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The controversy between the BBC and PWE over Soldatensender Calais

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Of all PWE clandestine radio stations broadcasting in German, undoubtedly Soldatensender Calais developed the furthest reach and acquired the largest audience. This was due in part to being broadcast on Europe's most powerful medium wave transmitter, known as Aspidistra, because of its high production values with much of its programme devoted to specially recorded Jazz dance music and because of its frank news reporting and comment.

The combination of these elements, however, made it difficult for Soldatensender Calais to maintain the pretext of being a real German forces station, much of its audience would quickly see through the ruse and realise it to be an enemy operated station. Sefton Delmer was perfectly aware that the Soldatensender could not maintain the illusion of true German origin for long; consequently he referred to it as a "grey" rather than a true "black" propaganda station.

The British Broadcasting Corporation in particular objected to the idea of a "grey" radio station. They argued that as soon as the Soldatensender was identified as a British station it would undermine Britain's and the BBC's reputation for truthfulness and accurate news reporting both during the war and, more importantly, after the war.

A few days after the short wave Atlantik station began its relay on medium wave as Soldatensender Calais for the first time, the Political Warfare Executive circulated the memorandum below to the Minister of Information and Foreign Secretary, outlining both the BBC's position and that of PWE. It is clear that PWE won the day. Soldatensender continued broadcasting on Aspidistra until the final days of the war in Europe.



Copy No...5.



"SOLDATENSENDER CALAIS" is a counterfeit of an official German forces' station, an extension on medium wave of "ATLANTIKSENDER" which has been operating since March 1943 on short wave. "CALAIS" was transmitted on medium wave through "Aspidistra" for the first time on November 14th. It operates for three hours nightly on the 360 metre wavelength.

Under this cover this transmission is purveying for occupying troops, airmen and U-boatmen in Norway, Holland, Belgium, France and at sea, a programme of news, comment and dance-music of a kind likely to interest, excite and hold a large audience amongst servicemen and, incidentally, among the civil population in German[y] itself.

While assuming the character of an official German "SOLDATENSENDER" it provides the type of entertainment which research among prisoners of war and intelligence sources shows is most avidly sought after by war-jaded servicemen. It is calculated that, on medium wave, it can multiply in western Europe the German audience which "Atlantik" has already acquired on short wave.

Its object is to demoralise, confuse and subvert the German forces in the west. It has been devised as part of the RANKIN and OVERLORD plans. Its methods and purpose have been worked out in consultation with COSSAC H.Q., The Admiralty, War Office and the Air Ministry. It is the vehicle for a series of specific operations planned in con­junction with the three Fighting Services, and these supply the appropriate service intelligence.

The projection on to medium wave was approved as to policy by the Minister of Information and the Foreign Office and on the technical side by the Air Ministry and the B.B.C.

A "D" notice banning press discussion of its activities was issued in advance.

The problems to be expected from the introduction of a station of this character on the medium wave-band and from a powerful transmitter were closely examined beforehand. The impact of the transmissions during the first week has given us the first test of the reality of these problems and the B.B.C. has now given us its arguments on the ground of public interest.

These are briefly as follows:-

(i) the fundamental untruth of "CALAIS" purporting to be a German station will undermine the reputation of British propaganda for veracity.

(ii) that "CALAIS" is, in fact, operating from British soil will quickly be realised both by its German audience and by the British public,

(a) because it is putting out a programme of dance music of the type discouraged by the German authorities:

(b) because its news and comment, however factual and essentially German in origin, is of a kind which the German authorities cannot fail to regard as subversive:

(c) because it is heavily jammed and the Germans would obviously never jam their own "SOLDATENSENDER":

(d) because it cannot be a clandestine station operating from German or German-occupied territory and because a powerful medium wave transmission could never be illegally operated in either:

(e) because it interferes with the British Forces programme over an area of South-East England and therefore must be somewhere in that region.

(iii) It will, despite the "D" notice, lead to public comment and representations to local M.P.'s. The B.B.C. therefore suggests it should drop its pseudo-German character and establish itself as a British official station, distinct from the B.B.C. and sponsored, say, by the Service Departments.

The arguments for "CALAIS" are as follows:-

(i) The veracity of British official propaganda must be jealously safeguarded; the truth as broadcast by the B.B.C. and disseminated in our official leaflets has been one of the most powerful weapons of political warfare.

(ii) But the integrity of the B.B.C. as the official voice of Britain cannot be called in question on account of "CALAIS" as long as its source is a matter of conjecture and not of certainty, as long as it is officially disownable and its origin is not confirmed by British official admissions.

(iii) The Germans will, in any event, accuse the British of unscrupulous propaganda devices. They may charge us with bogus transmissions which have operated for 2 years without hitherto being officially denounced by the German authorities. The only change now is from a weak short to a strong medium wave. It remains essential that there be no official admission on our side.

(iv) "CALAIS" is a political warfare operation of military importance, and an integral part of the plans for RANKIN and OVERLORD. P.W.E. is satisfied that "CALAIS" can accelerate the demoralisation of the occupying troops. Its impact, which has disturbed the B.B.C., has, it can safely be assumed, disturbed the German military authori­ties a great deal more.

(v) Apart from its general subversive effect, "CALAIS" is the medium for certain specific operations, in accordance with military requirements. The B.B.C. cannot be used for such operations owing to the established character of its output and the standard of veracity on which its solid reputation has been built up. The B.B.C. is the propaganda equivalent of a "Fleet-in-Being"; "CALAIS" and its kind are the propaganda equivalent of marauding submarines.

(vi) "CALAIS", while admittedly a "fundamental lie", relies on a subversive use of facts, not on untruth. Its news is convincingly true; its comment is intelligent selection and presentation of facts and of intelligence derived, in the main, from Service sources.

(vii) For a station such as "CALAIS" an apparent German origin is a necessary and useful convention. That is to say, even those Germans (vide prisoners' evidence about Atlantik) who suspect its British origin will nevertheless accept its arguments because it is essentially German in its approach, in tune with their feelings and emotions as Germans and providing a psychological alibi which an avowedly enemy station does not. (It provides an actual alibi if caught listening - "We thought it was a German station"). Moreover, "CALAIS" can talk of "We Germans" while the B.B.C. must talk of "You Germans"; the first removes inhibitions, the second creates them.

(viii) In addition, the technique of "German origin" carefully evolved by long experience provides, to the satisfaction of the Services, a means of safely using and disguising intelligence by trick-methods of "scrambling" which the B.B.C. could not employ.

(ix) "CALAIS", by the convention of its origin, can agitate, e.g. incite other ranks against officers, in away which the B.B.C., the official voice, cannot do.

(x) P.W.E. must oppose the suggestion of converting "CALAIS" into a second type of British official station independent of the B.B.C. and under the Services. Even if it were practicable, it would defeat its own object. To a German the voice of the enemy C. in C. under any but immediate front line conditions would create psychological resistances which would be almost insuperable.

(xi) British home reactions have not so far been serious. Interference with the Forces programme in S.E. England is not a novelty; it happens whenever "Aspidistra" is linked with the B.B.C. European Service.

(xii) Uninitiated listeners may, for some time, accept "CALAIS" as a powerful German station. Those who know German and those who realise how heavily it is being jammed may guess that it is not as "official German" as it pretends to be and may suspect British origin. Unless their suspicions are officially confirmed, this will remain a matter of conjecture.


P.W.E. with its dual responsibility for the effective use, in political warfare, of both "white" and "black" instruments, considers:

(a) that the veracity of British official propaganda is so solidly established that there is little risk of its being affected by this "secret" operation.

(b) that, at this stage of the war, an operational station such as "CALAIS", given the wider audience amongst the German forces in the West which medium wave can provide, will help to accelerate the demoralisation of these forces and thereby assist OVERLORD.

(c) that the convention of German origin is essential in order that the psychological objective assigned to P.W.E. shall he secured. That convention so long as it is maintained remains valid even if listeners suspect the station's true origin.

(d) that "CALAIS" should be regarded as a military weapon necessary to OVERLORD and should be treated like any other military secret, the existence of which might be conjectured by, but should not be confirmed to, either the enemy or the British public.

19th November, 1943.


[Source: TNA FO 898/45, transcribed by]



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