Astrology and stickers as weapons of war

17 January 2020

History | War and Conflict

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.

Xhelal Staravecke shaking hands with Major Billy McLean at Shtylla
Xhelal Staravecke shaking hands with Major Billy McLean of SOE at Shtylla. Public domain, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

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 SOE’s role in disseminating PWE’s creations, aimed at undermining enemy morale. An unsigned memorandum from July 1942, for example, records the following:

‘I rather think I omitted to give you specific details about the Astrology booklet when I talked with you yesterday… it should get into the hands of specific types of people in Germany, such as the people who are known to be interested in “what the stars foretell”’.

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:

‘As 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.’

And a report from Lt Col Dolby concerning news from Greece, dated October 1944, announces:

‘A sticker ‘Es kommt der Tag’ was on the back of Gen Lanz’s car for two days.

‘The Abwehr Gruppe is endeavouring to track down the propagandists’.

This particular sticker produced by the PWE, and declaring in German that ‘the day will come’, 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: “hearts and minds” play an important role in conflicts. SOE was not only dedicated to “blowing things up” - an aspect of its work which one SOE operative, David Smiley (who took the photograph shown above), admitted to enjoying.

Records of SOE’s operations in Western Europe and the Balkans can be explored in World War Two Studies, along with other collections including Winston Churchill’s cabinet papers concerning defence and operational subjects, the diaries of US Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, and the papers of General Robert L. Eichelberger, second in command to General Douglas MacArthur. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Matt Brand

Matt Brand

I joined Adam Matthew Digital in the autumn of 2016. My main academic interests are British politics and diplomacy during the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in relation to refugees and asylum.

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