil drinking water after an enemy air raid.
Malingering, shirking, feigning illness could be a very tempting way of encouraging a soldier to get himself off active duty or a worker out of the munitions factory. Sefton Delmer wanted to appeal to the “inner Schweinhund” of the German mind. He wanted him to act in a way that would make his own life more comfortable, a little easier and less dangerous but in a way that a soldier could consider morally acceptable. If he did not have the opportunity to desert, or would not undertake something so dishonourable, he might think differently about arranging for a few days, or even weeks, in a warm, peaceful hospital bed far behind the frontline. A worker on long, tiring and dangerous night shifts in an explosives factory might also welcome a few sick days. To encourage absenteeism and to give potential shirkers the means of putting it into practice, PWE produced ingenious manuals with step-by-step instructions to fake a wide range of illnesses and ailments from a simple throat infection to a life-threatening disease such as Tuberculosis.
But what was more important than encouraging Germans to malinger was to make the authorities suspect the loyalty of their own people and perhaps to accuse the genuinely ill of malingering.
The covers of the malingering booklets were usually disguised as something less subversive, perhaps a Catholic prayer book, a German Navy sports manual or a pocket diary. Malingering instructions on individual sheets of thin Bible page were concealed in Reichslotterie envelopes or folded inside a packet of cigarette papers. Examples can be seen in the slide. The booklets were either disseminated by SOE or given a wider circulation by being dropped from hydrogen balloons launched from southern England over the Continent.
For a soldier to give up fighting and desert his duty is, no doubt, the most successful conclusion of a propaganda campaign but conversely one of the hardest objectives to accomplish. Generally even a non-willing conscript will not contemplate desertion until he is in mortal danger or has an easy opportunity to do so. A soldier still loyal to his government and country is much harder to break through psychological warfare. Despite this difficulty, sponsoring desertion was a key aim of British black propaganda. Long before the Allied invasion of Western Europe desertion propaganda was disseminated to persuade German troops to escape the approaching battle. The first signs appeared at the end of 1942 of the possibility that the Allies may defeat Germany. From Norway a trickle of deserting German soldiers attempted to cross the border into Sweden. Previously these deserters were prohibited from entering the country and faced certain death when returned to the German authorities. The Swedish administration reversed its policy and gave asylum to the absconding soldiers. When news of this change of heart reached SOE Stockholm, they suggested a pinprick operation to publicise in Norway the Swedish government’s new attitude. In April 1943 PWE prepared the proclamation notice shown here allegedly in the name of General von Falkenhorst, commander-in-chief of the German occupational forces in Norway. The proclamation addressed to German soldiers, denounced in the strongest terms the disgraceful increase in incidents in which enlisted men and even officers of the units under Falkenhorst’s command renounced their military obligations by crossing into Swedish territory. Referring to the Swedish Government’s change of attitude to deserting German soldiers, the poster ends with this message from Falkenhorst:
“I am confident that this incomprehensible attitude of the Swedish government will not be a temptation for honourable German soldiers to commit the shameful crime of desertion.”
Norwegian SOE agents pasted up numerous copies of the proclamation in Oslo and elsewhere on the night of 2/3rd June 1943, causing some local controversy.
Other desertion leaflets, allegedly produced by an anti-Nazi German resistance group known as the red ring, gave tips to German soldiers on how to desert to various neutral countries. The advice for absconding to Switzerland gave three tips:
Firstly after crossing the frontier give yourself up to the nearest Swiss police or army post. Do not hang about the countryside.
Secondly, state simply and clearly why you have come, “because you have no desire to sacrifice your life for Hitler’s last and useless struggles.”
And lastly make sure you are unarmed and show your papers to prove you really are a German soldier.
I will finish by showing a few examples of numerous stickers produced by Howe’s Unit.
One of the most popular amongst resistance agents was the ScheiSSe sticker. For those who do not speak German, Scheisse means “shit”. The double ss letters in the middle of the word are replaced with the lightning bolt rune symbol of the SS. The message is obvious. The same treatment was given to the word “Volksschädlinge”, the Nazi’s legal definition for an enemy of the state.
The sticker on the top left is a parody of a Nazi Party, “saying of the week” sticker which were often affixed to the outside of envelopes. This particular saying of the week reads “Make Hitler cold and the room is warm again”.