Astrology and stickers as weapons of war
Established in 1940 to "set Europe ablaze", the Special Operations Executive (informally known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare) supported resistance movements, gathered intelligence and engaged in acts of sabotage. The organisation's reputation for producing unusual weapons such as the exploding rat, and undertaking audacious operations has spawned a wide range of books and films, both factual and fictional.
When looking through files concerning SOE operations in western Europe, digitally re-published this week as part of our Research Source resource World War Two Studies, I was struck by the sheer variety of work in which it engaged. Along with the expected documents concerning sabotage missions, arms shipments to resistance movements, armistice terms, and relations with other intelligence agencies (and also missions named after a surprising array of vegetables) are files on the distribution of a wide range of propaganda materials.
SOE worked closely with the Political Warfare Executive, another covert British organisation, and the files concerning cooperation between the two agencies contain some interesting insights into SOEâs role in disseminating PWEâs creations, aimed at undermining enemy morale. An unsigned memorandum from July 1942, for example, records the following:
âI rather think I omitted to give you specific details about the Astrology booklet when I talked with you yesterdayâŠ it should get into the hands of specific types of people in Germany, such as the people who are known to be interested in âwhat the stars foretellââ.
Another unsigned memorandum, dated 12 May 1943, discusses the distribution of a sneakily subversive German-language work, which (to the surprise of its creators at the PWE) had reached Norway:
âAs you will see, it purports to be a quick guide to French but in reality, after the first few pages, it degenerates into the extremely subtle dictionary of malingering to avoid active service, etc.â
And a report from Lt Col Dolby concerning news from Greece, dated October 1944, announces:
âA sticker âEs kommt der Tagâ was on the back of Gen Lanzâs car for two days.
âThe Abwehr Gruppe is endeavouring to track down the propagandistsâ.
This particular sticker produced by the PWE, and declaring in German that âthe day will comeâ, featured a swastika swinging from a gallows; exactly how it went unnoticed for so long is not mentioned.
Unusual as this work may sound, it had a serious point: âhearts and mindsâ play an important role in conflicts. SOE was not only dedicated to âblowing things upâ - an aspect of its work which one SOE operative, David Smiley (who took the photograph shown above), admitted to enjoying.