A Small Collection of Vignettes
The most successful propaganda program in history was the famous BBC V for Victory opening of wartime broadcasts for Occupied Europe. It was also a security nightmare for people trying to surreptitiously listen to the illegal broadcasts. Here are several other security issues around the BBC and radio safety.
Silence is Golden
There were a number of security issues with listening to the BBC in Occupied Europe. For a start, it was illegal and could get you thrown in jail and tortured. The loud “dah dah dah dum” V Morse code was very obvious, a clear signal, which was certainly great for brand awareness… but if people are aware that someone is listening to your brand your listener might end up in jail. Thus these was a love hate relationship with the V signal. On the one hand it represented hope and freedom, and on the other hand it very literally meant capture if the neighbours overheard it. But the V signal wasn’t the only risk.
No cover story
The BBC programs were very clearly BBC programs. They were white propaganda – information presented from a British point of view, signed and approved by the British government – nothing at all like the local occupied radio stations that presented information from the Occupying force’s point of view. The format, content, messaging and actors were different. Even after the hangman’s “dah dah dah dum” the program continued to presented a risk.
The risk of being caught listening to the BBC combined with the ease of identifying BBC broadcasts, the loud bongs and the program format, forced listeners to take security precautions. The primary protection was to prevent the sound of the radio travelling any further than necessary, so the volume was turned down as low as possible. In the countryside the volume would be just sufficient that the family could crowd around the radio. City listeners were at greater risk, so they would sit with their ears pressed against the radio, listening to whispers from the aether.
Security Rules for Safer Radio
When a house was searched by the Gestapo, or a local racist police force (such as the milice), one of the first things they would do was switch on the radio to see what station it was tuned to and how high the volume. This would alert them to anti Nazi sympathies, and was sufficient ground to take the family in for questioning. Proper BBC listener radio security therefore required following two rules:
- Listen with the radio as low as possible and still hear the content over the jamming.
- After listening to the BBC, tune the radio to an innocuous cover station, and turn the volume back up.
Both of these rules must be obeyed religiously otherwise the listener was in danger.
There is one counterpoint to these rules. Resistance members on the run were housed with sympathisers they didn’t know were fearful about exposure, being turned in, etc. Those on the run were reassured when the radio was turned on and the BBC came on. The person providing the safe house signalled their allegiance and willingness to take risks by playing the BBC.
The BBC was thus also a high risk signal that was used to communicate security to fugitives. This signalling was necessary because the fugitives seldom knew their hosts due to compartmentation, and also the very nature of being on the run – being in new environments with strangers. The “dah dah dah dum” said “you’re safe here, we’re all on the same side.”
Plausible deniability, but for real
Black propaganda radio broadcasts imitated the sound and “feel” of occupied national radio. Mixed in with cover content (the normal news and information pieces of the real radio station) were subversive messages intended to influence the audience in someway.
One important aspect of the freedom radio stations was that they were ostensibly real radio stations from the occupied nations. This gave the listeners plausible deniability. First, the stations programs sounded like regular occupied radio, so anyone overhearing them would not think they were prohibited broadcasts. A layer of protection that prevents suspicion is a perfect first layer of defences. Secondly, there are no obvious way to detect that it was a freedom radio rather than a Nazi radio. If the suspect was caught they could plausibly plead ignorance.
To build audiences these stations were more salacious, played better music, and gave accurate information. These methods and tactics helped to ensure that the black radio stations (called “freedom radios”) were popular, and credible. Characteristics vital for the operational use of freedom radios supporting Allied military objectives and undermine the war effort.
The BBC was used to send signals to resistance groups indicating that specific operations were going to take place that night. For example, if a resistance group was going to get a supply drop, then the reception committee had to be assembled to guide the plane in and collect, transport and hide the supplies. The group would listen to the BBC personal messages for their signal. The signal was a sentence chosen by the group, sometimes nonsense (“giraffes don’t wear false collars”), sometimes contextually personal (“Max sees only Vivian’s blue eyes”), but always meaningless to anyone except the intended audience. There were two broadcasts of personal messages, at 7pm and again at 9pm. The first broadcast at 7pm indicated that the supply drop was scheduled for that night. To confirm the flight, the message was rebroadcast at 9pm. If the message was repeated at the 9pm broadcast, the confirmed operation would go ahead. If the flight was scrubbed for some reason, then there was no second broadcast.
A very simple and very resilient signalling system. The general wide area broadcast ensured that the location of the operation couldn’t be determined by traffic analysis. The sentences were chosen by the intended recipients and had no encoded meaning to be deciphered. They were simply unique “standby,” and “confirmed” signals. Thus there was no secret meaning to expose.
Incidentally, one of the safety precautions taken to provide cover for the supply operation was typically to drop propaganda.
There was one “personal message” sent by the BBC that was believed to be for all Resistance groups, but was actually only for one single group: ventriloquist. Sent on June 1st it indicated the group should prepare for their sabotage mission (against railway lines). Th
Les sanglots longs
Then on June 5th the “begin sabotage operations” signal was broadcast.
Blessent mon coeur