II Formation and Functions of the British Political Warfare Executive

The Political Warfare Executive was not formally established until September 1941,3 but was not without precedent. The Department of Enemy Propaganda, although disbanded in 1918, had been responsible for dropping leaflets over German lines in the final year of World War I.4 With the end of the war, a propaganda arm of government was no longer seen to be needed.

By the late 1930s, concern over the development of a dictatorship in Germany renewed interest in using radio and print to attempt to undermine Hitler’s influence. BBC had begun foreign language broadcasting by 1938, there were plans to establish a Ministry of Information, and a unit known as Section D in MI6 had been formed.5

By 1940, a branch of the Special Operations Executive (SO1) was added to the mix, and eventually there was a need to combine all the work of these organizations under one roof. Broadly, two types of propaganda resulted: “white” or overt messaging (such as that produced by the BBC) and “black” or covert propaganda which did not identify itself, and even misrepresented what it was and where it originated. The former was put under the control of Richard Crossman,6 the latter under Sefton Delmer.

With a background in Classics and Philosophy, Crossman’s approach to psychological warfare was from the point of view of human nature. He believed that National Socialism fired the imagination of youth and appealed to the need of young people to belong, to see themselves as part of a gang.7 His longer term aim seems to have been to build trust among enemy listeners, an effort requiring an understanding and even empathy for the people of an enemy country. Crossman became increasingly more frustrated with political interference in how public instruments like the BBC were used. His longer term goal was still to build trust among the German listening public in hopes of improving relations once the war was over.8  

By contrast, Delmer, the son of Australian parents and born in Germany, used his fluency in German and his familiarity with German culture to create entirely fictitious broadcasts such as GS1 (Gustav Siegfried Eins) to give the impression of a radio transmitting to Germans from within their own country. A reporter by profession, he had met Hitler and several of his ministers at the time of their election in 1932, and was for a time believed to be a Nazi sympathizer. However, his unique knowledge of German language and culture gave him unique skills in his role, starting in September 1940, organizing “black” propaganda aimed at Germany.9


A specific target of psychological warfare was the German U-Boot service. The focus was on its inherent danger and the poor odds of survival. Leaflets such as this one told prospective volunteers of a projected life of a mere sixty-two days, becoming shorter as the war progressed.   The “lucky dogs” were said to be those who survived to become POWs.

“Volunteers for the U-boat Arms!”   Produced by PWE 1942.

(Courtesy of http://hesse-auktionen.de/488-alliierte-propaganda-neun-englische-flugblaetter-und-tarnschriften

Another leaflet was a cartoon version of a sailor’s life, from when he chooses to volunteer to when his girl gets a telegram telling her of his death.

One section of the clandestine radio arm, the “Atlantiksender”, was directed specifically at U-boat crews. The female announcer used intercepted mail intended for German POWs to craft a dialogue which would appeal to men far from home and women in their lives. The tone was patriotic and culturally what they would expect, the message was not.10

By 1942 the technical quality of printed material had improved considerably. Photogravure printing allowed the use of colour and reproduction of photos.  Size and shape were varied, and one campaign involved leaf-shaped flyers that were similar to a leaflet drop Germany had used against French troops in 1939.11

The item below was a play on Hitler’s promise to Germany in February of 1941 that victory over Russia was imminent. By 1942, it was obviously not so.12

‘ I feel so fresh – Spring is coming’ – Adlof Htiler, 24.2.41. Allied propaganda leaflet used in 1942.
(Courtesy of ww2today.com)

Towards the later part of the war, propaganda focused on creating the impression of a resistance movement within Germany itself. With the defeat of the Axis countries in North Africa in 1943, the message of coming defeat elsewhere became prominent. Although PWE continued to produce leaflets through 1944, the focus had shifted to aerial propaganda to support the D-day invasion, and production of material was taken over largely by the Psychological Warfare Division.13

III Secrecy of Public Records after WWII

In 1958 the United Kingdom government passed the Public Records Act, which created the Public Records Office (later to become the National Archives) and set rules for how and when information in records could be released.   This is the origin of the so-called “thirty year rule”. Records of all government dealings were to be sent for archiving after thirty years; such records were not accessible to the general public for another twenty years. This system in various forms was adopted by British Commonwealth countries, as well as Israel. Germany had similar restrictions.

It was realized that the methods used in black propaganda might not be broadly accepted by the public of a democratic country, mirroring as they did the “end justifying the means” strategy used by the enemy. The Political Warfare Executive was shut down as soon as the war ended under the same belief as at the end of the previous war, that it was no longer needed. That again proved to be an illusion, and by 1948 the Information Research Department was created to perform much the same functions in the Cold War.1


(Banner image courtesy of www.psywar.org:  “Harbinger of Freedom”, Sept. 1943, directed to Berlgium)


3 Richards, Lee. The Day is Coming! British Aerial Propaganda to Germany 1940-44, by author, 1996-2003, p.4

4 Taylor, Philip M., ed. Allied Propaganda in World War II: The Complete Record of the Political Warfare Executive (FO 898), 2005, p.7

5Taylor, ibid., p.7

6 Burchell, Andrew. Crossman and Psychological Warfare, published by author, 2012 (unpaged).

7 Burchell, ibid.

8 Burchell, ibid.

9 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sefton_Delmer

10 Taylor, op cit., p.10

11 Richards, op cit., p.6

12 Richards, ibid., p.7

13 Richards, ibid., p.11

14 Taylor, op cit., p12



http://www.dhm.de/lemo/kapitel/erster-weltkrieg/propaganda 26 Jan 2018

https://www.psywar.org/seftondelmer. 28 January 2018

http:// www.verzetsmuseum.org   26 January 2018

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airborne_leaflet_propaganda   1 February 2018

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_propaganda 1 Frebruary 2018

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sefton_Delmer 2 February 2018

Burchell, Andrew. Crossman and Psychological Warfare, published by author at https://warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/explorefurther/digital/crossman/urss/shaef/ , 2012.

Demm, Eberhard. Propaganda at Home and Abroad, 7 June 2017. Published by author at https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/pdf/1914-1918, downloaded 2 February 2018

Richards, Lee. The Day is Coming! British Aerial Propaganda to Germany 1940-44, published at www.psywar.org by author, 1996-2003

Rowen, Robert. Gray and Black Radio Propaganda Against Nazi Germany, New York Military Affairs Symposium, 2003

Taylor, Philip M., ed. Allied Propaganda in World War II: The Complete Record of the Political Warfare Executive (FO 898), Primary Source Microfilm and the UK National Archives, 2005.

Wortman, Marc. The Fake British Radio Show that Helped Defeat the Nazis, published at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history, 28 February 2017