A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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Friday, 24th May, 1940


There is little change on yesterday except that optimism is slightly down, anxiety is slightly up. There is general recognition that the situation is extremely serious but there is no diminution in confidence in ultimate victory. The possibility of invasion is being faced up to by a few people but there is no general realisation that this may be a possibility.

The acute tension of a week ago has been relieved and there is a tendency for people to believe that they now know the worst. Opinion, however, is unstable and detailed reports over the last fortnight show in a striking way the day to day swing of public feeling: anxiety, optimism, pessimism, bewilderment chase one another over succeeding days. There has been no steady trend of public feeling over the whole period of the invasion. Public opinion is pinned to day to day incidents: headlines about the recapture of Arras bring relief; the next day bad news about Boulogne brings temporary gloom. This swing in itself is evidence of a continual nervous tension and the conclusion emerges that some steadying, general, forward-looking, slightly long-term attitude would help many people to face the sparce and conflicting news which threatens their morale.

Women, as usual, show more signs of nervous tension than men.

London continues to have a lower morale than the provinces. Londoners are more mobile, more subject to news changes by placards and evening editions. This London situation requires attention since the first real shock is likely to fall on London. London therefore needs a firmer and more stable background tone instead of a less-integrated and more changeable emotional tone.

A new feature today is the great increase and sometimes intense violence of criticism against the French. “The French are letting us down”. “I thought the Maginot Line came right up to the Channel; the French hid all that”. “It's the French keeping everything dark all these months, censoring everything, putting all the Opposition into jail”. The French are now becoming the scapegoat and observer reports today indicate that there is a prevalent feeling that if we are defeated, the French will have been to blame. There was plenty of evidence during the last few months that there was no nationwide feeling of affection and brotherliness for our Ally. Confidence in French social structure as well as in the power of French arms has been badly shaken. The consequences of this may be dangerous.

No one knows what has happened to General Gamelin: it is vitally important that the dangerous rumours about his fate, which are tied up with the whole position of France as a stable social unit, should be put to rest by some factual statement. Liberal and Left-Wing criticism of the French treatment of minority opinion is coming to the fore again and this time it is finding a place in the opinions of ordinary non-political people.

The arrest of Mosley and other Fascists has overwhelming approval. Our observers report that they have seldom found such a high degree of approval for any Government action. The most frequent comment is that it should have been done long ago.

Peace News today has an important article. The following statement is made: “The Pacifist movement must not confuse the right to bear its witness and take its punishment with the right to say what it likes and go unpunished. If it wants relative freedom ........ then it must reject the notion that its business is to impede the Government in the prosecution of the war ........ we need a new sense of responsibility, of devotion and of discipline”.



All Regions show the following:

1. Great satisfaction at arrest of Fascists.

2. Demand for more work to implement Emergency Powers Bill. When this is not forthcoming there is much dissatisfaction.

Most Regions show a demand for B.B.C. News Bulletins giving more space to important but unpleasant military events and less to isolated aerial exploits.


Suggestions for action against Communists reported. Criticism of large number of French troops in Glasgow. General opinion of public “bewilderment”.


Public steady. Position of Eire generally thought unsatisfactory from U.K. security standpoint.


General public calm but concerned. Arrest of Fascists will reduce activities of “Swansea Loyalists” as self-appointed guardians of public safety.


Slight increase in anxiety particularly among women.


Public mystified and anxious. “Tanks seem to go where they like”. Arming of police welcomed.


Grave and anxious but no panic. Many spontaneous offers to shelter refugees. Success of recruiting of Local Defence Volunteers has reduced A.R.P. recruiting.


Public puzzled but willing to co-operate.


Uneasy. Demand for further acceleration of calling-up and armament activity is common. Poor people and small shopkeepers worried about Emergency Powers Act fearing they will be sent to make munitions, their shops shut, and their savings taken.


Danger appreciated but no panic. More aircraft demand.


1. Reactions very mixed in South West. Cornwall worried particularly about large numbers of unknown aliens who have piled into the county since war began. Bristol and Plymouth - no change. Wiltshire nervous but not panicky. Dorset - no alarm. Appreciation of Air Marshal's broadcast last night was wide.

Tunbridge Wells

Grave but not despondent. German statement that Dover had been bombed gained no currency whatever.


Calm but growing indecision. Evacuation of women and children from East Coastal towns would be welcomed.

1. There is growing local feeling against the Cotswold Bruderhof. If parachutists landed locally Bruderhof might be lynched

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Clearly the presence of rumours is symptomatic of an underlying condition of ignorance, bewilderment or distrust: Rumours may be spread deliberately (Fifth Column activity) or may be the product of idle and irresponsible gossiping.

There was a strong prevalence of rumours last September; they have again emerged as an important factor in public morale.

Two facts should be appreciated:

1. Rumours are not recognised as such but are believed .

2. The great majority of rumours have a local context.

The great majority of rumours at the present time are about parachutists and Fifth Column activities. The origin of many of these statements (e.g. Three parachutists landed last night near Ashford) is fully believed to be “the German wireless”. In fact a close scrutiny of the monitored broadcasts shows that specific rumours have not originated from Hamburg. There is no mention by Lord Haw Haw of specific places like Stoke-on-Trent, the local cinema at Woodbridge, the A.R.P. posts in Weston-super-Mare, etc. On the other hand, the New British Broadcasting Station, (the short-wave German station situated near Cologne), has on various occasions described the descent of parachutists in England and has provided other material which might be considered to be a source of specific rumour. It should be remembered that the N.B.B.S. pretends to be situated in this country and to represent the interests of the British people. It is not easy to hear but the local press is inclined to report what the N.B.B.S. says about a specific locality (e.g. “Worthing was mentioned last night on the German wireless and we are going to be told next week what Worthing citizens think about the war ................”).

Rumours during the last few days have tended to emphasise some aspect of our own feebleness or futility, e.g. unchecked landing of parachutists, inability of the police to cope with parachutists, inefficiency of anti-aircraft batteries, dislocation of services, etc. This kind of rumour is clearly unhealthy for it is an unconscious reflection of privately held opinion. The following rumours sent in by our observers illustrate this point:

The police have definitely been told that catching parachutists is none of their business; they can only report it to military authorities.

A balloon barrage broke away in Sussex and they say it took the anti-aircraft guns seven hours to shoot it down.

The boys are all coming back from Belgium without boots.

Five parachutists came down in Suffolk and it was hours before they were caught.

Other rumours are of a general kind and are found more or less unchanged in various parts of the country, e.g. General Gamelin has been shot as a Fifth Columnist.

That Haw Haw is sending messages to Fifth Columnists by code words in wireless talks.

It is important to remember that certain statements gain currency from German broadcast bulletins which have been in the habit of getting their news in first. The British public heard from the German wireless that Gamelin had gone. They also heard that the Germans had taken Amiens and Arras twelve hours before they got the news from the British press and wireless.

The German invasion of Norway and Denmark, Holland and Belgium was preceded by a great mass of rumours circulating in those countries. A deliberate whispering campaign in Holland led Dutch civilians and soldiers to believe that they were about to be invaded by Great Britain. After the invasion wishful thinking promoted the spread of rumours that British troops had landed by plane in Rotterdam, etc. Evidence from Denmark shows that the spreading of rumours is a technique of Fifth Columnists. The wrong date is attached to a forthcoming occasion - the occasion being a probable one. The date becomes fixed as probable also and the public becomes confused and bewildered or even falsely confident.

The rumour situation is becoming so serious that it becomes imperative for the whole matter to be discussed in detail. It is useless to warn people against repeating rumours ; most people only repeat what they believe to be true and they repeat it because they have nothing more positive to talk about and their time is not being actively filled. Enemy agents may be at work and there is malicious gossiping but evidence before us at the moment suggests that most rumours are passed on by idle, frightened, suspicious people.


24th May, 1940 .



24th May, 1940 .

There is a general prevalence of rumours again today although in the main these are wild and illogical there are one or two which seem to call for immediate action. The most important of these is that it will shortly be impossible to cash cheques owing to the run which is being made on the banks (this matter has already been reported to the Treasury, by whom, it is understood action is now being taken). Another report stated to be generally current along the East Coast is that the whole of that district is to be evacuated to the West. This is attributed to last night's German radio.

There are, as usual, a large number of rumours dealing with subjects connected in some way with military activities, many of these no doubt, because of their circumstantial nature are reported to be having alarming effects on the civil population. There are for instance, reports of new kinds of weapons such as armed gliders, delayed action gas cylinders and amphibious channel crossing tanks. In Deptford there has been a resuscitation of the story which seems to be worrying a good many people of a gas which paralyses the will power. It has also been stated (in Bolton last night) that British casualties in France already amount to 100,000.

There is a rumour also about the inefficiency of the present civilian gas masks and it is stated that the new filters are for protection against an hitherto unknown gas. Whether or not this belief is generally prevalent, it seems desirable that some kind of re-assurance should be given on this point, in view of the extreme rapidity with which such reports circulate.

Rumours of a civilian character are many and various and among those of importance are the story of a West Country clergyman who is stated to be instructing school children not to report parachutists. From Bristol, Dorset, Plymouth and Wiltshire there are reports of prominent men having been arrested, and there seems ground for believing that these stories are very widely believed. It is suggested by the Bristol R.I.O. from whom this was received that they are so numerous to suggest a deliberate campaign to undermine confidence in public men throughout the region. From the same sources there are reports that Haw Haw announced on the wireless the number of barrage balloons at Bristol, and the fact that there would be no necessity for the completion of an Aircraft Factory now in erection at Swindon. There is however, no confirmation that either of these reports were in fact broadcast from Germany.

In addition to these examples there are the usual crop of stories about “hairy handed Nuns”, parachutists etc., including one about a house full of blind refugees which were alleged to be in possession of machine guns. The true facts of this incident have been explained by the Secretary of the National Institute for the Blind. The explanation is, of course, perfectly reasonable and bears no likeness whatever to the rumour.

In general it seems that the number of rumours may be on the increase, the fact that there are so many makes it increasingly necessary for all of them to be examined carefully so that in appropriate cases, denials can be issued immediately by the proper authorities. As those of a military character seem on the whole to be the most frightening, though no doubt often the most incredible, there would seem to be an urgent necessity for some means of denouncing this type of canard regularly, either by means of the wireless or the press.

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