As part of my wider reading around S.O.E. in the Balkans, I ordered a copy of David Garnett‘s The Secret History of PWE (Political Warfare Executive). It really was secret, too – Garnett, a PWE officer himself, was commissioned by the Foreign Office after the war to write an official history. What he produced was considered so incendiary that it was classified “Secret – For Official Use Only” for 50 years, and only published at the turn of the last century.
The book is strictly for war nuts – much of it details obscure inter-departmental spats. In fact most of it details obscure inter-departmental spats. The wartime British propaganda machine was seemingly so focused on the enemy on the other side of the corridor that it’s a wonder anything anti-German was produced at all. What was produced, it’s worth mentioning, was often very poor quality. In Albania in particular it was a constant complaint of the S.O.E. officers on the ground that Allied propaganda, both BBC broadcasts and leaflet drops, was inept and clumsy.
Garnett was known to his friends as “Bunny” and had spent the First World War working on fruit farms with his gay lover (he had been a conscientious objector). He went on to become a prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group, and co-founded the Nonesuch Press. It’s hard to think of a less suitable choice to write a dull, bureaucratic official history. Perhaps the Whitehall mandarin who commissioned him was feeling mischevious.
Garnett is particularly illuminating on the PWE’s early days in autumn 1939. In Berlin Hitler was planning the Blitzkrieg and continuing to build the most formidable fighting force the world has ever seen. At PWE’s new Woburn headquarters, meanwhile, there were more important things to consider –
“The provision of amenities at Woburn was tackled in the typical British fashion – by the formation of a committee. A Recreation Committee, meeting first in October 1939, busied itself with such matters as finding a squash court and a football field, subscription to a nearby golf club, the hiring of horses and attempting to obtain permission to ride them in Woburn Park, obtaining books from the Times Book Club and elsewhere to form a library, the institution of a weekly cinema show in the Abbey, the establishment of a canteen with a bar, the laying of a dance floor and the providing of Christmas lunch, and the laying out and care of two lawn tennis courts, table tennis, billiards and clock golf. The formation of a choral society and the organisation of lessons in German all followed.”
It’s a wonder Britain won the war at all. Oh, hang on – we didn’t. Until the Soviet Union was, ahem, embarrassed into withdrawing its tacit support for Hitler, and the US entered the fray, we looked guaranteed to lose, badly.
Random fact: Garnett’s next book, Aspects of Love (1955), wasn’t top secret. In fact it later became an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical.