Tim Brooks. British Propaganda to France, 1940-1944: Machinery, Method and Message. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 224 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7486-2519-2.
Reviewed by Martin Moore
Published on H-Albion (November, 2008)
Commissioned by Mark Hampton (Lingnan University)
Delivering the Message Is Half the Battle
It is natural that governments should use propaganda against the enemy during wartime. It is equally natural that governments, modern governments especially, should use propaganda on their domestic populations to raise morale, and to justify and sustain the legitimacy of the war effort.
Yet the efficacy of both has always been in doubt. There is good reason to think that propaganda will have little or no impact on your enemy--not least because he is your enemy. Michael Balfour's book, Propaganda in War, 1939-45: Organisations, Policies and Publics in Britain and Germany (1979), details German propaganda towards Britain and vice versa but concludes that "German propaganda to Britain had little practical effect" and that Germany's defeat "lay in the fields of strategy and politics, not of propaganda" . Similarly, there is limited evidence that propaganda aimed at your own people has any substantial effect. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence in Ian McLaine's engrossing book Ministry of Morale (1979) is the chronological graph charting levels of morale amongst the British people over the course of World War II. Looking at it one is left with the overwhelming impression that morale was linked almost entirely to the success of the war effort of the Allies on the ground. Propaganda, if it had any impression at all, could only enhance attitudes, not change them.
How much more interesting, then, to study the impact of propaganda on people whose minds are not made up, for example, the impact of British propaganda on the United States prior to its entry to World War I. Charles Masterman and his team of writers and artists at Wellington House sought to persuade Americans of the malignity of German motivations and methods in order to convince the United States to join the British war effort. The supposed success of this propaganda subsequently became infamous and fostered American sympathy for Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.
Propaganda aimed at occupied France in World War II is another excellent subject of analysis. As an enemy of Germany quickly overrun, one would expect France's population to be willing recipients of Allied propaganda. But, at the same time, as a willing collaborator with the Nazis under Marshall Pétain and as the victim of British bombs and raids, one might expect them to be sceptical of British rhetoric. To complicate matters further, for much of the war France was split in two (one half occupied, one half not), making the effect of propaganda that much more difficult to predict.
Tim Brooks explores this in his book, British Propaganda to France, 1940-1944: Machinery, Method and Message. Brooks carefully charts the need for propaganda to France, examines how the machinery of government was set up to produce it, how it was distributed, what was said, and what impact it had. As such, the book provides a valuable addition to our understanding of the use of propaganda during World War II.
Some of the figures Brooks provides are quite startling. Between 1940 and 1944 Britain dropped 676 million leaflets over France (p. 42). If each leaflet was read by one hundred people (this is the figure estimated by contemporaries, although it sounds rather optimistic), then during this period every French person would have seen about sixteen hundred leaflets. And leaflets were certainly not the only method of propaganda used. In 1941, for example, the British secret services spread approximately two thousand rumors across France--or "sibs" as they were then known (p.153). Some of these were absurd, such as "that Great Britain had imported man-eating sharks into the channel as an invasion counter measure" (p. 25), others more credible, such as that two veterans had tried to kill Pierre Laval. Indeed this one was even picked up subsequently by the New York Post (p. 153).
Brooks first takes us through the tortuous process of setting up the propaganda machinery. As with other areas of British government at the start of the war, this was characterized by a lengthy period of jostling and politicking. Brooks describes the formation and subsequent dissolution of the various departments, their multiple--and often contradictory--lines of command, and their subsequent rivalries. Though a necessary prelude to the subsequent analysis, it is hard to follow the metamorphoses of bureaucracies, particularly given the endless acronyms contemporaries were so fond of--most notably SOE, SO1, PID, PWE, MOI, and MEW. Even as a contemporary participant it must have been hard to follow, and is nigh on impossible as a subsequent observer.
But then the author moves onto the methods by which propaganda was disseminated. Here he successfully shows that no matter how brilliant the Allies' persuasive techniques, they were ineffective if they did not reach their intended recipients. He illustrates this by detailing the actual process by which pamphlets and news sheets were sent, and how radio broadcasts were transmitted and received.
Leaflets, for example, needed to be carried by plane over France and then scattered evenly over populated areas. Yet even getting them out of the plane could prove extremely difficult, as Brooks describes (from Bruce Lockhart):
"Perhaps half a ton of leaflets, equivalent in weight to more than 200 reams of modern A4 paper, were fed through an aircraft's flare tube by hand, often by the gunners or the flight engineer, usually at more than 12,000 feet above sea level. The leaflets were secured in bundles of 750-1,000, which would scatter once the slipstream broke the string or rubber band holding them together. The limitations of the primitive equipment carried meant this had to be done without additional oxygen to compensate for the thin atmosphere. It was therefore physically exhausting. More significantly, the gunner's involvement left the aircraft partly defenceless" (quoted, p. 38).
Not surprisingly, many did not find their way to their destination. Indeed, "nickelling" (the slang term for disseminating leaflets) was not regarded as a high priority by the RAF and many bundles never reached their target, either because they were dumped too early or because they sat on the ground too long and passed their sell-by date. Out of a total of eighty-nine départements in France, at least thirty-six, Brooks notes, remained largely untouched by leafleting.
But where pamphlets relied on a reluctant RAF, the BBC could be broadcast across the airwaves (though one still had to rely on people having access to radios of course). By September 1944 the BBC was broadcasting almost forty-four hours a week to France, most regularly through flagship programs like Les Français Parlent Aux Français. For long periods these broadcasts were chiefly to promote morale, particularly through news. But as the war went on the broadcasts became increasingly useful as calls to action.
The BBC came into its own late in the war with the communication of signals for the resistance. Messages were read out to mobilize specific groups using personal coded messages--known, Brooks says, as "iodoforms." In 1944, for D-Day, these included statements such as "We are going to Paris to see the fireworks" which primed the resistance to attack railway lines, and "Flowers are words of love" to spark the disruption of communications (p. 100).
Throughout the book Brooks notes how difficult it is to assess the impact of propaganda. It was ever thus. Did leaflets reach people? If so, did people read them? If they read them, then what effect did they have? None of these questions is easy to answer.
Still, there are some excellent--and colorful--indications that propaganda did have an effect. The leaflets were so popular that in some areas they were used as barter for cigarettes, and other people assiduously collected them like philately (indeed there is still a pamphlet collecting society--which provides Brooks with an enviable source of primary evidence). Moreover the Germans were concerned enough to try to counter and subvert the propaganda. They (or the Vichy authorities) went so far as to forge certain popular leaflets like Le Courrier de l'Air (p. 117). Though according to one recipient the "clumsiness and inaccuracy of these" was "astonishing," even the paper used being quite different. Less effective was the PWE's fake stamp, on which they put a picture of Himmler, to give the impression he was trying to overthrow Hitler. The ruse was far too sophisticated and most people just used the fake stamps as actual stamps (p. 24).
At the end Brooks himself is probably too modest about the impact of propaganda. He suggests that even if it did not make a contribution as a "persuasive force," it was useful for its "nuisance value, or its pretext for other activities, whether directly assisting the Allied cause or encouraging a German or Vichy reaction that was indirectly beneficial" (pp. 161-162). In addition to which it was relatively cheap.
Yet Brooks's careful collection of print and broadcast evidence tells a different story. It shows how the production of propaganda gradually improved with practice and how delivering the message successfully was half the battle. If it is not able to assess the exact impact it had that is because we never are.
 Michael Balfour, Propaganda in war, 1939-1945 : Organisations, Policies and Publics in Britain and Germany (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 438.
. Respectively, Special Operations Executive; SOE Propaganda Section (as opposed to SO2, the SOE Sabotage Section); Political Information Department; Political Warfare Executive; Ministry of Information; and Ministry of Economic Warfare.
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Martin Moore. Review of Brooks, Tim, British Propaganda to France, 1940-1944: Machinery, Method and Message.
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