The Rumour Mill – WW2 Fake News

“200 sharks have been sent from Australia to Britain and released in the channel.”

In July 1940 Britain faced the very real threat of invasion by the all conquering German armed forces. Hitler had ordered planning and preparations to be made for Operation Sealion and throughout Germany, Holland, Belgium and northern France German soldiers, sailors and airmen were actively marshaling to undertake this mammoth task.

In Britain the military and civilian authorities were busily preparing to save their nation by every means at their disposal to deter, prevent and defend against what many considered was the inevitable. This included the creation and dissemination through neutral sources and the media of rumours which were designed to spread false information with the intention of misleading the enemy. Today we would call them ‘Fake News’.

Spreading rumours in wartime was nothing new, the Germans themselves had used this tactic during the months preceding their attack on France and the Low Countries in order to confuse the Western Allies, however the British were to turn such deceptions into a full time occupation. Coming under the umbrella of the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) a group called the Political Warfare Committee (PWC) was formed to focus the efforts of the various black propaganda creators and by the end of the war in Europe in May 1945 they had created over 8,000 rumours.

The subjects of the rumours were many and varied and covered every aspect of the war, both military and civilian. Every rumour was reported to the various British Intelligence Committees and most were passed to the War Cabinet for approval or rejection. Some of them were downright silly and were rejected, some were prophetic and actually became a reality and some even persist to today and form the basis of imagined events that people have become convinced were real. The rumours came to be known as ‘sibs‘ after the Latin word ‘sibilare‘ meaning whisper. Over the coming months we will be publishing the most interesting and entertaining rumours, explaining their relevance and context within the events of the war.

The shark rumour which we have chosen as our first release was issued in February 1941 and aimed at the ordinary German soldier who would take part in the seaborne invasion of England across the English Channel. It was acknowledged by the British Intelligence Chiefs as being  ‘wildly improbable but it may go for all that. The simple German mind even if it hears the sib only as a joke will be reminded of the terrors of the Channel in a general way’. Despite it’s improbability the sib was approved for dissemination by the propagandists. Like many of the rumours it was spread through British ports such as Bristol and Great Yarmouth which were frequented by ships and sailors from neutral countries including Sweden, Spain and Portugal. Whether a rumour was accepted as fact depended not so much on the subject of the sib but on the trustworthiness of the source and the PWE engaged a number of agents who were all well known figures whose good reputations enhanced the believability of a story.

Of course Operation Sealion was never enacted and German soldiers did not have to take part in an invasion of England but it is widely acknowledged that, whilst most firmly believed in victory, the vast majority remained very wary of the hazards that the sea crossing would involve. In reality they were in a lot more danger from the threat of the Royal Navy than the jaws of 200 Australian sharks but in wartime every threat to one’s security whether perceived or real could detract ones attention and focus on the job at hand.

 

 

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