In the first of two posts, Marc Wiggam argues that the Ministry’s domestic and international network of intelligence gathering was a fundamental and often ignored part of the Ministry’s history.

Part of the ministry’s eventual success lay in its ability to monitor opinion and adapt the government’s message and policies accordingly. It did this by developing a network of national and international outstations far from its London base, each charged with monitoring the reception of the government’s message and developing the channels through which it was spread. By the end of the war the Ministry had developed an unprecedented ability to gather feedback on its propaganda and government policy, and to disseminate this intelligence throughout government.

Though the Ministry’s early years were heavily scrutinized by the press and the public, its development in the regions proceeded quietly and without the kind of attention given to its more nationally-minded policy. Starting in 1940, the Ministry began to develop a network of Local Information Committees. These were panels made up of volunteers established at the discretion of Regional Information Officers and composed of professionals and local officials who were felt to have a sense of the local mood, and the avenues through which the Ministry’s message might best be channeled. By 1941 they already numbered almost 400.

They were to be a bulwark for the government’s handling of the nation’s morale, designed in the words of an official statement of their aims to “help the population to resist the invasion of the mind”, and to assuage doubt: doubts about the official conduct of the war; about whether the government was telling the truth; about the efficient management of industry; and about the equal distribution of the war’s burden across British society.[1] 

The committees were best placed to decide where to send the Ministry’s beetling film vans, where to stage its exhibitions and parades, and what the state of local opinion was. This latter role was crucial in the creation of the Ministry’s Home Intelligence briefings, weekly statements of the nation’s mood compiled from the material sent by the Ministry’s regional offices. In April 1942 the Manchester Information Committee noted having sent on reports covering diverse subjects such as:

“… Hospitality to overseas troops, distribution of oranges, eggs, BBC News bulletins (blaming the weather for reverses), the war effort and need for more, Russia, sport restrictions, American news, black market, paratroop raid and excessive publicity of it… servants wanted advertisement for one lady… selfishness of private motorists, Government and advisors still too far removed from the mind of the average citizen.”[2]

Some of this information was of use locally, some nationally; all of it was read, filtered and sent for dissemination amongst regional and national government.

Their effectiveness was by no means uniform, and some committees were more successful than others. The North West was recognized as being especially well organized, a reflection of the seriousness with which people’s morale was treated by local officials. A review of London’s committees from 1942 was patchier, with Chelsea’s committee described as ‘unrepresentative’, and whose meetings were merely ‘social events for the elite who are entertained by the Lady Mayor.’[3]

Yet the general feeling within the Ministry was that the committees were a useful part of its organizational and intelligence gathering structure, directing its message and acting as safety valves for catching local discontent before it became a problem or else spilled into the press. Raising and then maintaining morale had moved past the exhortative or patronizing terms of the early stages of the war and had instead become more sensibly linked with the efficient exercise of wartime governance. The more that was known of the country, the steadier the management of it could be. Our project will hope to show that in writing a history of the Ministry it is important to not only take account of the national but also the local focus of its work.

[1] TNA INF 1/310, Draft guidance, 10 January 1941; TNA INF 1/695, Deedes’ memo, c. April 1941.

[2] MCA M77/1/1, Manchester LIC report, 29 April 1942.

[3] TNA INF 1/696, Report from London Region to Home Division, 2 February 1942.