A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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Home Intelligence Special Report No. 4 .

4th February, 1942 .


The following summary is based on special reports from all the R.I.Os.

Opinion seems to be divided as to whether the volume of careless talk is such as to make it a serious matter, and whether a fresh campaign is desirable. Only one R.I.O. reports the belief “that there has recently been an increase in the amount of gossip” in his Region: five say there is less now than formerly, and the rest find that no very noticeable change has occurred in recent months. The general view appears to be summed up by the deputy R.I.O., South Western Region, who says that although comments from all parts of the Region suggest that careless talk is on the decrease........ “anyone looking for information would have no difficulty in finding it”.

Although it is not part of our function to report on conditions in the Services, it is necessary on this occasion to mention the public's suspicions of the Services as breeding grounds for careless talk.

Points which emerge from the R.I.O's reports are:-

(1) Men in the Forces, particularly those in the R.A.F., are considered everywhere to be by far the worst offenders. Ten of the thirteen reports mention the Services as being especially guilty. Many instances are given of men in uniform publicly discussing embarkation details, new inventions, battery locations, etc., either with one another or with civilians whom they have chanced to meet in trains or hotels.

(2) Relatives of men in the Forces are thought to be the next-worst offenders. They are said freely to give away the movements of troops and ships, (especially “proud mothers” of naval men, who mention the name of their son's ship and then speak of his leave or sailing dates without, apparently, realising that this conveys the movements of the ship.

(3) It is thought that Servicemen to whom motorists give lifts may feel compelled by shyness to make conversation, in return for their lift, and so volunteer any interesting matter which occurs to them.

(4) Trains, public houses and hotels are mentioned more than any other places as the fons et origo of careless talk.

(5) Two R.I.Os. attribute a decrease in careless talk to the lack of heavy air raids, stating that the shock of a blitz tends to loosen indiscreet tongues.

(6) Although no very strong desire for a fresh campaign is shown, four R.I.Os. consider that it would be a good thing. It is noticeable that the Regions where a new campaign is favoured are not those where gossip is thought to be the most prevalent, but those where careless talk is believed to have been definitely lessened by previous campaigns: here something in the nature of a “refresher course” seems to be desired.

The following extracts from the R.I.O's reports are typical of these comments:-

Northern Region :

“It seems generally agreed that careless talk is not now of serious proportions.”

North Eastern Region :

“There has recently been some increase in the amount of gossip both among troops and civilians, though troops are the worst offenders. Motorists giving lifts to soldiers and airmen find that men more readily volunteer information, as to their units' movements and present stations, than they did even a few months ago. It is felt that the old vigilance has relaxed largely as a result of the idea that we are watching the war from a distance. Staff speakers report that munition makers and troops give away far too much information in trams and buses. From Bradford it is reported that women with husbands or sons in the Navy name their relatives' ships and sailing dates. Such talk is notably absent in Hull, the only port of any size (in the Region). A Sheffield contact contrasts the talkativeness of the Sheffield public with the ‘closed mouth’ public of Liverpool. On the whole, there seems ground for recommending increased publicity on the subject of careless talk.”

North Midland Region :

“It would seem that there has been a great reduction in careless talk in the last few months - all contacts asked were unanimous about this. Some factors thought to be responsible were (a) increased awareness of the danger, due to the publicity already given, (b) absence of severe bombing. Many people who have suffered in a blitz react by talking too much, both as a relief and to attract attention. (c) Fewer idle people. The public as a whole seem pretty conscious of the need for discretion, and offenders are usually quickly pulled up.”

Eastern Region :

“People with a careful and deliberate way of thinking have been particularly reluctant to offer an estimate of the amount of careless talk, but tend to consider that there has been no increase. Persons inclined to provocative statements, on the other hand, have been fairly unanimous in saying that careless talk is deplorably general, definitely increasing, and that one only has to keep one's ears open to learn everything that might be useful to the enemy.”

London Region :

“The general opinion seems to be that there is less careless talk, but some reports add the proviso that there is ‘still plenty’. It is thought that a campaign is advisable because people need to be reminded: they get used to a notice, and after a bit just don't see it. Reports state that careless talk in factories is very rare.”

Southern Region :

“It would appear that in this Region careless talk has declined since the first year of the war, and very little has been heard during recent months.”

South Western Region :

“Although there is a certain amount of irresponsible chatter, people on the whole seem to be more careful than they were in disclosing really vital information.”

Wales :

“It is felt that in any campaign the following sections of the public should be borne in mind:-

(a) Members of the public who ask questions of Servicemen, particularly while travelling, (b) Relatives of members of the Forces (c) Members of the Forces and war-workers who may discuss their location, movement or work with each other or with friends - sometimes in public places, (d) Staffs of firms supplying the Forces, who tend to discuss the provision, or the difficulties experienced in securing the provision, of certain articles for definite units of the Forces.”

Midland Region :

“Does not seem to be very prevalent. Have had ‘listeners-in’ all over the area for a fortnight. Below are the only specific cases.” (Three instances follow, all of Servicemen who have been overheard revealing Army or R.A.F. secrets in train conversations).

North Western Region :

“Nothing can be done easily to curb casual conversation which may disclose the position of a unit or of a ship, or prevent the odd individual blurting out information: but our conclusion is that the campaigns in factories, trains, public houses and hotels should be maintained, and that the Services should be advised of how little the general public knows of their work.”

Scotland :

“In railway trains soldiers, sailors and airmen, and especially merchant seamen, readily give information about their movements, but contacts declare that this was always the case, and no increase in careless talk is noticeable.”

South Eastern Region :

“Careless talk does not approach considerable dimensions in this Region, except in two areas, the Medway Towns and Ashford. Troops and/or their families or billeters are thought to be responsible here; and those of the civilian population who repeat what they hear in order to show how much more knowledge they possess than other people.”

Northern Ireland :

“In this Region, which borders neutral Eire, the number of troops stationed is very considerable, and the necessity of continuing a campaign to defeat careless talk remains as important as ever.....there is a tendency in some quarters to say ‘What's the use of being careful when the Germans and Italians in Dublin must know everything that is going on’.”

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