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#WavellReviews How to win an Information War

How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler by Peter Pomerantsev is available from Faber & Faber. A copy was provided to the reviewer.

As King George VI and his wife Elizabeth – the future Queen Mother – visited Britain’s Political Warfare Executive in its secret Bedfordshire HQ in November 1941, they were introduced to what was described as a “secret army” working to destabilise Nazi-occupied Europe.

The head of the French service, a “Colonel Sutton”, outlined a series of radio channels to build resistance, targeting separate sections of society from left-wing trade unionists to conservative Roman Catholics. The Norwegian service outlined their encouragement of petty acts to frustrate and make life difficult for the Nazis, from telephone operators routing calls to the wrong number to chambermaids giving German soldiers leaking hot water bottles when they stayed in hotels.

The Italian service outlined its “passionate antifascist rhetoric”, while the station aimed at Croatia was described as “frankly murderous” in exhorting its audiences to take direct and lethal action.

All of the briefings were earnest and robustly factual. Then the head of the German section Sefton Delmer stepped forward, a bearded, larger-than-life former Berlin correspondent for London’s Daily Express. In an exaggerated German accent, he began an impersonation of what he said had been conversation between a British diplomat and a German official recorded in neutral Stockholm.

The German, Delmer claimed, had mocked his UK counterpart by claiming the British were so poor at propaganda that their efforts to undermine Hitler within Germany were being outstripped by a genuine home-grown German anti-Hitler resistance station, Gustav Siegfried One.

Ostensibly run by nationalist, militarist and often highly racist German officer types – led by a Prussian known only as “Le Chef” – the station broadcast a relentless stream of salacious and often highly sexualised gossip suggesting Hitler, the Nazis and SS were leading Germany to disaster.

In fact, Delmer told the Royal visitors, the entire station was being run from Bedfordshire, a British government black propaganda effort to spread discontent and rumour.

In “How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler”, Peter Pomerantzev traces the improbable story of Delmer from his childhood, journalistic career and government work during World War II. It is a fast-moving, entertaining read, intermingled with the author’s observations of more current confrontations following the invasion of Ukraine.

Pomerantzev’s two previous books “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible” and “This is Not Propaganda” concentrated mostly on the modern era. Going back to World War II gives him a different kind of story – but one equally relevant to today’s UK military and government as it faces a world of mounting “hybrid” confrontation and the threat of wider great power conflict.

Delmer – who grew up in Germany prior to World War I and whose family were trapped there for the first two years of that conflict – was just one of multiple eccentric figures dominating British unconventional warfare between 1939 and 1945.

Others, including former Reuters correspondent and investment banker Ian Fleming – promoted swiftly to lieutenant commander and executive assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence – also have walk-on roles in “How to Win an Information War”. Fleming delivered titbits of insight to support Delmer’s propaganda efforts, such as the football scores from matches between U-boat crews to give credibility to a supposing German military station, while Nicholas Shakespeare’s How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler indicates he was simultaneously using his former Reuters contacts to run a sophisticated RN global information-gathering effort.

Their stories point to some of the challenges of the present era: how to get the right people into the right roles, give them the necessary and appropriate permissions, freedoms, constraints and direction alongside the necessary feedback loops to tell whether they are having an effect.

The lessons for today

The modern British military mainstream might still react with horror to the rapid promotion received by Fleming, and could well have relegated Delmer to a role as some kind of specialist “adviser”. Even in the 1940s, putting the eccentric Delmer in uniform appears to have been seen a step too far – he was still broadcasting weekly into Germany under his own name on the BBC, while running clandestine propaganda operations as a civilian behind-the-scenes.

That such a venture was possible at all speaks the dramatic breaking down of traditional silos between the military, Foreign Office and other partners – something arguably easier against the backdrop of total war of the sort experienced by Britain from 1939 and Ukraine from 2022.

Giving Delmer a job at all was clearly a risk judgement – as Express correspondent in Germany in the 1930s, he had ingratiated himself with both Hitler and other leading Nazis, and there were plenty of former colleagues who still accused him of having sympathies with the enemy. Once at the Political Warfare Executive, however, he appears to have pursued his part with relish.

As well as using German émigrés – many of them Jewish – to deliver credibility and relevance, British broadcasts into occupied Europe were able to use almost real-time intelligence and constant feedback, including interviews with and secret conversations between captured German prisoners.

In the early years of the war, these revealed that Gustav Siegfried One was being widely listened to, and also tracked the gradual popular realisation that it was likely a British propaganda station. Later, they showed Delmer and his team were having the greatest success with stations that ostensibly claimed to be German broadcasting to troops and U-boat crews which mixed genuine German news and music and authentic Nazi speeches with negative – or accurate – stories about the war.

Those broadcasts, tapped conversations showed, allowed ordinary Germans to access what they secretly knew were Allied broadcasts while offering the “plausible deniability” to claim if caught listening that they believed they were listening to an official channel.

For all that, the book perhaps sensibly sidesteps the question of to what effect such Allied propaganda truly undermined the genuine will to fight – it remains striking how long and hard Nazi Germany continued to resist through 1944 and 1945 even as defeat became inevitable.

Why we recommend this book

Despite its title, “How to Win an Information War” focuses almost exclusively on one front of that confrontation – the British effort to target radio listeners within Germany itself. Like Ukraine’s current and mostly secret efforts to influence audiences within Russia – occasionally visible when TV stations or websites are hacked and otherwise brought down – that is just one part of a much larger conflict whose outcome will inevitably prove more determined by industrial and military strength.

As a study of that campaign, however – and the personalities, structures and ideas behind it – this book neatly achieves its goals, while knitting in plenty of relevance to the modern world. Those involved in current information operations are likely to find plenty of vignettes to ponder on. Those who must understand information operations as part of their wider roles will find it a good primer.

Indeed, as we move back into a new era of great power confrontation, this book reminds us that we might look back on World War II in a new light for more tangible, practical lessons – including when it comes to personnel and structures.

Reading and praising histories of World War II sits firmly within the comfort zone of modern British military and government leaders. The real question may be whether that will be enough to learn the necessary lessons for whatever confrontations may be around the corner.

The Wavell Room Team

The Wavell Room Team are a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who believe strongly in constructive debate, discussion and openness in order to arrive at a sound, non-bias and informed position on many subjects.  The team are all volunteers and support this non-profit in their own time.

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