Psychological Warfare

by Sgt Bill Davidson

England — The Fortresses were taking off for one of the first big daylight raids over Berlin. Most of them lumbered down the runway for a long take-off and climbed slowly into formation with their heavy bomb loads. But once in a while a Fort would go down the runway swiftly and become airborne sooner than the others. It would climb faster and take a key defensive position in the formation.

Inside, this Fort was different from the others. Instead of bombs, it carried tight, heavy packages, designed to open when they were released through the bomb-bay doors. This was a leaflet plane, one of the newsboys of the Air Forces.

The leaflet planes went in over Berlin with the bombers, released their hundreds of thousands of paper bullets, shot down a respectable number of enemy fighters in the bargain and came back. The special Forts were heavily armed and gave good accounts of themselves in battle, but more than one leaflet pilot must have sighed during the long trip and wished that his plane were carrying a little HE.

From the yelp of pain the German press and radio let out the next day, you would have thought the leaflets were even more damaging than high explosives. One leaflet entitled Stalingrad No 2 told Berliners that 55,000 German troops had been killed and 18,200 imprisoned at Cherkasy on the Russian front. The pamphlet, beautifully illustrated with maps and charts, gave complete data on the lost divisions and the parts of Germany from which they came.

The second leaflet told the Germans that peace would be much more pleasant than bombings and that President Roosevelt guaranteed the natural development of the German people as a member of the European family of nations.

The third pamphlet was the regular edition of Sternenbanner (Star-Spangled Banner), a miniature four-page, four-column newspaper printed in German.

Soon after the bombs were dropped, an official Nazi commentator went on the German radio in a hurried attempt to answer the news stories in the three pamphlets. The Nazi radio program, Mirror of the Times, broadcast a play attempting to show that the Stalingrad No 2 leaflet was Jewish propaganda and that the divisions had never been lost at all. Another commentator, known as OK — his real name is Dr Otto Koischwitz and he was formerly a professor at New York City's Hunter College — attacked the second leaflet, the one that urged peace. He said that President Roosevelt promised an honorable peace but that "Roosevelt is known as a man who makes promises and then doesn't keep them." There were a half dozen other broadcasts on the same lines.

In previous raids we had dropped leaflets, but the German air-raid wardens always swept them up before sounding the "all clear," and the Nazis even boasted how few of the leaflets were read. But the day after the Berlin raids, Heinrich Himmler, chief of the Gestapo, issued a decree imposing prison sentences and more serious penalties on anyone caught reading a leaflet.

Seven days later, however, a traveler from Berlin reported in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that "Germans now read leaflets openly in the Berlin streets."

This was strategic psychological warfare.

Shortly before the leaflets were dropped on Berlin, Allied bombers in Italy were preparing the intensive aerial blitz that was to reduce Cassino to rubble. But first, leaflets were dropped by long-range artillery and planes, telling the people in Cassino about the terrible destruction that lay ahead, explaining why it had to be done and warning everyone to get out. In one sector, German units that had been hemmed in were pelted with safe-conduct passes urging them to surrender. In other sectors, leaflets told the Nazis about the bombings of their home cities and the disastrous defeats of the Wehrmacht in Russia.

This was tactical psychological warfare.

Tactical psychological warfare, like tactical bombing, has short-range, immediate objectives. It is used on the battlefronts, and its only purpose is to cause or hasten the surrender of specific units of enemy troops already in a tough spot. When the Russians dropped leaflets urging the surrender of the German Sixth Army, hopelessly encircled before Stalingrad, they gave a perfect example of tactical psychological warfare.

Strategic psychological warfare, like strategic bombing, strikes at German cities far behind the lines and has strictly long-range objectives. A man can't surrender to a leaflet or a radio. But by pounding away at home-front morale and raising doubts in the German mind, psychological warfare may create a sense of defeat that eventually will seep through to the fighting zones. It's like destroying a Messerschmitt plant; it doesn't affect the fighting front immediately, but some day in the future there will be a shortage of fighter replacements when the enemy needs them badly.

Psychological warfare, both tactical and strategic, works more effectively when your side is winning. Leaflets and broadcasts by themselves can't accomplish much. As a member of the joint British- American Psychological Warfare Branch said: "You can't do much against a stone wall with a nail file. But when a stone is loosened by hammer blows, you can chip around it with the nail file and finally pry it out."

Tunisia was the first big triumph for psychological warfare since the first World War; then Gen Erich von Ludendorff, chief of the German general staff, wrote: "We could not prevent the leaflets from poisoning the hearts of our soldiers." At first the leaflets didn't work at all in the Tunisian campaign, because Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Axis troops were on the offensive. Besides, we made several blunders, such as promising the Italians a nice comfortable prison camp in the States; this petrified them, because German psychological warfare had already convinced them that every ship crossing the Atlantic would be sunk.

But then the Allied power was unleashed, and Rommel's troops were hit by everything we had. Right at that moment we threw a verbal punch to the solar plexus of the Italians. We simply told them in leaflets that Tripoli had fallen. They didn't know this. They thought their flank, hundreds of miles away in Libya, was still secure. We knew they'd doubt us, so we mentioned streets, cafes and places that only somebody who had been there would know about. Our leaflets were dropped by plane and fired into the enemy lines by 25-pounders and 155-mm guns. Within three days thousands of Italians had surrendered, and Mussolini announced in Rome: "Whoever believes the enemy's messages is a criminal, a traitor and a bastard, too."

As the Germans and Italians retreated northward from Sfax, Gen Sir Harold Alexander called for a five-day leaflet barrage. In the closing stages of the campaign, the Arab population around Tunis, Bizerte and Cape Bon made a fortune by collecting British-American surrender leaflets at night and selling them to the Germans and Italians by day.

The day before Lt Gen George S Patton Jr sent his Seventh Army into Sicily, he called in his psychological-warfare men and told them he wanted a million leaflets dropped before the offensive began. In record time the general and one of the PWB officers wrote a leaflet entitled Capitulation With Honor. Then a pilot grabbed the copy and flew it to Tunis. All night the printing plants hummed. The next day planes of the Tactical Air Force dropped a million leaflets from Palermo to Marsala. Thousands of prisoners came in as a result of this leaflet barrage, which softened up the enemy just as surely as an artillery barrage.

But in Italy the situation was different. Although Adm Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham credited psychological warfare with causing almost unaided the surrender of the Italian feet, our propaganda was not as successful against the German armies. As their military situation improved, their resistance to psychological warfare stiffened.

Our best efforts in Italy so far have been the leaflets dropped on Rome explaining why we were bombing the city, and a brilliant series of humorous and inspirational posters tacked up by special squads of GIs all over liberated territory. Those posters gave a tremendous lift to the Italian national spirit.

The Psychological Warfare Branch works with all the armed forces. It is a joint British-American undertaking, staffed by British and American officers, enlisted men and civilians, working side by side. Most of the American GIs are former newspapermen or radio-newsmen; others were selected because of their knowledge of foreign languages and countries.

One of the Psychological Warfare Branch's major functions is publishing one of the world's biggest newspaper chains — weekly, pint-sized sheets turned out in German, French, Dutch and Flemish, and dropped by the millions over Germany and the occupied countries. The Germans get bombs with their morning papers; the occupied countries don't.

Straight news is stressed; there is no attempt to propagandize or even to answer German propaganda. "You don't have to do that when you're winning," says the head of the Publications Section. "Straight news, when it's favorable, is the most potent weapon we have. It puts the enemy on the defensive. Soon you find him trying to answer your truths and getting caught up in his own lies."

These little newspapers are doing their job. One of the best indications of that came from the French underground recently, which passed along a fake edition of L'Amerique en Guerre, the newspaper put out by PWB for the French, The Germans had imitated the format but had cleverly sandwiched in their own propaganda into the news accounts. When they go to all that trouble, they're stung.

In spite of the importance of the work they are doing, the American leaflet crews gripe because they can't carry a few bombs in their specially equipped Fortresses. The psychological-warfare boys let them gripe for a while. Then they send some agents of the European underground to talk to the crews for a few hours about what is going on in their target areas. This is psychological warfare in reverse. It works.

This story originally appeared in YANK, the Army weekly.
This version was sourced from The Best From YANK The Army Weekly, selected by the editors of YANK, published by E P Dutton & Co, Inc; ©1945 by Franklin S Forsberg; pp 127-129.
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