With the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1939, Great Britain's military leaders were well aware that the war with Nazi Germany couldn't be won by force of arms alone. Even as British troops were gearing up for what would prove to be a long and exhausting war, Britain's semi-clandestine Political Warfare Executive (PWE) mobilized to fight the enemy using the power of propaganda. This propaganda war was fought on two separate fronts: white propaganda (the most common kind) and the much more secret black propaganda campaign intended to destabilize the Axis war effort.
Along with regular broadcasts to bolster the morale of Allied troops, the PWE would maintain a network of secret radio stations across occupied Europe bringing news broadcasts to counteract the Nazi propaganda broadcasts and provide hope for people in occupied territories. Interviews with escaped prisoners of war and German refugees were combined with information on Allied bombing raids to bolster flagging morale. That many of these broadcasts also contained black propaganda messages intended to weaken German resolve was part of the overall PWE strategy.
To ensure their black propaganda had the desired impact, the PWE recruited British journalist Sefton Delmer to take charge of their psychological warfare campaign against Hitler. Born in Berlin, Germany in 1904, Denis Sefton Delmer was the son of a professor of English literature at Berlin University and grew up fluent in both English and German. Interned along with his family during World War I, he eventually returned to Great Britain and became a journalist.
As the head of the Daily Express' Berlin bureau, it was Delmer who became the first British journalist to interview Adolf Hitler. During the 1932 general election in Germany, he even traveled with Hitler in his private plane and reported on the Nazi election campaign. Ironically, Delmer's attempt at even-handed coverage of the election raised suspicion back home that he was really a Nazi sympathizer (while his German hosts suspected him of being a British intelligence agent). Despite his Jewish heritage, Sefton Delmer reported on many of the biggest stories that came out of Hitler's Germany. What he experienced covering the Nazi invasions of Poland and France would prove invaluable for his later propaganda work during World War II.
By 1940, Sefton Delmer was the voice of the BBC’s German service and his controversial commentary, often without any permission by his superiors, caused consternation for German and Allied politicians alike (Joseph Goebbels was one of his listeners). Later that same year, Delmer was recruited by the PWE to organize a series of black propaganda broadcasts designed to damage German morale. While "black propaganda" wasn't actually used as a term at the time (Delmer would later claim to have been one of the first to call it that), the Allied command was perfectly aware of what the Nazis had managed to accomplish with their Big Lie policies.
The power of radio had already been demonstrated by the Nazis in their successful invasion of Poland. Hitler had justified the invasion through the Gleiwitz incident in which Polish troops had purportedly seized a German radio station (but the entire incident had actually been staged by German troops). By taking control of radio stations in occupied countries, the Nazis were able to turn them into propaganda machines to maintain their grip on power.
Putting together a team of German-speaking journalists and intelligence agents, Sefton Delmer was soon operating what would be one of the most audacious black propaganda campaigns of the Second World War. Using short-wave frequencies which could not be easily jammed by the Nazis, British Intelligence ran a number of "Freedom Radios", i.e., radio stations that appeared to be operating in occupied Europe using special transmitters. It would be the job of Delmer and his team to run a series of radio broadcasts in German intended to undermine morale and counter the propaganda efforts of the Nazi high command. As Sefton Delmer would later mention in his autobiography, he was assured hy his superiors on being first given this job that there would be "no holds barred" in what he was allowed to do. In the years that followed, he would take them at their word.
In setting up his operation, Delmer proposed a rather different approach to getting his message across. Quoting Hitler himself who once told him that "there is an inner pigdog in every man," Delmer suggested that "we must appeal to the inner pigdog inside every German in the name of his highest patriotic ideals." He went on to say that:
"Give him a patriotic reason for doing what he would like to do from self-interest, talk to him about his Fuhrer and his Fatherland and all that sort of thing, and at the same time inject some item of news into his mind which will make him think and, if possible, act in a way that is contrary to the efficient conduct of Hitler's war."
By creating popular programming that seemed to be run by enthusiastic supporters of Hitler's war effort, Delmer and his team would be able to insert whatever covert propaganda messages his higher-ups would want. Given the secret nature of what they were doing, the entire operation would be run out of a discreet red-brick house in the Bedfordshire village of Aspley Guise. This house would also be where Delmer, his wife Isabel, and the entire team would live full-time as they ran their broadcasts.
Their initial effort was titled Gustav Siegfried Eins which went on the air for the first time on May 23, 1941. Since it could only be heard on short-wave radio, Delmer and his team knew that few Germans would even be aware of it at first and they relied on word-of-mouth to generate a real audience for their program. Part of the show's appeal came from a German-speaking announcer who only identified himself as “Der Chef”, a curmudgeonly Nazi supporter who bashed politicians on both sides of the conflict. The actual announcer was a corporal in the Pioneer Corps who had worked as a bomb disposal expert and a commando before joining Delmer's team. He was joined in the broadcasts by a German refugee, Johannes Reinholz, who had fled Germany with his Jewish wife and had been in a refugee camp before being allowed to join Delmer's team.
Given the mystery surrounding "Der Chef" and the location of his transmitter, some outrageous theories sprang up among German fans of the broadcasts. One story suggested that the clandestine station was being operated from a barge on the River Spree while other rumours had "Der Chef" dodging from hideout to hideout, one step behind Hitler's military police. This image of a heroic German risking arrest to keep broadcasting helped add to his appeal for listeners. As Delmer ruefully pointed out in his memoirs, the reality was very different.
Along with broadcasts from Der Chef, Delmer’s team also inserted rumours of anti-Nazi activists who had formed resistance groups to sabotage the war effort. One of these mythical groups was known as the “Red Circle” (because of the red circle marked on the information pamphlets they were supposedly handing out). It was groups like the Red Circle that were said to leaking lists of the different streets that had come under intense Allied bombing and Delmer’s people were conveniently including this information in their radio broadcasts.
The Gestapo, desperate to track down the enemy agents and saboteurs who were leaking these scarily accurate lists to the Allies, launched an investigation that quickly degenerated into a witch hunt since no trace of the Red Circle or other groups could be found. In reality, Delmer and his team had simply used the aerial photographs and testimony provided by bomber crews to put the lists together. But countless Germans were interrogated to find this network of enemy agents supposedly at work undermining the Nazi cause
But that was just one of the ruses put out by Sefton Delmer’s team. They had countless others as well.
To be continued