Those with even the most casual interest in history have heard of Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally – character representations of World War II propagandists whose broadcasts were meant to demoralize enemy troops.
But few have heard of Sefton Delmer.
“Accuracy first,” I used to tell the writers. “We must never lie by accident or through slovenliness - only deliberately. – Sefton Delmer
This is the story of how he made Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally’s efforts look like child’s play. And, thanks to America’s RCA and the FCC, he had one very QRO (and frequency agile) transmitter on the AM broadcast band.
For all intents & purposes, Sefton Delmer was a German-born Brit of Aussie heritage. As a young man, he continued living in Germany working as a journalist, spoke fluent German of course and even interviewed Hitler before WW2 began. In short, he was perfect for the role he was about to begin back in England.
Back in the United States, RCA had no sooner completed a built-to-order transmitter for WJZ (now WABC) in Newark, NJ when the FCC passed a law placing a 50,000 watt power limit on AM medium-wave transmitters. Suddenly, RCA’s
600 kilowatt behemouth was all dressed up with nowhere to go. Once the Brits were made aware of its existence, they snapped it up for a song – and with a plan already in mind.
Sefton Delmer’s dark mind and the British Secret Service’s new transmitter merged in Crowborough, Sussex where the RCA powerhouse was installed into an underground bunker along with two 100kw shortwave transmitters. The medium-wave transmitter was given a name – Aspidistra.
We are waging against Hitler – a total war of wits. If you are at all squeamish about what you may be called upon to do you must say so now. But if you feel like joining me, I must warn you that in my unit we are up to all the dirty tricks we can devise. No holes are barred. The dirtier the better. Lies, treachery, everything. – Sefton Delmer
Delmer was in charge, not only of programming, but of methodology and this is what would (for the time being) separate him from his Axis counterparts – Aspidistra initially pretended to be a German station operating from within Germany.
This very significant difference allowed for a level of manipulation not possible had they made their true identity known and represents the definition of black propaganda – “to vilify, embarrass or misrepresent the enemy”, seemingly from within. Furthermore, this allowed their broadcasts to affect both military and civilian listeners.
One important note: When we think of an AM radio station today, we think of the station and the transmitter as being nearly synonymous and this is usually correct – a different station then, by this definition, would be located elsewhere. In the case of Aspidistra, many “stations” used it as their transmitter. Several stations (by their definition, not ours) used Aspidistra as their transmitter with each having its own specific audience, purpose and psychological MO.
In the evening the so-called “Calais Soldiers Broadcast” which evidently originates in England and uses the same wavelength as Radio Station Deutschland when the latter is cut out during air raids, gave us something to worry about. The station does a very clever job of propaganda and from what is put on the air one can gather that the English know exactly what they have destroyed and what not. – Joseph Goebbels
One such program involved the station broadcasting content from what was announced as being a pirate radio station in Germany. The announcer claimed to be a patriotic and loyal German officer – loyal to Germany but vehemently against everything the SS stood for. In reality, the radio station was Aspidistra and the “German officer” was Peter Seckelmann, a refugee from Berlin. Seckelmann’s on-the-air name was Der Chef and he railed against various Nazi officers, belittling their military competence and their sexuality. As he gained audience support, the scripting had the Gestapo find the pirate station and shoot Der Chef, staged only on the air of course, for maximum audience shock value, sympathy and, most importantly, to foment dissention against the SS.
Due to Aspidistra’s frequency agility – a rarity for AM broadcast transmitters – Delmer’s staff often implemented a technique known as intruding, whereby they would tune to an existing German commercial station, wait for it to go off the air and then immediately begin transmitting in its place, in German, with all the proper jingles required for authenticity. Then the manipulation could begin with mention of forged bank notes in circulation, battle statistics and other more nefarious broadcasts.
Still another station, Atlantic Sender, posed as an official German military radio station (similar to the US Armed Forces Radio Network). These broadcasts were meant for German u-boat crews and, along with a large amount of truthful information to establish credibility, also contained “manipulated news” that a crew at sea would find distressing, not only about the progress of the war but about the crewmember’s hometowns, family members, etc. Agnes Bernelle – “Vicki” to German submariners – put fantasies into the heads of sailors at sea, all in an effort to make them less enthusiastic about fighting and more in the mood to come home to their wives and girlfriends.
I’ll refrain from writing of the depths to which black propaganda descended - both radio-driven and via other media – but it soon became personal rather than military/political and in darker ways than you can likely imagine. The cruelty of the propaganda emanating from Delmer cost him his marriage, his wife being unable continue justifying her role and the toll it took on her. What you’ve read here is a tiny grain from the tip of the iceberg.
All sides in World War II engaged in black propaganda - no one came out of it clean. As the war progressed, the cruelty became more and more dehumanizing. In fact, I believe this is the very reason so little is known about this aspect of the war and radio’s role in it. I’ve decided not to write about those things, thus reluctantly perpetuating the effective silence that surrounds those details.