Wikileaks and Leveson may seem to us products of the modern age, yet during the Second World War sections of the tabloid press behaved just as badly on occasion. Indeed in 1940 it was often difficult to distinguish between the Fourth Estate and the Fifth Column.
In March of that year Britain did not seem to be in imminent danger of losing the war. Hitler and the Allies were both engaged in Sitzkrieg, or Phoney War, with aircraft dropping a greater tonnage of leaflets than bombs, and the borders of France, Scandinavia and the Low Countries still intact. With no real fighting in progress, British Intelligence hoped to discover more about Nazi intentions through an MI5 agent codenamed Snow, whose real name was Arthur Owens. Unfortunately, as I reveal in my new book Double Agent Snow, the little Welshman was in fact Hitler’s chief spy in England.
Owens sold important secrets to his German controllers during treffs in Brussels, Antwerp and Rotterdam, the most damaging of these being radar. Back in London, however, he was reliant upon his short-wave wireless set, which MI5 controlled, and became the cornerstone on which the entire Double Cross System was founded. Indeed these clever Allied deception operations would help shorten the Second World War, notably Operation Mincemeat in 1943 (involving capers with the corpse of Major Martin, the famous ‘man who never was’) and the D-Day landings the following year.
Things might have turned out differently thanks to the Daily Herald (later to become the super soaraway Sun). In what must rank as one of the worst security breaches of the war, on 18 March 1940 the paper splashed an arresting headline across its back page (‘SPIES ALLOWED TO BROADCAST FROM BRITAIN – “NEWS” TO MISLEADENEMY PUT IN THEIR WAY’), and revealed to the world that ‘radio stations operated by enemy agents are still working in this country – by permission of the British Secret Service. Spies and disaffected persons have been allowed to continue their activities until they have implicated their friends.’
The Herald’s remarkable scoop might as well have mentioned Owens by name, and printed a photo of his luxurious safehouse on Marlborough Road in Richmond. You might reasonably expect the journalist and editor responsible to have been detained without trial under infamous Defence Regulation 18b, or at least earn a sharp rap across the knuckles. In fact MI5 were powerless to act. ‘If we cut out these particular passages,’ wrote Guy Liddell, head of counter-subversion in B Division, ‘we indicate to the press that they have hit the nail on the head.’
The press - and Berlin. In truth Liddell need not have worried, since Snow’s German controllers already knew he was working with British intelligence, and almost certainly knew that some or all of his radio messages were controlled. Indeed it is quite likely that Owens was himself involved in the leak to the Herald, in order to undermine his own usefulness to British intelligence. Fortunately the gaffe caused no lasting damage, and would not be repeated. This was largely due to the passage of the draconian Treachery Act of 1940, which imposed a mandatory death penalty on anyone convicted of ‘acts likely to assist the enemy’. No doubt some at Hacked Off might like to revive something similar.
By the time the 1940 Act was rushed through Parliament in May, queues were forming on the beaches at Dunkirk, and disinformation and black propaganda soon emerged as two of the most effective weapons in Britain’s sorely depleted arsenal. This was particularly true during the Battle of Britain, typified by headlines on 15 September that 175 enemy raiders had been shot down (when in fact the true figure was one-third of that number), and at the height of the great invasion scare of autumn 1940, when ‘sibs’ planted on the press by witty War Office propagandists included claims that 200 man-eating sharks had been imported from Australia and released into the Channel.
The best, however, was yet to come. By the close of 1940, sympathetic editors and wire agencies in the United States were more than happy to report that Germany had made several attempts to launch a cross-Channel invasion, losing up to 80,000 troops in the process. Supposedly, British boffins had devised a weapon of mass destruction by which the surface of the sea could be covered in flammable oil, and ignited at just the right moment. ‘We were caught like fish in a frying pan,’ one Wehrmacht survivor was quoted as saying by the New York Times. Other Big Lies told of mutinies amongst Wehrmacht units, and beaches ‘white’ with German dead. So many washed up at Southend, it was said, that corporation dustcarts were called in to tidy them away.
The chief press censor, Admiral George Thompson, wrote later that ‘in the whole course of the war there was no story which gave me so much trouble as this one of the attempted German invasion, flaming oil on the water and 30,000 burned Germans.’ In fact what Thompson deemed troublesome played as a famous victory abroad, and helped to convince ordinary Americans that Britain was no quitter, and worth backing with copious amounts of Lease-Lend war material.
Indeed so effective were rumours of bodies on beaches and the invasion that failed that echoes were returned in 1991, when local and national media became briefly obsessed with tall tales of a thwarted Nazi landing at Shingle Street in Suffolk. Ironically, if not surprisingly, in his memoir Blue Pencil Admiral George Thompson made no mention at all of the Daily Herald ‘wireless spies’ debacle of March 1940, which could only have been worse if the paper had printed a follow-up about the large number of mathematicians and crossword-puzzle solvers mysteriously converging on Bletchley Park.
Double Agent Snow: The True Story of Arthur Owens, Hitler’s Chief Spy in England by James Hayward is published in hardback by Simon & Schuster on 3 January 2013