I once surprised the staff of a Dordogne museum by seeking a copy of a street poster from the Napoleonic era, a hugely entertaining rant against the "vile" British. Those in authority amply confirm that truth is the first casualty of war. The injury is seldom accidental. Concealing bad news to sustain morale at home, deceiving opposing commanders, and encouraging disaffection in enemy troops or resistance in conquered lands, are examples of propaganda. In peacetime, we call this sort of thing spin.
During the Second World War, Britain had nine secret services, so we should not be surprised at the confusion that often resulted. Psychological warfare and, in particular, the Political Warfare Executive are the subject of this book. Its author has been dead for 20 years; he laid down his pen on this effort in 1947. Why now? The historian Andrew Roberts provides an introduction and helpful biographical footnotes. He believes that David Garnett, who worked in PWE, was far too candid for the Whitehall of his time. Only today is publication deemed safe. Roberts sees The Secret History of PWE as an important source, as so many of the actual PWE documents were destroyed.
David "Bunny" Garnett (1892-1981) was a mover in Bloomsbury circles. He won a Hawthornden prize and, in 1939, became literary editor of the New Statesman, so one presumes he knew how to write with some semblance of style. Not on this evidence. It may be the "official" history, but many pages are little more than dismal catalogues of the "name, rank and number" sort; the section headings are irritatingly frequent, and occasionally misleading. For boredom, try: "In February 1943, the director generals of the MoI and PWE agreed in an interchange of letters to put forward a joint memorandum to the Administration Territories (Europe), AT(E) Committee or Bovenschen Committee." Or, for frustrating brevity (under the eye-catching "Guerrilla Activities"): "This had been the major theme on the RU." No more is offered.
Two years after the end of the war would have been far too early for anyone to publish an evidence-based appraisal of the efficacy of political warfare. But Garnett tries from time to time. He writes of the "Starkey" cross-Channel feint - aimed at wasting German resources in 1943 before the Allies could mount a landing in northern France - that "the enemy took no notice whatsoever". Other efforts were ridiculous. Could anyone really have believed that the German high command would swallow the idea that our navy had a duplicate set of all its largest ships?
Garnett's pen may have been too sharp for civil servants, but others in PWE could drip the acid, too. The book omits PWE financing but, from another source, I learn that Robert Bruce Lockhart, the head of PWE, thought that a fellow committee member was overpaid, but remarked, cuttingly: "I would be prepared to pay him more as a pension."
With the Normandy landings in prospect, when you might think that co-operation with PWE's American equivalent would be rather important, Brendan Bracken, the minister of information, described the US organisation as being controlled by the "incompetent, shifty and hare-brained". Elsewhere, we read of how, while servicemen were dying, well-rewarded men with longevity and much trinket-gathering to come were quarrelling shamefully over territory.
When Garnett's draft was first resurrected from the archives, during the Eden administration, many of the key players were still alive. Garnett had recommended the creation of a peacetime version of the PWE-in-waiting. He also wanted tighter control of BBC activities in any future conflict. Not bad for a left-wing pacifist. But perhaps the real Garnett, whose other writing is now largely forgotten, only rarely shows through in these pages. I wonder if he ever really believed in the project.
David Sharp is a contributing editor of the Lancet