One of the classic rhetorical small talk questions as “when would you like to have been born?”
On the one hand, at least from where we sit now, there’s never been a better time to be alive, at least from all of the basic utilitarian perspectives that most human beings would have wished for over the last few tens of thousands of years.
But purely from the perspective of my lifetime? There are times I think I should’ve been born 100 years ago, in 1915.
Had I gotten into radio at age 15, in 1930 rather than 1978, I would’ve been getting in on the glory years of the industry. A time when instantaneous mass communication was just starting to take off; when the rulebook hadn’t been written yet, and the whole industry, craft, and art form was still virgin soil:; when Stanley Hubbard was pioneering spot news with a Duesenberg mounting a short wave transceiver, reporting from breaking news stories around the country in real time, AND inventing broadcast entertainment as we know it today, right here in the Twin Cities, running Jack Benny and his vaudeville show live from the Orpheum in Minneapolis.
And above and beyond all that, mostly, so I could have been there for what was likely radio’s greatest moment; World War II.
The list of iconic radio moments from the war is almost too long to do justice to: Churchill and Roosevelt’s speeches; Edward R. Murrow’s “this is London” and reporting from Buchenwald; Walter Cronkite reporting from Air Force bombers and soldiers’ foxholes; those riveting moments when NBC told the nation Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and when the BBC told the world that Hitler was dead.
I won’t delude myself by believing I would’ve done anything other than wet myself and hide under a truck after two seconds of trying to follow Andy Rooney across Omaha Beach, or sitting in the waist gun compartment of the B-17 with Charles Collongwood as the Flak and Messerschmidts erupted all around.
But after my early years in talk radio, working with the likes of Don Vogel, I could completely see myself working for this guy, on his project.
Sefton Delmer was an Australian Jew born in Berlin in 1904. After A bit of elementary school in Germany, and a brief period of internment as a hostile national at the beginning of World War I, he was educated in a typical British public school, and found work as a journalist.
He was in the right place at the right time for the dawn of radio, connecting with the early BBC in the 30s. In 1931, he was the first western journalist to interview Adolf Hitler – at the time, leader of a Nazi party that was just starting to move to electoral prominence, on its way to the majority in two years. During those years, he had the distinction of being suspected by both the German Abwehr and the British MI6 as being a spy, respectively, for MI6 and the Abwehr.
Then, at the beginning of World War II, using contacts in MI6, he pieced together the assignment of a lifetime; produce fake German radio programs, for distribution to the conquered continent.
His first broadcast, GS1, took place 75 years ago this month; “GS” had no actual meaning, and was an intentional ambiguity, left for the listener to fill in what it meant (“General Stab, or “General Staff?” Could be!). It was an ostensibly “underground” broadcast from inside Germany, featuring an announcer and a character called Der Chef (“the Chief”), played by Peter Seckelmann, a former Berlin radio announcer and refugee, playing the role of a Nazi party insider. Most shows involved what we’d call “opposition research” today; blasting out stories (some real, some fictional) about corrupt and depraved Nazi party officials.
The 12 minute programs were recorded on glass discs in London, and transmitted starting at 12 minutes before the top of the hour, hourly, usually for a day, sometimes (if the bit was particularly juicy or of major intelligence value) two or three days. While the Germans jammed GS1, the show developed what MI6’s “Political Warfare Executive” determined was a large audience.
The broadcast carried on for two and a half years, until Delmer ended the show in a simulated Gestapo raid, going out in a hail of (recorded) machine gun fire not unlike the final Don Vogel broadcast, in the fall of 1943.
He went on to other “black propaganda” operations; one that appealed to consciences of German Christians, with some success. Another, the “Atlantic Shortwave Service”, broadcast “news” to U-boat crews in the Atlantic; a typical example involved a message being sent to an actual U-boat commander whose boat was at sea, congratulating him on the birth of twins. The commander was known not to have been home in over a year, of course. Many of the broadcasts featured a cast of German characters, including the dusky, sultry “Vicki”, a seductive newsreader played by Agnes Bernelle, a woman who went on to a long career in the US and UK as an actress and cabaret singer.
Best of all? The BBC crabbled about Delmer’s broadcasts. Some of it was journalists, appalled at the hijacking of their medium to deceive. More of it was tactical; they were worried that if Delmer’s broadcasts were broadly attributed to the BBC, then people in occupied countries might not trust the information on the Beeb.
Were Delmer’s black propaganda broadcasts successful? There have been apocryphal stories that a U-boat commander surrendered in part because of the stories; they’re probably apocryphal for a reason. But MI6 did in fact note that Delmer’s “news” did in fact push some cracks into the morale of German troops whose morale was subject to cracking.
Either way – that must have been some fun radio to do.