Saturday, April 30, 2011

WWII Propaganda wars: the British Ministry of Information

by Heather Turner

    As the Western world's greatest states fought for military dominance during the Second World War, a great ideological battle also waged. The outbreak of the war in September 1939 suddenly pitted the morale of the British Ministry of Information against the German Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (Larson, 412). This psychological battle was waged using a variety of methods and mediums that had been honed or created since the end of WWI. The British at first found themselves at a disadvantage, as the British propaganda effort had largely subsided by the end of WWI (Larson, 412.) The Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, however, had been operating since 1933, and was vastly sophisticated (Larson, 412).  The war period coincided with an absolute proliferation of propaganda on both sides of the conflict. Government control of information and the production of propaganda had become as essential to the war effort as munitions. The British Ministry of Information initially had a clunky beginning, and it took refining its methods and structure in the early years of its existence before the MOI's efforts were considered by the press and historians as being truly successful.

     In anticipation of the coming war, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain publicly announced the creation of the Foreign Publicity Department of the Foreign Office in June 1939. By September 1939, the "skeleton ministry" established by the new office was off to a shaky start under the leadership of Lord Hugh MacMillan (Larson, 416, 419). Nonetheless, the war of words, or rather, the war of narratives had begun.

    For the second time in the early 20th century, whole peoples found themselves involved in a massive war effort. Everyone sacrificed for this purpose. In Britain, commodities were carefully rationed and even some varieties of unrationed food had become scarce (Creaton, 85). In addition, London was heavily targeted in air raids, forcing much of the population to take refuge in the cramped conditions in city's underground stations. A wave of criminal activity and domestic terrorism bombings ensued, accompanied by other great tragedies in the capital city. Freak accidents such as the Bethnal Green Tube Station incident in 1943, contributed to the gloom. (Creaton, 3-4). Throughout the conflict, there were waves of evacuations (Creaton, 3-4) and London fell into disrepair. In a manual intended as an advice pamphlet for American servicemen serving in England during the war, The United States War Department offered a vivid snapshot of conditions in the capital city in 1942:
The British people are anxious to have you know that you are not seeing their country at its best ... The houses haven't been painted because factories are not making paint - they're making planes. The famous English gardens and parks are either unkept because there are no men to take care of them, or they are being used to grow needed vegetables. British taxicabs look antique because Britain makes tanks for herself and Russia and hasn't time to make new cars ... There are no luxury dining cars on trains because total war effort has no place for such frills. The trains are unwashed and grimy because men and women are needed for more important work than car-washing.    
    It was of the utmost importance that the citizenry continued to contribute to the total war effort, despite the extreme conditions. In order to convince its citizens to continue making sacrifices, the MOI set forth to influence their thoughts and actions through its now well known use of propaganda, as well as through information censorship. The MOI started out as an impressive operation, with a massive budget and staff. 127 staffers worked in regional offices across the country and 872 operated from its skyscraper headquarters located in the Senate Building of the University of London (Larson, 422).

     One of the first and most difficult tasks the MOI faced was successfully controlling the flow of information to the citizenry. For this purpose, the Ministry had several divisions devoted to handling intelligence, censorship, publicity and press relations (Larson, 417-418). However, MOI had to deal with press requests from an unprecedented number of journalists who were concentrated in London, the "focal point for European news dissemination" (Larson, 419). According to Cedric Larson, a former member of the US War Department's morale division, as many as 10,000 newspapermen covered the war from the capital along with about 1,200 foreign correspondents (419). In its early years of post WWI re-existence, the Ministry's efforts in this regard was heavily criticized, Lord Macmillan being the first of several Minister's of Information to be slated by the press (Larson, 419).

     The press was frustrated and unimpressed with the MOI's inability to function smoothly. At the start of the war, the MOI was initially divided into more than a dozen regional offices, each with separate service departments that controlled censorship autonomously (Pelling, 186). This resulted in uncoordinated censorship which was never quite resolved throughout the first several years of the Ministry's existence. Journalist's early complaints led to a more than year-long restructuring of the MOI, prompted by the confusion caused by the censorship of the landing of British troops in France in September 1939 (Pelling, 186). At first, the press was banned from publishing the troop movements, but the order from the MOI was rescinded hours before the daily papers were to be sent out at 3 a.m. Out of confusion, several papers, including the Daily Express, published the information (Pelling, 186). By 3 a.m., the War Office had again banned the information from being published a second time. The mix up meant that government officials had to seize thousands of newspapers just as they were being distributed throughout London (Larson, 421). The Ministry responded to the backlash by appointing additional censors that could offer 24 hour assistance on story filing (Larson, 421-22). Time had this to say of the Ministry's early efforts:

Nobody could accuse Britain's propaganda of functioning smoothly last week. It was clumsy, amateurish, slow-starting, gave an impression like that of a sincere but badly staged show in which stagehands dropped things during big speeches, and the curtain came down at the wrong time (Larson, 419-20).
    The Ministry was forced to evolve a new, more efficient structure after the early series of press debacles. The change in approach included forging a closer relationship between the MOI and the press. Lord Camrose, publisher of several newspapers including the Daily Telegraph, was appointed as Lord Macmillan's Chief Assistant (Larson, 425). All official communications were now delivered simultaneously through individual departments as well as the MOI's headquarters. The Ministry's departments were streamlined from 14 to 8, half of which dealt primarily with producing propaganda (Larson, 426).  The various departments also advised censor officers in London on requests submitted by the press, as the departments continued to have full control over the news items journalists produced (Larson, 427). The structural shake-up continued throughout January of 1940. Lord Camrose resigned from his position a mere month after his appointment, and Chamberlain summarily replaced Lord Macmillan with Sir John Reith (Larson, 426).

    Reith was popular with the public as a commentator for the BBC and Imperial Airways. He was especially known for his coverage of the Abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936. According to Time, Reith was a "strict moralist, nonsmoker, teetotaler and a man famed for his dislike of newspapers and publicity of all sorts." Reith took charge of censoring the British press for only a few short months. When Winston Churchill came into power as Prime Minister, Reith was promptly dismissed and replaced by Alfred Duff Cooper in May 1940 (Larson, 429). 

    Cooper enjoyed public support for a period of time, and criticisms from the press began to subside (Larson, 430). Eventually, the London press again became discontent over censorship (Lysaght, 2002). According to Lysaght (2002), the MOI languished under Cooper's leadership, as the press sought more information on military campaigns. Cooper remained in position for more than a year until a new minister was appointed with the intent of ironing out the ongoing issues of news and censorship coordination (Larson, 430). Brendan Bracken, a close personal assistant of Churchill was appointed in July 1941 and served as minister throughout the duration of the war (Lysaght, 2002). Bracken, like previous ministers, had experience in the press. He managed and directed several papers, including The Economist (Lysaght, 2002).

    Bracken's leadership of the MOI was generally considered successful (Lysaght, 2002). Throughout the remainder of the war, the Ministry pioneered some of the most effective techniques of propaganda, managing its efforts on a massive front, both foreign and domestic. The MOI concerned itself with radio, television and film broadcasts.The British tailor-made news to suit its differing audiences around the world. In addition, millions of leaflets were distributed in Germany, more traditional posters were also used, and a word-of-mouth whisper campaign spread wildly. 

    After restructuring and coming under more popular leadership, the ministry became ingrained in popular culture. The iconic nature and power of the MOI lives on through classic stories, such as "1984," George Orwell's Ministry of Truth being a representation of the office he worked in during the war effort, as well as more contemporary 'Big Brother' spin-off tales such as the graphic novel "V for Vendetta." The ministry was officially dissolved at the end of WWII, but made its mark in history. Despite a rocky start, the ministry's influence proved to be vast and critical to maintaining morale as well as countering the psychological and ideological war waged by Nazi propagandists.

Sources Cited:

Cedric, Larson. "The British Ministry of Information." The Public Opinion Quarterly 5 (1941): 412-31.

Creaton, Heather. Sources for the History of London 1939/4. Alexandria: British Records Association, 1998. History In Focus: War. 19 July 2008 <http://>.

Lysaght, Charles E. "Brendan Bracken: The Fantasist Whose Dreams Came True." The Churchill Centre. Winter 2002. <>.

Pelling, Henry. "Ministry of Morale: Home Front Morale and The Ministry of Information In World War II." The English Historical Review Vol. 95, No. 374 (Jan.,1980), pp. 185-187

"Tommy's Friend Out. " TIME. 15 Jan. 1940 <,9171,772317-1,00.html>.

United States, War Department. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942. University of Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2005.

1 comment:

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