The Fake British Radio Show That Helped Defeat the Nazis | History | Smithsonian
“Hier ist Gustav Siegfried Eins.” This is Gustav Siegfried Eins. “Es spricht der Chef.” The Chief is speaking.
It was just before five in the evening on May 23, 1941, and the Chief’s radio career had begun.
What the Chief said over the next six minutes or so was something that Nazi troops listening to their shortwave radios had never heard before. Using foulmouthed language, graphically pornographic descriptions, and extremist rhetoric, this new voice described incident after incident of incompetence and corruption infecting the Nazi cause.
Criticism of Nazi officials was rarely, if ever, uttered in public. Normally, tightly controlled German radio stations broadcast only approved news, German folk music and classical music. But here, on broadcast bands policed by the government, was a self-proclaimed, devoted Nazi and old guard Prussian military veteran spewing hatred for Nazi leaders. Night after night, starting at 4:48 P.M. and repeating hourly, the Chief delivered his sulfurous on-air denunciations. He skewered their repeated failure to live up to Hitler’s world-conquering ideals.
His profanity-laced tirades lambasted Nazi officials’ buffoonery, sexual perversity and malfeasance, condemning their indifference to the German people’s deprivations while lauding “the devotion to duty shown by our brave troops freezing to death in Russia.” The Chief’s reports of corruption and immorality were mixed in with news about the war and life on the homefront.
In his first broadcast, the Chief blasted Rudolf Hess, previously Hitler’s deputy führer and closest confidante. “As soon as there is a crisis,” he snarled between barnyard epithets, anti-Semitic and anti-British rants, referring to Hess’ recent unexplained solo flight to Scotland, “Hess packs himself a white flag and flies off to throw himself and us on the mercy of that flat-footed bastard of a drunken old cigar-smoking Jew, Churchill!”
At the conclusion of his broadcast, the Chief soberly read off a long numeric series – apparently a coded message – addressed to “Gustav Siegfried Achtzehn,” itself flagged as code for G.S. 18, just like the Chief’s name, Gustav Siegfried Eins, was interpreted as G.S. 1. Nazi security office codebreakers went to work and broke the cipher. Each night after that, the broadcast ended with a numeric sign-off. Once decoded, they typically read off locations, such as the Odeon Cinema, the River Street tram stop, the Eastern food market, and other vaguely identified place names, presumably for secret meetings – though none was decoded with enough precision to pinpoint a specific place for the Gestapo to investigate. Clearly, a dark cabal of disaffected Nazis extremists, likely drawn from the German military, now conspired against the state.
But none of it was real.
Not the Chief’s presumed backstory, not his name, the juicy monologues, the coded messages, none of it. As the enraged Nazis vowed to block his broadcasts – which eventually would number 700 in total – and track him down, they were chasing a ghost.
In reality, the Chief was voiced by a 39-year-old German exile named Peter Seckelmann. A journalist and writer of detective stories before the war, the Berlin native had fled Nazi Germany to England in 1938. As the Chief, his radio voice seemed to embody the harsh and sarcastic tones of an enraged Prussian military officer – and he knew enough of both barracks curses and Germany under Hitler to hit the right notes as he railed against the Nazi Party leaders’ shortcomings. The Chief was just one part of a grander counterintelligence scheme put on by the British government.
Seckelmann and a team of other native German speakers concocted the nightly script with the help of reports from German prisoner of war interrogations, British intelligence, real radio broadcasts and newspapers, resistance operatives, and bomber after-mission debriefings. As the Gestapo scoured Germany hoping to capture the Chief, whom they presumed operated out of a mobile transmitter, Seckelmann sat in a recording studio in England. He broadcasted from a top-secret room within a brick house known as “The Rookery” in Aspley Guise. Like the codebreaking activities at nearby Bletchley Park, evidence of the propaganda campaign remained classified for 50 years after the war.
Gustav Siegfried Eins—German phonetic code for letters that in this case meant nothing, but seemed to mean something—was just one example of the chicanery cooked up and disseminated against the Nazis throughout the war by the British Political Warfare Executive (PWE). Even now, few people know about the PWE’s “black propaganda,” or clandestine deception, because scant evidence of its handiwork remains. Only a single recording of the Chief is believed to exist – though American intelligence monitored, translated and transcribed many of the broadcasts.
Throughout the 1930s, Germany’s propaganda ministry had tightly controlled internal access to information and disseminated both positive news about fascism and outright lies about conditions within occupied lands far and wide. The British joined the propaganda fight, launching their own black propaganda campaign as soon as the war began. It quickly became another brutal front in the struggle for survival. As Germany massed its forces for invasion of England in 1940, the British Special Operations Executive and the BBC’s European Service broadcast dire warnings to German soldiers about the awful fate facing them, warning of a nonexistent oil slick laid out on the English Channel waiting to be torched should they approach the coast.
In August 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill consolidated previously disparate black propaganda operations under the 37-year-old English journalist, Denis Sefton Delmer, a German-language newscaster for the multilingual BBC European Service who knew Hitler personally and the German people intimately – and fiercely opposed Nazism.
Known to his friends as “Tom,” the pudgy, affable, six-foot-tall Delmer enjoyed a good joke. He had been tasked by Churchill with deploying what Delmer called “psychological judo,” turning the enemy’s own strength against him. Delmer was born in Berlin, where his Australian father was a university professor, and remained there into his teen years. Once back in England for boarding school and university, he struggled to rid himself of his German accent. Delmer returned to Germany in the pre-war years as a reporter for a London newspaper. There, he met a number of Nazi Party officials, including Ernst Röhm, a party cofounder and chief of its notoriously violent brown-shirted paramilitary wing. He could easily have been a model for Seckelmann’s Chief.
Through Röhm, Delmer came to know Hitler, who once referred to Delmer as his “favorite” foreign journalist. He accompanied the then-presidential candidate on his personal airplane during his 1932 campaign and walked with Hitler through the burned out ruins of the Reichstag following the massive February 27, 1933, fire. Amid the rubble, Hitler told him, “You are now witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history, Herr Delmer. This fire is the beginning.”
Delmer eventually returned to England. When British forces were pushed off the Continent at Dunkirk in 1940, he replied on air, without permission from the government, to the peace terms – effectively an ultimatum – Hitler had offered the British. “Herr Hitler,” he said, speaking as if they were face-to-face, “you have on occasion in the past consulted me as to the mood of the British public. So permit me to render your Excellency this little service once again. Let me tell you what we here in Britain think of this appeal of yours to what you are pleased to call our reason and common sense. Herr Führer and Reichskanzler [Chancellor], we hurl it right back at you, right in your evil-smelling teeth.”
Once in charge of the PWE, Delmer created multiple “German” radio stations that broadcasted to both Germany and German occupation troops. Among them were stations aimed at German Catholics, soldiers manning Atlantic defenses, beacons aimed at U-boats at sea, and even a fake Radio Berlin on a signal near the real station it impersonated. All sought to break up the German resolve to fight and turn German against German through their mix of truth and believable lie. Even the master of German propaganda Joseph Goebbels admired the effort that went into the PWE radio broadcasts, and their effectiveness. “The station does a very clever job of propaganda,” he wrote in late November 1943, “and from what is put on the air one can gather that the English know exactly what they have destroyed [with their bombing campaign] and what not.”
Delmer was a reporter and radio man by trade and knew that the biggest challenge was simply to attract listeners. He decided that aiming low was the surest way to gain what today would be called “market share.” He called it “propaganda by pornography.”
He learned from the masters: He wrote after the war that, having witnessed Hitler’s success in using Nazi propaganda and fake news about Jews to forge his audience and popular support, “I decided to use radio-pornography to catch [listeners’] attention. My ‘Chef’ (Hitler was always called ‘Der Chef’ by those in his inner circle so I decided to call my veteran hero ‘Der Chef’) became a kind of radio Streicher, except that the victims of his pornographic tirades were Nazis, not Jews.” He recalled, “I took an enormous amount of trouble over the Chef’s erotica and devoted many hours of patient research to finding ever new forms sexual depravity to attribute to our victims in the Hitler machine.” He contended, “The recipe was an instant success.”
Each station carried a studied mix of what Delmer later called “cover, cover, dirt, cover, dirt,” an irresistible mixture of pornography, anti-Nazi diatribes, and factual reports about the war and life on the homefront. Delmer delighted at the thought of “leather coated Gestapo thugs” chasing the Chief and his traitorous co-conspirators around Europe in vain.
Delmer’s PWE was a veritable fake news mill. Teams of artists, printers, and writers also published fake German newspapers and printed up thousands of illustrated leaflets full of believable, yet mostly false, “news,” as well as pornographic illustrations, forged leave passes for soldiers, and other documents designed to crack apart German unity. News reports “informed” the German public about deaths of specific soldiers, officials swapping increasingly worthless German Reichsmark currency for Swiss francs, stores hording scarce goods, Nazi officials sleeping with the wives of soldiers at the front, troop mutinies, and spreading disease at home. Leaflets dropped over occupied territories included tales of sabotaged German hand grenades that exploded when their pins were pulled, mess hall food with human debris in it, the wounded receiving transfusions with venereal disease-infected Polish and Russian blood, and lethal injections being given to badly wounded soldiers to free up beds for the men who could return to the fight.
Wherever there was war, the PWE was part of the fight. In the Middle East, Arabs in lands sympathetic to Hitler received leaflets that warned of German soldiers killing and butchering children for meat in occupied sections of North Africa.
To succeed at the PWE, staff had to have artistic talent, journalistic professionalism, and a tough stomach. Also critical to the fight were the bombers who ran dangerous missions to airdrop the propaganda, and real resistance operatives on the ground who risked their lives to distribute and post the documents.
Why invest so much personnel and money in massive black propaganda operations? Delmer and his betters in the British government believed that it worked, that their efforts confused and demoralized German troops and their anxious families at home, and undermined their will to fight. It also sapped Germany’s fighting resources, tying them up in attempts to block radio broadcasts, trash newspapers and leaflets, track down supposed clandestine cells, and squelch rumors. The Chief’s nightly show was successful enough that it fooled American embassy officials in Berlin before the United States’ entry into the war, who told Franklin D. Roosevelt about its existence as evidence of growing friction between the Nazi Party and the army. Roosevelt enjoyed engaging in wartime deceptions and, upon learning the truth about the fakery, supposedly laughed at how he had been taken in.
While the true benefits of such psychological weaponry were probably impossible to measure, the PWE issued a secret wartime assessment of the penetration and reception of the broadcasts, based on interrogations of prisoners of war. These showed an “ever-widening audience that the station has gained among members of the German armed forces.” German troops tuned in nightly to hear how far the Chief’s scorn for Nazi Party leaders would go, to spice up their grim lives in occupied lands with erotic gossip, and to get news they couldn’t find anywhere else. The PWE report found evidence of listeners in places as far-flung as Berlin, Vienna, and North Africa; even “U-boat crews taken prisoner in the Atlantic admit having heard it.” Though German citizens were forbidden from listening to unauthorized radio stations, on pain of death if discovered, civilians hungering for news of the war, too, tuned into the Chief or heard gossip about broadcasts.
German authorities attempted to jam broadcasts and threatened anyone discovered listening to G.S.1 and other illegal broadcasts. Legitimate German radio stations denounced it as fake and tried to disprove the Chief’s claims. Despite these efforts, the PWE analysis found, “it seems to be widely believed that G.S.1 is a station operating inside Germany or German-occupied Europe. Even a man who was employed by the Reich Radio believed that G.S.1 was a mobile station operating from a German army vehicle.”
Not everyone agreed that the PWE’s psychological operations were worth the costs. The commander of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, hated seeing his precious airplanes tied up with dangerous drops, which, he insisted after the war, did nothing but serve Europe’s need for toilet paper.
Nonetheless, all of the warring powers pursued black propaganda. Well experienced in the dark arts of psychological warfare, Germany used the enormous international shortwave radio network it had built prior to the war to air the rantings of “Lord Haw Haw,” British fascist William Brooke Joyce, who tried to convince his former countrymen that war against the Nazis was futile. Mildred Gillars, an American nicknamed “Axis Sally,” former National Geographic journalist Douglas Chandler, under the pseudonym of “Paul Revere,” and renowned poet Ezra Pound all put their words to work for the Nazis. (In the Pacific war theater, several English-speaking Japanese women collectively known as “Tokyo Rose” were equally notorious for their attempts to sap the fighting spirit of American troops.) American listeners at home were also a target. German English language Radio D.E.B.U.N.K. broadcast from Bremen, but claimed to be “the Voice of All Free America” transmitting from somewhere in the Midwest.
As the invasion of Normandy approached in 1944, the PWE ramped up its deception efforts. Two new “gray” radio stations, Soldatensender Calais and Kurzwellensender Atlantik (Soldiers’ Station Calais and Shortwave Station Atlantic), aimed broadcasts at German coastal defenders. The station lured listeners with a dusk-to-dawn mix of real news—much of it not available to German soldiers—sports reports from Germany, popular German dance music, and long forbidden American jazz and swing. Interspersed throughout was the “dirt”: plausible reports about invasion preparations intended to convince German intelligence officers that the assault would cover a far more expansive area than it actually did.
American air forces also dropped an average of 250,000 copies of Nachrichten für die Truppe (News for the Troops), a newspaper written for the German troops in the West, each night before and after the invasion. After D-Day, prisoner interrogations showed that over 50 percent had listened to the stations. Many trusted News for the Troops more than their own national news sources.
Delmer continued his feverish black propaganda campaign through the war, using his trademark mix of fact and lie, over the airwaves and in print, moving his transmitters and aiming his broadcasts at new audiences as Allied forces advanced. After the war, he returned to journalism, even reporting again from Germany. He also wrote several books, including two memoirs. One, Black Boomerang, focused on his time running PWE black propaganda operations. He also lectured on psychological warfare, even advising American intelligence on the subject.
As for the Chief, his radio career ended abruptly. Perhaps fearing that German listeners were becoming increasingly indifferent about the erotic lures being broadcast, Delmer determined that, in a realistic finale, he should sacrifice the Chief’s “life” for the anti-Nazi cause. For his last hurrah, the PWE staged a Gestapo raid on G.S.1’s 700th episode, November 11, 1943. “I’ve finally caught you, you pig!” yelled a voice, followed by a hail of machine gun bullets, “killing” the Chief. The station seemed to have gone dark—but a PWE staffer, apparently unaware of the Chief’s demise, rebroadcasted the shootout a second time and perhaps spoiled the ruse. No matter. Delmer and his PWE staff would cook up plenty of other “news” before the war ended, lying through their teeth – with just the right amount of truth – for the sake of victory.