Sex, lies and man-eating sharks: British deception in WWII

All war is deception. Sun Tsu

In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies. Stalin

Who in war will not have his laugh amid the skulls? Winston Churchill


In an 1865 speech inOakland,California, Rev. W. B. Brown ofNew Jerseyquipped that the reason the sun never set upon the Empire was that God did not trust the British in the dark. If we examine military history, the Almighty may well have been right to be wary of the British. The First World War had seen a number of ruses for fooling the enemy – camouflage, snipers hidden in fake trees, booby-trapped corpses and so on.  But it was in the Second World War, with the enthusiastic backing of Winston Churchill, when secret army of deceivers elevated duplicity to an art form. Military men are not generally known for thinking outside the box, so they received help from a talented group of scientists, artists, novelists and even a circus owner. They operated with a mixture of ruthlessness, naiveté, incompetence and British eccentricity.

The principal organisation responsible for this strategy was the Political Warfare Executive (PWE). This cloak-and-dagger outfit, which was accountable to the Foreign Office, was set up in 1941. Its main headquarters was at Woburn Abbey withLondonoffices located at the BBC’s Bush House. The organisation was governed by a committee which included such political luminaries as Anthony Eden, Brendan Bracken and Hugh Dalton. Its staff was drawn from the Ministry of Information, the propaganda elements of the Special Operations Executive, and the BBC.

These professional liars had to produce and disseminate both white and black propaganda, with the aim of damaging enemy morale. Black propaganda, which is associated with covert psychological operations, is false information and material that purports to be from a source on one side of a conflict, but is actually from the opposing side. On the other hand, in white propaganda there is no attempt to hide the origin. They employed two main propaganda weapons. One was radio – the PWE created a number of clandestine radio stations to broadcast to the enemy. Aspidistra was a British radio station used for black propaganda. When a targeted transmitter switched off, Aspidistra began transmitting on its frequency, initially retransmitting the German network broadcast as received from a station that was still functioning. German listeners would think that the original station was still broadcasting. Then the Aspidistra operators would start inserting demoralising false content and pro-Allied propaganda into the broadcast. This kind of access to German ears was an in invaluable tool. The second weapon was the printing press. Along with their American counterparts, the Office of War Information (OWI), they dropped some 250 million leaflets over Nazi Germany. They were also involved in forging banknotes and ration cards. They also engaged in more bizarre operations. When the Germans were preparing Operation Sea Lion, the plan to invade theUnited Kingdom, they spread rumours that the British had imported 200 man-eating sharks to defend the British coastline.

There were many remarkable wartime characters. One who immediately springs to mind was a conjuror called Jasper Maskelyne. This magician and inventor founded the Magic Gang, a secret group whose aim was to use artifice to fool the enemy. His most grandiose illusion was concealing Alexandria from German bombers. He built a mock-up of the city of the three miles away with fake buildings, lighthouse, anti-aircraft batteries and night-lights. He deployed giant revolving mirrors to hide the Suez Canal. He wanted to dazzle and disorient enemy pilots so that their bombs would fall off-target. The Magic Gang also built fake submarines, trucks and planes. Before the Battle of El Alamein the allies wanted to make German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel think that the attack was coming from the south when British General Bernard Montgomery was actually going to attack from the north. In the south they made 2,000 fake tanks with convincing pyrotechnics. But they didn’t limit themselves to tanks. Just about everything else was faked too: including a railway line and a water pipeline, creating the impression that it would never be ready before the attack. Meanwhile in the north, 1,000 tanks were disguised as trucks. According to my military source, aka Nicholas Gomez, Maskelyne’s contribution to the victory atEl Alamein was decisive. Alas, the story has a sad ending. The Magic Gang was disbanded after the battle and, although he received plaudits from Winston Churchill, he never received the official recognition he felt he was entitled to. He made an unsuccessful attempt to resurrect his stage career, but he died an embittered alcoholic.

Another larger-than-life character was Charles Fraser-Smith who was to become the Inspiration for the Ian Fleming creation Q. He was officially a civil servant working for the Ministry of Supply’s Clothing and Textile Department. In reality, he developed and supplied gadgets and other equipment for section XV ofBritain’s World War II intelligence organization, the Special Operations Executive. His first order was to counterfeit Spanish Army uniforms for a proposed SOE plan to infiltrate agents into neutral Spain to try to stop it entering the war on the Axis side. He graduated from this to sophisticated gadgetry including miniature cameras inside cigarette lighters, steel shoelaces that doubled as garrottes, shaving brushes containing film, and an asbestos-lined pipe for carrying secret documents. However, his greatest contribution to the war effort was surely garlic-flavoured chocolate, which secret agents could chew while parachuting into occupiedFranceto ensure their breath smelt convincingly French on arrival.

My final character is Sefton Delmer, who described himself as His Majesty’s Pornographer. The tabloid journalist had actually been born inBerlin. He believed that there could be no holds barred in this struggle. For Delmer there was no Geneva Convention in black propaganda. Everything was permissible:

We are waging against Hitler a kind of total war of wits. Anything goes, so long as it serves to bring nearer the end of the war and Hitler’s defeat. If you are at all squeamish about what you may be called upon to do against your own countrymen you must say so now. I shall understand it. In that case, however, you will be no good to us and no doubt some other job will be found for you. But if you feel like joining me, I must warn you that in my unit we are up to all the dirty tricks we can devise. No holds are barred. The dirtier the better. Lies treachery, everything.

His strategy could be summed up in one word – sex. The Nazis had already used this tactic successfully. Now he was going to beat them at their own game. He spread fantasies of rape, perversion, and sex. As a journalist covering the fighting inFrance, Delmer had had a revelation. He noticed that troops would immediately throw away enemy propaganda. But the pornographic stuff was kept, re-read, and passed from man to man. Delmer decided to use leaflets and radio. He created a fictitious character known as Der Chef, a proud, highly patriotic Prussian officer. He would undermine Hitler not by opposing him, but by pretending to be a fervent supporter of the Fuehrer and his war. However he would slag off the SS. Delmer set out to portray the SS as depraved, corrupt and only interested in themselves.  It was classic divide and rule.

Sex became the way to keep the Germans hooked. Here is an example of this kind of titillation:

And now some information about the swinish, filthy tricks the enemy are using to try and extract information from our boys in the Luftwaffe who have been unlucky enough to be shot down and captured. When the usual methods of interrogation fail, some of our airmen have been stripped naked and tied to the floor in a gymnasium at the interrogation centre. While they are in this humiliating position, a young and beautiful woman is sent into the room. Our reports say that invariably the woman has long hair. This young woman who is only partially dressed. But that sort of thing people weren’t used to it. So one comrade would say to the other – unbelievable have you heard this thing on the air, there is someone telling absolutely 100 per cent dirty and funny dirty stories. She then positions herself on a gymnastic bar above the prisoner. She then swings herself over the bar and lets down her long hair and then she trails her soft hair back and forward, back and forward, over the naked bodies of our young airmen. After some minutes of this some prisoners will babble anything.

Delmer wanted the German soldiers to feel that while they were on the front wives and daughters were being raped. He played the race card playing on the German ideas of racial purity to create a psychosis:

Today there are more than ten million sexed-up, randy foreigners in all parts of the country. And your wives feel lonely. Throw the Foreign workers out. End the war.

Delmer’s methods were not to everyone’s liking. On hearing a leaked account of one propaganda story, an orgy involving a German admiral, his mistress, four sailors and a helmet, Sir Stafford Cripps, the Lord Privy Seal was furious. He approached Anthony Eden demanding that these broadcasts be stopped. He felt that this “beastly pornography” was contrary to everything thatBritain was fighting for. He went on to say:

If this is the sort of thing that is needed to win the war, why I’d rather lose it.”  I beg to differ.

Delmer’s war of sex propaganda cost him the love of his life Isabelle Nicholas., aLondonartist who was a friend of Picasso. She left him just before D-Day. She couldn’t face living with this man any more. Looking back Delmer felt ambivalent about what he had done. He talked about looking into the mirror and feeling like Dorian Gray seeing his moral degeneration reflected.

This post has turned out different to what I had originally envisaged. This is the beauty of the internet – it takes you in directions you hadn’t thought of. I had thought about talking about those eccentric British. But I then discovered the story of Sefton Delmer. I guess that in the big scheme of things these deceptions are not so important. Nevertheless, they are fascinating stories in their own right. And these men and women did play their part in defeating Hitler.

2 Responses to Sex, lies and man-eating sharks: British deception in WWII

  1. Jerry says:

    Interesting post- but I doubt that Sefton Delmer really said “no holes barred”- no, maybe he did…

  2. molivam42 says:

    I hsve now corrected it, but maybe the original was better.

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